Category Archives: libbo

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.

All your bedroom queries

Nice to see WorldbyStorm lighting on the Passage the other weekend. I started composing a comment after I’d listened to a couple of the tracks and rapidly realised I had far too much to say. Only one thing for it, really…

For a band by whom I own virtually nothing – one 7″ single, bought long after the event, plus one track on a ubiquitous compilation – the Passage have meant a remarkable amount to me. I think this is largely because the band crossed my path on four separate occasions – which, in fact, corresponded to four distinct versions of the band (there were six in all).

First, there was “New Love Songs”. Continue reading

I didn’t make him for you

I don’t know if the ‘traffic light’ coalition is going to work, although it has to be said that the arithmetic isn’t as tight as it’s often made look. I think the problem is that the media here keep forgetting about the North of Ireland. (Great argument for the peace process that is – at one time the province was never out of the news.) Take the weird and wonderful story of UCUNF, a party which I think has appeared on the BBC News precisely twice – the manifesto launch and the DUP poster debacle. I’m not sure anyone in the British media noticed what’s just happened to the Ulster Unionist Party – you know the ones: the heirs of ‘official’ unionism, the ones who weren’t in big with the Orange Lodge and the gunmen, the ones that British government always used to talk to. Quick recap: they merged with the Tory Party; they gave themselves the worst acronym in the world, and they got wiped out; party leader and all. Newly-formed NI wing of the Tory Party: nul points, or rather zero MPs. Sole survivor of the wreck: Lady Sylvia Hermon, standing as an independent, against a candidate from her old party, and taking over 60% of the vote. Story there, you’d think, maybe?

Anyway, NI votes are crucial to the coalition arithmetic, in a number of ways. Firstly, the ‘winning post’ of 326 Commons votes (650/2 + 1), cited over and over again by BBC News, is mythical: there are five MPs from Sinn Fein who never attend, not to mention the Speaker (a Tory). So there are 644 MPs who turn up and vote in divisions, meaning 323 votes (not 326) are needed for an absolute majority.

NI MPs’ votes also count positively. The starting point for a ‘Lab/Lib’ coalition is 320 votes, not 315: Labour + LD + SDLP (whose MPs take the Labour whip) + the Alliance Party (sister party of the LDs) + Lady Sylvia (who left her party rather than vote with the Tories). Admittedly, that’s still a minority overall, but from the Tory point of view it’s an alarmingly big minority. To win a vote against that lineup Cameron would need all 306 Tories (not including the Speaker) plus 15 of the remaining 18 – 3 Plaid Cymru, 6 SNP, 1 Green and (let’s not forget about the province again) 8 DUP MPs. The DUP platform is a many-splendoured thing, but a significant part of their appeal to the NI electorate last week was not being allied with the Tories (as witness that unfortunate poster). That doesn’t look promising for the Tories. (If Thirsk goes Lib Dem on 27 May, which is possible, the basic Labour/Lib Dem alliance goes up to 321 votes, and the Tories are scraping around for 17 votes out of 18 to beat them – basically they’d need everyone but the Green.)

Anyway, it’s still all to play for, although probably not for much longer. But what I really wanted to put down, before this post becomes obsolete, is that you can tell something about the quality of a deal by the opposition it provokes. And this deal really seems to be annoying all the right people. A few quotes culled from the BBC’s live feed:

The Tories came out of the election in a far better fashion than Labour and this should be acknowledged, former Home Secretary John Reid says. The major party should be allowed to form a government, he tells the BBC.

Telegraph commentator Toby Young tweets: A Lab-Lib coalition would be like a declaration of civil war.

The Lib Dems are guilty of a form of betrayal by opening talks with Labour after being offered compromises by the Conservatives, Phillip Blond, director of the Tory think-tank ResPublica, says.

The Daily Mail has a bleak view of Monday’s proceedings. It proclaims a Squalid Day for Democracy, calling Nick Clegg two-faced. The Daily Telegraph calls Mr Brown’s decision to quit a sordid attempt to keep Labour in power.

David Blunkett says the Lib Dems are behaving like every harlot in history, and that Labour should not be seeking to form the next government.

This is the Robert Mugabe style of politics, says Conservative MP and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. It’s exactly what Mugabe did you know, he lost the election and scrabbled to hold onto power.

It’s a strong field, but I think the Robert Mitchum Award for Cool-Headed Sagacity has to go to Sir Malcolm.

But what are they all flapping about? Elsewhere there’s been some discussion of whether the major parties would fall apart under PR; I’ve argued against, citing the experience of Scotland (the Scottish Labour Party’s had 12 years of PR now and still seems to be in one piece). In the case of the Conservative Party, I think I might make an exception. There’s a lot going on under the surface of the Tory Party these days – pro-Europe, anti-Europe; liberal, reactionary; Thatcherite, old-school Tory, beyond-Thatcherite… The genius of David Cameron has been to bundle it all into a big opaque parcel, sealed with a label saying Next Stop Downing Street. That’s what’s starting to come undone now, and the fallout could be catastrophic for the party – all the more so under PR, not least because it would bring the far Right into play. (UKIP got nearly a million votes last week, and the BNP half a million. The Greens got 300,000.) Small wonder they’re panicking.

As for the Blairites – or is this a subspecies, the Blairite Home Office Authoritarian? – I guess they see their grip on the party slipping, and think it would be easier to recover in opposition than while sharing power with the Lib Dems. (Think of it, no ID cards! no control orders! The horror! The horror!) Really dreadful stuff from Reid and Mr Brightside – one of whom is, as far as I know, still under Parliamentary Labour Party discipline. Being prepared to consign Britain to Tory government – positively eager in Blunkett’s case – rather than risk diluting the Labour programme is pretty contemptible sectarianism; when you look at the kind of dilutions that would be needed to accommodate the Lib Dems, it’s beneath contempt.

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.

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday

In the last post I revisited the series of posts I wrote before the last election, arguing that Labour supporters should vote for parties to the left of Labour – a category in which I included the Lib Dems. (I voted Green on the day.)

This time round, I’m seriously considering voting Labour. So what’s changed?

There are four things, I think. Continue reading

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

You talk so hip

In the previous post, I wrote:

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

Which is why I’m rather ambivalent about Andrew Neil’s monstering of Chris Mounsey, he of Devil’s Kitchen.

Mounsey says himself that when he wrote the posts that made Devil’s Kitchen famous he was in part railing against his own situation, and that he’s calmer and happier now. This is good news, and I sincerely wish him well. But that’s not all there is to say.

From my very occasional reading of DK I had formed the impression that the writer was a middle-aged Scot who had missed his chances or been robbed of them, had no real prospect of finding them again and was now taking solace in blaming everyone but himself. It turns out that Chris Mounsey is English and in his early 30s. He’s also an old Etonian; which is to say, his education cost his parents a minimum of £28,851 a year in today’s money. As of 2007/8, 95% of UK tax-payers have a post-tax income of £46,800 or below. Anyone as low down the rankings as the 96th percentile would need to commit nearly 2/3 of their income in order to see their son through Eton; I think we can confidently assume that the income of the senior Mounseys puts them in the top 2-3%. In other words, Chris Mounsey was born into the elite.

Here’s an example of what Chris Mounsey used to get angry about:

The Tories want parents and other organisations to have state funds to set up their own schools.
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove issued the call in a speech to the NASUWT teachers’ union conference.

And can you guess what the union response was? Go on – have a guess.

Was it (a) yes, what a wonderful idea: we’ll show you how a school should be run, given how much we profess to dislike the constant state interference, or was it (b)…

The union did not want to run a school, [union leader] said. Schools should be “democratically accountable” and not operated for and by “the pushy and the privileged”.

Ah. So, schools should not be run for and by “the pushy and the privileged” unless those pushy and privileged are the union members under state sanction.

OK, so this is fairly stupid. Gove suggests a system under which state funding would be used to set up new private schools; these might be excellent or might not, but would sink or swim outside the state system. If standards were low, the government would have no way of raising them; at worst, in other words, this would mean messing up the education of the children unfortunate enough to go to those schools. If standards were high, on the other hand, this would benefit those particular children but nobody else. Anyone who is concerned with providing a consistently good universal service – rather than providing an excellent service to a few and never mind the rest – won’t touch such a scheme with a bargepole. No national teaching union could ever endorse such an idea – Mounsey’s professed outrage is either spurious or stupid. As for his parting shot, I’m not even sure what it means – joining a union, signing up for the collective defence of working standards and employment rights, makes you “pushy and privileged”? Brane hertz. All in all, what we’ve got here is someone with one set of beliefs affecting to be shocked and outraged that someone with a completely different set of beliefs doesn’t agree with him. Or, to boil it down a bit more, someone having a rant at his political enemies. Mounsey, like Gove, doesn’t believe in trade unions, or in state provision, and I shouldn’t think he’s too bothered about the provision of a consistently good universal education. The union leader believes in all three, and so Mounsey hates her.

That was fairly stupid, but it’s not the passage Neil quoted back at Mounsey. The post continued as follows (WARNING: nasty stuff ahead). Continue reading

Good evening or good morning

More news on my book. I handed over the corrected proofs this morning, together with an index. Compiling the index was easier than I’d thought it would be, but still not exactly fun; it was one of those tasks that leaves you looking round for the next chunk of mental hard labour for several days afterwards. My basic approach was to index every proper name I could see, plus a few key concepts. I then cut out most names with only one occurrence, although a few got left in for the benefit of anyone who picks up the book and starts by browsing the index (don’t tell me it’s just me).

It’s called ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-7, and it’ll be published (initially in hardback) by Manchester University Press this autumn. And that index? Here’s a selection. (For each initial letter I’ve included the first entry and the one with the most references.)

A A/traverso; Autonomia
B Balestrini, Nanni; Brigate Rosse (BR)
C Cacciari, Massimo; Confederazione Generale Italiano del Lavoro (CGIL)
D d’Alema, Massimo; Democrazia Cristiana (DC)
E L’erba voglio; Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna (ETA)
F Faina, Gianfranco; Feltrinelli, Giangiacomo
G Gandalf the Violet; Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana (GAP)
H ‘Historic compromise’; Hot Autumn
I Ingrao, Pietro
L Lama, Luciano; Lotta Continua
M Maccari, Germano; Movement of 1977
N Napolitano, Giorgio; Negri, Antonio
O Operaismo
P Pajetta, Enrico; Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI)
Q Quaderni Rossi
R Radical Party; Resistance (Italian)
S Sayer, Andrew; Scalzone, Oreste
T Tarrow, Sidney
U Unità Comuniste Combattenti (UCC); l’Unità
V Via italiana al socialismo
W Wowdadaism

They say you can tell a lot about a book from its index; certainly I’m pretty pleased with what this one seems to be saying. It’s not Pale Fire – no “Berlinguer, idiocy of; idleness of; taste of, in shoes” sub-entries – but I think it tells you pretty much what the book’s about. It’s about Togliatti, Feltrinelli, Lotta Continua and the Red Brigades, and everything that connects them. One connection in particular:

Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) passim
see also Austerity; Berlinguer, Enrico; Confederazione Generale Italiano del Lavoro; Historic Compromise; Lama, Luciano; Togliatti, Palmiro; l’Unità

Never return again

It’s been a bad week for deaths. Arthur Lee died last Thursday. If you drew a line from Brian Wilson’s ice-cream symphonies to Dylan’s lyrical manifestoes, you’d meet the Arthur Lee of Forever Changes right in the middle. Arthur Lee was a great artist, responsible for some of the strangest and most beautiful moments in recorded music. His best years were well behind him when he died – but then, I would have said something similar in December 1980, and that was still a dreadful loss. So is this.

On the same day that I heard about Arthur Lee, I read that Pierre Vidal-Naquet had died (thanks, Paul). Vidal-Naquet was a great scholar, a lifelong political activist, a consistent left-libertarian and an equally consistent challenger of historical revisionism – no small matter on the French ultra-left, sadly. He leaves a gap which it’s hard to see any one person filling. (Writing that line reminds me of yet another recent departure, for whom it’s just as valid: Murray Bookchin, who died the day before Vidal-Naquet. Hard times for left-libertarians.)

But I have to say that none of these losses affected me as much as a fourth. Bob Smithies, who died the same day as Arthur Lee, was a gifted photographer, a Manchester Guardian man and a local TV personality. But more, much more than this, he was Bunthorne, compiler of some of the best crosswords I’ve ever attempted to solve. Bunthorne didn’t go in for the kind of themed crossword which John Graham (“Araucaria”) made his own, or for Araucaria’s meticulous distribution of easy and hard clues. The puzzle as a whole, for Bunthorne, took second place to the clue. Here Bunthorne had two specialities. One was the vast, sprawling anagram of thirty or forty letters, spread over six or seven separate lights and immediately identifiable by the liberal use of punctuation marks and contractions. The other is harder to describe, but can be summed up as “clues that don’t look like clues”: sequences of words which make a kind of sense, but seem to supply either far too little information for solving purposes or far too much (the page linked above features a celebrated example of the latter: “Amundsen’s forwarding address” (4)).

Solving a crossword clue (for me at least) is primarily a matter of letting my mind work on it while I’m doing something else; the answer generally comes to me fully-formed, leaving me to work out how the subsidiary indications fit in afterwards. Still, there are clues that you can solve by mental brute force, decoding the subsidiary indications one after another and trying to make a word from what comes out (between the points, that’ll be compass points, maybe it begins with N and ends with S?”). It’s a perfectly valid way to set a puzzle; most of Araucaria’s puzzles could in theory be solved entirely by this approach, without any relegation to the mental back-burner. Not Bunthorne’s. I’ve never known a setter whose clues were so unamenable to the methodical approach or so insistent on being solved in a flash of (delayed) realisation. There was a teasing, gnomic quality to the best of Bunthorne’s clues: you knew you were being told something; you knew you didn’t – yet – know what it was; and you knew that thinking wouldn’t help. You couldn’t say, afterwards, how you’d worked it out, because you hadn’t. Every Bunthorne clue solved was a small but mysterious victory.

And now it’s over: there will never be another Bunthorne crossword. Bob Smithies has left a gap – and, unlike the other three people I’ve mentioned, he’s left a gap in my life personally. I hate that feeling, particularly at the moment. It’s been four months now but I still miss my mother, in much the same sense that somebody in a liferaft misses being on board ship. I’ve lost people before now and felt there was a gap in my mental skyline, but this time it’s more as if the ground’s gone.

Death just doesn’t seem like something we’re equipped to deal with. Tolkien wrote somewhere that he’d realised, after seeing friends killed around him in the First World War, that death was the great paradox: on one hand, for a loved one to die is the worst and most unbearable thing that can happen; on the other, death is absolutely universal and absolutely unavoidable, the one thing which we can say with certainty will happen to everyone who’s been spared it so far. Crushingly unbearable yet universal and inevitable: how can that be? Apparently the story of Aragorn and Arwen began as an attempt to deal with this paradox, as it were by taking a God’s eye view. If love, among mortal beings, leads to the worst pain imaginable, how could an immortal love a mortal? But if love is divine and mortals are worthy of it, how could an immortal not? To put it more simply and without the elves: how can love be worth the pain?

The answer is, I suppose, that it is because we need it to be – or else that it isn’t but we still need it to be, because the only alternative which would be even halfway comfortably numb would be a life without love, and that would be unbearable in itself. Shortly after a friend died, a couple of years ago, I saw a prize example of stoner-philosophy graffiti, which nearly sums all this up:

LOVE + PAIN = LIFE WHICH LEEDS TO DEAF

Nearly, but not quite – life also leeds to birf (and a whole new round of LOVE + PAIN), as eny fule kno.

Escape routes exist

Let’s get productive!

At least 100,000 NHS employees will lose their jobs if the government carries through the health reforms Tony Blair wants as a lasting monument to his premiership, according to a report today from the pro-market thinktank Reform. Under the reforms, the benefits of a more efficient service, with greater productivity and a more highly skilled workforce, would be accompanied by severe unemployment, says the report by Nick Bosanquet, professor of health policy at Imperial College London.

Professor Bosanquet, who is an adviser to the Commons health committee, blamed Department of Health planners for pushing up staffing costs. Since 1999 the NHS workforce had increased from 1 million to 1.3 million, and was on course to reach 1.6 million by 2010, he said. But the reforms being pursued by the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, would make trusts think harder about productivity; foundation hospitals would negotiate local pay deals, and as more trusts gained foundation status, national pay agreements would become less important.”It is likely that productivity gains will mean that staff numbers are reduced by at least 10%,” Prof Bosanquet said. This would cut the workforce to below 1.2 million.

Professor speak with forked tongue. “Productivity” is one of those words that does a lot more work than it lets on. The measure of “productivity” is, essentially, how much work is done by each person employed. If you sack 10% of your staff while the overall workload remains the same or increases – and, in the NHS, we can reasonably expect that the overall workload is not going to go down – then productivity will go up by 11%; to put it another way, everyone who’s left is going to have to do 11% more work. Note also that if the 10% of staff who are sacked are disproportionately un- or semi-skilled, the result will inevitably be both greater productivity and a more highly skilled workforce – albeit a skilled workforce which has achieved greater productivity by doing the dirty jobs as well. In practice calculating productivity is slightly more complicated than this, as the key metric is money: if the payroll costs of the 90% of staff who remain go up – perhaps because they want more money for doing more work – you won’t see the full 11% increase. But that’s where the local pay deals come in.

“NHS trusts will save money by sacking workers and attacking the pay and conditions of those who remain,” says pro-market thinktank. It doesn’t take much decoding – but putting it in those terms might provoke resistance, and would certainly raise the question why. Productivity, though – who could argue with that? Who wouldn’t want to be more productive? (We feel bad when we’re not productive, says top shrink.) And above all, who wouldn’t want the workers to be more productive, lazy blighters?

Mario Tronti, as ever, is the man:

Capitalist society has its laws of development: they have been formulated by economists, applied by governments and endured by the workers. But who will discover the laws of development of the working class? Capital has its history and its historians to write it. But who will write the history of the working class? … We ourselves have put capitalist development first, workers’ struggles second. This is wrong. We need to reverse the problem, change its sign, begin from first principles: and the first principle is the struggle of the working class.

In 1964, when Tronti wrote these lines (from “Lenin in England”), he was an Autonomist – one of the first – and a communist rather than a socialist. (That’s ‘communist’ with a small C, although Tronti was also a Communist. Long story. Never mind.) Socialism, for the Autonomists, offered no more than collective self-exploitation and the rational redistribution of surplus value. Social democracy, for an Autonomist, would barely be worth defending: it would leave the bosses in place, merely fencing off a few areas which should be run for the common good rather than for profit (sanitation, education, health, that kind of thing). When we look at Tronti’s communism now, it seems like a distant echo of a much more radical era – but, ironically, the long retreat of social democracy has left us few alternatives to a Trontian reversal of perspectives. What is the NHS, after all, or where is it – in a constellation of autonomous groups of managers who cost the human resources required to deliver a service, or in the nurses and the doctors to whom many of us owe our lives?

(And who the hell are the former to talk to the latter about being productive?)

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