Category Archives: cheery thoughts

When strangers were welcome here

There’s a particular move in populist politics which I think of as the Death Spiral. (I was going to call it the Death Spiral of Hate, but – while indubitably more precise – that wording is probably cranking it up a bit too high for the first paragraph of a post.) It’s a bit like conjuring a folk devil and a bit like a political bidding war; it’s more contained and predictable than the folk devil phenomenon, though, and it’s unlike a bidding war in not needing a partner (although others can certainly join in).

It goes like this. First, somebody in government (or in friendly media) stokes up hatred against a particular group. Then the government responds to public concern – well, you’ve got to respond to public concern, haven’t you? – and takes action against the group. Here’s the twist: the action that the government takes doesn’t lead the hatred to subside; the angry mob doesn’t put down the pitchforks and douse the torches, satisfied that somebody’s finally listened to them and done something. The government’s action leaves the well of popular hatred very much undrained; it may even top it up. Because then, after all, the public can once again express its very real concerns – and that will give the government something to respond to (you’ve got to respond to real public concerns). Once started, the process can go round and round indefinitely: the government and its supporters sing an endless call-and-response of resentment and self-righteous severity, opposition parties are wrong-footed or forced to tag along, and everybody’s happy – except the poor sods who are getting interned, denied benefits, etc.

For example: five years ago Louise Casey – then working for the Labour government as a consultant on ‘community’ issues – argued that community sentences should be made both tougher and more visible. People carrying out unpaid work as part of a non-custodial sentence should do it out in public where people can see; to make sure people do see, they should wear those orange boiler-suits out of Misfits, or hi-viz jackets, or both. So people doing ‘Community Payback’ would become a familiar sight; instead of thinking of community sentences as a soft option, people would see the reality of ‘community punishment’ and think… well, what? Would they think, those kids picking up litter are really suffering – that looks just as bad as prison to me! It seems more likely that they would see people in orange boiler suits who weren’t working particularly hard (they might be chatting among themselves, they might even be stopping for a fag) and think, I used to think community service was a soft option – now I’m sure!. Five years on, the perception of non-custodial sentences as a soft option certainly doesn’t seem to have gone away.

My son brought another example to my attention the other day. You know this proposal to deny benefits to immigrants until they’ve been here for three months? Won’t that make them more likely to take any job that’s going, even below the minimum wage, even working cash-in-hand? “Mmm, yeah,” I said. And won’t that… I caught up. “Won’t that create more competition with the very lowest-paid British workers, thereby creating even more resentment of immigrants and even more pressure to get tough on immigration, again? Yes, I think it will.”

Whatever else I could say about Louise Casey and David Cameron, I don’t think either of them is stupid; as PM, Cameron even has a kind of intellectual praetorian guard, responsible for making sure that his ideas are in working order (as well as for preserving him from contact with any ideas from the outside world). I think he knows what he’s doing (as did Casey); I think he’s identified an appetite that will grow with feeding, and he’s making sure it’s fed.

It’s sometimes argued that populism is directionless and reactive, subject to lurches in any number of directions; it’s sometimes even argued that populism can or should be used by the Left (“where’s the Nigel Farage of the Left?” and so forth). On this way of thinking, ‘Death Spiral’ effects emerge when populism just happens to lurch in the direction of giving an unpopular minority a kicking. They may be no more than an unfortunate side-effect of giving the people what they think they want, in other words. Ed Miliband’s intervention gives the lie to this argument and throws the Death Spiral into relief, by demonstrating that it’s not the only way to address people’s worries about immigration. While it doesn’t necessarily go as far as Mike would have liked (and certainly isn’t framed in his terms), Ed’s statement takes on those who attack economic immigration and effectively calls their bluff. After all, the problem of low-paid immigrants – to the extent that there is such a problem – is by definition a problem of employers choosing to (a) employ immigrants to the exclusion of native workers and, not unrelatedly (b) to pay immigrants less than native workers; constrain those choices (whether from above, as Ed prefers, or from below) and a material source of conflict between two groups of workers disappears. (Those two groups may still hate each other on the basis of free-floating prejudice, but those feelings tend to fade over time – at least, they do if they aren’t reinforced.) Marxists know that the important antagonisms start with material interests, and that that’s where the changes need to be made. And so does Ed.

Another group which is supposed to take a grown-up view of immigration are the economic liberals, and particularly the intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic of right-libertarianism. Bryan Caplan certainly sets the right tone at the outset of his 2012 Cato Journal paper (PDF), arguing that there are no relevant differences between a Haitian being denied entry to the US and a US citizen going to Haiti on a relief mission and then being denied re-entry. (Oh, very well, a US citizen and all of his/her family went to Haiti to help out, and they were all denied re-entry. Happy now?) But we needn’t join Caplan in his helicopter to appreciate the force of his arguments against restrictions on immigration. Caplan addresses four arguments against free immigration, focusing on its effects on low-waged workers, welfare spending, cultural cohesion and the political sphere; he argues in each case that the costs may not be as high as they’re made out to be, and that any costs which are incurred can be mitigated at a lower overall cost than the cost currently imposed by restricting immigration. He concludes:

there are cheaper and more humane solutions for each and every complaint. If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote.

There’s a lot to like about this paper (I’ve always considered myself a libertarian Marxist), but two aspects of Caplan’s argument gave me pause. One, exemplified by the passage quoted above, is the nonchalantly instrumental use made of some fairly sweeping restrictions on citizenship. It seems to me that to declare that any member of a defined category of individuals will be denied the vote – or denied welfare benefits, or taxed at a higher rate on equivalent income – is to institutionalise inequality, making members of that category significantly unequal to the majority in their enjoyment of the benefits of citizenship. In other words, Caplan is entertaining the possibility of addressing the lack of liberty involved in shutting people out from a given country by letting those people in as second-class citizens. (I don’t say Caplan is proposing doing so, as the main argument of his paper is that the disadvantages of free immigration are either non-existent or much less significant than we imagine. The second-class citizen solution is put forward as a subsidiary argument.)

I find this troubling on a number of levels. Firstly, if we’re talking in terms of nation states – as we plainly are if we’re talking about taxation and welfare benefits – I think it’s legitimate to treat the question of who is allowed to enter a country quite separately from the question of how people are treated within the country. Ultimately I’m for a world with no border controls and no borders, but ultimately I’m for a world with no wage labour. In the mean time, I think that making everybody within an arbitrary area on the map a full citizen, but making it difficult to enter that area, is a more equitable solution than making the border permeable but introducing gradations of citizenship within it. If that’s the only way to get to open borders, in other words, then I’m not so keen on open borders as I was. Secondly, I value citizenship as a good in itself, and I believe that universality (within a given political unit) is one of its key attributes; I’m unhappy with any solution (to any problem) which turns on instituting different categories of citizenship. (Needless to say, I’m opposed to this even – or especially – in cases where it is actually being done: I believe that people who don’t look for work should not be denied unemployment benefit, that visitors to the UK should not be made to pay for healthcare, that prisoners should not be deprived of the vote, and so on.) Thirdly, I wonder what the introduction of graduated citizenship for non-natives would do to citizenship as an experienced social category: would it accustom people to the idea of multiple citizenships, making it possible for further gradations to be introduced and for full citizenship to be restricted to a smaller group? Lastly, I’m particularly troubled by the thought of living in a country where second-class citizenship is imposed on a recognisable and unpopular minority – or, to put it another way, being ruled by a government which imposes second-class citizenship on such a minority. I wouldn’t like to live under a government like that for precisely the same reason that I wouldn’t want to live under a government that closed the borders: in both cases, the government would be differentially imposing restrictions on people disliked by most of its voters. It seems to me that there’s a certain political tone-deafness about Caplan’s paper when he floats these proposals. Immigration restrictions might be enacted by an anti-immigrant government courting immigrant-hating voters, but the same would surely be true of restrictions on benefits or voting rights for immigrants. Even if they were enacted in the purest spirit of right-libertarianism, they would be received as blows against an unpopular minority – and those who welcomed them would soon grow hungry for more.

Secondly, there’s an odd passage in the section in which Caplan addresses the effects of free immigration on the political sphere. The worry here – more of a worry for right-libertarians than for me, or indeed most of us – is that immigrants might bring a ‘statist’ political culture with them and shift their host country’s political spectrum to the Left. After noting that there isn’t much evidence of this happening (for good or ill), Caplan moves on to the effect of ethnic diversity on social solidarity, as expressed in support for a redistributive state. He cites research to the effect that the relationship between the two is inverse – more diversity, less solidarity – and comments:

Social democrats may find this tension between diversity and solidarity disturbing. But libertarians should rejoice: increasing foreigners’ freedom of movement may indirectly increase natives’ freedom to decide who deserves their charity.

Ahem. We weren’t actually talking about charity as such in fact that’s rather the point. (Sorry, just had to say that.) Anyway, there’s more where that came from:

Immigrants are the ultimate out-group. Even today, Americans publicly complain about “immigrants” in language they would never use for blacks or gays. If the knowledge that foreigners attend “our” public schools and seek treatment in “our” hospitals does not undermine support for government spending on education and health care, nothing will.

OK… what just happened? Right-libertarians should support free immigration, not only despite widespread hatred of immigrants but, in part, because of it? The thinking seems to be that right-libertarians should welcome a proprietary, in-group-based attitude to public services, because the extension of those services to immigrants will undermine that attitude and hence discredit the public services themselves. Pride in public services is all to the good, as long as it comes into conflict with the reality of public provision and generates disillusion; and hatred of immigrants is all to the good, as long as its main effect is to undermine social solidarity. Unrestricted immigration may lead to the development of a society of endemic self-centredness and mistrust (by multiplying the objects of distrust and fear), but this in itself should be welcomed: a cohesive, high-trust society is a society where people tend to support public provision of services.

What Caplan is expressing, or – what’s the word? – adumbrating here is the logic of the Death Spiral. If you start pointing out how public money is being spent on the wrong services (and especially) for the wrong people, that won’t lead to a trimmed and rationalised set of public services which everyone can be happy with – it’ll lead to an endless whittling away of those services, as more and more occasions for outrage are unearthed. What’s interesting about Caplan’s argument is that the Death Spiral is set out quite openly and frankly: the more immigrants are seen to be using public services, the more pressure there will be to reduce those services – and the less tolerance there will be for immigrants using them.

The underlying logic of the Death Spiral is cynical and simple: there is an out-group, there are people who will be satisfied by seeing it get a kicking, and their satisfaction can be exploited – either for political support or to further a larger objective, as in Caplan’s argument. We’re dealing here with what John Rawls called “other-directed preferences”. Rawls argued that a just political order should give equal weight to all citizens’ preferences, but only their “self-directed” preferences: my desire to have the vote, a decent education and opportunities in life should be recognised, but not my desire to deprive you of those things – even if there were a lot of ‘me’s and only a few ‘you’s. I think it’s definitive of populism that it valorises, and orchestrates, other-directed preferences: populism isn’t always socially reactionary, but even the mildest, most herbivorous populism expresses preferences directed at politicians (generally binding and restricting their actions). With Marxism, other-directed preferences aren’t part of the package, the odd revenge fantasy about bankers excepted; in action, Marxism is all about universal needs and generalised empowerment to achieve them. As for right-Libertarianism, Caplan’s unconcern for universal citizenship and his willingness to turn his hand to a Death Spiral argument both make me wonder. Certainly we shouldn’t judge the whole tribe by the Randians, with their grim relish in the come-uppance of the second-handers. Maybe right-Libertarianism isn’t just about dismantling public services, replacing citizenship entitlements with a cash nexus, and be damned to anyone who happens to be dependent on public provision when it all comes down; maybe at its core it’s a genuinely universalisable creed, which can be grounded in my, your, his and her own preference for liberty in just the same way that Marxism can be grounded in our shared preference to eat. But I wonder.

How can a good man keep the wolf from the door?

Twenty-two years ago today, Peter Bellamy took his own life. He was 47. His discography includes three albums made with the seminal vocal group The Young Tradition and (at a rough count) seventeen solo albums, some only released as privately-produced cassettes. Most of his material was traditional; some consisted of his own settings of poetry, mostly by Rudyard Kipling; some was self-composed. One of his outstanding achievements was the Transports, a self-composed “ballad opera” written in traditional styles and telling the true story of a couple transported to Australia aboard the First Fleet in 1787. He worked with Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, the Watersons, Tony Rose, June Tabor, Dave Swarbrick, Shirley and Dolly Collins… basically, if you can think of a British folkie active in the 70s and 80s, the chances are that he worked with them at some point.

At the same time, Bellamy had a fierce commitment to his own vision – wherever it was leading him at any given time – and a reputation for independence bordering on self-imposed isolation. What his politics were nobody seems quite sure, but he had little time for the Communism of many of the 50s and 60s revivalists, or for the more woolly Guardian-reader liberalism which characterised the later folk scene. Traditional songs were his passion, and if (as it turned out) there were rather few traditional songs about fomenting revolution, going on strike or hunt sabbing, it didn’t bother him; he would sing what was there, even if it was about less right-on topics such as fox-hunting, fighting for England’s glory and loyalty to the boss. Take the political wrong notes this attitude produced, add his fascination with Kipling (the great poet of Victorian Empire), his spiky personality and his insistence on accompanying himself on concertina rather than the more ‘normal’ acoustic guitar, and it’s not entirely surprising that the 1980s – the ebb tide of the folk revival – weren’t kind to him.

By the end of the decade it seems as if the folk world had decided to leave him to it. At around this time of year a few years ago, his friend Michael Grosvenor Myer gave some details of his last days in a thread on Mudcat, from which I’ll quote a couple of lines here:

I remember his once showing me an almost empty forthcoming gigs diary, and saying words to the effect that “I did The Transports, everyone loved and respected it – and from that moment my bookings practically ceased and my career went phhhttt!” … a few days before he died, he spent the entire evening playing right back through all his records, listening carefully and as best he could objectively, and said at the end, “Well, I AM good! What the hell has gone wrong?!”

Was he good? He was an inspired songwriter, a superb interpreter of traditional songs and a unique, unforgettable singer. Yes, he was good. I don’t know what the hell went wrong, but twenty years on folkies up and down the country, from Bellowhead and the Young ‘Uns on down, are paying him the homage of listening to his music and singing his songs. If he’d hung on a few years he could have been massive. How he would have hated that.

Heffle Cuckoo Fair (Kipling/Bellamy)

Minesweepers (Kipling/Bellamy)

The Innocent Hare (traditional)

I once lived in service (Bellamy, arr. Dolly Collins; sung by Norma Waterson)

The fox jumps over the parson’s gate (traditional)

Death is not the end (Dylan)

They work so hard

After the party’s over, my friend,
There’ll be nothing you can put your finger on
Just a parasol…

One’s a member of government, one’s a member of the opposition. To be more precise, one’s an independent-minded but powerless member of the government coalition; one’s a leading member of the parliamentary opposition, with nothing to lose by attacking as forcefully as possible. Also, one’s 30 years older than the other. See if you can tell which is which from these quotations:

“I am not against a private element in the NHS, which may bring innovatory ideas and good practice, provided it is within the framework of a public service … But why have they tried to get away from the NHS as a public service, among the most efficient, least expensive and fairest anywhere in the world? Why have they been bewitched by a flawed US system that is unable to provide a universal service and is very expensive indeed? The remarkable vision of the 1945 Attlee government, of a public service free at the point of need for all the people of England, should not be allowed to die.”

“As David Cameron’s government railroads the health bill through parliament, MPs are being denied their constitutional role to properly scrutinise his plans for the NHS. The prime minister has already done a political fix with Nick Clegg on the health bill, and now he’s trying to force it through with a procedural fix.”

You’ll note that the second politician says nothing about the substance of what’s being done, why it’s wrong, why it’s not even cost-effective in its own terms, how it betrays one of the greatest reforms of the last century, or for that matter what it is. Instead, this person focuses entirely on procedure and personality, reducing issues of huge importance and interest to playground gossip about rule-breaking and who said what to whom. Apart from anything else, whether or not the revised health bill is being forced through with a “procedural fix” really doesn’t matter, in the scheme of things – if it weren’t being “forced through”, would that make it OK?

Comedy break:

As for who’s who, the first quote came from the semi-detached member of government (Shirley Williams, 81); the second from John Healey (51), who is currently Shadow Health Secretary. Healey was at Cambridge from 1979 to 1982 (as I was myself); he was elected to Parliament 15 years later, having spent the entire intervening period as a political hack (starting with a role as “deputy editor of the internal magazine of the Palace of Westminster, The House Magazine for a year in 1983″). It’s depressing that Baroness Williams sounds so much more left-wing than Healey – what with him being in the Labour Party and so on – but what’s really striking is how much more political she sounds, in the good sense of the word: the sense of talking about how the country is run, in the knowledge that this is a huge and endlessly important subject, and with the awareness that the conversation itself is serious and has been going on for decades. Healey could be talking about backstairs intrigue at Borchester Land.

But perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. It was 1997 when Healey was first elected: his entire parliamentary career has been in New Labour. And New Labour has emphatically not been about principle or history or serious discussion of how the country is run, if only because all of those things were a bit, well, Old Labour. What Blair brought to Labour, as I wrote a while back, wasn’t mere opportunism or lack of principle but something more motivated and more destructive:

it’s more like a commitment to abandoning the party’s principles, repeatedly and demonstratively, so as to disorientate and marginalise the opposition, so as to make it impossible for the party not to be in power. The trouble is, this can’t possibly be a long-term strategy. Political principles aren’t a renewable resource; abandon them once and they’re gone.

And when they’ve all gone, what have you got?

To focus on the issues myself, you can read more about the Tories’ plans to privatise the NHS here. Thanks, Spinwatch.

Looks are deceptive

Mark Carrigan has an alarming post consisting of nothing more than comments on a Daily Telegraph story. Here are a few:

Most people prefer the company of others of their own race. Forced integration therefore causes tension and resentment. Race is an important element in individual and group identity, which means it is impossible to build a society in which race does not matter. People of different races build different societies. Blacks—wherever they are found in large numbers—establish communities with certain characteristics, and whites and others do the same.

Interesting argument, professor (it’s got a ‘therefore’ and everything).

What you are seeing, and what nobody is prepared to say in public, is that “diversity” and “pc” PCs has created no-go areas in London. Unless and until the Police cease to be the paramilitary wing of the thought crime ministray, and can nick people without worrying about being accused of racism, then this is only the beginning.

Indeed, the police should be able to nick people without fear or favour, whether they’re black or…

What winds me up is all the talk of “community”. What sort of “community” gets enraged when a policeman shoots an armed criminal who had already fired on police? Maybe we should be looking at least as closely at this community as we are at the police?

Hmm.

It could have been Brixton or Toxteth, or Miami, or Detroit, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or Johannesburg, or anywhere where Labour’s favourite community rules the roost.

I think we’re getting the picture. To be fair, Labour aren’t entirely to blame…

The Tories have to accept that they are partly to blame. The fact that these colonists exist in our capital city cannot be solely blamed on the Left. The Tories have stood by while the violent 3rd World colonies have spread and grown.

…just mostly.

Black youths,black community leaders,black MP welcome to black London.Just another reminder of black labours immigration policies.

Shades of Python – Rastus Odinga Odinga has taken Wolverhampton Southwest, that’s Enoch Powell’s old constituency – an important gain there for Darkie Power. That David Lammy, why doesn’t he go back to where he came from? (Tottenham.)

But what is to be done?

You see these chippy small-time blacks every day in inner London – with their swagger, their hoodies, their ridiculous urban patois and their permanent scowl. They should all be put in work camps for re-education.

Work camps? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?

We need a new Riot Act – basically, martial law. ”All looters will be shot on sight”. See how long the riots last then.

Oh. Maybe not.

The rioters are fortunate that, at present we do not have the sort of totalitarian government and police regimes other countries do have. The body count during an incident, series of incidents like last night’s would have been spectacular.

Wipe that drool off your chin, man!

To sum up, the problem is the blacks, and the solution is to shoot them as soon as they get out of line. And all of this needs saying, as often as possible, because it’s what nobody is prepared to say in public – nobody is prepared to tell it like it is, except a plucky band of fearless Daily Telegraph readers.

I’m not even going to look at the Daily Mail.

Just another country

1. The obligatory Italian parallel

The true intentions of certain groups of young people, who had arrived at Parco Lambro with their ski-masks in their rucksacks alongside their spanners and bottles of petrol, became clear yesterday afternoon … there was the sense of an organised manoeuvre, in the true sense of the word, and police intervention became inevitable: stones were thrown from one side, tear-gas grenades from the other
- l’Unità, 29th June 1976

Last night was an extreme situation. We haven’t dealt with such co-ordinated looting before. People set out to steal. This is a type of organised crime we’ve never seen before. This was organised: I was out last night and people were asking for directions to our town centre in order to attack it. … Businesses are angry, but people are calm. They understand this wasn’t social unrest, it was something different.
- Stella Creasy MP, 8th August 2011

I understand what has led many young people to break shop windows, but I don’t consider it to be the next step in the Italian revolution.
- Rossana Rossanda, 1977

2. Three tweets about looting

@jamesrbuk James Ball
Hard to see anything overly political in the looting of an electrical store (Curry’s) on other side of town (>10miles) to #Tottenham

@kpunk99 Mark Fisher
The right wing line on #tottenham makes no sense: if it’s all down to ‘criminals’, why the sudden upsurge in ‘criminality’ last night?

@sunny_hundal sunny hundal
Seems to me, what encourages looting isn’t poverty but the expectation you can get away with it. Same applies to the banks


3. Why Cynthia Jarrett is less relevant than the Martians

This is a peculiarly unsatisfactory piece: Jonathan Jones observes that images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird (they are “uncanny and reminiscent of late Victorian science fiction”), then suggests that evoking apocalyptic imagery might be “a corrective to the mis-application of history”, i.e. the temptation to draw parallels with the rioting of the early 80s. But why shouldn’t we draw parallels with the 80s – why would that be a mis-application of history? Jones’s answer, in total, is: the rioters themselves are too young to remember the 80s; Marx warned against misapplying historical parallels in the 18th Brumaire; and…

It is worth looking at images of London’s violent weekend and asking how they make you feel. Far from fitting into any historical model, they seem to me to come from an imagined London, a horror scenario of the city as a blazing wilderness

…in other words, images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird. What Jones is resisting here becomes a bit clearer in an afterword:

Walking out in my neighbourhood after writing this, I found that Gay’s the Word bookshop on Marchmont Street, one of central London’s best-known gay landmarks, had its window smashed last night. A substance seems to have been thrown at the window before it was broken. This was the only business attacked on the street. So much for any attempt to see radicalism (at least of a cuddly leftwing variety) in these events.

I’ve got to say, I’m gutted to hear that Gay’s the Word has been attacked & hope they get back to normal before too long. (That said, I’m not aware of any trouble in Bloomsbury on Sunday night – this could just be a nasty coincidence.) But there’s a more important point, which is that – as far as I can tell – nobody anywhere is reading a “cuddly leftwing radicalism” into the riots; certainly nobody is saying that looting Curry’s in Brixton was a political gesture. The “Robin Hood” interpretation of the rioting is a strawman, just as much as it was when Rossanda dismissed it in 1977: Jones (and James Ball) can trample it all they like, but it won’t dispose of the real question posed by the riots.

4. Where are we going, and why are we all in this handcart?
What people are saying (self included) is that politics doesn’t stop when crime starts. There are reasons why people steal and smash windows; more importantly, there are reasons why most people don’t steal and smash windows, most of the time. (Sunny was more or less on the right track here – but I don’t think the calculation that you wouldn’t get away with it is the only reason why people tend to obey the law, or the most important one.) One or two people whose behaviour isn’t governed by our usual reasons to obey the law is a problem for the police, the social services and politicians, in that order. The problem becomes political first and foremost when lots of people start acting differently – when all those reasons suddenly stop working in a particular place and time. And then, as Mark says, the question why can’t be avoided. More to the point, the question why is an interesting question – and it’s one that politics is much better equipped to answer than evocations of Wells or fantasies of manoeuvres organised by lurking criminal networks, vast and cool and unsympathetic.

What do I think it’s all about? A couple of quotes, lifted from comments on Guardian posts:

Even if the rioting is just an opportunity to lob stuff at the police and loot local mobile phone and shoe shops (as it appears to be in Enfield) it’s obvious something has been brewing for a while. It may be disorganised and opportunistic but still speaks of a disatisfaction with things as they are.

There’s a widespread myth that law and order is preserved by police, politicians and other forces of authority. Not true. Never has been. If we all decide to go out and chuck a dustbin through Argos’s window and help ourselves, it would take about 15 million coppers to contain it. We actually have about 150,000.

Law and order is kept by a collective acceptance of mutual goals. If, as a society, we look after each other, offer everyone a share and a stake in the common weal, maintain some semblance of a Rousseauian Social Contract, then the vast majority of people will mostly stick to the rules without ever needing to see a police officer. When people lose that sense of being looked after, no longer feel part of society, no longer feel like they have any kind of share in any kind of collective, the ties that bind begin to be broken.

Rioting, especially the type of vandalism and looting we’ve seen in London, is a sure sign that the social contract is unravelling around the edges. In the days and weeks and months to come, we shall see how far it has frayed.

A Socialist Worker friend of mine once explained to me in some detail how every Prime Minister since Attlee had been to the Right of the one before; I’m not sure how he got over Macmillan/Wilson, but he made quite a good case for Heath/Wilson. (This was before Thatcher/Major). I wouldn’t go that far, but it does seem pretty clear that certain trends that were set in motion during Thatcher’s first term have never really been reversed. Over the last 30 years, work at every level has been steadily proletarianised: employment is nothing but a contract providing money in return for a working day, and a contract that is ever easier for the employer to revoke. Business values permeate all areas of society. The overriding goal, at all times, is to turn a profit: anything that contributes to that goal is good, anything that doesn’t is dispensable at best. The service ethic – the idea of taking pride in a job well done, at whatever level; the idea that the job you do is a way of contributing to a society where ‘we look after each other’ – is little more than a nostalgic fantasy. The institutions that used to nurture it, and whose daily workings made it into a lived reality, have been asset-stripped and hollowed out by ideologues with MBAs. Social life has been radically privatised, and deinstitutionalised in the process – party membership, union membership, local authority employment have dwindled away, without anything taking their place. One of the things that gets eroded in the process is deference to authority – because who are these authority figures anyway? Just ordinary people, just interchangeable employees doing an interchangeable job – even if the job involves chasing people with sticks. (And then they start talking about a Big Society!)

What’s it like to grow up in this world – a world where your only consistent role is to ‘consume’, because nobody, at any level, has any interest in you as a worker? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to take whatever job you can get, on whatever pay you’re offered, and not to depend on the job still being there for you next year or next week? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to prove you’re actively looking for work before you can sign on as unemployed – or that you’ve got to prove that you’re incapable of work before you can claim disability benefit – and you’ve got to prove these things to someone who won’t get paid if they believe you? And what’s it like to have grown up in a world like this, and then to be told by a government of unprepossessing Old Etonians that you’ve had it far too easy up to now? And then, what’s it like to read that those same politicians, and the people who write the papers you buy, and the police who keep everything under control, are all involved in a network of corruption and deceit?

What we’ve got at the moment isn’t a protest movement, or even a wave of riots; if anything, it’s a particularly long and broad wave of looting. And looting isn’t a political act – but it sends a definite political message. It says, I’m not going to wait any longer; I’m not going to wait for next month or next year when I could have what I want now. It says, I’m not going to play by the rules of your system; I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but right now I’m having it. It says, I’m not going to live in your world any longer; I don’t know where I’m going to be next week, but right now I’m just going to do what I want.

5. A concluding unscientific postscript
Paul:

while people may have come together to riot and loot, they are likely to be doing so for different reasons. Some may be angry that they have no job.  Some may be keen to have a free mobile handset. Still more may be there because they fear their friends would call them a “pussy” if they did not attend.  Others may be there because they want to be able to talk about it with their mates in the days and weeks to come. For most indeed the reasons will not be fixed, and may change during the evening. I am sure some will have gone down for a look, and found the temptation of a broken-into off-licence a little too great.

We can, ultimately, establish no single motivation, and it is useless to try.  It just makes you sound like Theresa May. What we can say, though, is something about comparative incentives.

Most people from richer areas, who have jobs or who have a good chance of getting a good job, will not riot in the next day or few because their retaining their job or job chance through not getting a criminal record is greater than any of the other incentives I have listed above. … People from poorer, more deprived areas and backgrounds are rioting for different, shifting motivations, but they are doing so because they do not have enough invested in what the state can offer them to outweigh the benefits of that rioting. That is, the state has temporarily failed, because a significant group of people in London have decided it is just not worth living within its jurisdiction.

And Laurie:

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.

To end on the ghost of a positive note, that sense of collective power – that if you get a few people together, suddenly the rules don’t have to apply any more – is at the heart of a lot of radical mobilisation, although intellectual honesty compels me to note that it’s also at the heart of counter-revolutionary mobilisations and pogroms. Either way, a lot of the kids who were out last night are going to remember that feeling – is it ridiculously optimistic to hope that some of them will draw the right lesson (“don’t forget, we can also build”)? But that’s some way off. For now, I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better – I don’t see why the looting shouldn’t kick off again tonight (or any other night, for that matter), and the crackdown when it comes is going to be no fun at all.

Cold water in the face

A remarkable variety of people have poured scorn on Clegg Minor’s contribution to the Sun, and rightly so. The point I want to make, following on from that fourth link, is that we need to watch the Liberal Democrats – now more than ever. (‘Watch’ here includes ‘exacerbate the contradictions within’; there are some good people in Clegg’s party, even now.) The problem is not just that the party’s support is going down the drain, or that the party’s reputation as a byword for unscrupulous vote-whoring has escaped the politically active minority and gone viral: trust can always be regained, to a greater or lesser extent. (And at the end of the day they don’t have to outrun the bear: it doesn’t matter if they don’t look whiter-than-white any more, just as long as they look cleaner than the other two parties.) What’s more to the point is that the reputational capital the party built by coherently positioning itself to the Left of New Labour was thrown to the winds last May; a sizeable chunk of the party’s 2010 vote went with it, and it’s not coming back. On top of that, the experience of coalition – the extraordinarily passive and timorous experience of coalition – is surely chipping away at the party’s bedrock support: from David Steel back to Jo Grimond, the party always stood for something, whatever that might actually be in any given period. The ‘standing for’ part seems to elude the party at the moment – quite possibly because they’ve been stitched up like a kipper by their coalition partner – and their former supporters have noticed.

The problem for the Lib Dem leadership is that they need to stem the flow of disaffected supporters. (The party took 23% of the vote last May; UK Polling Report currently has them averaging 9%, and doesn’t record a single poll when they’ve exceeded 15% since the beginning of November.) Or if they can’t do that – and they haven’t had much luck so far – they need to get support from somewhere else. And cue “Alarm Clock Britain”:

There are millions of people in Alarm Clock Britain. People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life. People who want their kids to get ahead. People who don’t want to rely on state handouts. People who don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives. People who are not poor but struggle to stay out of the red.

They are the backbone of Britain. These are the people who will get this country moving again. It is their hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in.

This Government is formed by a coalition of two parties and we want to join the people of Alarm Clock Britain in another coalition. A coalition of people prepared to roll up their sleeves and get the nation back on its feet. Ed Miliband may be prepared to hide under his duvet from the problems Labour left us with. But we will get up every morning and face up to them. In Alarm Clock Britain, people don’t want a handout but they appreciate a helping hand. And that is exactly what the Coalition Government is offering them.

I know that times are difficult right now. We are having to make cuts to pay off Labour’s debts and some bills are going up. Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.

That is why the Liberal Democrats made a promise to voters on the front of our manifesto. That no basic rate taxpayer will pay any tax on the first £10,000 they earn. We’ve already taken the first steps which will take nearly 900,000 out of paying tax altogether. From April, every single taxpayer earning less than £42,500 a year will see their income tax bill cut by £200. By the time of the next election, 23 million people will be paying £700 less.

The Government is lending a hand in other ways, too.

(That’s enough Lib Dem promises – Ed.)

“Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.” And who is he standing up for? Why, it’s you, you lucky Sun-reader! “People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life.” People in work, in other words. Follow it through: these are also people who “want their kids to get ahead”, “don’t want to rely on state handouts” and (bizarrely) “don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives”. And they’re “the backbone of Britain”: Nick Clegg thinks they’re great, he really does.

Obviously life isn’t always quite that neat, but that’s OK too. Maybe you are receiving benefits of some sort or other – lots of working people do – but that’s all right: you’re just one of those people who “don’t want a handout but … appreciate a helping hand”. Maybe you’ve found that you just can’t “get on in life”, no matter how early you start work, but not to worry – you’re not poor, it’s just that you “struggle to stay out of the red”.

Which is just as well, because if you were poor, or – God forbid – if you didn’t have a job to get up for in the morning, then this offer would no longer apply. You would no longer be putting in the “hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in”; on the contrary, you would be digging that hole deeper with every day you lived on benefits, and making life harder for “the backbone of Britain” with every morning that you didn’t stir from your lazy idle bed.

Who Nick Clegg is standing up against turns out to be just as important as who he’s standing up for. The message seems to go something like this: Tired after a long day? Taking on extra shifts? Working unpaid overtime? Blame them – blame the workshy, blame the bone-idle, blame all those people living on benefits. They don’t know the meaning of a hard day’s work, not like you do… This would be nasty, vindictive stuff at the best of times. At a time when the unemployment rate stands at 7.9%, or 2.5 million people – and when (as Clegg well knows) the government is poised to throw many more people out of work – it’s outrageous.

Having abandoned any pretence of a position to the Left of Labour, Clegg seems to have decided that fishing for support to the left of the Tories isn’t working either, and he’s trying out the populist far Right. I’ve got a nasty feeling this isn’t going to be a one-off: Clegg may be staring into the abyss, but he’s not going down without a fight. In 2011, watch out for our Deputy Prime Minister celebrating Crimestoppers Britain (“people who don’t want to see lynch law, but can’t let petty criminals make their lives a misery”), Easter Egg Britain (“people who are not racist, but simply know how to value their own traditions”), Beside The Seaside Britain (“people who don’t hate other nations, but know the truth of that old adage – east, west, home’s best!”) and (of course) Poppy Day Britain (“people who don’t glory in war for its own sake, but know that sometimes it is the only honourable choice”).

On the plus side, by the end of the year they’ll probably still be stuck on 9%.

Update Oldham East and Saddleworth: Labour 42.1% (up 10.3%), Liberal Democrat 31.9% (up 0.3%), Conservative 12.8% (down 13.6%); turnout 48.1% (down 14.1%). An interesting result, not least because the shares of the vote aren’t that different from earlier results:

Votes for the main parties in Oldham East and Saddleworth, 1997-2011 (rounded to nearest %)

Year Labour Lib Dem Tory Tory + LD
1997 42 35 20 55
2001 39 33 16 49
2005 41 33 18 51
2010 32 32 26 58
2011 42 32 13 45

At every election from 1997 to 2005, Labour has been at least 6% ahead of the Liberal Democrats, with the Tories taking less than 20% in third place. You could see 2010′s result as a local example of last year’s swing against Labour, and last night’s result as the return of business as usual. But if 42% and 32% are around what you’d expect Labour and the Lib Dems to be getting in OE&S, 13% is very low indeed for the Tories; there will have been some defection to the extreme right, but not a lot (the combined BNP and UKIP vote share went up by a little over 1% against last May). The best explanation is surely that the consistency of the Lib Dem vote is deceptive, and that some – perhaps quite a lot – of last night’s 32% were tactical Tory votes. It’s also worth noting that the combined Tory and Lib Dem vote was lower last night than it’s been at any time since 1997; it’s only the second time it’s been below 50% (and 2001 was an unusual election; this was the year of the BNP’s big push in Oldham, when they took 11% of the vote).

However, unlike Tom Clark, I don’t believe that this result supports Clegg’s apparent new direction:

YouGov this week reported that by 51% to 16% , the small band of remaining Liberal Democrats would prefer a Tory government led by Cameron to an Ed Miliband Labour administration.

The shrinking Lib Dem electorate, then, is now much more inclined to the centre-right than it has been historically, and Oldham suggests that as it retreats from the left it can hope to make good some of the losses by advancing on the right.

Dear oh dear. The Lib Dems have lost 14% of the 23% support it had in May 2010 – more than half; 51% of 9% equates to 20% of 23%. Lib Dem voters are more right wing than they used to be because there are fewer of them, and the left-leaning voters are the ones that have given up on the party. (As UK Polling Report puts it, “the remaining rump support for the Liberal Democrats is made up of those more positively inclined towards the Tories”.) This doesn’t mean that there are votes to be gained by “advancing on the right”; in fact it specifically and precisely means that that’s a good way to lose votes.

Nor does OE&S suggest that there are votes to be won on the Right; actually what it suggests is that the party’s vote is only holding up thanks to the generosity of Tory voters. This kind of grace and favour arrangement may keep the lights on for a while, but it doesn’t bode well for the party’s future; it suggests that a party with Liberal in the name is, once again, locked into a decaying orbit around the Conservative Party. Into which, precedent suggests, they would disappear without a trace.

Update 19/1/11 Polling data bears out my speculation that the unchanged Lib Dem percentage vote masked a partial collapse in the vote, propped up by borrowed Tory votes. UK Polling Report:

of 2010 Lib Dem voters, only 55% of those who voted in the by-election stuck with the party, with 29% instead defecting to Labour … This drop in Lib Dem support was cancelled however out by Conservative tactical voting: of 2010 Conservative voters, 33% who voted in the by-election ended up backing the Liberal Democrats.

Only 49% of the 2010 Conservative voters in the sample voted Tory in 2010; 91% of the 2010 Labour voters stayed loyal, but then there were fewer of them. Shift all the Tory-LD defectors back to the Conservatives and you get a notional Tory vote share of 22%, vying for second place with the Lib Dems on 23%. Of course, this is working back from answers to a phone poll to the actual result, which isn’t really legitimate, but what’s interesting about these figures is how much of the shift in voting patterns they do in fact seem to account for. You can do it yourself if you’ve got a spreadsheet handy:

2011 Labour = 91% 2010 Labour + 29% 2010 LD + 5% 2010 Tory (!)
2011 LD = 5% 2010 Labour (!!) + 55% 2010 LD + 33% 2010 Tory
2011 Tory = 0% 2010 Labour + 3% 2010 LD + 49% 2010 Tory

Let 2010 Labour = 32%, 2010 LD = 32% and 2010 Tory = 26%, and the 2011 figures come out at 40%, 28% and 14%; you only need to massage the figures a bit to cover variable turnout and you’ve got the real results of 42%, 32% and 13%.

These figures bear out the big difference between the Tory base and its Lib Dem counterpart. Tory support is flexible, and will go under other colours if it’s for the good of the party. Lib Dem support is just soft – and, given what they’re currently being asked to support, it’s no wonder.

The barren weeks, the amnesiac years

Apparently it will be two years before we find out what the Labour Party stands for in 2011 (or rather 2013). In the mean time, presumably, the Shadow Cabinet can just make it up as they go along – I mean, now that Blairism doesn’t work any more, what else could they do? It’s not as if they could learn anything from the history of the Labour Party before Blair. Or perhaps they’re just working on the basis of waiting for the government to announce something so that they can say “and we’re against that!”.

That’s certainly the kindest explanation for this appalling story.

Following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, ministers propose to lift the ban on votes for prisoners for those serving jail sentences of up to four years. Although David Cameron stressed he was doing so reluctantly, the Liberal Democrats have long argued that prisoners should not be denied the right to vote. Labour delayed a decision on implementing the Court’s ruling before last May’s election but is now ready to form an unlikely alliance with Tory MPs in an attempt to force a U-turn. More than 40 Tories are said to oppose the Government’s plan – potentially enough to defeat it with the backing of the Labour Opposition. Labour wants the right to vote limited to inmates serving up to one year in jail. That would restrict the number to 8,096 of the 83,000 people in Britain’s jails

As it happens, the ECHR isn’t demanding that all prisoners in British jails be given the vote; the court’s ruling allows for national governments to take a view on withdrawing the franchise from particular categories of prisoner. What it has demanded – with the force of law, or at least the force of severe diplomatic embarrassment – is that the blanket ban we’ve had since 1840 be replaced by some kind of detailed policy with some kind of justification. (I doubt that the ECHR would find Labour’s mean-spirited amendment satisfactory – it seems designed to target the category of “won’t be in very long, probably didn’t do anything too bad, and best of all there aren’t very many of them”. But committing the government to yet another position the ECHR won’t accept, thus booting the question into the long grass for another year or so, may well be the object of the exercise.)

Either way – whether this is a wrecking amendment or just a vindictive attempt to weaken the legislation – Labour seem determined to attack the Tories from the Right:

Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, expressed concern that more than 28,000 inmates would be allowed the vote under the Coalition’s proposals. He said: “This is a slap in the face for victims of crime. We have already seen the Conservative-led government break their promise on knife crime. Now they are also giving thousands of offenders the vote.”

The Tory manifesto promised to bring in mandatory custodial sentences for anyone found carrying a knife (yes, carrying). It’s an insanely draconian policy, which they can never seriously have intended to implement. As for the notion that victims will in some way be adversely affected by ‘their’ offender having the vote – how? why? If this is what victims of crime want, then victims of crime are wrong. Actually I doubt that victims of crime want any such thing; left to his own devices, I doubt that Sadiq Khan would come up with this stuff either. What we’re seeing here is (in Andrew Ashworth’s phrase) “victims in the service of severity” – and, what’s worse, severity adopted cynically, in the service of winning votes (from the kind of people who like the idea of prisoners suffering).

Tory MPs also reacted angrily to the disclosure and signalled their willingness to work with Labour on the issue. Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, said: “I have yet to find anyone on our benches who agrees with it. It is totally unacceptable to allow prisoners the vote. The whole point of going to prison is that you lose your liberty; one of your liberties is the freedom to vote.”

“Disclosure”, by jingo. That would be the shock news that the European Court of Human Rights found against Britain’s blanket denial of the vote to prisoners in 2005, since which time precisely nothing has been done to bring Britain’s laws in line with its international obligations. If anything, the news is even older than that: the ECHR’s ruling is entirely in line with the common-law position, as expressed by Lord Wilberforce in 1982. Ruling on a case in which a prison governor claimed to have the right to read prisoners’ mail – essentially on the grounds that it was his house and his rules – Wilberforce found against the governor and stated:

under English law, a convicted prisoner, in spite of his imprisonment, retains all civil rights which are not taken away expressly or by necessary implication

“Expressly or by necessary implication”. Contra the repulsive Davies, this means that a prisoner no more forfeits his right to vote than he forfeits, say, his right to wear clothing in public or his right to speak without being spoken to – or, for that matter, his right to sanitation (yes, the fine old British tradition of slopping-out was found to constitute a breach of human rights law in 2004, and about time too). Certainly it is open to a judge when passing sentence to stipulate that conviction for a particular offence – or type of offence – should lead to forfeiture of the vote; it is even open to Parliament to legislate along those lines. But the blanket denial of the vote to prisoners is almost impossible to bring into concordance with Wilberforce’s statement.

And it’s straightforwardly impossible to reconcile with the ECHR’s 2005 judgment – which is where we came in. The last government’s effective refusal to legislate in line with the ECHR’s judgment, dragging its feet for all of five years, was shameful: it contrasts very unfavourably with the actions of the governments of Ireland and Cyprus, both of which introduced votes for prisoners in 2006. The coalition’s grudging acknowledgment of the reality of the situation is to be welcomed (grudgingly). For a Labour opposition (a Labour opposition, to misquote Neil Kinnock) to campaign against it, lining up with troglodytes like Davies, is really disgusting. It seems that Miliband and his circle are still doing politics the same old way: a nervy attention to the Sun and the Mail from day to day, combined with a kind of dogmatic ignorance of every liberal or socialist principle their party has ever stood for. Why, this is New Labour, nor are we out of it.

Look who bought the myth

we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.Tim Farron MP, President of the Liberal Democrats

Let’s get this straight.

Firstly, the Lib Dems’ collective volte-face on tuition fees has done enormous damage to the party’s credibility on any issue you care to name. To put it bluntly, why should we believe anything they promise ever again? As for believing promises on the specific issue of moving towards the abolition of fees… words fail me. We are not going to be fooled again in the same way, by the same people, on the same issue. I’m sure lots of individual Liberal Democrats, up to and including Tim Farron, are unhappy about the way the vote went; I’m glad that so many Lib Dem MPs (including both Farron and my own MP) voted No on the day. But that day is over. For better or worse – mainly worse – the Lib Dems are not, now, a party that supports the abolition of fees. Voting Lib Dem doesn’t even mean voting for a party that supports fees being frozen, or linked to inflation, or doubled. Voting Lib Dem, as of now, means voting for the party that made it possible for the Tories to treble fees – and, failing some fairly radical developments over the next few months, that’s what it always will mean.

Secondly, there’s an argument going round (notably from Vince Cable) to the effect that we shouldn’t set too much store by what the Lib Dems said before the election – which, just for the record, was:

We will scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.

We shouldn’t hold them to that undertaking, Cable told us, because it related only to the eventuality of a Liberal Democrat majority government; once they actually had to negotiate from a position of weakness, why, naturally all bets were off. There’s one obvious answer to this, which is that the promise which was signed by 500 Liberal Democrat candidates wasn’t about what the party was going to do: each of those 500 candidates (including every sitting Lib Dem MP) pledged “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. Not a huge amount of wiggle room there. But I don’t think the party collectively can get off the hook that easily, either. 6.8 million people voted Liberal Democrat in May; I doubt that very many of them thought the party was going to form a majority government. Nobody in the Lib Dem leadership ever said “there will have to be negotiation and in practice not all of this will get done”, because nobody needed to: Lib Dem voters were well aware that the best the party could hope for was to enter government as a junior member of a coalition. Everyone knew that what was implemented in practice would be a complex set of trade-offs, with only a few policies surviving unchanged and most being heavily watered down. But what Lib Dem voters did expect, quite reasonably, was that the party’s leaders would at least attempt to keep their promises and to implement a diluted version of their policies – not to shred their promises, implement the diametric opposite of their policies and then plead political realism.

Thirdly, a promise is not just a promise: every commitment on a single issue takes its meaning from a broader set of arguments and values. The politician who promises to keep a military shipyard open is affirming his belief in the armed forces, imperialism and the glories of war; the politician who privatises hospital cleaning services is stating her love of profit, her contempt for public service and her hatred of trade unions. (Not invariably, obviously, but I think these are good rules of thumb.) And the politician who – like Nick Clegg, before the election – commits himself to abolishing university tuition fees is also committing himself to a belief in higher education and public provision. People understand this. Clegg, Cable and the rest of the whole sick crew have not just ditched a promise; they have made a handbrake turn on two of the most important issues in politics. It’s not too much to say that they’ve gained power by promising to do the right thing, and used it to do the wrong thing.

There are three distinct but related political fallacies here. The first point – like Farron’s incredible comments – relates to the fallacy of good intentions: ask not who we are, where we’ve been or what we’ve done, ask what we can do for you next time! The second fallacy you could call the fallacy of executive omnipotence: the assumption that electoral promises relate only to the situation in which the party is powerful enough to have a free choice about whether to implement every single one of them; if those conditions don’t obtain (as they never really do), all the promises can be shelved, or turned into open-ended statements of aspiration. The third is the fallacy of the single promise: the idea that individual political promises are simply that – single items on a list of promises, like beads on a string – so that a politician should be held to account, at most, for the number of promises he or she fails to implement. In any case, they couldn’t realistically have been expected to implement all of them (fallacy 2) – and isn’t it more important to think about what they can do for you next time (fallacy 1)?

Instead of judging politicians on their record and on their overall political direction, we’re implicitly being asked – by Farron as well as Clegg – to look at policy commitments as free-floating mood statements, and give our vote to the politician who seems to be making the right kind of noises. Taken together, this adds up to a formidable depoliticisation of politics, as well as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for individual politicians.

Or you could just call it base, cynical vote-whoring. And from the Liberal Democrats, too – I’m shocked, shocked.

Update If you want to know what the fees issue is really about – and why the reaction of so many academics has been one of incredulous horror – read this. As Colin rightly points out, a graduate tax could have forced students to pay just as much money for their education, and would have been easier to administer – and easier to make more equitable – than the nightmare system we look like being landed with. However, a tax would also have been channelled through the state, effectively keeping universities publicly funded; it also wouldn’t have set universities competing against one another on price, and hence on cost (if you can deliver the same teaching with fewer staff, you won’t need to charge your students as much). As our Vice-Chancellor recently commented, few of us went into higher education with the aim of working in the free market, but that’s where most of us look like ending up.

Both night and morning

“for Mr Ó Nualláin, ‘might have been’ has loomed largely in his college life – larger than his bantam strutting will admit”

“When Mr Fitzpatrick grows up, he will find that ‘might-have-been’ figures too largely in his own little life, as in everybody else’s, to be safely employed as a weapon against others.”

I’ve recently read No laughing matter, Anthony Cronin’s biography of Brian O’Nolan (a.k.a. Flann O’Brien). It’s one of those books that I bought on a whim but took a while to get round to reading, and when I say a while I mean ten or fifteen years. Having finally read the book, the delay seems horribly appropriate – this was someone who’d written two masterpieces before he was thirty, but then did basically nothing for the next twenty years. Reading the life backwards, as a biography inevitably does, makes him seem like a lifelong ‘might-have-been’ – even back when he was a might-have-been-to-be. (The exchange quoted above is from 1935, when O’Nolan was 23.)

It’s not a very good biography – Cronin knew O’Nolan and acknowledges assistance from his widow and several siblings, which may account for a slightly cramped, reined-in quality to some of the writing. There is too little on the great books (but rather too much on The Dalkey Archive, including a slightly embarrassing account of Cronin’s dismayed reaction to the work in progress); an account of the first Bloomsday celebration, in which Cronin and O’Brien were both involved, peters out midway without describing “the breakdown of the grand scheme”; there isn’t even a conclusion to the book itself, which simply stops at the moment O’Nolan dies.

What there is, though, is both suggestive and troubling. Continue reading

Owing to my state of mind

Jamie is on the trail of derelict mental hospitals (not ‘asylums’, thanks all the same). I used to work at Cane Hill – well, I worked there for about six months in 1979, but it seemed a lot longer. Some of the pictures behind that link looked incredibly familiar, even with several years’ worth of dilapidation – looking at one of the corridor shots I was half expecting to see someone pushing a floor-buffer. As an unqualified Nursing Assistant I did shifts more or less wherever I was needed, so I saw just about everything: the psycho-geri wards (very quiet but quite a lot of dirty work); the short-term ward (for people who had only just come in and people who would soon be well enough to leave, although these weren’t always the same people); the locked ward (less scary than it sounds – largely because everyone was drugged up to the eyeballs – but not much less). I spent most of the time I was there on a long-term ward; it was about half-and-half schizophrenics and people who were just too institutionalised to function anywhere else, many of whom had originally been found on the streets.

It was a dreadful place, which institutionalised patients more or less as a matter of course, and in some cases confined them for decades; there was an old man on the ward who’d had a bit of a weird episode at the age of 16, in 1932, and been locked up ever since. It also put vulnerable people at the mercy of staff many of whom were both dedicated and competent, but not all of whom were either. The long-term ward was run on the basis of a flurry of activity in the morning (wash, shave, dress and feed 25 men), another at lunchtime and a third in the evening. Between those times, nothing happened – nothing at all. Once the morning rush was over, in particular, the charge nurse would take the opportunity to call for tea and biscuits, then tell me and the student nurses about his views on life at enormous length. One long-term patient died while I was there (although after I’d been moved away from that ward); apparently he fell on the steps up to the ward, hit his head and lay there all night undiscovered. He was an unusually florid schizophrenic – nothing they could give him would stop him having strange ideas and compulsions, which generally involved wandering around the hospital – and the door to the ward was often kept locked to stop him getting out, although this was officially an open ward. As I understand it was locked that night.

But I’m not totally convinced that hospitals like that were a bad thing. One of the drugs we used to administer to schizophrenics was fluphenazine, a.k.a. Modecate. It was a slow-release ‘depot’ injection, designed to keep the visions and compulsions damped down for a fortnight at a time, and as such was administered intra-muscularly; you’d draw a cross on one of the patient’s buttocks with an alcohol swab, take aim for the upper outer quadrant and away you went. (I never did this myself – being untrained, unqualified and terrified – although I was repeatedly urged to have a bash.) I asked one day what would happen if you were careless and jabbed them in the lower inner quadrant. You don’t want to do that, you could paralyse them, I was told. This all came back to me the other day, when I noticed packets of Modecate on the pharmacy shelves at our local Boots, presumably for people being cared for in the community to take away and self-administer. The idea of trusting schizophrenics to inject their own anti-psychotic medication, at just the time when the previous dose is wearing off, strikes me as a bit hopeful.

Tangentially, it’s things like this which make me wonder what on earth the Tories’ plans for public expenditure cuts are actually going to mean. The old institutions aren’t there to be cut any more: the erstwhile populations of Cane Hill – and the others – have already been tipped out into community care. Similarly, councils have already been forced to outsource what used to be in-house services, the profitable bits of the postal service have already been carved up by TNT and DHL, and Stagecoach have already eaten public transport. If (on top of all that) defence is going to be protected, it’s hard to see what’s left to cut. Perhaps in another thirty years we’ll be looking at slideshows of abandoned universities.

Now the grownups have gone

I’ve just signed the 38 Degrees petition on capital gains tax:

Dear George Osborne,

Please stick to your commitment in the coalition agreement by increasing Capital Gains Tax to rates similar to income tax by:

* making the top level of Capital Gains Tax the same as income tax
* reducing the level at which people have to start paying tax on money earned from investments like stocks and shares, and second homes

I’d urge everyone to do likewise, even though it goes against the grain to petition George Osborne for anything – shouldn’t there be structures for this kind of thing? isn’t petitioning a fundamentally pre-democratic mechanism, implying that the subjects are respectfully tugging the sleeve of their exalted ruler, there being no other legitimate way for them to express themselves? Or maybe it’s a post-democratic mechanism, I dunno. (File under ‘cheery thoughts’.)

Anyway, the petition comes with a comment box, and I was very tempted to add the line “Make the rich pay for the crisis”. Then I remembered the provenance of that particular slogan and left the box blank. There’s always the possibility – the depressing possibility – that whoever ends up looking at the petition would see my comment and think “huh, a tired old bit of sloganising from a Radio Tirana listener and fellow-traveller of the RCPB (M-L)!” Not to mention the even more depressing possibility that they wouldn’t.

I owe the Hoxhaites a debt of gratitude, as it happens. Back in 1983, waiting for a demo against anti-union laws to get started, I came quite close to being recruited by the Revolutionary Communist Party; a bored-looking girl with a crew-cut gave me a copy of the next step [sic] and explained how, er, I forget what exactly. I was quite impressed, anyway, and continued to be impressed by what I read in the paper. The RCP were in their phase of well-er-obviously ultra-logical not-quite-ultra-leftism at the time – not quite ultra-left, just enough to outflank everyone else except the anarchists (who don’t count, of course). So obviously the state of Israel must be destroyed, and obviously the IRA must be supported unconditionally, and obviously the union leaders (all of them) must be totally ignored in favour of really extra-vigorous rank-and-file stuff of some sort. This approach had the merit of simplicity, allied to an appealingly cool tone (in both senses of the word – tns really did look nice) and logic – lots and lots of logic. It was also considerably more revolutionary than you, unless you were an anarchist (but anarchists don’t count, of course).

Anyway, I was young, I was radical, I was single and unemployed – I was about as available for recruitment by a Trotskyist group as I’ve ever been, and I vaguely knew it. (My student days don’t count – I was at Cambridge and mostly avoided getting involved in any kind of organised politics out of sheer embarrassment. I didn’t know much about the revolution, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be made by Cambridge students.) So I was mulling over the RCP’s overtures later that day, when the demo finally got going. Being on my own, I’d decided to watch most of the march going by and tag on near the end. And who should pass by but a contingent of about eight middle-aged beardies, clustered quite closely around a large and elderly red banner, walking in step and raising a chant of – you guessed it – “MAKE THE RICH PAY FOR THE CRISIS!” Not the snappiest slogan at the best of times, and being chanted by eight middle-aged blokes (who were passing by at quite a brisk pace) didn’t enhance its impact. The banner – one of those big square-ish ones in a frame – read “REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST PARTY OF BRITAIN (MARXIST-LENINIST)”.

Blimey, I thought – so that’s what they’re really like!

Update 4/7/10
In response to Kier in comments: OK, that’s not the whole truth. At first I was genuinely confused by the mismatch between the cool paper with the purple ink and the knot of earnest beardies – and I did momentarily think that the latter was the real face of the former. But I did work it out after a while, and the RCPB(M-L) didn’t put me off the RCP(no relation) for good; in fact I had a few contacts with them back in Manchester until they gave up trying to recruit me. (Which, I remember, they did with a very bad grace, with the strong implication that I’d been wasting their time.) I just think it’s interesting that, while my first impression of the RCP was positive, my second impression was that they were a tightly-knit group of dedicated activists declaiming peculiar-sounding slogans in apparent indifference to how they looked to the rest of the Left.

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript

Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. In fact, anyone capable of judging this government – and the Lib Dems’ role in making it possible – as positively as McEwan strikes me as having something important missing from their own political makeup. It’s a bit like hearing it seriously argued that apartheid was good for the South African economy, or that Mussolini did in fact make the trains run on time: you just know that you’re not going to agree with this person on anything. (Not that I’ve agreed with old Leftie McEwan for quite a while.) Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever.

This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as “deep tribal reasons”? Continue reading

Your weakness is none of my business

One interesting aspect of the election result is that it’s been bad for all three of the main party leaders. (You could even extend that and say that it’s been bad for all the party leaders – Ieuan Wyn Jones, Alex Salmond, Salma Yaqoob and Nick Griffin have all had a disappointing time of it, not to mention Reg Empey and Peter Robinson – but it doesn’t quite work; Caroline Lucas had rather a good night, and I don’t think the non-Unionist parties in the North of Ireland are complaining. Bad joke about wearing of the green goes here.)

But Brown, Cameron and Clegg have all had a bad result, and will all be facing criticism from within their party: it’ll be argued that a different style of leadership could have saved Labour from the wipeout, could have given the Tories an outright majority, could have made the Lib Dem breakthrough a reality. (This is clearly magical thinking to some extent – after all, if all the parties had performed better their results would presumably be stuck pretty much at their current level. Also, the idea that the leader has a defining influence on the party’s performance smacks of power-worship and is almost certainly inaccurate anyway. But we’ll go with it for the time being, because the current stalemate does put the leaders front and centre, and I want to think about what they’re going to do next.)

Now, the one thing a party leader can never do – or not while remaining party leader – is to lose face by conceding to criticism from others. (This is what made the Gillian Duffy story so grimly fascinating; Brown did nothing that we haven’t all done, but his political position meant that a loss of face was a tremendous risk – and it was extraordinarily difficult to extricate himself without one.) There are two main strategies for dealing with criticism without losing face: one is to double down and make a virtue of the position being criticised, demonstrating its strengths and merits; the other is to adopt the criticism as one’s own and address it without seeming to concede anything to the critics, getting out of trouble in a kind of knight’s move. All three of the main party leaders are going to have to adopt one of these tactics over the next few days, and it’ll be interesting to see which escape route they each choose.

What Brown did wrong – or what Brown will be seen to have done wrong; or the area where Brown will be seen to have gone wrong by acting like Brown – was to hang on like grim death: refusing an early election, refusing a leadership election, refusing to resign as leader, refusing to call the election until the very last minute. Right from when he took over from Blair, Brown was determined to k. b. o., in Churchill’s immortal phrase. It’s going to be hard over the next few days for him to make a virtue of this approach; flexibility and surprise are going to be at a premium. The obvious escape route – in more ways than one – would be to resign, but I don’t see Brown resigning as PM or party leader and simply walking away, like Heath in 1974 (as PM) or Wilson in 1976; I think his parting gift to the party would be to resign in such a way as to hand power to a chosen successor, as the prospective head of a coalition government. I haven’t the faintest idea how that could be fixed – it would need to involve an awful lot of talking to the Lib Dems and other parties – but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown’s working on it.

What Clegg did wrong – or where Clegg went wrong by acting unlike Ashdown or Kennedy, say – was clearly to move the party to the Right. You can look at this as an attempt to return to equidistance between the main parties after getting uncomfortably close to Labour, or simply as a move rightwards: tailoring the party’s approach to its main target seats by appealing to Tory voters, while banking the support the party had already gained from former Labour voters. Either way, it backfired spectacularly on the night: faced with a party that seemed destined for coalition and refused to rule out coalition with their least favoured party, many people not only declined to vote Lib Dem but actually cast an anti-Lib Dem vote. 23% isn’t a bad vote, but it’s well down in the realms of the third-party squeeze – in a way that the 26-28% the polls seemed to promise wouldn’t have been. Clegg could double down on the move rightwards by sealing the deal with Cameron; he could even double down on ‘equidistance’ by proposing a Grand Coalition, although I suspect that if he was going to do this he would have done it by now. These options would not be without problems, to put it mildly. I’ve been defending the Lib Dems for years, pointing out their radical policies to Labour loyalists and socialists who dismiss them as ‘yellow Tories’. I’ll never say another word in their defence if they make a deal with Cameron now – and I imagine there are many more like me, some of whom have actually voted for them. The alternative would be to cut the knot by dumping equidistance, shifting back leftwards and forming a ‘progressive’ alliance; that would work – it could solve our problems as well as Clegg’s own – but I’m not sure Clegg’s the man to do it.

Cameron is probably in the worst position of all, and in the most need of some quick and innovative thinking (hmm…). His critics are sure he’s done something wrong – something bad enough to turn a Tory landslide into a mere 307 seats, without even any Ulster Unionists to prop up the numbers – but they don’t agree on what it is. For every Tory who thinks Cameron should never have linked up with the assorted nutters of the European Conservative and Reformist group, there’s one who thinks he’s too much of a Europhile; for every Tory who thinks he should face down the climate change deniers, homophobes and cadet Teabaggers who now find a home in the party, there’s someone who thinks those groups are the future. And then there’s Philip Blond and the ‘Big Society’ theme, which hardly anyone has any enthusiasm for – but it’s hard to even hang that on Cameron, since it’s not clear that he has much enthusiasm for it either. The problem is, he’s not a conviction politician and never has been; he’s Dave from PR (or rather, Eton, BalliolBrasenose and PR). Both of the tactics I’ve been describing – doubling down on the offending behaviour or convincingly repudiating it – are going to be hard for Cameron, since they would require him first to identify something people think he’s doing wrong and then to make a convincing case for it. (Or, indeed, against it.) I think rather than open any of these ideological cans of worms, he’ll take a couple of steps back and conceptualise his approach to leading the party as one in which they trust him and he gives them power – and on that basis where he’s gone wrong is in failing to deliver. This would make the escape route easy to identify, too: he gives them power, they get off his back.

With all this in mind, I think we can expect the Tories to go quite a long way to meet the Lib Dems halfway. Whether it will be enough is another matter, as the one thing they will need the most in that situation – some way of maintaining their credibility on the Left – won’t be in the Tories’ gift. Cameron could go some way to providing it by offering the Lib Dems a loose alliance, with a free vote on non-confidence measures; however, this wouldn’t be enough to solve his own problem, by guaranteeing the Tories power as well as office. At some not too distant point it’ll be up to Brown to produce a better offer, i.e. one which solves his problem as well as Clegg’s; in principle this seems, if anything, more achievable than a durable Lib Dem/Tory deal, but the practicalities may be against it.

With the possibility of PR aroud the corner and the possibility of the Lib Dems taking a definitive step to the Right in the mean time, the stakes are high. The British political scene may be about to become a great deal more fluid, or the music may be about to stop, freezing it in a definitively right-of-centre configuration. All we know at the moment is that it’s not over yet; we can still hope for the best as well as fearing the worst.

UpdateThoughtful postscript The question is what arrangements there are which would allow two of the party leaders to pull off one of the self-justifying/self-exculpatory moves described above. As we’ve seen, Clegg could answer the critics of equidistance by collapsing the Lib Dem waveform either rightwards or leftwards. Justifying himself by sticking it out seems less likely, if only because the only practical way of doing this – offering a Grand Coalition – is in nobody else’s interest. Going Left would probably be easier than going Right, if only because the Tories are unlikely to be able to offer enough to make the deal palatable to the Lib Dem base. But if the Lib Dems can’t meet Cameron halfway, he’s going to be stuck: unlike the other two leaders, there isn’t a reverse gear (or a knight’s move) available to him. All he can do is double down on being him: Dave from PR, the sincere opportunist, the liberal Tory, the reactionary moderniser; all the contradictions of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party swept under one shiny new market-ready carpet. But that’s only going to work for as long as it delivers results, which it may be about to stop doing.

As for Brown, a good move would be to make a virtue of repudiating his limpet-like tendencies, by offering his resignation as a sweetener to a deal with Clegg. As well as being a costly signal, this would up the ante on the Lib Dems (what else do you want?). A really good move would be to make a virtue of going while also making a virtue of staying, as the one politician capable of steering Britain through these troubled times, and so forth.

Clegg has, of course, said that he’ll give the Tories first go at winning him over, but it occurs to me that he might be playing quite a clever game. If Clegg had announced after the election that the Lib Dems would talk to both major parties, he’d have been lynched by the press. So perhaps the plan is to talk publicly to the Tories, but also talk to Labour without telling them. Then, by the time the Tories reach their high bid, Labour will know the target they need to beat; they’ll also know by then that they need to make an offer pronto. These could be very interesting times.

That was a thoughtful and prescient postscript written on the 8th of May. Not an update written with hindsight on the very interesting evening of the 10th – certainly not.

No more coats and no more home

1:30 a.m.: David Blunkett calls the election for the Conservatives and calls on Labour to unite the opposition in resistance to the Conservative government, to blunt their attacks on working people and “above all, to avoid what happened in the 1980s in my city”.

David Blunkett was leader of Sheffield City Council from 1980 to 1987. Wikipedia:

The Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam, Sir Irvine Patnick, coined the phrase “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire” to describe the left-wing politics of its local government; Sheffield was designated as a nuclear-free zone. Blunkett became known as the leader of one of the furthest left of the Labour councils, which was regularly denounced as “loony left” by the newspapers of the right. Blunkett was one of the faces of the protest over rate-capping in 1985 which saw several Labour councils refuse to set a budget in a protest against Government powers to restrain their spending. He built up support within the Labour Party during his time as the council’s leader during the 1980s and was elected to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee.

We’d certainly better avoid that. What happened in your city in the 1980s was that you resisted, David. You fought back and led a fightback, and for a while you were a bit of a hero. Some of us like resisting and admire people who resist – and besides, resisting meant you could do a lot of people a lot of good. (I still remember getting a bus in Sheffield and having to root around for coppers; fares were about a fifth of the equivalent in Manchester, ranging from 3p all the way up to 13p for a journey from one side of the city to the other. Admittedly, 13p was 13p in those days – you could probably get a Mars bar for that money. And if you tell the young people today… Sorry, where was I?)

Blunkett’s rewrite of the 1980s prompts perhaps the most depressing thought on a very depressing night: that an incoming Conservative government which has cauterised its own historical memory and has no idea what it believes in (but knows who it hates) is going to face a Labour opposition with very similar characteristics. It looks as if we’re going to be stuck in Tony Blair’s cafeteria at the end of history for a bit longer.

The rest we can leave

To end this slightly hyperactive day, here’s a recommendation you’ve probably seen already: read Johann Hari on Hammersmith.

As I spend days walking across the borough, I find the detritus of the old thriving public sector now shut and shuttered. Next to a big council estate I stumble across the large red-brick Castle Youth Club. It was built in Dickens’ time and bequeathed to the local council “to benefit the children of this area for perpetuity”. The Conservatives shut it down two years ago to sell it off. The deal fell through, so now it sits empty while the local kids hang around on the streets outside.

I realise I am peering into the reality of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. The council here told people that if they took away services like this, there would be volunteers; if the state withered away, people would start to provide the services for each other. But nobody … started a new youth club on their own time and with their own money. The state retreated and the service collapsed. It’s a rebranding trick. The Conservatives know that shutting down public services sounds cruel, while calling for volunteerism sounds kind – but the effect is exactly the same.

Read the whole thing. (I’ll wait.)

And here are a few lines from a comment at Crooked Timber (hi Tim!)

I too would like to ‘punish’ Labour for the GWOT/Iraq business. Brown may not have been enthusiastic about the whole business, but keeping quiet and wishing it would go away while signing off on every penny is of course nowhere near good enough. On the same grounds, I’d like to reward the Lib Dems (as well as liking their noises about Trident and ‘illegal’ immigrants, for example). … But retribution and reward are not top priorities at this point, even they could plausibly be seen as a necessary part of a system of long-term incentives. (The war has already had electoral consequences in prising Blair out, of course.) … The urgent imperative is to keep Cameron out.

The Conservatives have done nothing at all to suggest they have moved toward the centre in broadly economic terms – even with a rightward-bound centre. … The Conservatives have, even before getting in, the most hawkish about spending cuts, and flagrant in their ambitions for top-rung tax cuts like inheritance, for example. Their real intentions have to be guessed at, but they won’t have been understating their brutality. Even the line of verbiage they’ve chosen to fill the ominous silence is actively repellent. All this wittering about voluntarism is familiar enough stuff, now elevated from a weak debating point to a supposed philosophy: ‘other things equal, wouldn’t it be nice if everything were done voluntarily, out of, er, benevolence?’. Other things equal my arse. Tell it to Adam Smith’s baker. Making obligations and liabilities voluntary – repudiable – has only one purpose, as every instance of self-’regulation’ testifies.

I particularly like that last point. Other things equal my arse – Tories of all people should know that you don’t get owt for nowt. But the market doesn’t supply everything or everyone – it’s conspicuously bad at providing universal services, unlimited emergency services or services for people who can’t afford to pay, for instance. The history of public service provision since Joseph Chamberlain has been one of collectively-funded efforts to redress market failure. Turn off the funding and that ‘market’ – the market for home helps, youth clubs, women’s refuges, emergency accommodation – will fail in a heartbeat. And the Tories know that, those of them who are older than 18; they have to know that. The idea of sleek Tory politicians knowingly and heedlessly consigning poor people to lives of misery and fear is terribly old-fashioned and rather melodramatic, I know, but it seems like an awfully good fit.

If you’ve got a vote tomorrow, please use it to help prevent a Tory government. That will be an achievement worth having been part of.

Till some progress begins

A cry from the heart at Crooked Timber:

Here is the voting record of Lynda Waltho, MP for Stourbridge, from TheyWorkForYou:

Voted very strongly for allowing ministers to intervene in inquests.
Voted very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
Voted very strongly for replacing Trident.
Voted moderately against laws to stop climate change.
Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly for introducing ID cards.

Never rebels against their party in this parliament.

I can’t vote for this.

I’m in a Lib Dem/Labour marginal, with an untried Labour contender facing a Lib Dem MP who’s had the seat since 2005, so I haven’t got quite the same problem. Continue reading

And I decline

Here’s a late response to the blog theme tune meme, and a tune I can’t believe nobody else has picked:

Maybe it’s just me.

At its most basic, there’s definitely something that appeals to me about songs with far too many words, and songs that nobody understands. At one time in my life Prefab Sprout’s first album meant an enormous amount to me, precisely because some of the songs are so resolutely personal – not in a Kate Nash sense, but in the sense of mapping out a mental landscape which could only ever make sense from the inside (“Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!”). In this song, I like the way the playfulness and sheer high spirits of the music works together with that ridiculous cataract of words (“LEONARD BERNSTEIN!”). And the rueful, headachey conclusion – “Time I had some time alone” (truncated from this video, unfortunately) – I’ve had days like that.

But it goes a bit deeper. The personal is political, and not just in the sense that one will get you to the other. To put it another way, not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are. Someone who likes well-chaired meetings that run to time will join a different party, with different goals, from someone who likes to keep talking until everyone’s agreed – or someone who likes to handle disagreement with his fists. See also the debate that Daniel kicks off from time to time, regarding the association between the political spectrum and the undesirable trait of BACAI (where ‘B’ stands for ‘being’ and ‘AI’ ‘about it’). (The debate hasn’t got very far as yet – we’re more or less agreed that most of the Decent/Euston crowd is positively committed to BACAI, but generalising from that is hard.)

As for me, I’ve always been temperamentally drawn to no-holds-barred abolish-everything ultra-leftism. If you read Debord, or the early Marx – or even if you start reading Capital at volume 1, chapter 1 – it seems staringly obvious that communism is not going to involve capital formation, or commodity production, or wage labour, or money. (Whether it would involve law is a separate question.) Obviously the maximalism that this vision implies can only be theoretical in anything other than a pre-revolutionary situation, but maximalism on the plane of theory isn’t nothing:

If constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
- Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, September 1843

(The original strap line of my old blog was adapted from that quote.)

Or you could just say that I’ve got a weakness for nihilism.

Qu’est-ce que le nihilisme ? Rozanov répond parfaitement à la question quand il écrit : “La représentation est terminée. Le public se lève. Il est temps d’enfiler son manteau et de rentrer à la maison. On se retourne : plus de manteau ni de maison.”

“No more coats, no more home.” It’s possible, I suppose, that Rozanov was talking about nothing more than planting a bomb in a theatre, which has never struck me as a valid political tactic[1]. I’ve always read that passage more metaphorically. It’s the image of everything disappearing at the end of the show that’s stayed with me. Picture it: you’re just emerging from a consensual illusion and returning to reality, when you realise that the reality you thought you were returning to was itself a consensual illusion, and it’s gone. You wake up… and then you wake up.

(Right? Right!)

What this perspective gives you, I think, is a sense of how provisional all our social arrangements are, a sense that everything solid could melt into air[2]. It’s just a ride, in other words, and we can change it any time we want. And that in turn goes together (for me at least) with a kind of ironic optimism: in terms of political programmes there’s nothing out there I can actually identify with, but there are lots of points where closed-down possibilities can be nudged open. And lots of stuff that we don’t actually need to preserve – which brings us back to the song. Clear the floor to dance!

[1] Not everyone agrees with this point, it should be said. Alfredo Bonanno made a pretty good fist of arguing for indiscriminate, spontaneous anarchist violence in his 1979 pamphlet Concerning terrorism, certain imbeciles and other matters. “What if we don’t want to wait for the ‘big day’, and we begin to do something, here and now, to stop defending ourselves and begin to attack power? … What would doing this make us – would it make us terrorists?” Maybe not terrorists as such, but it would certainly make you voluntarist, adventurist, substitutionist, deeply irresponsible and ultimately rather apolitical. To put it another way, it would make you a bunch of dangerous headbangers.

[2] I’ve read that this is a mistranslation deriving from Ernest Jones’s inadequate grasp of German, and that what Marx actually wrote was more like “all fixed reference points go up in smoke”. I don’t know if it’s an improvement or not – the “melts” version is more vivid and poetic, but it has a dreamy, Tempest-like quality which doesn’t really go with historical materialism. More research needed. Have any German-speaking Marxists read this far? (I did say I was an optimist…)

Career opportunities

Jim asks:

I’d really love to know how to go about earning a crust (or even half a crust) out of freelance writing. Yes, I’m aware that’s the Holy Grail for every blogger but if, dear reader, you’ve worked out how to achieve it, I’d be eternally grateful for your advice.

As it goes, my career as a freelance writer overlapped with my time as a blogger, but not by much – I’ve been blogging since a few weeks before the last election, in 2005, and I last sold an article in September 2007. I’ve had a few things in collections of blog posts, but my experience of turning bloggery into money is zero.

However, Jim also mentions that he’s soon to embark on a PhD thesis, and I can trutfhully say that I supported myself through my PhD thesis as a freelance journalist. The bad news is that it took me five years to complete my thesis, in which time I gained no academic experience at all – this is not recommended. I did look into the possibilities of doing bits of teaching, but concluded that the rate of pay was so low, relative to the living I was managing to make as a writer, that I’d effectively be doing it for nothing – and I couldn’t afford to do it. I got my first permanent academic post six years later.

So the first thing I’ve gleaned from my career as a freelance journalist is that it’s laborious and time-consuming work, and it will soak up time and effort which you could have done with keeping back for other purposes. It’s hard. When it’s going well it’s also one of the best jobs in the world – but even then it’s hard work, and it will cost you.

As for how to do it, three golden rules.

Rule 1: On getting the work. The rule is: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. That doesn’t mean that you need to have had Condé Nast executives invited to your christening – although if they were, you certainly won’t have to read self-help posts like this. It means, work your connections. If you haven’t got any connections, take an educated guess on which of your friends has got connections and work them. Don’t bother cold-calling, doorstepping or otherwise propositioning an editor you don’t know. There are 100 other ambitious unknowns who could write the article you want to write – or something which would look as good as that article to people who don’t know your area, a group which will probably include the editor you’re trying to pitch to and will definitely include his or her boss. Not only that, but out of those 100, 50 are younger than you, 20 are slightly better-known and three know the editor, or say they do.

Getting a start in journalism is all about having some kind of personal connection with someone who can take a chance on you. If you know the editor – even slightly, even tenuously – and you can persuade him or her to let you have a go at something, then you’re in. If not, not. So if you don’t know any editors, you will need to change that situation. (I should say, incidentally, that this isn’t current advice – it’s based on my experience in the early 90s, when the journalistic climate was positively balmy compared to now.)

Rule 2: on getting more work. Once you’ve got your foot in the door the advice changes. All you need to do then is get the work done. Get it done, whatever it is; get it done on time, to the exact specs you’ve been given. I used to work on programme support for the Channel 4 ‘Real Lives’ strand – an odd gig which involved watching the programme, writing a 1000-word précis and recommending at least three books & at least three Web sites for the ‘Find Out More’ section (this was often the hardest part). I’m quite proud of my work on the Wallis Simpson programme, for no other reason than that I got the tape at 10.00 one morning with strict instructions to get the work filed by 5.00 at the latest – which I did, complete with three URLs and eight (count ‘em) book recommendations. That was a good day.

Anyway, rule 2 can be stated just as bluntly as rule 1: if you do exactly what they ask you for – whatever they ask you for – and do it on time and do it well, then you may get repeat business. Not ‘will’, but definitely ‘may’ – and if not, you definitely won’t.

Depressed yet?

Rule 3: on next month’s work. If you can write, and if you’re in touch with commissioning editors, and if you can write to order, to length and to deadline, then you should be able to make enough to live on… for this month. However, you will also need to eat next month. You know how you had to work to get your first commission, and your second, and your third – shmoozing, pitching ideas, scrounging for repeat business? Fancy doing that again and again, month after month, indefinitely? Me neither, and I don’t believe anyone actually lives like that.

Hence Rule 3, which comes in two parts. Rule 3.1 is: get a regular gig. Better still, have a regular gig lined up before you make the leap. I embarked on my PhD knowing that I had first refusal on at least £5,000 a year’s worth of work from my previous employer. £5,000 a year isn’t a lot – rule 3.1.1 is get another regular gig – but it’s a big improvement on £0.

It gets worse, I’m afraid. Rule 3.2 is: be prepared for when the work dries up. Freelance writing work is inherently precarious. Editors move on, magazines close, production companies take their writing work in-house, once in a while you may even screw up an assignment and fall out with an editor. (The advice here is, of course, don’t ever do this. But the chances are that you will.) Freelancing isn’t a fallback – in the immortal words of James Thurber, falling back on journalism would be very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenter’s tools. Have something in reserve – some other marketable skill, or just a couple of months’ rent money stashed in an account you never touch.

I have to say, as if this post wasn’t negative enough already, that I don’t know if I’d be able to pay the bills for five years if I was starting out as a freelance journalist today. Certainly the nets I dropped a couple of years ago – when it looked as if academic freelance work (that’s another story) was drying up – almost all came up empty: most of the outlets I wrote for have closed, and there’s very little call for the kind of stuff I used to write (“if you’ve got a great idea for a column, keep it for your blog”, one editor told me bluntly). But then, if I was starting out as a freelance today I wouldn’t be trying to write the kind of stuff I wrote in the 1990s, or working the contacts I had then. I wouldn’t tell anyone to go for it!, but I realise I’m not in a position to tell anyone definitely not to.

In other news*, Toby Young is an unmitigated idiot. In all of my five years as a freelance I made a point of taking a week off in summer and disconnecting completely from work. This in no way prevented me from paying the bills, despite the fact that I was writing Web pages for Channel 4 and sub-editing German computing advertorials rather than, say, for instance, writing a column in the Guardian and having my million-selling autobiography made into a film. Tosser.

*OK, not news** as such.

**Inasmuch as the column dates from 2008, I mean, not the ‘unmitigated idiot’***. I was going to blog on it at the time, but it infuriated me too much.

***Although that too.

Green and yellow pinky-blue

Andy did a reasonably good job of making a left case for the findings of the National Equality Panel – it’s true that New Labour have implemented policies aimed at the people at the bottom of the heap, and it’s certainly true that some of the inequalities that remain are more intractable than they were in the 1970s. Andy concludes that this government has taken “a sincere but flawed approach to reducing social exclusion” involving “pushing up the wages of the poorest”, but that this was ultimately vitiated by New Labour individualism: the government “failed to acknowledge that equality has to rest upon shared sense of community, and that community is alien to the spirit of free market capitalism”.

It’s always good to be reminded that there is still a Left case to be made for some of this government’s actions, but I don’t think Andy has joined enough of the dots here. While Andy notes that “for the Blairites, poverty reduction was the target not promoting equality per se, as they did not want to reduce the income of top earners”, I’d go further. A system that generates enormous profits for a few thousand individuals is not just part of the context in which poverty reduction takes place; that system is actually producing and reproducing poverty on a huge scale. I also think it’s worth noting that the vein of compulsion mentioned by Andy runs right through Labour policy on social exclusion, however beneficial it may be in practice; SureStart itself began life as a Home Office project, with medium-term crime reduction as its goal. This is certainly a government which doesn’t want to see anyone starving or illiterate, which is all to its credit. But that genuine commitment goes along with an underlying view of the poorest groups as a problem – a potential source of crime and disorder – and an even stronger commitment to policies likely to keep them poor.

This isn’t a very flattering picture of our Labour government – a Labour government! – but there’s very little evidence that either class politics or egalitarianism has any influence on New Labour policy. Assuming that they must be in there somewhere can lead to some strange misreadings. Andy notes:

The proportion of young people going to university increased from 15% to 28% between 1988 and 1992; but while the proportion of young people from the most affluent 20% going to university rose from 20% to 37%, the proportion from the least affluent 20% increased from just 6% to only 7%. The paradox is that increasing access to higher education has disproportionately benefitted the already better off.

Paradox? What paradox? I see no evidence that New Labour’s drive to increase access to higher education was ever intended to benefit all classes equally; that’s certainly not how it’s been implemented. It hasn’t even been sold that way – Neil Kinnock’s Joe Biden moment was an awful long time ago. These days it’s decent hard-working middle-class people we’re supposed to be concerned about – and when politicians use the words “middle class”, they might just be talking about the middle class and not the working class.

I also thought – like Liam – that these findings demanded to be read alongside the bad news from the British Social Attitudes Survey, published the same week. Indeed, I thought the two shed light on each other. Liam:

”only two in five people (39%) now support increased taxes and spending on health and education,the lowest level since 1984 and down from 62% in 1997.” They add that “support for redistribution from the better off to those who are less well off has dropped markedly. Fewer than two in five (38%) now think the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off, down from half (51%) in 1994.”

Here’s the punch line: “The shift to the right has occurred mainly among Labour supporters in the wake of the changed stance taken by their party. For example, since 1994, the belief that government should redistribute income has fallen among Labour supporters from two thirds (68%) to half (49%). Among Conservative supporters, in contrast, attitudes have barely shifted at all (from 26% to 24%).”

This to me is a final, sad rebuttal of all those arguments against breaking from Labour to the Left. Yes, millions of working people identify with Labour and with Labour values – but the meaning of “Labour values” can change. Not completely, not evenly and not overnight, certainly, but it still changes. What’s to stop it? After 13 years of a Labour government which regularly proclaimed itself to be the best, fullest, newest and truest expression of Labour values, it would be amazing if the new version hadn’t started to take root. Millions of working people identified with Labour, and New Labour took them with it – and now that New Labour is on the rocks, they’re more available for right- and centre-right politics than ever before. The New Labour project didn’t just set back the prospects for socialism in Britain – would that that had been the worst it did. It wrecked the only viable vehicle for building social democracy, and dispersed and demoralised its natural constituents. A really dreadful piece of political vandalism. Robert:

After the party’s over, my friend
There will be nothing you can put your finger on,
Just a parasol

That goes for any Party.

And yes, I saw it all coming. I wasn’t quite gloomy enough, if anything – I didn’t foresee the possibility that Blair might succeed and then fail. Certainly a future with no Labour Party worth mentioning seems slightly more likely at the moment than one where Labour thrives as an SDP mk. II.

Here, anyway, is a piece I wrote for the eleventh issue of Casablanca in 1994. It was published in the short-running “A gloom of one’s own” series. Most material in Casablanca was either anonymous or pseudonymous, for reasons I was never quite sure about; this one appeared under the name of Brian Parker, for reasons I’m definitely not sure about.

Gloom

Just what is it that makes today’s Left so different, so depressing?

When I was an infantile leftist there were two main groups on the Left, the Campaigners and the Believers. (Three, if you count the Labour Party Members). The best kind of Campaigning, it was generally agreed, was going on strike. The rest of the Left would immediately rally round and offer comradely advice – to stay out for as long as it took (the Trots), to stay out forever and picket everyone in the world until they came out too (the anarchists), to make the rich pay for the crisis (the RCPB(M-L)). Campaigning by leafletting, blocking the traffic and so on was not so good: this made you a Single-Issue Campaigner, and you would usually only be allowed into the Left after most people had gone. (Being on the Left means knowing all the Issues). And if you Campaigned by harbouring foxes and releasing chickens nobody would even talk to you except the anarchists, but that didn’t matter because it’s about something much bigger than just like politics, right.

Like many people, I rapidly graduated from Campaigning to Believing. This is considerably less strenuous, as it consists mainly of (a) finding the right Line and (b) recruiting more Believers. The idea is to ensure that, come the inevitable collision with History, you will be equipped with (a) clean ideological underwear and (b) plenty of witnesses. Being a Believer isn’t a bad way of meeting people and it does get you out of the house (usually on Tuesday evenings, for some reason – so three proletarian cheers to the BBC for moving Barry Norman to Mondays). On the other hand, it is fairly pointless. Realising this, many Believers gravitate towards Campaigning organisations, sometimes in quite large and organised groups. Others attempt to unite the Left, presumably on the basis that if you assemble a large enough group of Believers it will automatically turn into a Campaign. The only problem with this strategy is that the idea of uniting the Left is in fact a Line in its own right and thus only attracts its own Believers – just another strand in the Left’s great dayschool.[1]

About the Labour Party Members there isn’t much I can say, never having shared their belief in the capacity of a Labour government to enact socialism – I suppose every movement needs its dreamers. Actually the rest of us always tacitly relied on the Labour Party. The way it worked was that the press and the BBC would attack Labour for being left-wing – or praise them for being left-wing, it didn’t really matter – and we would attack them for not being left-wing enough. Even the anarchists used to join in, attacking Labour as a way of getting at the Left as a whole. It was quite a good recruiting tactic, while it lasted.

That was how I used to see things – I’m less optimistic nowadays. Most of the Believers have never quite recovered from the end of actually existing Stalinism – arguing about whether Cuba is a deformed workers’ state just isn’t the same somehow. You don’t get the same class of Believers these days, anyway – whatever happened to Red Flame? or Big Stripe? These days there’s hardly anyone doing any Campaigning, either, apart from those young people who sit down in front of trees, play didgeridoos and tell us they won’t get fooled like we did. (They call themselves ‘zippies’, apparently – I grow old, I grow old). Good luck to them, anyway – they’ll need it, now that the Labour Party thinks the Criminal Justice Bill isn’t such a bad idea.

Ah yes, the Labour Party. It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). It’s true that Tony Blair went to a minor public school, but then so did Prince Charles, and look how well he’s turned out. It’s not fair to attack Blair for coming across as smug, ugly and dull, either – put next to John Major, who wouldn’t?

What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips[2]. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton[3]) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton[3]) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left – which is an uncomfortable prospect for Believers and Campaigners alike.

What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’[4], but that’s about it).

It’s almost enough to make you envy the Greens. But not quite.

NOTES
[1] This refers to the Socialist Movement (and indeed a number of other initiatives, before and since).
[2] I’m quite pleased to have called that one right (Ms Phillips was still writing for the Observer at this stage).
[3] I don’t know what this referred to. Don’t bother looking at Bill Clinton.
[4] At the first Chesterfield Conference, I was deeply impressed by the person who raised a point of order at the Saturday night social. To his credit, the MC refused to take it.

It really, really, really could happen

A quick repost from the pre-blogging era, partly prompted by this from Will:

I think that New Labour’s pantheon can only be truly understood in terms of the band that they modelled themselves on: Blur. Consider the following four typecasts:

Front man: charismatic show-pony who drops his aitches and pretends to be into football, inspires visceral hatred in some, but without whom the show would never have really got on the road.

Grumpy side-kick: the one for the ‘real fans’, who supplies substance and grit, threatens to leave about half-way through, but remains on board on the condition that he is allowed greater influence.

Show-off socialite: party-goer and purveyor of ‘dark arts’, not liked by the old faithful (and despised by Grumpy side-kick) but useful for winning over the mainstream.

Dave Rowntree

This immediately rang a bell, although when I looked again it turned out that I hadn’t compared Tony Blair to Damon Albarn immediately after he became leader of the Labour Party. (Drat.) In fact, I’m not entirely sure who I was comparing Blair with, although clearly I wasn’t a big Blur fan. This, anyway, appeared in the tenth issue of Casablanca in 1994; if memory serves it ran alongside a cruel but accurate pastiche of John Smith by the redoubtable Ellis Sharp, hastily rebadged as a message from beyond the grave. (We had fun.)

Think big – think Blurgh!

“Obviously Kurt was irreplaceable. We were all in shock for a long time after his death. It must have been two, maybe three days later that we first looked at it as a vacancy. And then someone suggested Donny…”

Freelance communications co-ordinator Marco Bitzer is being modest. In fact nominations for the post of lead singer with Nirvana opened approximately four hours after Kurt Cobain’s suicide was discovered – thanks very largely to Marco Bitzer. It was also Bitzer who suggested the candidate now seen as certain to succeed Cobain, Donny Blurgh.

To some eyes Donny Blurgh was not the obvious choice for Nirvana. Cobain, widely regarded as the godfather of grunge, was a depressive, drug-addicted slacker from the American Northwest. Blurgh (rhymes with Chris de Burgh) is a 23-year-old management consultant from just outside Guildford. Bitzer explains.

“People tend to think Nirvana under Kurt were just crash, boom, bang-a-bang, thankyou Sam – and that’s nonsense. They actually had some nice tunes, if you turned the volume right down. Credit where it’s due, I think the band had got a lot more – respectable, shall we say? – over the last few years: and that’s certainly the direction Donny’s intending to explore. Then there’s the youth thing. You realised Kurt was pushing thirty? Well, pushing 28, but point taken. Donny’s only 21, so he hasn’t got that kind of historical baggage. Some people say he hasn’t got any baggage of any kind, ha ha ho ho!”

“Of course people say, will it still be grunge? I just say, it’s grunge if you say it is. Respect to Kurt, but some things have got to change. You don’t get to be a superstar these days by strolling on stage in an old pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. They say Kurt didn’t even wash his hair half the time! If you look at Donny, he’s friendly, he’s polite – well turned out, nice smile, nice shoes – and he’s only just turned twenty. I’m trying to line him up some TV: the autocue will love him. I’m told he’s putting a new spin on the whole youth appeal thing – don’t do drugs, respect your parents, call policemen ‘sir’, that kind of area. It’s what Kurt would have said if he’d lived, more or less.”

One area which is often overlooked is Donny Blurgh’s musical abilities. Says Bitzer, “They tell me he sings in the bath, ha ha ho ho! Seriously, I’m sure he’ll be a great lead singer, really great. When you get down to it there are only three essentials in rock music: a distinctive musical vision, a good camera presence and a face like a frightened hamster. No, I’m kidding – only two of those are essential! Although a musical vision is nice, if you can get it reasonably cheap.”

“For myself I’ve got every confidence in Donny Blurgh. He’s young – did you know he’s only just eighteen? – he’s fresh, he responds well to guidance. I’ve had a few sessions with him already on the corporate focus, image, mission, values front and he’s been taken on board pretty much everything I said. In fact I sometimes got the impression he was repeating back everything I said word for word!”

I remarked that this certainly smells like teen spirit.

“How do you mean smells? Oh, as in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, yeah. Ha ha ho ho”.

What’s interesting about this, looking back, is the ambivalence about who Blair actually was – a contentless creation of spin and Millbank, or a serious and committed reactionary. And let’s not forget, both possibilities are fairly bizarre: I initially wrote “a serious and committed reactionary who had somehow ended up leading the Labour Party”, but for a corporate suit to end up in that position is just as surprising; they’re both the reverse of what you’d have expected from Labour before Blair. I think what Blair’s performance at the Chilcot Inquiry has brought home is that it’s not either/or: he’s a high-profile image-driven reactionary, and a deeply serious empty suit. Above all, he’s committed: committed to being this bizarre hybrid, the reverse of anything a Labour leader had ever been, and then to taking us into his dream with him – first the Labour Party, then the world. Perhaps the least surprising thing that happened at the inquiry was Blair’s failure to apologise – the occasional failure of the world to live up to his expectations might be disappointing, but why would he ever need to apologise?

(Next: more from Casablanca, this time foretelling the destruction of the Labour Party. Just call me Cassandra.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 211 other followers

%d bloggers like this: