Author Archives: Phil

Anniversary

My anniversary post is the same this year as it was eight years ago, on the 40th anniversary. I’ve nothing to add, other than to say that for some of us 2017 felt a tiny bit – a tiny bit – like that.

Growing up in the 1970s, it’s hard to overstate how important the cause of Chile was. 11th September 1973 was, I suppose, a “naked lunch” moment – a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork; we knew who was on whose side, and what they were willing to do.

Joan Jara:

on the 18th of September … a young man came to my house, said, “Please, I need to talk to you. I’m a friend. I’ve been working in the city morgue. I’m afraid to tell you that Victor’s body has been recognized,” because it was a well-known — his was a well-known face. And he said, “You must come with me and claim his body; otherwise, they will put him in a common grave, and he will disappear.”

So then I accompanied this young man to the city morgue. We entered by a side entrance. I saw the hundreds of bodies, literally hundreds of bodies, that were high piled up in what was actually the parking place, I think, of the morgue. And I had to look for Victor’s body among a long line in the offices of the city morgue, recognized him. I saw what had happened to him. I saw the bullet wounds. I saw the state of his body.

And I consider myself one of the lucky ones, in the sense that I had to face at that moment what had happened to Victor, and I could give my testimony with all the force of what I felt in that moment, and not that horror, which is much worse, of never knowing what happened to your loved one, as what happened to so many families, so many women, who have spent these 40 years looking for their loved ones who were made to disappear.

But the real significance of 11th September wasn’t the treachery or the horrors of the coup itself, or the years of brutal misery that followed. The coup mattered because of what it destroyed: the beginnings of a radical social experiment, bringing millions of people a chance of a decent life, some power over their own lives, a bit of confidence in the future. The sheer joy of that period has never been captured better than in this song (which I’ve cited before but not linked). Listen to the middle eight – it’s as if Victor Jara’s saying, you get it now? being alive is good, being in love is great, but this – this is happiness! this is how we were meant to live!

Forty-eight years after that hope was destroyed, let’s celebrate it. (Translation in comments.)

Maria,
abre la ventana
y deja que el sol alumbre
por todos los rincones
de tu casa.

Maria,
mira hacia fuera
nuestra vida no ha sido hecha
para rodearla de sombras
y tristezas.

Maria, ya ves
no basta nacer, crecer, amar,
para encontrar la felicidad.

Pasó lo mas cruel,
ahora tus ojos se llenan de luz
y tus manos de miel

Maria…

Tu risa brota como la mañana,
brota en el jardín
Maria…

Pulling strokes and taking liberties

Here’s what I know about politics: people pull strokes.

If you’re working in an organisation like the Labour Party, there’s a gap, in terms of goals and ideals – a normative gap – between what you say is happening and what’s actually going on in procedural or institutional terms. Narrow votes are a particularly glaring example of this gap: you say that the party is united behind your programme, and maybe it is – or maybe you took a vote on the programme committee, your programme won by eight votes to seven and that’s that. Thinly-attended meetings are another: you say you’ve got a large and lively membership firmly committed to Labour victory, but on closer inspection the ‘large’ membership is mainly on paper, the ‘lively’ refers to the two or three new faces who always seem to appear for doorknocking sessions, and everyone’s ‘firmly’ committed because your faction has a lock on any decision-making meetings.

Looking back on Corbynism – a phrase that’s almost physically painful to write – I think a large part of the Right’s failure to comprehend the phenomenon, and a large part of our indignation and outrage in response, had to do with the unexpected narrowness of this gap. We said that there were thousands of us and we were united, and they automatically translated this into a more mundane procedural reality – some bunch of Trots has pushed this whole thing through and got a load of kids to sign up to the mailing list… Hence 2017, of course; by 2019 they’d realised that there were thousands of us and we were united, and stronger measures needed to be taken.

But there’s also another normative gap, between what you say you’re doing in procedural terms and what you’re actually getting away with. Rules very often aren’t written down, and when they are they need to be interpreted; applying a rule at all involves applying a secondary rule of equity and fair play, to the effect of Any rule should be enforced in all cases where it applies, and only those cases. How effectively that rule gets applied is more important than the content of any written rule.

Of course, rules don’t exist, at least in the sense of tangible things in the world: if you’re physically unable to do something, your behaviour in that respect is not being controlled by a rule, and vice versa. (The shopkeeper who takes alcohol off sale outside licensing hours is following a rule; the punter who doesn’t try to buy it in those times isn’t.) Rules only exist to the extent that people observe them – and to the extent that they expect others to observe them and apply pressure on others to observe them. This is particularly true of that secondary rule, the rule that rules should be applied fairly. Anyone who, as an individual, visibly breaks the rules, or pulls strokes in selectively applying the rules, will tend to get stopped by their peers – not because those people are high-minded idealists, but because they know that they would get stopped if they did the same thing.

Rules don’t exist as tangible objects, so people can ignore them – the ‘fair play’ rule in particular – without any immediate or automatic consequences. But rules do exist, in the sense that everyone internalises them and brings pressure to bear on anyone who flouts them – the ‘fair play’ rule in particular. Only when somebody is powerful enough not to fear other people’s social pressure can they really get away with ignoring the rules – and very few individuals are that powerful, at least not for very long.

A group of people, on the other hand, is insulated from social pressure, at least from outside the group. If a group of people, with shared goals in the longer term and shared enemies in the short term, can apply rules to its advantage, there’s every reason to expect that they won’t apply those rules fairly. Attempts to bring social pressure to bear on the group are unlikely to have any effect; all that anyone outside the group can really do is try to stop them. Stop them collectively and stop them altogether, that is, not just stop the bad apples within the group who are applying the rules badly; it’s up to the group to do that – and they’re not likely to do it for as long as applying the rules badly works to the group’s benefit.

This, then, is the first lesson from the story linked to above. If you pass a rule saying that Socialist Appeal is proscribed and anyone involved with it can be expelled, and people are then expelled for being seen at a public meeting held by Socialist Appeal before it was proscribed, it’s perfectly clear that this is not a fair or appropriate application of the rule: to that extent Ann Black is quite correct. The question is, given the factional makeup of the current Labour leadership, what did anyone think was going to happen when that rule was passed? The disciplinary apparatus of the Labour Party hasn’t gone rogue, despite appearances; the people involved are only acting this wildly because they’re acting with factional, and leadership, endorsement. Social pressure won’t reach them; they can only be stopped.

How to stop them is another question – and this is the second lesson. The current frenzy of expulsions wouldn’t be happening if those responsible couldn’t get away with it. If we could stop them, we would have stopped them by now; in particular, if organising against expulsions could stop them, it would have worked by now. (One of the organisations proscribed was Labour Against The Witchhunt, for goodness’ sake.) These expulsions are a kind of random, symbolic punishment beating for the Left, administered in the hope of getting us to shut up and/or leave. We can resist – at least by not leaving – but we can’t, at the moment, stop them happening.

There are times when bullies overreach, usually because their victims are stronger than they wish to acknowledge. That’s not what’s going on now, though. This is just plain, ordinary bullying, and it’s being done because we’re weak. Nothing is going to change for the better until that changes.

Branch life

It’s gone a bit quiet here, hasn’t it?

On April the 6th, as you’ll doubtless recall, I started a series of posts called In Search of the Red Wall, in which I was sceptical of the thesis that Labour had lost in 2019 because, ultimately, we’d lost the old working class vote, and specifically because we’d lost a huge tranche of culturally conservative “heartland” seats in the North of England. Having traced the development of the concept – which followed a surprisingly tortuous and disjointed path – and shown how fatuous it basically was, I concluded by proposing to analyse what had actually happened in 2019.

This takes us up to the 21st of April. On the 28th I returned to the topic and began the explanation of what happened – and what didn’t happen – in December 2019, in a post ending with these pregnant words:

Something big happened to Labour’s vote in 2019, and it happened right across the country – and it wasn’t a swing to the Tories, despite the Tories benefiting from it in a big way.

But what was it?

Here we are in June – not even the beginning of June – and still no ‘part 2’. I will get to it, and I have got some idea of what I’m going to say – at least, I’ve got some numbers, and any amount of charts – but I’ve not found it easy to get around to, and not just because I’ve had other stuff on.

I suspect that one underlying reason is the reason why I didn’t do much to analyse the figures straight after December 2019: it’s just too damn depressing. And not ‘depressing’ in the ‘why I’d rather not watch Schindler’s List with my takeaway’ sense – depressing in the will-depleting, immobilising, what was I trying to do never mind don’t suppose it matters sense of the word.

Which is also, frankly, why I haven’t been having a lot to do with our local Labour Party. Last year – just pre-pandemic – I wrote about the ward AGM which had been due in the Autumn of 2019 and was postponed to February 2020. I went along, but I wasn’t hugely impressed:

several officers either stayed in post or moved sideways, and several posts were uncontested. … looked at from outside it might seem odd that, in a ward branch with a membership nudging four figures – the size of some entire CLPs – it’s only possible to find one person interested in any of the officer positions.

We met in the same place as last year, and I think we were pretty much the same people as last year; we were certainly in very similar numbers to last year, viz. around 70 … Which also helps explain the uncontested elections. Seven days (the notice period required when calling a branch AGM) is not a very long time – and membership secretaries don’t hand out contact lists to anyone who might want to do a quick bit of phone-banking. This is all according to the rules, of course, but these ‘home team’ advantages (and others created by officers’ role in the AGM itself) mean that the likelihood of anyone disrupting the orderly self-perpetuation of the dominant faction is pretty slim. … The result is a kind of political Sealed Knot, an annual reunion of the office-holders and their factional activists on one side and the diehards of the excluded group(s) on the other. They might as well take allegiances at the door, like ushers at a wedding, and declare the results straight away.

This year… sorry, it just looked too much like hard work. But it looks as if I’m not the only member locally who felt like that. The email announcing this year’s results opens

Thank you to the fifty members who attended our online Annual General Meeting on Monday 7 June 2021. It was great to see so many people. 

Oh, the people!

Viewed with a colder eye, even without the barrier to participation of having to turn out and sit in a church hall, attendance was down from 70 to 50 – which is to say, down from about one in 14 of the 2020 membership to about one in 20. (Although the 2021 membership may also be lower, of course.)

As for the business of the meeting, here’s a summary:

Chair: re-elected x1, former x4

Vice Chair: re-elected x1, former x3

Vice Chair: former x8

Secretary: re-elected x4

Treasurer: re-elected x3, former x1

Membership Secretary: re-elected x3, former x3

Women’s Officer: new

Political Education Officer: re-elected x1, former x2

Diversity Officer: re-elected x1

Delegates to the constituency party General Committee: 16 candidates, all elected unopposed (Chair, both Vice-Chairs, Treasurer, Membership Secretary, Diversity Officer, plus two delegates re-elected x4, four re-elected x2 and four new members).

“Re-elected” = re-elected to the post; x2 (etc) = re-elected for the 2nd time (etc); “former” = held one or more elected post in one or more previous year. (My data only goes back to 2016; the re-election counts for some of these candidates will certainly be too low.) Note also that last year’s GC delegates included five members from the Left of the party, none of whom stood this time – so the four new members are unlikely to add to the ideological diversity of the delegation.

It’s not, as they say, a good look. As I said in 2020,

what kind of membership are we building, if members keep seeing the same names in the same posts, or else (for a change) the same names in different posts? … I’ve always believed that uncontested elections and musical-chairs rotation of posts were signs of a local party in decline – not of one that’s going from strength to strength, as ours apparently is. Perhaps the problem is precisely the apparent absence of factions – or rather, the impossibility of multiple factions arising when a single faction dominates for long enough. Perhaps what we’re seeing is how unchallenged factional dominance sows the seeds of decline.

It’s certainly not motivating.

So, anyway – what happened in 2019? One contributing factor to Labour’s defeat in 2019, it seems to me, is that self-perpetuating cliques like the one I’ve just described threw away the enormous asset created by the party’s increased membership, because it wasn’t an asset that served their factional purposes – and threw away any slim chance to get a Labour government elected, because that wouldn’t have served their factional purposes either. In this they acted entirely logically – mobilisation of the membership would inevitably have threatened their position, and another 2017 (or better) would certainly have increased the demand for mobilisation – and really, all they can be blamed for is valuing local posts within a political party more highly than the possibility of a Labour government.

But that’s an impressionistic explanation, and one from a source that may not be entirely reliable (embitterment can do that). What else happened in 2019?

NEXT: another blog post. No, really.

What happened in 2019 (1)

What happened in 2019? This:

20172019+/-
Labour40%26232.1%202-7.9%-60
Conservative42.3%31743.6%365+1.3%+48
UKIP / Brexit Party1.8%02.1%0+0.3%0
Lib Dem / Green / independents9%1315.9%12+6.9%-1

Any further questions?

To unpack that a little: Labour’s vote fell by a fifth, but the Tory and UKIP/BXP vote rose only a little; the main beneficiaries in terms of votes were the minor centrist (and pro-Remain) parties. The sole beneficiary in terms of seats was the Conservative Party, for reasons which both were and weren’t predictable: that they would benefit was predictable because of the two-party bias imposed by our absurd electoral system, but as for how much they would benefit, have you looked at our absurd electoral system recently? Another table:

2010201520172019
Conservative36.1%30636.9%33042.3%31743.6%365
Labour29%25830.4%23240%26232.1%202

Labour’s 2019 vote share is significantly higher than 2010’s, for less than 80% of the seats. Or you could look at the Tories’ 2015 vote: in comparison, Labour got 8/9ths of the votes, for 3/5 of the seats. We can even see this disproportion happening from one election to the next: both Labour in 2015 and (more dramatically) the Tories in 2017 increased their vote share and lost seats. (“All hail, Theresa May, who shall lead the Conservative Party to win its highest vote share since Thatcher, with more votes than Labour took in 1997!” The witches were having a laugh that day.) Really, the system’s a lottery; it’s amazing we take it as seriously as we do.

But that is the system we’ve got, and those are the figures it produced. And, speaking of disproportions, there’s something about the scale of the Tories’ gains from Labour, compared to the much more modest increase in votes, which seems to cry out for explanation. One candidate explanation, as we’ve seen – albeit a hazy and impressionistic explanation, as we’ve also seen – is the ‘Red Wall’. Perhaps it wasn’t a Tory wave but a Labour collapse. Perhaps the youth-powered bien-pensant liberalism of today’s Labour Party had drifted so far from the ageing demographics and conservative culture of the party’s traditional support base that some of its northern strongholds were ready to drop into the Tories’ hands (always bearing in mind that the word ‘north’ covers everywhere from Coventry to Berwick-upon-Tweed).

Well, perhaps. The trouble with this explanation (as we’ve seen) is that it only explains about a third of Labour’s losses. But might it be useful anyway, applied not to the seats we actually lost but to near misses? A good question, and one that calls for a map.

The nationwide trend for Labour was a drop of 7.9%, with the Tory vote going up by 1.3%; this adds up to a deterioration in Labour’s relative vote share of 9.2%. The deep purple constituencies on this map are the big losses: the ones that Labour lost with a drop in its relative vote share of 18% or more, roughly twice the national change.

The pale purple are all other losses – barring a few further south – and, as you can see, they outnumber the deep purple handily. What’s more interesting are the red seats, which are all those seats that Labour held with a drop in its relative vote share of 18% or more – in other words, the seats where the same factors that were at work in the deep purple group are (perhaps) lurking, storing up trouble for future elections.

In short, if there is a Red Wall, this is the map to show it – and, if there is a Red Wall, it’s partly in south Yorkshire and Derbyshire, partly north of Durham. There’s no denying that this is an interesting map, and one that highlights some problem areas for Labour (that stretch running from Pontefract down to Bolsover in particular). But do those red and deep purple areas tell us anything about “Labour’s heartlands” in general – or about how the election was lost? I can’t see it.

The other end of the scale is interesting too – and for this one we’ll be venturing south of the Wash. Two maps:

On these two maps, the red and orange areas are Labour holds, the blue Tory holds. The pale blue and orange areas are constituencies where Labour’s vote share relative to the Conservatives fell in 2019 by less than 4.5% (i.e. less than half of the national average). The darker blue and deep red areas are constituencies where Labour’s vote share relative to the Tories actually rose in 2019 (including one where I went canvassing – which is pretty much the first evidence I’ve seen that any of the canvasses I was involved in had any positive effect).

What’s interesting about the red and orange seats is not so much where they are (Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, Bristol, recent wins Canterbury and Portsmouth South and of course the capital) as how few there are of them; the Labour vote just fell away, by a lot, right across the country. Or at least, right across the country in Labour seats: check out the duck-egg blue South-East. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that you can walk from Lewes to Aylesbury without ever entering a Tory constituency where Labour’s relative vote share fell by more than 4.5%; not very much, probably. Still, those washes of pale blue are at the very least interesting, particularly considering how many of those same seats saw a rise in Labour’s relative share in 2017.

One last map. Was this a victory for the Conservatives? Clearly it was in terms of seats gained, but see above, absurd electoral system. In terms of a big rise in vote share… not so much.

The purple and blue areas are constituencies where the Tory vote rose by at least 5% relative to 2017. The purple areas are seats lost to the Conservatives, as usual; the blue areas are Labour holds. Pale blue and pale purple show a rise of 5-9.9% in the Tory vote, dark blue and dark purple a rise of 10% or more. The beige areas, finally, are constituencies where the Tory vote didn’t go up by as much as 5%, but Labour lost the seat to them anyway.

It’s striking, relative to the beige areas, how few Labour losses are purple, and how very few are deep purple. It’s also striking, relative to the map as a whole, just how few seats are either blue or purple. Despite the huge shifts in relative vote shares in some constituencies (shown on the first map), there were only a handful of constituencies where the Tory vote share rose significantly. Conversely (referring to the second and third maps) it was only in a minority of constituencies – and a small minority of Labour constituencies specifically – that Labour’s vote share didn’t show a significant fall.

Something big happened to Labour’s vote in 2019, and it happened right across the country – and it wasn’t a swing to the Tories, despite the Tories benefiting from it in a big way.

But what was it?

In search of the Red Wall (8)

THE STORY SO FAR: There is no “Red Wall”.

To be more precise, it’s not possible to identify any group of constituencies that fit all the criteria for the “Red Wall” as it’s usually described (large numbers of previously long-term and solid Labour seats which went Tory in 2019, clustered together, somewhere in the North of England). The Tories did win in some surprising places in 2019, with constituencies which had been Labour for twenty years or more suddenly showing a 10-20% drop in the Labour vote. Long-term patterns of voting in these constituencies suggest that a disaffected, “none of the above” voting bloc has played a significant part for some time, and that the Tories’ success in 2019 was largely due to the capture of this anti-political vote by the Brexit Party and (in a bizarre irony) by the Conservative Party itself.

Here (again) are the voting patterns for one of these constituencies, Don Valley in south Yorkshire.

It’s not hard to see what’s going on. A sizeable Liberal Democrat protest vote in 2005 is joined by far-Right protest voting in 2010, eating into Labour’s normally substantial majority. In 2015 the Lib Dems had been discredited by their participation in the Coalition. The benefits go in part to Labour; there is also a new repository for antipolitical voting in the form of UKIP, which in addition gains support from right-wing Tory voters. Polarisation returns in 2017, with the Tories capturing most – although not all – of the UKIP vote. This means that their position relative to Labour improves again, putting them in a good position to capitalise when the next wave of antipolitical protest voting – spearheaded by the rebadged Brexit Party – peels votes away from Labour in 2019.

Disaffected voters express their opposition to both the “old parties” by voting for the Lib Dems in 2005; for the Lib Dems, UKIP and the far Right in 2010; for UKIP in 2015; and for both the (Brexiteering) Tories and the (anti-system) Labour Party in 2017 (but mainly for the Tories). Consequently, Labour’s position relative to the Tories goes Down between 2005 and 2010, goes Up between 2010 and 2015 and finally goes Down again in 2017.

For completeness’ sake we can also consider what happened in Bishop Auckland:

Which is… pretty much the same, except that Labour didn’t noticeably benefit from the Lib Dem collapse in 2015 – either because the Lib Dem votes they gained were mostly matched by losses to UKIP, or because antipolitical Lib Dem votes transferred to UKIP direct – with the result that Labour lost ground with the rise of UKIP as well as with their decline. Labour’s position relative to the Tories went Down in 2010, Down in 2015 and Down in 2017.

We see these patterns – particularly the first one – in a lot of the seats Labour lost. It’s a plausible, coherent story, too – the two motors of the whole process are the alienation of a substantial body of voters from both main parties and the failure to completely delegitimate the far Right, and both of those conditions seem likely to have applied in any number of places (particularly places with longstanding Labour councils).

The question then is: do these conditions obtain more widely? They may be scattered around the country and they may not have decided the election in themselves, but are the “red wall” seats just the most visible part of a larger problem? Bluntly, are the seats Labour actually lost in 2019 the tip of the iceberg?

There isn’t much in the way of good news in this story – sitting as we are amid the wreckage of the 2019 election – but the answer to this question does at least qualify as interesting news. Here are the details for the 418 English constituencies which have existed with more or less the same boundaries since 1979, and which were held by the main two parties in 2017.

Reading from the top, the dark red bloc are ‘UU’ seats, those where Labour’s position relative to the Tories went Up in both 2015 and 2017; the paler red are ‘DU’ (Down in 2015, Up in 2017); the pale blues are UD (Up in 2015, Down in 2017); and the dark blue, DD (Down in both 2015 and 2017). I haven’t distinguished between UUU/DUU, UDU/DDU, UUD/DUD and UDD/DDD, partly for simplicity and partly because including that level of detail would make very little difference. (Labour’s position went Down in 2010 in 387 constituencies out of the 418; the UUU subset accounts for 29 of the remaining 31 and UDD and UDU for one each of the last two.)

What do we see? We see that, in 2017, Labour’s position improved in over 70% of Labour constituencies and nearly 80% of Tory seats. Labour seats were considerably more likely to show improvements under both Corbyn and Ed Miliband than Corbyn alone; in Tory seats, by contrast, over 40% – the largest single category – saw Labour’s position deteriorate under Miliband and then improve under Corbyn. If we’re measuring the popularity of party leaders on the basis of the ability to improve the party’s vote share, particularly outside its existing heartlands – an eccentric idea, perhaps, but let’s go with it – then Jeremy Corbyn, as of 2017, was far and away the most popular leader Labour had had since 1997. I don’t recall this point being made very often at the time.

More importantly for the current discussion, where are those DUDs and DDDs? They are there, but – as it turns out – they’re not all that numerous. 39 Labour seats, around 20% of the total, fitted the DUD template that we saw so many times in the previous post; the DDD model only fits another 11. Nor was the pattern any more representative of trends in Conservative seats. 320 out of 418 seats – more than three-quarters – saw Labour’s position improve in 2017, under Corbyn; in 203 of them – nearly half – there were improvements in 2015 as well. Pitching to the DUD seats – and the disaffected 15-20% of Right-leaning antipolitical voters who made them that way – is no way to either gain votes in most Tory seats or hang on to them in most Labour seats.

Time for another map or two, or four. Here’s the north and centre of England, showing Labour and Tory seats where Labour’s relative vote share went down in 2017 (red for Labour, blue for Tory, keep up). There are fifty Labour seats in this category, about 45 of which you can see here.

And here are the Labour and Tory seats where Labour’s position improved in 2017 (slightly different red for Labour… you get the idea). There are 136 Labour seats in this category, of which you see about 65 here.

(Small squiggly constituencies, remember. There are twelve constituencies in the block running north-south from Doncaster to Bolsover, 40 in the east-west block from Birkenhead to Leeds.)

And here’s the south-east. Again, these are Labour and Tory seats where Labour’s relative vote share fell in 2017.

And here are the Labour and Tory seats in the south-east where Labour’s position improved in 2017. (You may want to sit down.)

Small squiggly red constituencies, again – forty of them in London, another ten in Birmingham. As for the blue ones… well, that’s a bit striking, isn’t it? I’m not saying that Corbyn was building a platform for power in the heart of the Tory beast – in a lot of these cases what happened in 2017 was that Labour came third with 10% instead of 8%. But, as I said, if we measure success for a party leader in terms of putting on vote share for the party…

NEXT: So, what did happen in 2019 (and where did it happen)?

In search of the Red Wall (7)

THE STORY SO FAR: The “Red Wall” was defined, in October 2019, as “a near-contiguous span of 50 Labour-held seats stretching from the Vale of Clwyd in North Wales to Great Grimsby on the East Coast”: Conservative target seats in the North West, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, in other words. In December 2019, the Conservatives did in fact make several gains in this belt of seats. Thanks in part to an earlier use of the “Red Wall” label – which had defined the Red Wall as a belt of Labour constituencies with demographics typical of Conservative seats – it has been widely assumed that “Red Wall” seats were solid Labour seats, and that the very culture and traditions that had made them Labour had somehow made them all the more vulnerable to the Conservatives. In reality, most Conservative gains – in the Red Wall and elsewhere – were either marginals without a long Labour history or were won narrowly and/or with a relatively small drop in the Labour vote; in other words, they were precisely the kind of gain we would expect a party to make in a good election campaign, without any need for a more elaborate explanation (and 2019 was, for the Conservatives, a very good election campaign).

So, was there ever a Red Wall?

Here, again, is a table summarising the characteristics of Labour’s losses in England in 2019. In ascending order, group 3 are relative marginals, which had changed hands at least twice since 1997; group 2 are long-term Labour seats, won narrowly in 2019; and group 1 are long-term Labour seats, won solidly (a Tory majority of 5% or more and a drop in the Labour vote of 10% or more relative to 2017 and a Labour vote lower than at any time since (and including) 2001).

Now groups 2 and 3 contain 31 seats, group 1 17; since the Tories went into the 2019 election nine seats short of a majority, groups 2 and 3 on their own would have sufficed for a solid parliamentary majority. Which in turn means that the factors which produced Tory victories in the seats in groups 2 and 3 are the only factors we need to consider, if we’re asking how the election was won.

I think that needed restating. But still… what did happen in group 1?

123
Lowest Labour vote %, 201924.439.336.9
Highest Labour vote %, 201939.844.546
Average Labour vote %, 201934.841.741.1
Biggest Tory majority in %, 201931.412.615.7
Biggest drop in Labour vote %, 2017-1924.915.718.1

That first column makes pretty horrific reading. There were seventeen Labour seats – Labour since 1997 or longer – where Labour got between 24.4% and 39.8% of the vote in 2019, the Labour vote having fallen by somewhere between 10% and 25%, and where the Tories took the seat by a majority of somewhere between 5% and 31.4%. These figures bear no resemblance to the figures in the second and third columns. There’s something going on here – something that needs explaining.

One final map. Here they are: here are all the Red Wallgroup 1 seats, from Workington to West Bromwich.

Seventeen seats: a single block of five seats, plus three pairs and six on their own. A wall it ain’t; James Kanagasooriam’s original intuition – that constituencies in the same region might have a shared set of cultural values, so that a shift in that culture could see several seats at once going to the Conservatives – only looks like being borne out in Derbyshire (and even there neighbouring constituencies – Doncaster, Chesterfield – seem to have remained immune).

Something happened in these constituencies, though, and something worth investigating – arguably all the more so given how widely separated they are. You would not think to look at them that Newcastle-under-Lyme and Bishop Auckland were sisters under the skin, or Don Valley and Dudley North. But perhaps there’s something going on out there.

Here are some election results, going back to 2005.

Here’s what happened in Don Valley.

In 2005 – the post-Iraq election – Labour held the seat easily, taking over half the votes with the remainder divided between the Tories and a substantial Lib Dem vote. (As this was, by some way, the highest Liberal [Democrat] vote in the constituency since 1983, it’s reasonable to assume that the circumstances of 2005 had something to do with it – and the key circumstance at that election was surely Iraq.)

In 2010 – in the dying days of New Labour, post-Blair and mid-crash – the Tory and Lib Dem votes held firm, but Labour lost about a quarter of its vote to anti-political protest candidates of the Right and far Right: UKIP (in purple) took 4% of the vote, the BNP and the English Democrats (in dark blue) another 9%. As a result, Labour’s lead over the Tories – the line overlaid on the chart – fell from above 20% to below 10%.

In 2015 – the post-Coalition, pre-Brexit election – the voters punished the incumbent government again: the Tory vote fell slightly but the Lib Dems, no longer appearing a principled alternative to the main two parties, saw their vote collapse. The Labour vote recovered substantially, but the main beneficiary was, again, on the far Right: UKIP ran the Tories a close third place. The rise in the Labour vote share and the fall in the Tories’ (to the benefit of UKIP) meant that Labour’s lead over the Tories rose again.

In 2017 – the election of maximum polarisation – the Labour and Tory candidates were the only ones that counted; the Lib Dems were squeezed further, and UKIP didn’t even stand. The Labour vote recovered again, taking about a third of the 2015 UKIP vote, but the Tories took the other two-thirds and recovered more strongly. As a result, while the Labour vote share rose again – to reach the levels of 2001 and 1997 – the Labour lead over the Tories fell again.

Lastly, in 2019 – the election we may as well just call The Disaster – the Tories’ vote share held firm at its 2017 level, while Labour lost a sliver to the Lib Dems and a substantial chunk to the Brexit Party (still in purple). As a result, of course, Labour lost the seat.

This is quite a simplistic reading of the data; doubtless there were cross-currents and three-way shifts going on as well, particularly in 2010 and 2015. But let’s assume that I’ve just described the main trends. If that’s the case, a few conclusions seem to follow.

  • There’s a substantial anti-political, “none of the above” vote in this seat: 10-20% of the vote at every election since 2001
  • The Lib Dems profited from this, until they didn’t: joining the government was the kiss of death, and the Lib Dems have effectively been irrelevant (at least in this seat) since 2010
  • Parties of the Right and extreme Right are legitimate in this seat as a repository for anti-political votes; the strength of the BNP and ED vote in 2010, and the extent to which UKIP built on this, is not to be underestimated
  • UKIP/BXP is strategically ambivalent, operating as a pure protest vote (2010, 2019), as a more respectable alternative to the far Right (2015) and as an ante-chamber to voting Conservative (2015, 2019(?))
  • Without Corbyn, the 2017 result would have been much worse for Labour: Labour’s acceptance of Brexit and Corbyn’s image as an anti-system outsider both prevented the 2015 UKIP vote transferring to the Tories en masse
  • However, 2017 looked worse than 2015 for the sitting MP (Caroline Flint), as Labour won by a much narrower margin; this supported the narrative that a decline in Labour’s vote had continued or even accelerated under Corbyn (whereas in reality it had begun to be reversed)
  • What lost the seat in 2019 was the strength of the anti-system vote up to 2015, the Tories’ success in converting 2015’s UKIP protest vote to 2017 Conservatives, and Labour’s inability in 2019 to pre-empt the appeal of the BXP protest vote, due to the ambiguity of Labour’s Brexit positioning and the tarnishing of Corbyn’s image.

So that’s Don Valley. One down, sixteen to go! Hope you’re sitting comfortably. Here’s what happened in Wolverhampton North East:

Well, that’s saved me some typing. There are a couple of differences with Don Valley: UKIP did stand in 2017, and the Brexit Party weren’t significant in 2019 – Labour lost a sliver each to the Lib Dems and BXP, and a substantial chunk to the Tories (whose vote rose substantially from 2017). So there’s one conclusion that needs modifying:

  • What lost the seat in 2019 was the strength of the anti-system vote up to 2015, the Tories’ success in converting 2015’s UKIP protest vote to 2017 Conservatives, the Conservatives’ manipulation of the Brexit crisis so as to present a vote for the government as a protest vote, and Labour’s inability in 2019 to pre-empt the appeal of the pro-Brexit protest vote, due to the ambiguity of Labour’s Brexit positioning and the tarnishing of Corbyn’s image.
  • But otherwise it all looks pretty similar (check out the ‘Labour lead’ line). How about… let’s head up to the other end of the country and check out Workington (where men are men).

    This is getting spooky. How about Blackpool South?

    (Checks notes)… yep. (Note that the fash were already standing a candidate in 2005. We should have taken this stuff more seriously.)

    Great Grimsby?

    One more qualification: Labour took less than 50% of the vote in 2005. Still a pretty solid majority, though. Labour heartland innit.

    Dudley North (Ian Austin’s old seat)?

    That’s a 9.7% vote for the BNP in 2005; in the neighbouring constituency of West Bromwich West they got 9.9%. (If I ran the Labour Party, having a fascist party retain its deposit at an election in a Labour constituency would be grounds for deselection; it doesn’t exactly suggest an assertive local party.) Exactly the same trends as the others, though.

    How about that other odd couple I mentioned earlier, Bishop Auckland and Newcastle-under-Lyme? Let’s take them both together.

    That’s different at least – in both of these seats, instead of rising in 2015, the Labour lead over the Tories falls at all three elections from 2010 to 2017. Does this suggest a different narrative or other conclusions?

    In 2005 Labour held the seat easily, taking over 40% of the votes with the remainder divided between the Tories and a substantial Lib Dem vote.

    In 2010 the Tory and Lib Dem votes held firm, but Labour lost about a quarter of its vote to anti-political protest candidates of the Right and far Right.

    In 2015 the Tory vote fell slightly but the Lib Dems saw their vote collapse. The Labour vote recovered substantially, but the main beneficiary was UKIP.

    In 2017 the Labour vote recovered again, taking about a third of the 2015 UKIP vote, but the Tories took the other two-thirds and recovered more strongly.

    In 2019 the Tories’ vote share held firm at its 2017 level (or rose), while Labour lost a sliver to the Lib Dems and a substantial chunk to the Brexit Party (and/or the Tories).

    The big difference is 2015 (perhaps unsurprisingly); far from a drop in the Tory vote and a substantial rise in Labour’s, these two seats saw a rise in both main parties’ votes, with the Tories’ actually rising more than Labour’s. The overall picture is so similar, though – and the numbers involved (as we’ll see) so small – that I’m tempted to call local factors in aid. What do we call a local Labour Party that can’t make political capital out of five years of Liberal/Tory austerity, and/or can’t put boots on the ground at the subsequent election?

    Otherwise, the same conclusions seem to apply:

    • There’s a substantial anti-political, “none of the above” vote in all of these seats
    • The Lib Dems profited from this until 2010, but have been irrelevant since then
    • Parties of the Right and extreme Right are legitimate in these seats as a repository for anti-political votes
    • UKIP/BXP is ambivalent: a protest vote, an alternative to the far Right and an ante-chamber to the Tories
    • Without Corbyn, the 2017 result would have been much worse
    • However, 2017 looked worse than 2015 for the sitting MP, as Labour won by a much narrower margin

    Most importantly – and this would seem to apply to all the seats we’ve looked at –

    • What lost these seats in 2019 was the strength of the anti-system vote up to 2015, the Tories’ success in converting 2015 UKIP protest voters to 2017 Conservatives, the Conservatives’ manipulation of the Brexit crisis so as to present a vote for the government as a protest vote, and Labour’s inability in 2019 to pre-empt the appeal of the BXP (and Conservative) protest vote, due to the ambiguities of Labour’s Brexit positioning and to the tarnishing of Corbyn’s image.

    So that’s it – that’s your Red Wall. We can call off the dogs: that’s where it went, that’s how it was lost.

    Oh, didn’t I say? It’s not just the eight(!) seats shown above; I’ve looked at voting patterns for all seventeen of the “deep purple”, “group 1” seats up above – which is to say, all the longterm Labour seats that Labour lost heavily in 2019. Twelve of them follow the first set of trends above, the “Dudley North” or “Don Valley” model; another four follow the “Bishop Auckland” pattern. (In the seventeenth – Scunthorpe – Labour’s lead over the Tories was (slightly) higher in 2017 than in 2015; that wasn’t an uncommon occurrence generally, but Scunthorpe’s the only “group 1” seat where it happened.)

    NEXT: Yes, but is this unusual? And does it matter?

    In search of the Red Wall (6)

    In the next post I’ll get into some analysis of what I’m going to be calling the real Red Wall – which is neither red nor a wall, but what else is new? Before that, a confession and a reality check.

    First, the confession: I’ve been avoiding saying very much about “the Red Wall” with the current connotations of that phrase. This hasn’t made the argument I want to develop any easier to articulate. However, when myths are abundant it’s important not to add to them – and it’s almost impossible to say anything about the “Red Wall” without at least perpetuating some myth or other. And myths about the way people think and behave are extraordinarily powerful: they tell people not only what to look for, but how to understand what they find.

    That’s not to say that what people look for and find isn’t real – it is; that’s the problem. It’s a standing joke on the Left that the rank-and-file workers quoted in the party press always turn out to have unusually clear and well-articulated views on the class struggle, but the joke only goes so far: perhaps “Jim Slack, rank-and-file member of the Fire Brigades Union” is better known to you and me as Jim Slack, local branch secretary of the Uniquely Correct Trotskyist Party, but the guy still is a firefighter. Even if you picked a rank-and-file union member completely at random, you’d have some chance of picking a Uniquely Correct Trotskyist – and if you went out looking for an articulate and committed trade unionist, the odds would shorten quite dramatically. Whether Jim is a typical trade unionist is another question, but nobody asked that – we wanted a union member, we got a union member, and here’s what our union member said. (Apparently the perspectives of the Uniquely Correct Trotskyist Party are, in fact, uniquely correct. Who knew?)

    The mainstream press, of course, does exactly the same thing, although they’re considerably more likely to go looking for devotees of Farage and Johnson than of Marx and Lenin. What you look for you will, with a bit of persistence, usually find; what you don’t look for, you almost certainly won’t. As I wrote shortly after the 2017 election,

    Any one of us can assemble a mental image of the white working-class voter motivated by social conservatism and unavowed racism. It’s a social type we’ve become familiar with through all those endless UKIP/Le Pen road trips and exposés, but – more importantly – it’s a type that we already knew about; it goes back to Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death, and to the dockers marching for Enoch. But here’s the thing: we can just as easily assemble a mental image of the working-class voter demanding better pay and conditions, the young idealist getting fired up by radical ideas, the middle-class liberal getting involved in campaigning and moving leftwards … All those social types were right there in the collective consciousness; if John Harris wasn’t going to go out and find them, at least Owen Jones could have had a go. But nobody did; everyone assumed that those people weren’t out there any more, just like they assumed that the working people of Britain had had their heads turned by Farage and Brexit.

    I’m sure there are people out there who fit the “Red Wall voter” template – by which I mean (he added reluctantly) socially-conservative voters, middle-aged or older, whose loyalty to Labour went back decades but was associated with attitudes and beliefs for which Labour no longer stood under Corbyn’s leadership (and perhaps still doesn’t under Starmer), as well as with a class identity which for them had grown less salient and/or meaningful, so that they could switch to voting Conservative en masse without any perceived transformation of their beliefs and values, turning Labour strongholds into safe Conservative seats as they went. I’m sure you can find people like that to talk to if you look. Whether those people are typical or representative of the people whose voting choices actually ensured that the Tories won the last election is another question. While we’re about it, we could also ask whether – even if there were, as a matter of fact, a number of big Tory victories in decades-old Labour strongholds – a comfortable Tory victory could have been delivered without any of them happening, and if so what this tells us about the election and its outcome more generally. We could even ask if the centre-left campaign to abandon Labour under Corbyn had any effect on the result (it would be odd if it had none at all).

    Or we could just carry on talking about the Red Wall. The big problem with the “Red Wall voter” story, and the reason why I’m reluctant to add to it, is the space that it occupies. Indeed, by now it’s more or less been accepted as a starting-point, so that any actual information about voter behaviour in 2019 fits into it as an extension or clarification (“so that’s what Red Wall voters really care about!”).

    Hence the need for a reality check.

    Before:

    Not shown: Ipswich, Stroud, Kensington

    After:

    Not shown: Ipswich, Stroud, Kensington – or any of the 68 seats south of Birmingham that Labour held or gained

    Blue for Tory holds, red for Labour, white for the Speaker, mustard for Tim Farron (remember him? he used to be the leader of the Liberal Democrats (remember them?)). Orange for Labour (re-)gains, shades of purple and grey for Tory gains: deep purple = a big win of a solid Labour seat, mauve = a narrow win of a solid Labour seat, lilac = a marginal, grey = a seat whose sitting MP helped things along by deserting the Labour Party.

    It’s bad, no question about it; those were very bad results, with far too many seats lost. But what kind of seats? Look at the purple seats and then compare them with the red ones, the seats where a plurality of voters stayed with Labour. Are we really saying that the semi-rural sprawl of Sedgefield and Bishop Auckland is Labour’s heartland, and small, densely-populated seats like South Shields and Jarrow aren’t? Are we saying that the Birmingham seats Labour held are somehow less “Labour” than the seats they lost in Wolverhampton and Dudley? Are we saying that Stoke-on-Trent was a Labour stronghold (although its MPs are now all Conservatives) and Hull wasn’t (although its MPs are all Labour)?

    Let’s look, one more time, at the seats lost in the supposed “Red Wall”.

    NEXT: we look, one more time, at the seats lost in the supposed “Red Wall”.

    In search of the Red Wall (5)

    In the next few posts I’m going to ask five questions about the “Red Wall”:

    1. which English seats did Labour lose in 2019?
    2. why did we lose them?
    3. which long-held English seats did Labour lose badly?
    4. and why did that happen?

    The third and fourth questions are about “Red Wall” seats – now entrenched in political discourse as northern, working-class, socially-conservative, Brexit-supporting Labour strongholds, that were held by Labour for generations but tumbled like polystyrene bricks before the Tories’ 2019 campaign bulldozer.

    There is a grain of truth in this cliché, but only a grain. The key fact about the “Red Wall” – the one thing everyone who refers to the Red Wall ought to realise – is that those seats are only a subset of Labour’s losses in 2019; plenty of other Labour constituencies also elected a Tory. Hence the fifth question, which is:

    • are the “Red Wall” seats typical of the seats Labour needs to win, and the seats we need to retain?

    This last question is crucial. If the answer is Yes, happy days – if we can identify what turned a sizeable number of Red Wall voters off Labour and reverse it, we can win the next election. If the answer is No, things are more difficult; it could be that we need to look elsewhere to reverse the majority of our losses and retain the seats we hold. Come to that, it could be that adopting positions that do play well with the missing Red Wall voters would cost us votes and seats elsewhere, either directly or by demobilising the activists who power Labour’s ground game.

    So let’s look at Labour’s losses more broadly. Labour lost 48 seats in England (along with six each in Scotland and Wales), and here they are. 38 were in Derbyshire and points north:

    The other ten were further south. (Look closely and you can even see Kensington – our only loss in the capital.)

    In line with the previous maps, I’ve divided these lost seats into three groups:

    1. big wins (Labour continuously since 1979, decisive win in 2019)
    2. narrow wins (Labour continuously since 1979, but not a decisive win in 2019)
    3. marginals (had changed hands at least twice since 1979)

    There aren’t any dark grey constituencies on this map; why dwell unnecessarily on the treachery of the renegades Austin, Lewis, Mann, Woodcock, Smith and Williamson? Those six constituencies have been treated as Labour seats and allocated to one of the three groups. (Penistone and Stocksbridge – the seat Angela Smith held under five different party labels before abandoning it in the vain hope of finding somewhere safer – doesn’t strictly belong on the list, as it was created in 2010; however, its main predecessor constituency, Barnsley West and Penistone, had been Labour since 1979.) As before, a “big win” is defined as one where the Labour vote in 2019 fell 10% or more relative to 2017 and was lower than at any time since (and including) 2001, and where the eventual Tory majority was 5% or more; narrow wins are those that qualify on fewer than three of these criteria.

    If we look at these three groups collectively, this (if you’ll pardon the expression) is what we find:

    123
    Lowest Labour vote %, 201924.439.336.9
    Highest Labour vote %, 201939.844.546
    Average Labour vote %, 201934.841.741.1
    Biggest Tory majority in %, 201931.412.615.7
    Biggest drop in Labour vote %, 2017-1924.915.718.1

    Group 2 and group 3 look remarkably similar. What’s more, losses along these lines don’t seem wildly surprising. An aggressive Tory campaign, with a Brexit Party assist, pushes the Labour vote down to the low 40%s or slightly below, enabling them to squeeze out a 5% or even 10% majority in a former Labour seat: it’s bad, but it seems like the kind of thing that could happen in any bad election campaign. And – returning to question 2, above – 2019 was a really bad election campaign. The party’s support had been softened up beforehand by sustained attacks on the leadership from the centre and centre-left, relieved only by a brief truce in 2017 (after it turned out that what they were offering was in fact quite popular). In 2019 Parliamentary stalemate over Brexit was parallelled by internal conflict over Labour’s position on the EU; meanwhile, exaggerated and politicised charges of antisemitism on the left of the party ran riot, to the point where a grotesque and libellous falsehood – the allegation that Corbyn was personally prejudiced against Jews – became common currency, a comedy punchline. The delegitimation of Corbyn and his party culminated in the New Statesman‘s sage eve-of-election advice that readers should do nothing that might risk putting Corbyn into Downing Street, but should instead vote “tactically” to deprive the Tories of a majority (Luciana Berger! Sarah Wollaston!). The mentality is a kind of cargo-cult imitation of tactical voting – you don’t vote tactically for a third party because it’s a credible challenger, you proclaim your vote for a third party is tactical and thereby make it credible. There was a lot of this about in 2019; the combined vote for the Lib Dems and Greens was 50% higher than 2017 (4.5 million from 3 million), for a grand total of one fewer MP. It’s hard to imagine that anyone genuinely, rationally thought it would work. Revisiting the NS article now, I see that it concludes by outlining an alternative “political dispensation”, then concedes that “[t]he election will not open the way for this alternative settlement”. Which is probably the closest thing to a mea culpa we’re ever going to get.

    Tactical non-co-operation from centre parties also ensured that the Labour Party’s great achievement of 2017 – depriving Theresa May of her majority – led to deadlock in Parliament rather than any constructive result; binding votes on an alternative to a hard Brexit were lost for the want of votes from the SNP and (absurdly) Change UK. This in turn played into an equally successful pre-election softening-up campaign from the Right, to the effect that Labour politicians were timewasting obstructionists, doing nothing for their MPs’ salaries but block the will of the people. (I heard this more than once when I was canvassing, in constituencies Labour went on to lose.)

    Pushing Labour’s vote down a few points and the Tories’ vote up by a similar amount was all that was needed to take quite a few constituencies. (And, please, let’s not forget that very little has actually changed when a constituency goes from a 48/45 Labour/Tory split to 44/45 – and not very much has changed when a constituency goes from 50/40 to 42/45.) The attacks I’ve described – peeling off a few % of furious Brexit believers on one side, a few % of earnest centre-leftists on the other – were quite enough to do all of that, particularly when combined with the absurdly permissive media environment in which the Tories were working. And groups 2 and 3 add up to 31 seats, which would have been enough to give the Tories a majority of 40 even if the whole of group 1 had stayed Labour.

    So, is there anything here to explain? Are there any lessons to draw on how to fight the next election? Apart, that is, from the ones we really ought to have drawn already:

    • Lesson for Labour Party representatives: Don’t systematically undermine the leader under whom you’re going to be fighting the next election (even if you think you might do well out of it longer-term). (Also, do question the motives of anyone outside the party who seems to want to help you undermine your leader. This rarely ends well.)
    • Lesson for the Left: Don’t entrust your political legitimacy to some of your most entrenched and unscrupulous enemies. Also, don’t duck difficult questions, and (relatedly) don’t respond to smears with platitudinous reminders that you are, after all, good people who believe in good things (which must mean that the people saying these nasty things are mistaken). Been tried. Doesn’t work.
    • Lesson for the centre-left: Don’t screw your eyes up tight and tell yourself that if you stick to your principles that’s all that matters – and you couldn’t live with yourself if you compromised – and besides it’s not impossible that Labour might lose and the Tories might lose as well (“very, very unlikely” isn’t the same as “impossible”, is it?) Get a grip. How do you think the Left has felt about voting Labour all this time?

    But the time for the second and third of these has probably gone, sadly. Which – on the positive side – should mean that the future is bright: we can stick to pretty much the same policy platform we had before, perhaps slimmed down and reorganised a bit, and – without a constant barrage of attacks from the centre-left, without a relentlessly hostile media environment, and without an unresolved Brexit hanging over us – the next election should be a breeze. Shouldn’t it?

    Ah, but. What about group 1?

    Next: yes, what about the Red Wall?

    In search of the Red Wall (4)

    The story so far: the Red Wall was originally defined (in August 2019) as a contiguous group of Labour seats, mostly in the Northwest of England, whose demographics suggest that they ‘should’ be Conservative. Nobody really went for this definition. It was redefined (in October) to include Labour seats in the Northwest and Yorkshire where the Conservative vote had increased and/or where there was a large majority for Brexit; nobody really went for this one either. A journalist writing in the Spectator then used the term to refer, more impressionistically, to a “block” of solid, long-term Labour seats in the Midlands and the North (some a hundred miles apart), which had somehow turned into winnable Conservative targets by virtue of the popularity of Brexit and the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn. After that, things got a bit silly.

    “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere” – Charles Fort

    In November the Red Wall appeared in the FT. This article suggested that even the Spectator definition had been too restrictive: it refers to the “red wall” of Labour seats in working-class areas of the Midlands, Wales and the North of England. Red because Labour, a wall because… there are a lot of them, in some parts of the UK which aren’t on the Underground? (Cheap shot, I know, but when people talk about “the North” as if it were a single area (“Bolsover, Bishop Auckland and Ashfield”) it does look like metro-provincialism.)

    Then we got – as promised in the previous post – the proof. I once saw a review of a book on ley lines which noted that the book included several different maps, all with alignments of ancient sites duly marked, and concluded that the authors had provided definitive proof that it was possible to draw straight lines on maps. In a similar spirit, here – courtesy of Sebastian Payne and John Burn-Murdoch, the FT‘s indefatigable data guy – is The Red Wall: The Proof.

    They said it couldn’t be done… hang on, they said it shouldn’t be done.

    I can’t argue with that: if one measures a large enough ellipse on a map of Britain, it will contain a lot of different Labour constituencies. And – what actually is potentially interesting – we can see a few contiguous belts of Labour seats. Using the excellent (and free!) MapChart tool, I’ve reverse-engineered Burn-Murdoch’s graphic as follows:

    Not shown: Wales. I don’t know what went on in the Vale of Clwyd, but it’s highly unlikely to be the same thing that went on in Derbyshire, particularly if flags were involved in any way. Also not shown: Blackpool South, which was a Tory target (and is on this map) but didn’t fall within the Burn-Murdoch Ellipse.

    This doesn’t look a lot like James Kanagasooriam’s original Red Wall, for the simple reason that that was defined in terms of the underlying demographics of the constituencies involved; this is defined in terms of the seats being (a) held by Labour (b) quite close together and (c) er, that’s it. At best it’s a map of Conservative targets in the Northwest, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. I want to stress this point before we go any further. Looking at the original Kanagasooriam map and then looking at the seats which actually went to the Tories, we know something we didn’t know before: those six seats had certain demographic characteristics, and it’s possible that in 2019 those characteristics outweighed the cultural and historical factors which had been keeping them Labour. (Although in the other 34 seats on the map – which stayed Labour – that plainly didn’t happen.)

    By contrast, if we look at this map, then look at the seats which went to the Tories, we know… that the Tories won some, perhaps many, of their target seats in the Northwest, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. That’s all it really tells us.

    But let’s do it anyway.

    Red Wall crumbling, am I right or am I right? Andy Burnham, Dennis Skinner, Mary Creagh, your boys took a hell of a beating!

    Well, perhaps. (I’m not saying we didn’t lose all those seats – look at the government’s majority.) But let’s remind ourselves, again, of what we know about the Red Wall, in this iteration of it (which, sadly, is the one that’s stuck) – and what we don’t know. Do we know that these are all Labour seats with “Conservative” demographics? No, we don’t know that. Do we know that they are all socially conservative areas with big majorities for Brexit? No, we don’t. Alternatively, do we know that these are all seats that had been Labour “for generations” (K. Balls) before the Labour vote collapsed in 2019? No, we don’t. Do we know that the Labour vote hit an all-time low in all of these seats in 2019, or that the Tories won them all with a substantial majority? Also no.

    All we know about the purple seats is that they were Labour going into the election; the Tories won them; and they form a belt running across the country – most of it, nearly – at approximately the latitude of Southport. And that third fact, in itself, tells us nothing – let’s face it, everything has to happen somewhere.

    What if we were to distinguish between Labour seats that actually had been Labour for a while – since 1997, say – and those that had been Labour in 1997 but changed hands (twice) since then? Out of the remainder, we could also distinguish between big wins for the Tories and narrow wins, the kind of seat gains that happen in any election when the tide is running strongly in one party’s favour (as, I think we can all agree, it was for the Tories in 2019). Having looked at the data, I’m defining a “big win” as one where the Labour vote in 2019 fell 10% or more relative to 2017 and was lower than at any time since (and including) 2001, and where the eventual Tory majority was 5% or more. Comparing these factors against the (losing) Labour share of the vote, I found that the lowest Labour vote of any constituency in the “narrow win” group (where at most two of these criteria are met) was 39.8% – all the rest had a Labour vote of 40% or above. Conversely, every constituency in the “big win” group (ticking all three boxes) had a Labour vote below 37%. (Some other “big win” seats, outside the Burn-Murdoch ellipse, had higher Labour votes than that, with one – Wolverhampton North East – hitting 39.8%; none reached 40%, though.) This suggested to me that I was on the right track: intuitively – and thinking back to the first post in this series – a seat where 40%+ of people still vote Labour is not one that’s “gone Conservative”.

    So here’s a revised map. The pale lilac constituencies are those Tory gains which had already changed hands twice in the previous twenty years; the mauve ones are the “narrow wins”; and the white one, as before, is the new Speaker. Lastly, the constituencies in dark grey are those Tory gains whose previous MPs, by the time of the election, had left the Labour Party and were campaigning against it, in one case actually calling for a Conservative vote. I don’t know how much weight to give to this – it isn’t a factor one usually has to take into account – but it can’t have done Labour’s chances of holding those seats any good.

    This map looks a bit different from the one above. West of the Pennines – in fact, West of the Derbyshire Dales – Labour’s losses are almost exclusively seats that had been lost and regained by Labour within the last twenty years (Bury North, Burnley) or narrow wins by the Tories (Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyndburn; Bury South, in grey, is also in this group). Again, I’m not saying that Labour didn’t lose all of those seats, or that we haven’t got a mountain to climb next time round. I am saying that a world in which thirty Labour strongholds have suddenly turned into Tory strongholds (say) is a different world, and calls for different strategies, than one where this has only happened in ten Labour strongholds (but the Tories have squeaked a win in another ten, as well as re-taking ten Labour marginals).

    The idea of the Red Wall – as we’ve come to know it – makes a great story: Labour heartland voters, left stranded by the decline in heavy industry and the rise of social liberalism, abandon their decades-long loyalties to vote for the party of Britain and Brexit! But we need to deal with the problem we’ve got, not with a problem that would make more dramatic sense. I’m not saying there were no “Red Wall” seats (in the sense of that label that’s now accepted) in the 2019 election; on the contrary, some seats fit the profile very well. The question is how many there were, and how typical they were – both of the seats Labour lost and of the seats where Labour needs to campaign. The question is, to put it bluntly, whether the true “Red Wall” seats were Labour’s heartland at all – and, if not, whether basing party strategy and policy on the imperative of regaining those seats might do more harm than good.

    I’ll go into this in the next post. For now, here’s another map. Rather than being based on Tory targeting, this one shows all Labour seats in the region going into the 2017 election, including the ones we held. (Plus two – Birkenhead and Nottingham East – that we took back from squatters. Frank Field and Chris Leslie both stood in 2019, under their new colours; relative to 2017, when they held those seats for Labour, their votes dropped by 59.7% and 67.9% respectively. Cheers, guys, nice knowing you.)

    Yes, that Red Wall of Labour constituencies is certainly… well, it’s got some gaps in it now, so there’s that…

    Funny how it’s mostly the big square constituencies that go to the Tories while the small squiggly ones stay Labour, isn’t it?

    One last map: here (below) is London. One loss (courtesy of Tory defector Sam Gyimah and a really disgraceful campaign to portray a divisive third-place candidate as a unifying winner); one seat reclaimed from a squatter (Mike Gapes, whose vote dropped by a magnificent 68.5% compared to 2017); and one gain. (Since the gain is Putney, which hadn’t been Labour since 2005, this offers a partial and belated confirmation for James Kanagasooriam’s original analysis: he’d cited Putney as an example of the kind of seat that the Tories held despite its demographics suggesting it “ought to” be Labour.)

    There are also, of course, an awful lot of small squiggly red holds. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Conservative strategists, and Conservative-leaning commentators like Balls and Kanagasooriam, preferred to concentrate on the wide open spaces of the Northsouth Yorkshire and the East Midlands, and make out that the Tories were winning the seats that really matter. There are – or were – gains to be made up there, of course; there was a Tory majority for the taking, and by God they took it. But if you’re looking for a real Red Wall – if you’re looking for “traditional Labour seats” in “working-class areas”, and plenty of them – look at how, even now, you can go from the Fylde Coast to Saddleworth Moor without setting foot in a Tory constituency, or cross the whole of Greater London (either way, Heathrow to Dagenham or Barnet to Croydon).

    Despite what had happened in the true (and increasingly ironically named) “Red Wall” areas, and despite how disastrous the results were overall, Labour’s starting point after 2019 should have been (in the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax) “WE ATEN’T DEAD”. The big “Red Wall” losses – the purple constituencies – were serious, but they weren’t typical; by treating them as if they were, we ran the risk (at best) of losing momentum and having to run to catch up when people began to mobilise again, at worst of facing in the wrong direction and becoming irrelevant.

    PS On a side-note, I’ve referred a few times to former Labour MPs who stood against Labour in 2019. Here are all of them.

    Name2017 %2019 %
    As TIGAs LDAs Ind
    Luciana Berger79.531.9
    Frank Field76.917.2
    Mike Gapes75.87.3
    Roger Godsiff77.68.1
    Chris Leslie71.53.6
    Gavin Shuker62.49.2
    Angela Smith45.811
    Chuka Umunna68.530.7
    Chris Williamson48.51.4

    Chris Williamson’s performance must be some sort of record for former MPs standing in their own former constituency. Then again, it’s only a drop of 46.9%. In that respect, Roger Godsiff – the only MP actually to be deselected under the Corbyn leadership, trivia fans – leads the pack with a 69.5% plummet in his personal vote; the last two TIGers aren’t far behind, though. Which is worse, Mike Gapes dropping 68.5% of his vote, or Chris Leslie losing 67.9% and his deposit? Either way, those are quite the performances. Even in 1983 – the big shakeup which the ChUKers were surely hoping to emulate – the biggest comparable fall I could find was from 61.5% to 11% (Arthur Lewis, Newham North West). (Labour retook the seat comfortably; nice to see that some things don’t change.)

    On a side-note to the side-note, it’s rather striking that only one of the eight ex-Labour members of Change UK – Angela Smith – had received less than 50% of the vote at the previous election; indeed, only one other (Joan Ryan) had had less than 60%. The role of safe-seat complacency in decisions to defect – not to mention vanity and general Ned Lagg-ery – shouldn’t be understated.

    But we should probably get back to that Red Wall.

    In search of the Red Wall (3)

    The Red Wall, as we’ve seen, was first postulated by James Kanagasooriam in August 2019; he used the phrase to refer to a belt of Labour seats, from the Wirral to Derbyshire, which on demographic factors alone would have gone to the Tories. The Red Wall was a ‘wall’ for three reasons: because the constituencies it contained were geographically contiguous, making it feasible that the same cultural factors applied in multiple different seats; because those seats were Labour and had been for some time; and (crucially) because those demographic factors, more typical of Tory seats, made them more marginal than they looked. In short, quoting my previous post,

    It’s a Wall because it’s vulnerable. (Perhaps “wall” wasn’t the best word to choose.)

    So, what happened next? What happened to the original Red Wall in the December election was – perhaps surprisingly – rather muted:

    Out of 40 seats we lost six and held 34 (the white area is the constituency of Lindsay Hoyle, the new Speaker). What’s more, the six included Bassetlaw and Penistone & Stocksbridge (both of whose MPs had left the Labour Party and were campaigning against it) as well as Warrington South (so solid a brick in the red wall that it had been held by the Tories from 1983 to 1992, and again from 2010 to 2017).

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. What happened next in August – what happened in response to Kanagasooriam’s original thread? On Twitter, at least, nothing much; Matthew Goodwin (for it is he) retweeted Kanagasooriam, but otherwise it was pretty much tumbleweed.

    (Which is to say, there’s only one Tweet mentioning both Labour and a “red wall” from the day after Kanagasooriam’s Tweet to the end of October – and that one’s talking about football.)

    At the beginning of October the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released Every Voter Counts, a report on low-income voters and how to mobilise them written by Claire Ainsley (yes, that one) and Frank Sodeen. That included an acknowledgment to Kanagasooriam (in his day-job at Hanbury Strategy) and this side-note:

    This is all very odd. Kanagasooriam’s original, reasonably straightforward definition of the “red wall” – Labour-held, demographically Conservative-looking, geographically contiguous – has disappeared, in favour of three groups of seats. The first group looks a bit like the first two original criteria (but not the third – Grimsby is over seventy miles East of Wakefield); the other two groups – seats where the Tories put on a lot of votes in 2017 and seats that are solid Labour but very Brexit-y – are new. What’s particularly odd is that this new and improved Red Wall seems to bear no relation to the subject of the report (which never refers to it again). The report includes a list of all the seats where low-income voters outnumber the majority by which the seat was held or gained in 2017 – suggesting that a party that acted on this report would stand to make gains – but there’s very little overlap between the seats in this list and those shaded in red on that original map (and not just because that map only covered the Northwest of England). In any case, there’s no obvious correlation between a high proportion of low-income voters and a propensity to vote for the Conservative Party – or for Brexit (that latter point is made by the report itself).

    But the definition of “red wall” seats was starting to slip, and soon it would slip a lot further. Here’s Katy Balls writing in the 2nd November issue of the Spectator:

    Top tip: if you’re ever planning on touring the Red Wall, don’t go from Bolsover to Ashfield via Bishop Auckland. (Bolsover to Ashfield: 12 miles. Bolsover to Bishop Auckland: 115 miles. If you started from Bolsover and went twelve miles in the other direction from Ashfield, you’d be approaching Sheffield; 115 miles in the other direction from Bishop Auckland and you’d be in Luton.)

    The Red Wall stands for something different here, and something more like its current meaning: it means a block [sic] of solid, long-term Labour seats, in the Midlands and the North [also sic], which have been turned in to winnable Conservative targets by the popularity of Brexit and the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn. Kanagasooriam’s original analysis – informed by economic, demographic and geographical considerations – has been replaced by something almost completely impressionistic: they’re red because they’re Labour; they’re a wall because there’s loads of Labour seats up North, always have been; and they’re winnable now because… well, Brexit, innit. Up North. Plus Corbyn, everyone hates Corbyn – especially up North. There you go.

    Now, Labour did make a net loss of 47 seats in England to the Tories in December 2019, so something clearly happened. But the point is to explain what it was that happened – and I don’t think it can possibly have been that. Apart from anything else, more or less everyone did hate Corbyn, up and down the country – and there was certainly a majority of people in favour of getting Brexit done – so this analysis, if anything, fails to explain why the Tories didn’t make a lot more gains. We’re left to assume that there was (paradoxically) something particularly vulnerable about long-standing Labour seats, especially up North, and then to solve the riddle by plugging in what we think we already know about long-term Labour voters and/or the North. From which, of course, so much has grown.

    But that was just one article, and in the Spectator at that. Things got worse when the FT came on board.

    Next: the proof.

    In search of the Red Wall (2)

    Apart from anything else, what Red Wall?

    Stupid question, right? We all know about the Red Wall! On Twitter you can read that “Boris Johnson’s decision to slash aid to poorest countries was made to appeal to ‘Red Wall’ voters”; that “if [Starmer] exclusively panders to the Red Wall, to the point of excusing homophobia, his support could begin to wane in the party”, and “if [Labour] continue down the road of appeasing red wall voters they are heading for the wilderness”; and that “Labour needs to start talking about Brexit and come up with solutions, even if it pisses the Red Wall off” – although “if enough Remainers had continued to support Labour many red wall/midlands seats would still be Lab”. I only single those out because they were all written within the last hour – and they weren’t the only examples I could have chosen. Everyone knows what the Red Wall is (or was); everyone knows who Red Wall voters are, the issues that matter to them and the policies that appeal to them – at least, everyone knows the issues that get stressed and the policies that get adopted in order to appeal to Red Wall voters (which isn’t necessarily the same thing). You, dear reader, almost certainly know all about the Red Wall yourself.

    And if I set the controls of my handy Tardis for T minus 2 years and asked the April 2019 version of you for your take on the Red Wall, what would you have said? Would you have said that Change UK posed a threat to Labour’s Red Wall, for instance, particularly given that three of the eleven constituencies they squatted were right there in it (two ex-Labour, one ex-Tory)? I’m telling you now, dear reader, no. No, you wouldn’t have. I can say that with some confidence, because I’ve seen what people were saying about Labour and the Red Wall at the time, and it’s this:

    Absolutely nothing, in other words. Before the 14th of August 2019, precisely five Tweets include the phrase “red wall” and the word “Labour”. Two of them refer to actual walls and two to a metaphorical ‘wall’ of politicians. The last one looks more like the current usage, but it’s from 2011 and presumably isn’t connected.

    What changed on the 14th of August 2019? This:

    I won’t import the entire thread (the link should work if you want to read the whole thing). These excerpts should give you the idea.

    The ‘unders’ are constituencies where the results don’t fall according to the factors that seem to determine voting patterns most of the time – which is to say, group-based factors built on individual factors such as social class, level of education, type of employment and ethnicity. More specifically, they’re seats that haven’t gone Tory the way they would have done if those factors had determined the way people voted. And they’re not randomly dotted about the place; they’re clustered. Here’s one such cluster.

    (The other three groups were: Tory seats in the southwest which might be vulnerable to the Lib Dems; Tory seats held by first-time incumbents; and Labour seats in ex-mining areas, specifically south Wales and the North East. Only one seat in the whole of those two groups went to the Tories in 2019 – North-West Durham – so I won’t consider them for the time being.)

    Here’s the first – the original – map of the Red Wall. Just to hammer on this point one more time, what you’re looking at are Labour seats “where the UK Conservative Party has historically [sic], and still is, under-performing”; areas that “vote differently to how you would expect them to demographically”; an “entire stretch [that] shouldn’t be all Labour [on the basis of demographics] but is”.

    There are a couple of odd things about this map. One is that, despite the previous comment, these seats weren’t “all Labour”; the inverted-L-shaped seat halfway across is Cheadle, which not only isn’t but never has been Labour, and was presumably included on the basis of Tory underperformance. The other is that a seat not being shaded in red doesn’t mean it isn’t Labour – on the contrary, it means either that it isn’t Labour or that it’s solidly Labour, Labour by vote and by (typified) demographics.

    There’s your Red Wall, though; that’s what it originally meant. It’s a Wall because they’re contiguous or nearly, and it’s Red because they’re Labour and shouldn’t be. It’s a Wall because it’s vulnerable. (Perhaps “wall” wasn’t the best word to choose.)

    Next: what happened next.

    In search of the Red Wall (1)

    The next few posts are going to include a lot of maps; specifically, constituency maps. By way of introduction and caveat, this post is about misreading constituency maps.

    Political commentators, particularly at the TV news end of the trade, routinely talk about constituencies being “won” and “lost”, or “going” Labour or Conservative. Constituency maps play into this way of thinking, of course. For example, here’s High Peak constituency:

    Here’s High Peak from 1997 to 2010, and again from 2017 to 2019:

    And here’s High Peak from 2010 to 2017, and again (oh noes!) from 2019 to the present:

    The message you get from those images is that everyone, the length and breadth of this large, irregularly shaped tract of land, was Labour during the first two time periods, and that everyone was a Tory in the second two. Or if not everyone, certainly an overwhelming majority – enough people to set the tone firmly and consistently, and to make it chancy to strike up a conversation for anyone who wasn’t on the right team. Some places are like that, admittedly – in the Liverpool Walton constituency in 2019, Labour took 84.7% of the vote – but it’s not the way to bet. In High Peak specifically, 45.4% of the vote went to the Tories in 2017, when Labour won; in 2019, when the Tories won, Labour took 44.8%. Considered as an area where people live, High Peak didn’t in any meaningful sense “go Conservative” in 2019; it wasn’t in any meaningful sense “Labour” from 2017 to 2019. (If the residents of a street between them own nine cats and ten dogs, and a family moves in with two cats, has the street “gone cat”?)

    What is meaningful, of course, is that this area on the map returns one MP to Parliament, elected by a simple plurality – and it elected a Labour MP in 2017 and a Tory in 2019. But I think we should resist the siren call of common sense for a bit longer. We – for values of “we” including political commentators – do tend to talk as if a constituency electing one MP rather than another amounts to a root-and-branch transformation. It’s shorthand at best, an error at worst, and either way it’s helped along by visual aids like constituency maps.

    I don’t think the underlying motivation is just convenience, either. Think of how it feels to win a vote in a meeting: it’s great when 70% or 80% of the room is with you, but there’s a different kind of satisfaction in winning a vote by the narrowest possible margin, right down to 50% plus one. You put the motion, we voted, the motion was carried – that’s the end of it! Let’s move on! This branch (now) supports Jeremy Corbyn/an all-out strike/free broadband, and there’s nothing the opponents of the motion can do about it. Doesn’t matter if the vote was won by a single vote, doesn’t matter if four people who would have voted the other way got to the meeting a minute late and were refused admission; the vote’s been taken, it’s done, and that’s our policy. Boom!

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t get a kick out of those times when we manage to stitch up the Right instead of getting stitched up by them – I’m not a complete spoilsport – let alone that we shouldn’t do it; “but today the struggle” and so forth. But I do think we should be aware of the bad faith involved – or, if this isn’t too meta, that we should be aware that we are aware of the bad faith involved. When we win by pulling strokes, we say we’ve won fair and square; when we focus (or are made to focus) on the strokes we’ve pulled, we say the other side does worse, and anyway it’s time to move on to the next battle. We do know what we’re doing, though – and we get a bit of a kick out of getting away from it.

    Which, getting back to my subject, is also how the “Labour Takes The North” / “Labour’s Strongholds Crumble” stories work, emotionally speaking. We know perfectly well that very little has actually changed when a constituency goes from a 48/45 Labour/Tory split to 44/45; and we know that an electoral system with plurality-based single-member constituencies offers democratic representation only to a minority of voters. We also know (or can find out very easily) that 20 of the 27 general elections since 1918 have given a single party a two- or three-figure majority of MPs, and that three-quarters of the twenty have produced a Conservative majority. All of this suggests that there’s something unsatisfactory about claiming that High Peak “went” Conservative in 2019 – particularly considering that the “defeated” Labour candidate took more votes than the winning candidate in any of the elections from 2001 to 2015. But no – those are the rules, the vote was won fair and square, that’s the end of it! Move on! There’s a sneaking satisfaction in the unfairness of the result, and in the perversity of insisting on treating it as fair and valid – not just for Tories (in this instance), but for anyone who’s got a professional or personal investment in this (freakishly antiquated, absurdly unrepresentative) electoral system.

    So don’t listen – or listen with a large pinch of salt – when you hear that the Tories are making inroads into Labour’s heartlands; or that they’re laying siege to Labour strongholds; or that the Red Wall is crumbling.

    Apart from anything else, what Red Wall?

    Reflection

    10th June 2020

    “Had we introduced lockdown a week earlier we’d have reduced the final death toll by at least half,” [Neil Ferguson] told MPs on the House of Commons science committee. “The measures, given what we knew about the virus then, were warranted. Certainly had we introduced them earlier we’d have seen many fewer deaths.”

    Official figures on Wednesday show the death toll from the virus already stands at 41,128, suggesting that if Ferguson is right, more than 20,000 lives could have been saved by taking more draconian action earlier. …

    Johnson declined to express regret that the government did not act sooner, saying the data is not yet available to make a full assessment.

    23rd December 2020

    Introducing a national lockdown in England one week earlier could have saved more than 20,000 lives during the first wave of coronavirus, a new study has concluded.

    Experts from Imperial College London looked at the transmission of coronavirus across England and how effective restrictions brought in to suppress the virus were. The study said: “Among control measures implemented, only national lockdown brought the reproduction number below 1 consistently; introduced one week earlier it could have reduced first wave deaths from 36,700 to 15,700.”

    A government spokesperson said: “Every death from this virus is a tragedy and our condolences go out to everyone who has lost a loved one. … We have been guided by the advice of scientific experts and our response helped to ensure the NHS was not overwhelmed. As new emerging evidence has come through, we have constantly adapted our approach and have taken swift action to stop its spread.”

    15th March 2021

    “There was a genuine argument in government, which everyone has subsequently denied,” one senior figure tells me, about whether there should be a hard lockdown or a plan to protect only the most vulnerable, and even encourage what was described to me at that time as “some degree of herd immunity”. … real consideration was given to whether suppressing Covid entirely could be counter-productive.

    On 3 March, when the prime minister set out the government’s plan, the focus was on detecting early cases and preventing the spread. But on 12 March, with journalists crammed into the state dining room at No 10, he told the public that the country was facing its worst health crisis in a generation. Anyone with symptoms was told to stay at home for a week. …

    On 13 March, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee concluded the virus was spreading faster than thought. … Then, one official says, everything started to move at “lightning speed”. … On 16 March, the public were told to stop all unnecessary social contact and to work at home if possible.

    9th January 2021

    I’m pretty sure I know where and when I was infected and indeed who passed it on to me. In late March, a day or two before the first lockdown came into effect I walked into York city centre with a bravado that turned out to be hubris. … This was before masks in shops became mandatory and before people really started to wear them. While queueing in Boots I noticed, too late, that the cashier had a nasty cough. I was too embarrassed to leave the line before it was my turn to be served …  She must have known this was a symptom of covid and, for that matter, her store manager must have known it too – she should have been told to self-isolate and supported on full pay. I can’t be 100% sure I got the virus from her, but it seems highly likely. Sometimes I wonder if the elderly woman who was behind me in the queue is still alive.

    6th July 1954

    “But we didn’t feel hardship at all, we believed that tomorrow would be fine and beautiful: a sun red as blood and before us, a great road filled with light, a beautiful garden”.

    The voice of Pin Yin reaches us from that nightfall into which – at what speed in miles per second of the turning world? – our friends and our most certain allies have gone and continue to vanish. If nothing else, civil war will have the best of justifications.

    (Sources: Heather Stewart and Ian Sample (Guardian), Shaun Lintern (Independent), Laura Kuenssberg (BBC), Ed Rooksby (1975-2021), Guy-Ernest Debord.)

    Something really fishy: Oh, Ramona

    Here, then, is what I think is going on in Leon – or Ramona, as it should probably be called; Ramona and Grace in Cyberspace, perhaps. At any rate, here are the lyrics again, corrected (again) and this time with character attributions. I’ve reordered the three “suites” (“Leon takes us outside”/”The enemy is fragile”/”I am with name”) but otherwise left the unknown bootleggers’ handiwork pretty much intact. Reading the observation that “Leon takes us outside” is the only suite with both a start and an ending, I was tempted to reorder the “tracks” more comprehensively, but in the end I decided that the chaotic ending of “I am with name” makes a more fitting conclusion than the dreamy slow fade at the end of “LTUO”. I did move the “Stuck in a Web” monologue down a bit, though, on the basis that we should meet Baby Grace Blue in the outside world before we hear her cyberspace avatar. (Assuming that is who’s speaking at that point, which of course is debatable.)

    Anyway, here’s what I ended up with. Share and enjoy!

    Leon Blank: “25th June, 16th, Wednesday, July 6th, 2001 midwinter, June 6th, Wednesday, August 18th, 9th, 1999, 12th, Michaelmas, August, 13th, October 13th, afternoon, in view of nothing, 2001, Martin Luther King Day, 12th, August 13th, 17th June. 19th January, midwinter”

    Narrator: “First time that I felt your grace, a tear [meaning ‘rip’] ran down my cheek. The first time that I saw the boil – put it on the neck…”

    Nathan Adler: “I never see English anymore. Last time I saw him he was standing by a pile of cantaloupes under the lamplight. I look up at the blood-red sky and I saw the words ‘Ramona A. Stone’ – as sure as you can see the nose on my face, or the graze on my arm, or the boil on my neck, or the foot on my ankle, or the car in my garage, or the wife in my kitchen, or a cloud in the sky, or a cow in a field, or the sun and the moon…. holy sun!”

    Narrator: “We go through the crowd in Oxford town, moving on the sidewalk, faces to the ground. Oxford town…”

    Rock star: “You got a breath-filled crowd here tonight, Eli!”

    Nathan Adler: “Someone once said that beauty is only a deep skin. Why, it’s always been a stone in my flesh, I’ll tell you that for nothing. You’re better off without it. I mean, who eats the hard skin now? It ain’t Ramona A. Stone, that’s for sure. That don’t-wanna bitch is hanging around with cannibals, producing shots of white babies fastened to the arms of blind heifers. All the babies left home and the sky’s made of chrome – a breath-filled sky and it’s made of chrome. It was the night of an OK riot – she swanned along the street with her waving hair and her research grants… Choc-a-bloc babies in the heart, a block of black decay in the room – O what a room it was, what a womb, what a tomb it became! I’d rather be an OK riot; I’d rather be chrome than stay here at home. Don’t go near the bones, Leon can you hear? Get away Julie, don’t go there, there’s really a lot to fear. A breath-filled crowd, they might be super loud. They eat the hard skin, they sit on the lamplight, they’re white and black and loud. I’d rather be sitting on a cloud, I’d rather be eight foot loud, I’d rather be chrome. Well, I’ll bitch slap her home – I’m gonna be chrome! Beauty is a stone! I wanna be chrome!

    Protector: “Friends of the Trust, you’ve been a breath-filled crowd tonight! You’ve been positively fly boys! We are surely on our way upon that superhighway of information. As far I’m concerned, you are all number one packet sniffers! So sing with me. We’ll creep together, you and I, under a bloodless chrome sky. We’ll find the small things, you and I; we’ll just have small friends, you and I; we’ll be small together, you and I. We’ll end together, you and I.”

    Nathan Adler: “Huh! As far as I was concerned, there was always the slime end of the silicone chip biz. It seems that Ramona and Leon had just spiralled down into the cesspool. Like I always say, a person who loses a name feels anxiety descending. But hey, if I heard it right, she was always behaving like some don’t-wanna bitch. She was a well-blind woman, he was a well-intentioned man; this makes for a bad end. As I always said, it would end in chrome. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

    Narrator: “Oh Ramona, can you hear me?”

    Connoisseur: “What are you in terror of? Life needn’t step on baby fingers. The minutes fall, and the daemons find their ways unencumbered, half dead, poisoned by their own fatal art. Each dirty tune produces its own nobility of form; each pays a different piper – a daft pauper. O machine, how did we fail thee? I guess I feel like a machine that cannot be cranked any more. My gadives[?] are broken and bent, like a wall strangled by ivy -”

    Nathan Adler: “I remember a dame called Ivy – drove around in a hearse. Some way south on Oxford Town, near the mosque. Graffiti, cappuccino, you name it – they had it all. Those were the days. In those days everyone was psychopolitical – not the humbug packet sniffers they are now. Take Leon… please!”

    Connoisseur: “The editors have done an excellent job. The selections are generous, the notations are scrupulously scholarly. To believe that the quality of a CD-ROM can be conveyed through translation may seem presumptuous, but I believe the enterprise is greatly successful.”

    Narrator: “This is a magnificent achievement, a major triumph of Wolof music; a truly precious addition to the sum total of Wolof in English.”

    Connoisseur: “The editorial apparatus of this CD-ROM leaves nothing to be desired”

    Narrator: “The editorial apparatus of the CD leaves nothing to be desired. It leaves nothing to be desired!”

    Voices: “Nothing to be desired!”

    Narrator: “Mind changing! Mind changing! Change your mind changing! Stand by!

    Voices: “Nothing to be desired!”

    Narrator: “And there’s nothing to be desired – if not fishy! Nothing to be desired! Nothing! Nothing to be desired! It’s your mind changing!”

    Radio announcer: “In far off California, there is no natural plan. Its mighty branching and its preponderant boughs weigh heavy on a Sontag morning.”

    Baby Grace Blue: “Test, testing, testing. This… Grace is my name. And, and there was… It was a phot… a fading photograph of a patch, a patchwork quilt. And they’ve put me on these… Ramona put me on these interest drugs, so I’m thinking very, too, bit too fast like a brain patch, like I’ve got this… this soul brain patch, and it’s got… I got the shakers on it with this neuro-transmitter. And… they won’t let me see anybody except the breeders in the enclave and the check players, and I can still hear some…. if I want to sometimes and I ask I can still hear some pop… popular musics and aftershocks. And they say what… they say what were… what were you doing? what was I doing when I saw the small friends? And I said that I’ve been watching a television of, a television of Jeffreys In the Press, about the British revolution and something about the second Protector, who was a news coaster in the homelands – yes, the new homelands. And then I recognized the small friends because one of them was a very infamous, and he was a grand visioner, he was the grand visioner, the one who was on a television, who made soul patches the law, and… that’s all I can remember. And now they just want me to be quiet and to worship the lot, and I think something is going to be horrid.”

    Director: “Hello Leon. Would you like something really fishy? I gave up flogging in Oxford. The enemy is fragile! Who has seen this furious man? Who will rid me of this shaking head?”

    Narrator: “It was just a fading photograph, slumped on the black leather sofa, glass fronted, forgotten by the last tenant.”

    Director: “Who will rid me of this shaking head? Who has seen this furious man? The enemy is fragile! But he has no… The enemy has always been here. You could have been fighting to the death, but no! Well, wrap up and we’ll go dancing, Leon! Dance fishing? Something in her mouth. There’s something in her mouth, something mysterious. Between patois and Beckett. I bet it is a speech.”

    Narrator: “Sample techniques, exponents of the greatest Wolof band of the 21st century. Phase techniques, and rich 21st century Spanish incantations.”

    Director: “You are: a permutation! You are: a patois! You are: Chinese poetry! You are: something mysterious! You are: speed through delay! You are: patois and Beckett! You are: fighting to the death! You are: flogging! You are: something really fishy! You are: whispering! You are: warning!”

    Baby Grace Blue: “I think we’re stuck in a web. A sort of… nerve net, as it were; a sort of… nerve Internet, as it were.”

    Voices: “Red dog! Red dog!”

    Baby Grace Blue: “We might be here for quite a long time – here in this web… or Internet, as it were.”

    Voices: “And, and, and red dog!”

    Baby Grace Blue: “Got to get away, get away, got to get away”

    Algeria Touchshriek: “My name is Mr Touchshriek, of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy. I sell ache shells off the she-sores and empty females. I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop to a Mr Wolof Bomberg, a reject from the world-wide Internet. He is a broken man; I am also a broken man. It will be nice to have company; we could have great conversations. Possibly, just maybe, after a nice cup of tea, from a trip of the tongue we’ll creep together down a memory lane, and then we’ll be young and full of bubbly ambition, instead of the slump males that we are. Looking through windows for daemons, watching the young advancing, all electric… A small shop on the corner is really no more than a dark spiral with no end. I’m in a street behind the Museum of Modern Parts. The buildings are close together, no more than ten feet between one side of the street and the other. There’s not much in the way of daylight, but at least we don’t get the rain, which is a blessing. Some of the houses still have inhabitants in them; I’m not sure if they’re from this country or not. I don’t get to speak much to anyone, or that sort of thing. If I had another broken man – oh, I dream of something like that.”

    Touchshriek (fading): “Not sure if they’re from this country or not…”

    Touchshriek (full volume): “I mean, who am I supposed to be driving?”

    Director: “A snapper with a foetal heart who resents all stupid questions, Ramona A. Stone put her arms around a boy – the golden boy with a lion’s heart, the boy who lives outside, an urchin among immortals. Leon! Lift up your eyes! The very stars are calling! Your name is Leon, Leon is your name! Murder you will do! Leon, lift up your eyes! [repeats with variations and embellishments, rapidly becoming unintelligible]

    Ramona A. Stone: “I am with name, I am Ramona A. Stone. A night fear female, good timing drone.”

    Narrator: “And she should say:”

    Ramona A. Stone: “Twitch and scream, it’ll end in chrome, the night of the female good time drone.”

    Narrator: “And she should say:”

    Nathan Adler: “A person who loses a name feels anxiety descending – left at the crossroads between the centuries, a millennium fetish.”

    Narrator: “And she should say:”

    Ramona A. Stone: “I am with name, I am Ramona A Stone”

    Narrator: “Anxiety descending, anxiety descending…”

    Anxious man: “I won’t eat me, it will hide me, he should take them, I won’t tell it, she can’t take them, it will do less, he said tell it, he said smell this, he should do this, he should be there, she can’t hide me, he said do less, he said tell it, I won’t take them, she can’t eat me, he said kill that! He said take them, he said be there, I won’t kill that, it will be there, she can’t eat me, I won’t hide me, it will tell me, he said hide me, I won’t be there, he said hide me, he said be there, I won’t hide me, they won’t smell this, he should hide me, I won’t kill that, it will take them! They won’t tell it, she can’t be there, they won’t hide me, he should hide me, they won’t hide me, she can’t be there, it will hide me, he should eat me, he should take them, he should take them, I won’t kill that, they won’t be there, they won’t tell it, I won’t take them, I won’t eat me, I won’t eat me, I won’t eat me! They won’t do less, he said tell it, they won’t take them, it will hide me, it will smell this! They won’t kill that, he should hide me, I won’t hide me, she can’t be there, I won’t tell it, I won’t eat me, they won’t tell it, he should smell this, he said be there, he should kill that, I will take them, they won’t eat me, she can’t eat me, I won’t hide me, they won’t do less, he should eat me, he should hide me! They won’t smell this! She can’t tell it! I won’t be there! He should eat me! He said tell it! Smell this!”

    Nathan Adler: “Old Touchschriek was a domain name server, suspected of being a shoulder surfer or finger hacker. This old guy didn’t know from shit about challenge/response systems – he was way back in the age of cellular clones. We knew that Ramona A. Stone was selling interest drugs and magic cookies; she got males all hung up on her mind filters. She was a router and a swapper – she was, if you don’t mind me saying so, a fuckin’ update daemon. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to when it all began.”

    Ramona A. Stone: “I was Ramona A. Stone. I started with no enemies of my own; I was an artiste in a tunnel. But I’ve been having a MIDI-life crisis and I’ve been dreaming of sleep and apemen with metal parts. I’ve spat upon deeply-felt age – come to my real goddess! I’ve hid my hard skin under a freckham[?] sky. I’ll get the funny-coloured English… Oh… we’ll creep together, you and I. We know who the small friends are. My, this is a crazy world. At this time, you could think of me as a ‘syllannibal’: someone who eats their own words.”

    Lounge singer: “We’ll creep together, you and I. Just a trip of the tongue from a slump male – a mumble slouch unreal… (How many a true remark!) We’ll creep together, you and I. Way back in the Laugh Hotel, I’ll reel out the window…You die for diamonds but you won’t live for love!”

    Leon Blank: “She’s a don’t-wanna bitch, behaves like a don’t-wanna bitch, but she is all I’ve got.”

    Ramona A. Stone: “I am with rose, I am with babies, I am with chrome, I am Ramona A. Stone. It’ll end in chrome. This is the chrome, my friends, the chrome.”

    Nathan Adler: “Then there was nothing left to do but to bring on the Nut Soldiers, round up the packet sniffers and clear up what remained of that sensational mouth. It’s sensational, her mouth – just a little untight. Excuse me while I wax poetic. The ashes that ran, fleshy debris and silicone chip-bits, electrocutes the evil and smells. Thank you. For me, it’s like plain chaos, and I am the fixer.”

    MC: “Thank you very much! Well, you asked for them, so here they are – The Leek Soldiers! Twist, fly boy, brace for me, twist, fly boy, wrecked, flexed, heaven erect, brace for ready, twist, fly boy! Twist hardware, push the ziplock, twist hardware, melt them, wreck them, break through, go for the flare, fly boy!”

    Nathan Adler: “At this time, before you could say boo to the goose, Leon was up on that oh-so-heavy party stage, with a kris-kris machete. He could not wait for 12 o’clock midnight. He slashes around, cuts a zero in everything – I mean, a zero in the fabric of time itself. I says to myself, Whoa! Quelle courage! What nerve!”

    Anxious man: “They won’t kill that it will hide me he should take them I won’t tell it she can’t take them it will do this he said tell it he said smell this he should do less! He should be there she can’t hide me he said do this he said tell it I won’t take them she can’t eat me he said kill that he said take them he should be there! He should do less!”

    Expert: “Some day the Internet may become an information superhighway. Don’t make me laugh! A 19th century railroad that passes through the badlands of the Old West. Someday the Internet may become an information superhighway. Do not make me laugh!”

    Narrator: “It was a great conversation.”

    Comic (with ventriloquist’s dummy): “Hey Bunny, say goodnight” [“Say goodnight”] (repeats with variations)

    Comic: “Hey hey, here we are back at the Laugh Hotel! [“Back at the Laugh Hotel!”]

    Comic: I was sittin’ there at the Laugh Hotel the other night looking for window daemons, when in comes this Leon in a jungle weed, a mumble slouch unreal, maybe a triple-lock, a trip of the tongue from a slump male…”

    Algeria Touchshriek: “I’m Mr. Touchshriek of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy, and I sell ache shells off the she-sore and empty females. I met Leon once. Bit of a dark spiral with no end, I thought. Sunday mail-over with his deeply felt grace.”

    Something really fishy: The chrome

    1. We’ll creep together

    If Leon isn’t about art, flesh and the millennium (as its traces on 1. Outside would suggest), and if it is about something – not just a free-wheeling verbal jam session punctuated by recordings of crowd noise – then… what?

    I’d suggest that the lyrics evoke a number of weird and problematic scenarios, each of which had fascinated Bowie for years at a time and some of which fascinated him now. Picture a charismatic leader, someone who could summon thousands of willing volunteers to fight for him and – just as importantly – hold millions of spectators in passive, fascinated thrall, each one convinced that they had a personal relationship with the great one. (Imagine that, eh?) Picture individuals so powerful, and/or so glamorous and charismatic, that they could bend others to their will without compunction, exploiting and even destroying young, innocent victims. Picture an art scene whose high-status experts and connoisseurs combine impeccable taste with utter creative exhaustion, and whose every innovation comes from the street – from artists and practitioners who have no savoir-faire but have creative energy to burn; imagine the role of fixers and impresarios in a scene like that. (Alternatively, picture a pop scene… Bowie once characterised 1. Outside as a follow-up to “Please, Mr Gravedigger” – and perhaps Leon is the follow-up to “Join the Gang”.) Picture a drug which seems to admit users to another, better, reality, and which progressively occupies their lives and soaks up their will to the point of swallowing them up completely. And picture an individual who gets caught up in the wheels of one, or more than one, of these glittering but brutally exploitative relationships, and whose mind and identity come unglued as a result.

    Got all that? Now, imagine that they’re all the same thing. Imagine that “art scene” and “drug” and “political leader” aren’t quite what those words usually mean, but…

    …the Internet.

    Yes, I know. But bear in mind that the Leon sessions took place in 1994 – the first graphical Web browser was only released that year. Bowie was a very early adopter. And it’s probably fair to say that what he was envisaging was something more like the immersive 3D fantasy of “cyberspace” – some kind of combination of VR/AR, Second Life and Google Earth – than the ubiquitous but stubbornly screen- and text-based medium we now know. There, in cyberspace, new charismatic leaders could recruit devoted followers from around the world, and attract an unlimitedly vast audience of spectators; new art-forms could arise from every inner city on the planet and be instantaneously communicated to the arbiters of taste, or else bypass them and go direct to a world-wide audience; while the experience of cyberspace itself might become a drug like no other. Culture would change; language would change; even the way people think would change, accelerating to match the speed of computing – and perhaps going beyond the capacities of the unaided human brain. Indeed, this world would create untold new opportunities for people to go astray, to lose their minds or throw away their lives – and for unscrupulous people to exploit and debauch the innocent.

    This, I think, is the world of Leon. Here, for example, are the second passage of text in the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, and an extract from the third:

    The first time that I felt your grace, a tear [meaning ‘rip’] ran down my cheek
    The first time that I saw the boil – put it on the neck…

    Last time I saw him he was standing by a pile of canteloupes under the lamplight. I look up at the blood-red sky and I saw the words ‘Ramona A. Stone’. As sure as you can see the nose on my face, or the graze on my arm, or the boil on my neck…

    Setting aside the weird fascination with boils, what’s going on here? When would you put a boil on someone’s neck, and when would a rip run down your cheek? I’m picturing avatar construction, glitching slightly: ‘my’ cheek is the cheek of my Street Fighter, my Second Life skin, my Mii. (1994, ladies and gentlemen.) And when do you see a red sky with writing in it, as clear as the nose on your face? This is Augmented Reality territory, I think – what we’d now (after Pokemon Go) consider a gamification of everyday life. Only without the game, or – apparently – the screen to see it all on, or through. This seems like a massive leap beyond the technology we know, but it’s worth remembering that the technology we know wasn’t a reference point in 1994: smart phones, and tablets with cameras and Internet connectivity, were still a long way off. Instead, the narrative of Leon seems to see cyberspace as something you enter, or jack into, in person – perhaps through drugs, perhaps through some kind of implant like Larry Niven’s drouds (consider Ramona A. Stone’s “MIDI-life crisis”).

    And, as with drugs, you can get into it, or you can get deep into it. I think this is the significance of the ‘blood-red sky’, and the pile of canteloupes for that matter: the speaker is in, but he’s still walking around this world as well. Go deeper – replace AR with VR, give up on the physical world altogether in favour of an immersive, 3D experience of cyberspace – and something else happens to the sky:

    The babies left home
    And the sky’s made of chrome

    We’ll creep together, you and I
    Under a bloodless chrome sky

    From a blood-red sky to a bloodless ‘chrome’ sky – and on to vague but ominous statements such as “this is the chrome” and “it’ll end in chrome”… But why “chrome”?

    2. Leon: a glossary in three parts

    Computing terminology

    NB With few exceptions, these terms do not have these definitions when they are used in Leon.

    challenge/response systems: “An authentication method used to prove the identity of a user logging into the network.” (PC Mag Encyclopedia)
    crawler: “a program that searches for information on the Web … widely used by Web search engines to index all the pages on a site by following the links from page to page” [NB does not appear in Leon; see creep]
    daemon: “a Unix/Linux program that executes in the background ready to perform an operation when required”
    domain name server: a server within the Domain Name System (DNS), “the Internet’s system for converting alphabetic names into numeric IP addresses … a hierarchy of duplicated database servers worldwide”
    finger hacker: someone who acquires passwords, PINs etc by watching the finger movements of people entering them; see shoulder surfer
    information superhighway: “A proposed high-speed communications system that was touted by the Clinton/Gore administration [1993-2000] to enhance education in America in the 21st century … with the explosion of the Web, the Internet became the information superhighway whether it was ready for it or not.”
    MIDI: “a standard protocol for the interchange of musical information between musical instruments, synthesizers and computers”
    packet sniffer: “software that captures packets transmitted in a network for routine inspection and problem detection”
    router: “device that forwards data from one network to another”
    shoulder surfer: someone who “[looks] over someone’s shoulder to obtain passwords, PINs and other security codes being entered”; see finger hacker
    silicone chip: misspelling and/or mispronunciation of “silicon chip”
    swapper: operating system software responsible for “replacing one segment of a program in memory (RAM) with another part of the program and restoring it back to the original if required”
    update daemon: see daemon
    window: delimited area of a computer screen, element of a graphical user interface

    SF terminology

    brain patch: a permanent upgrade to the brain enabling direct access to cyberspace; also soul patch
    chrome: apparently a one-word synonym for immersive cyberspace, seen as a powerful and seductive experience but liable to drain the life of anyone who strayed into it. Evokes William Gibson and possibly Frank Zappa.
    creep: always ‘together’ (the phrase is used by four different characters); apparently a gratifying shared experience of venturing into cyberspace. Possibly an alternative/garbled version of ‘crawl’ (cf. crawler)
    interest drugs: psychotropic drugs tending to accelerate mental processes; used with brain patch and mind filters
    magic cookies: see interest drugs
    mind filters: either synonymous with brain patch, or a semi-permanent intermediate stage between interest drugs and brain patch
    soul patch: see brain patch

    Other (possibly derived from cut-ups/Verbasizer)

    anxiety descending: unclear why anxiety should descend, unless it’s an image of anxiety descending on somebody
    breath-filled crowd: presumably a crowd of people who are present in person rather than having sent their avatars
    don’t-wanna bitch: a reluctant female
    fly boys: probaby a term of approval
    freckham: “I’ve hid my hard skin under a freckham sky”; unknown
    gadives: “I feel like a machine that cannot be cranked any more. My gadives are broken and bent”; unknown
    hard skin: something that may be eaten or hidden; associated with beauty (which Nathan Adler characterises as “a deep skin” and “a stone in my flesh”); possibly a shameful reminder of the body’s physicality(?)
    Laugh Hotel: apparently a venue where art dealers / talent scouts / abusers can pick up fresh talent
    Leek Soldiers: unclear; see Nut Soldiers
    mumble slouch unreal: this phrase is used by two different characters, but the sense and even the wording is uncertain
    Nut Soldiers: unclear; see Leek Soldiers
    OK riot: a riot which is seen as safe(?), possibly because participants are not physically present(?); compare breath-filled crowd
    slump male: an ageing, burnt-out male
    small friends: contacts who facilitate a journey into cyberspace (see creep); possibly avatars of an exploiter who stands to gain from new recruits, possibly autonomous software agents (see daemon)

    3. A cast of thousands

    There’s no way to be sure how many characters there are in Leon. On one run-through, noting down a new character every time I heard a voice I couldn’t be sure I’d heard before, I got up to 28; this didn’t include any ‘chorus’ voices, such as the ones which join in on “Nothing to be desired”, so presumably a really scrupulous count would return a total in the 30s. A more parsimonious accounting – making a few assumptions about continuing characters and relegating those chorus voices to anonymity – gives a figure in the mid-teens; still quite a few, although several only have one appearance or even one line. I should also acknowledge that how some of the characters relate to the storyline is less than clear; sometimes, perhaps, it really was just Bowie having fun doing voices. Here’s what I’ve got, though, listed in order of appearance but with minor characters given separately.

    Major characters

    Leon Blank: a young (performance?) artist who comes to the attention of Ramona A. Stone and begins a relationship with her; he is then enlisted by her (or by the Director) to carry out a killing, or possibly to investigate it or be framed for it (or both).

    Nathan Adler: a private eye; a disjointed and unreliable narrative voice, appearing more than any other character but not saying anything about himself. Offers a disenchanted outsider’s perspective on cyberspace (“the slime end of the silicone-chip biz”); reminiscent of Blade Runner, particularly the original version (with voice-over). (NB Blade Runner also features a character named Leon.)

    Protector: according to Baby Grace Blue, “the second Protector” took power after “the British revolution”; he is also referred to as one of “the small friends” and as “the grand visioner … who made soul patches the law”. This appears to be the same person heard addressing an adoring crowd in upper-class Received Pronunciation, commending them as “number one packet-sniffers” and offering to “creep together” – and “end together” – with them.

    Connoisseur: a voice with the affected tones and high-RP diction of a caricature aesthete or critic; think Brian Sewell.

    Baby Grace Blue: victim of kidnapping by Ramona A. Stone, possibly working on behalf of the Protector. Ramona puts Grace on “interest drugs” and has her record a statement, which Grace ends by anticipating that something “horrid” is going to happen to her. What does happen to Grace is not known, although it appears at one point that she (or her consciousness) is “stuck in a Web”, i.e. permanently uploaded into cyberspace.

    Director: a person who recruits Leon and alternately scolds and encourages him to carry out unspecific acts, possibly including murder. May be Ramona A. Stone herself, but probably an employee or associate.

    Algeria Touchshriek: a shopkeeper (possibly a pimp or procurer), conscious of his advanced age and low physical status as a “slump male” or “broken man”; Cockney accent. Owns a shop close to the Museum of Modern Parts[sic]. May have connections with Ramona A. Stone; claims to have met Leon only once.

    Ramona A. Stone: a former artist, whose works appear to involve babies, turned art world impresario. Also, apparently, a drug dealer and an explorer of cyberspace, possibly involving body modification (cf. Orlan, Kevin Warwick). Named by six characters, herself included. By the endit appears that Ramona‘s physical body has been dismembered; her voice continues to appear, and on one occasion refers to herself in the past tense (“I was Ramona A. Stone”), suggesting that Ramona has been uploaded into cyberspace.

    Anxious man: a man in the throes of a mental breakdown, apparently triggered by being asked to do, and/or being threatened with, something unbearable (“I won’t hide me, they won’t smell this, he should hide me, I won’t kill that”…). Possibly Leon(?).

    Minor characters

    With the exception of the first, each of these voices only appears once; they can be considered as a collective Chorus, helping establish the Leon universe by highlighting details and/or reiterating comments by main characters.

    Narrator: a default category for appearances by Bowie using an unaffected singing voice or his own “David Jones” speaking voice.

    Rock star: American accent.

    Radio announcer: American accent.

    Lounge singer: sings a version of “We’ll creep together”.

    MC: introduces the Leek Soldiers.

    Expert: comments (in a German accent) on the Internet as an information superhighway.

    Stand-up comic: does a fast-talking but unfunny ventriloquist routine followed by some fast-talking but unfunny verbal comedy. American accent.

    4. Who’s there?

    So – finally – what happens in Leon, and who does it happen to? It’s not – like 1. Outside – the story of the ritual art-murder of Baby Grace Blue, although it seems unlikely that Grace is alive and well by the end of the story. There’s no Minotaur, for a start – no death-crazed sadistic artist – and only a passing suggestion of pre-millennial psychosis. It’s the story of a world where fleshly bodies and physical presence are strictly optional, generating equal and opposite fascinations with transcending the physical body and with fleshy physicality itself (the babies, the hard skin, the breath-filled crowdthe breeders in the enclave, that sensational mouth). Primarily it’s the story of Ramona A. Stone, artist of human physicality, cybernaut, psychonaut, impresario and recruiter, variously seen making art with (or from) babies and their mothers, wading into a riot “with her waving hair and her research grants”, and disappearing into cyberspace so completely that even her body is reduced to ash. But it’s also about Leon, who may or may not have done something terrible, and may or may not have been driven mad as a result; about the ‘small friends’ who lure Baby Grace Blue (and others) into cyberspace, one of whom appears (just by the way) to be the charismatic dictator of Britain; and about the joys of “creeping together”, for everyone from that dictator’s followers to “slump male” Touchshriek. It’s a story of art, and drugs, and death, and madness, and sexual exploitation, and political Supermen – all fictionalised through the master-trope of cyberspace. Short of including the Compuserve address for the Free Tibet campaign, it couldn’t be much more on-brand for Bowie, or much more on-trend for 1994.

    There were problems with it, though. It wasn’t an album, not as such (a stipulation which has all the more force if we remember that the 70 minutes we can hear stands in for 30+ hours of tape). Musically it sounds loose and unfinished – it sounds like a series of jams, in fact, which is of course what it is. Some of them sound pretty good, but none of them is really ready to go as a song (although a couple of the instrumental pieces would work as they stand). And lyrically it’s – not to put too fine a point on it – weird as hell. The manifold loose ends (what did happen to Baby Grace? why is that man having a breakdown?) aren’t the problem; if anything the problem is the reverse, the coherence of the world-building. We’ve got a whole fictional world here, with its own politics, its own artforms, its own language and – in particular – its own voices. We’re ushered “outside” by Leon Blank, mumbling an incomprehensible series of dates; then there’s a single verse sung in Bowie’s familiar voice, but on inspection that’s incomprehensible too. From then on we’re very largely in the hands of Nathan Adler, who speaks and sings in an unprepossessing growl reminiscent of the Residents and – despite his gumshoe stylings and verbal tics like “as I always said” – plainly isn’t speaking contemporary American English. Outside? We’re inside; the door’s swung shut and locked us into an alien world for the next seventy minutes. Happy landings!

    Bowie had only ventured into concept-album territory twice before, with Diamond Dogs and before that with Ziggy. Both involve building a science-fictional world, but neither of them has anything like this all-enveloping quality; in fact, both albums are extremely loose, apparently by design. “Dodo” and “Alternative Candidate” – cut from Diamond Dogs – plainly belong on that album, which you couldn’t say of “Rock’n’roll with me” or “Rebel Rebel”; it’s not hard to imagine a Young Americans version of “RNRWM”. (Just as the non-album “Velvet Goldmine” and “Sweet Head” are pure Ziggy Stardust songs – unlike “Moonage Daydream” (written for Arnold Corns) and “It ain’t easy” (a cover which Bowie used to sing with his mates).) And this was very much the approach that Bowie would eventually take with 1. Outside – there was a concept, but there were also some banging tunes, and then there was some other stuff that he was into at the time. Which made life more interesting for Bowie himself (who got bored very easily) and it also made the whole thing more commercial – so really, everyone was happy. It meant that the Leon tapes got left behind and forgotten, but who cared about that? (Who knew about that?)

    So Leon was a one-off: despite his fondness for characters and voices, Bowie had never done anything like this before, and never really would again. It was a curiosity – and, at least in its time, an unreleasable curiosity. But what a curiosity!

    Something really fishy: Doing the voices

    Emmanuel Shadrack, this is your life!
    This is your life, Mr. Shadrack.
    Your life, Mr. Shadrack!
    Your LIFE, Shaddy-addy-addy-adrack! Your LIFE!
    Billy Liar (film script)

    Leon brought together two long-established but rather subterranean strands in David Bowie’s work: characters and voices. Story songs were part of Bowie’s repertoire from the very start; his 1967 “cabaret” album was full of them, and even some of the post-Mod singles he released the previous year have narratives of a sort (“The station seems so cold, the ticket’s in my hand”, or more cheerfully “I feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square and I dig everything”). Fairly early on he started keeping the stories anonymous – we never learn the name of any of the London Boys, or the Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud – but proper names contined to feature from time to time, from Mary (alias Tommy, alias Eileen) of “She’s Got Medals” to Lorraine of “Watch That Man”, Jessamine of “Always Crashing in the Same Car”, Elizabeth of “African Night Flight”, Vivian of “Bus Stop”, Shirley of “Bleed like a craze, Dad”… it goes on. And his early work – up to about 1974 – was absolutely littered with named fictional characters, especially single-named characters. There are fifteen of them on the 1967 album and its accompanying single (plus another six who also get a surname); as late as 1972 the three songs “Star”, “All the Young Dudes” and “John, I’m only dancing” namecheck ten fictional (or fictionalised) characters between them (as well as Nye Bevan).

    In the decade before Leon, Bowie had been simultaneously at a commercial peak and in a creative trough. In the mid-80s he’d tried out a few story songs with characters (“Tumble and Twirl”, “Shining Star”); then, in the harder-edged Tin Machine years, he’d switched to songs which named real people if they named anyone (Madonna, James Dean, Sugar Ray Leonard); The Buddha of Suburbia splits the difference, giving us “Shirley” (and “Charlie”) but also King Kong and Elvis (who, as you may remember, is English). What hadn’t featured since 1974’s unreleased Tommy Tinkrem was characters with both a forename and a surname – and before 1974 you have to go right back to the 1967 album and single, unless you count 1968’s (unreleased and downright obscure) Reverend Raymond Brown. Twenty years later, out they come: Marion Brent and Frankie Mear, allow me to introduce “Mr Touchshriek (of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy)”, “Mr Wolof Bomberg” and “Ramona A. Stone”, to say nothing of “Leon” [Blank], “Baby Grace” [Blue] and the (unnamed) narrator himself, Nathan Adler.

    As for the voices, what do “We are Hungry Men”, “Please Mr Gravedigger”, “The Laughing Gnome”, “After All”, “The Bewlay Brothers”, Bowie’s version of “See Emily Play”, “Future Legend”, “Fame”, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Scream like a Baby”, “Magic Dance” and “Untitled No. 1” have in common? (There’s an argument for including “The King of Stamford Hill“. The real heads can also have “Over the wall we go” and “When the fire broke out on the Rio Grande”.) The Gnome is the clue, of course: these are all tracks where Bowie, sometimes unaided but usually with studio assistance, did voices. There are more of them, and over a longer period, than you might expect; this was clearly something he was good at and enjoyed doing.

    So that’s part of what Bowie was up to in that studio in Switzerland in 1994. He hadn’t really had fun with voices – on record at least – since Scary Monsters, and he hadn’t done proper characters for absolute yonks. How about letting it all out again?

    This was clearly a fairly fluid, unboundaried process. I said in a previous post that, while musicians like Gabrels, Garson and Kızılçay aren’t going to have any difficulty jamming, a writer like Bowie doesn’t improvise songs. That said, what does seem to have happened in a couple of places is something very reminiscent of Billy Fisher’s empty-office improvs in Billy Liar:

    The editorial apparatus of the CD leaves nothing to be desired
    It leaves nothing to be desired
    Nothing to be desired!
    Nothing to be desired!
    Mind-changing!
    Mind-changing!
    Change your mind changing
    It’s your mind changing…

    Your mind, Mr Shadrack! It’s your mind changing!

    Or take the passage at the end of the “The Enemy is Fragile” suite, which I’ve tried and failed to transcribe several times, and which actually includes the phrase

    Leon, lift up your eyes! Your eyes! Your… eyes!

    Leon is being addressed here in an operatic baritone, whose exaggerated yet strangulated delivery is oddly reminiscent of later Scott Walker (in a bad way). As far as I can make out, the exhortation is made in the name of “sun-drenched Cecil”, who is possibly being referred to as “Cecil Nostrum” and possibly as “the Inoculus”. At one point the singer seems to want to tell Leon to “be immortal”, but he repeatedly stops at the T after rolling the R extravagantly – “be immorrrrrt!”. Repetitions and variations – including some sloshy Sean Connery-isms – continue for some time. Much of it is mumbled or swamped by the musical backing, but some comes tantalisingly close to being decipherable – for example, at one point the singer repeats a phrase which I hear as “heaven’s hold”, but Chris O’Leary thinks is “tennis balls“. I can at least agree with Chris that after this the song “devolves into sheer babble”.

    Improvisation, repetition, free association… babble. Even if it had a title, that song would never be in anyone’s Bowie Top Ten; it was probably more fun to be a part of than it is to listen to. And that suggests one way of looking at the Leon sessions more broadly: it was an outburst of repressed creativity (that Bowie probably hadn’t even realised had been repressed), and it went all over the place – as outbursts tend to. Here a treated voice or two (“say goodnight, Bunny”), there a cut-up lyric (“OK riot”, “breath-filled crowd”, “slump male”), everywhere a sprawling, punning game of word association football. Hence Mr Touchshriek’s sinister stock-in-trade of “ache shells from the she sore”; hence Bowie making lyrics out of an imaginary (?) review of a CD-ROM and his own (Eno-supplied) character profile; hence, even, the leap from Samuel Beckett (supposedly one of the key influences of alt-Bowie’s “live abstract poetry”) to Thomas Becket (“Who has seen this furious man? Who will rid me of this shaking head?”).

    On this argument, to say that “Be- immORRRRRT!” and “shun-drenshed Sheshil” are a bit of a mess, considered as lyrics, would be true but would miss the larger point: it’s all a bit of a mess. The heart’s filthy lesson and the rest of the “1. Outside” stuff – modern art’s fascination with human frailty considered as a form of pre-millennial psychosis – came along later and pulled it all into shape: that was why Nathan Adler was investigating Leon Blank, that was what was so menacing about Ramona A. Stone and so creepy about Algeria Touchshriek… The solution to the mystery at the heart of Leon is that there is no mystery at the heart of Leon. There’s nothing to be decoded. (Nothing to be decoded!)

    Perhaps – and perhaps there’s a bit more to it than that. Let me take you back to where it all began.

     

     

    Something really fishy: 2. Outside

    Exegi monumentum aere perennius [I have created a monument more lasting than bronze]
    – Horace, c. 13 BCE

    The heart’s filthy lesson falls upon deaf ears
    – David Bowie, c. 1994 CE

    [Author’s note: the factual details in this post are derived almost exclusively from Chris O’Leary’s indispensable Rebel Rebel and his Website Pushing Ahead of the Dame. The speculations are all mine, though.]

    While Leon clearly isn’t a finished work – apart from anything else, Bowie never finished it – I think it does have a certain weird coherence; it is possible to ask what it does, what ideas it plays with, what it’s about. One way in is to ask what Leon‘s not about. The only elements of Leon which saw the light in officially sanctioned forms are those that appear on 1. Outside – so what’s that about, to the extent that it’s not Leon? What are the non-Leon elements of Outside – which songs, and which themes, either predated the Leon improvisations or post-dated them and arose separately?

    More of 1. Outside falls into these categories than might immediately be apparent. As well as the six character “segues” (five of which first appeared in Leon), both “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” and “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” are clearly based on Leon characters and plot strands (“The Hearts Filthy Lesson” even opens with a reference to the “Laugh Hotel“). In fact, the two tracks rather neatly bookend the Leon story – or at least the 1. Outside version of the Leon story. The story ends with “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town”, which provides a brisk summary (“Baby  Grace is the victim, she was fourteen years of age”) before cutting back to the wrongly convicted Leon Blank, in prison, deprived of an artistic (or any other) career, working on his appeal and counting the days as they pass. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”, meanwhile, sets the stage for Leon by introducing the central character – “Detective Professor” Nathan Adler, specialist in “art crime”, who we hear making increasingly stressed voice notes for a colleague called ‘Paddy’. (Shades of Agent Cooper and the unseen ‘Diane’ – not the only respect in which the Leon story echoes Twin Peaks.) The final, spoken, words are crucial:

    Paddy – what a fantastic death abyss! Tell the others.

    (The words are unclear in the album version, but there’s a bootlegged studio runthrough which clearly shows that ‘death abyss’ is the phrase – as well as showing how distinctive the rhythm of the final version was, with its casual combination of slamming heavy metal and springy syncopation.)

    Why would an art specialist be a connoisseur of the ‘death abyss’? Also, what is the heart’s filthy lesson – and why does it fall on deaf ears (a phrase which I have just mistyped as ‘death ears’ for the second time in succession)? The quotation from Horace points the way. The heart’s filthy lesson is simply that the heart is just that, a heart – a very complex lump of muscle, but a lump of muscle for all that, and as such not something that can be relied on to go on functioning indefinitely. The heart’s filthy lesson, in other words, is that we’re all made of meat and we all die – and it falls on deaf ears because artists have spent the last 2,000 years staging increasingly elaborate denials of this inescapable fact, despite themselves falling victim to it at about the rate you’d expect.

    And enter Nathan Adler: how would it be, Bowie asks, if art did a 180-degree turn, from denying the meat body and its death to embracing these things – making them art’s central theme? Considering Chris Burden (one of the sources for “Joe the Lion“), considering (allegedly) self-mutilating artists like Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, considering Damien Hirt’s bisected cadavers, might it be that this pivot was already happening – and might the growing sense of pre-millennial tension make it happen faster and with more extreme effects? Instead of building palaces of ideas on the denial of the “death abyss” which lurks beneath all human achievement, might art critics and theorists switch to staring into the abyss – and seeking out more and better abysses to stare into?

    The Leon story – or at least a Leon story – starts right there, just as it comes to a dead stop in Leon Blank’s prison cell. These two tracks and the six ‘segues’ apart, however, 1. Outside material is surprisingly hard to locate relative to Leon. The male singer of “We Prick You” is enduring an aggressive interrogation and fantasising about sex by way of escape; it may be Leon Blank, but then again it may not. The paired tracks “I’m Deranged” and “No Control” express Bowie’s new-found interest in outsider art – and his longstanding fascination with the relationship between creativity and mental illness – but no connection is suggested with the deranged or out-of-control artist at the hidden heart of the Baby Grace story. Indeed, in another case the artistic theme and the Leon narrative seem to have been mutually exclusive rather than complementary: supposedly Bowie scrapped the Leon-related lyrics to “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” in favour of an alternative set of lyrics about English landscape artists, and had to be persuaded (by Reeves Gabrels) that this wasn’t a good idea. (One such artist was David Bomberg, whose name at least made it into Leon.)

    Then there are another four tracks which rework earlier material. “Hallo Spaceboy” derives from an improvisation by Reeves Gabrels and a lyric by Brion Gysin; “Strangers when we meet” first appeared on the (unjustly neglected) Buddha of Suburbia album; the title track “Outside” dates back to Tin Machine; and “Thru’ these architect’s eyes” is one of the two new compositions on 1. Outside which had been begun before the Leon improvisations, and is in any case about architecture (the visual arts again).

    So: six Leon character pieces, three songs set in the Leon-verse (stretching a point for “We Prick You”), three songs about art (including “Architect’s Eyes”); and three assorted reworks. But that’s not all; the album (which is rather long, let’s be honest) also includes another four tracks, or two pairs of tracks – or, more precisely, one pair and an overlapping group of three. The second new composition begun before the Leon sessions is “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)”, whose ungainly title seems to both state and obscure the dark central theme of the Leon/1. Outside story. We’re looking into a created “death abyss” again, but we’re looking through the eyes of the person creating it: somebody driven by a compulsive fusion of an artist’s desire to create and a sadist’s desire to cause pain, resulting in torture and murder experienced (by the artist) as the creation of an artwork. The murderous artist announces and defines himself in “The Voyeur”, after which we hear him at work in the deeply unsettling “Wishful Beginnings”:

    Please hide
    For the pain must feel like snow
    You’re a sorry little girl
    Sorry little girl

    “Wishful Beginnings” can also be seen as one of a group of three tracks, together with “The Motel” and “A Small Plot of Land”. Following on from the cover version of “Nite Flights” on Black Tie White Noise, these three tracks represent a renewed engagement with Scott Walker – an influence who would continue to fascinate Bowie at least until The Next Day (cf. “Heat”). As of 1994, it should be noted, Scott Walker hadn’t released an album in ten years. Bowie was thus embarking on the Quixotic – or Pierre Menard-like – project of following in Walker’s footsteps, in the knowledge that Walker had moved on in the mean time.

    When recording on 1. Outside was finished, Scott Walker did in fact release another album – 1995’s Tilt; it sounds nothing like these songs. That said, the project of treading in Walker’s imagined footprints was surprisingly successful – sonically on the eerie “Wishful Beginnings”, lyrically on all three. Consider:

    Poor dunce
    Swings through the tunnels
    And claws his way

    And the silence flies
    On its brief flight
    A razor sharp crap shoot affair

    We flew on the wings
    We were deep in the dead air
    And this one will never go down

    These are extracts from three different songs, each of which includes much that’s more prosaic and less unexpected, but they do suggest that Bowie had put in some serious listening. From the album Nite Flights on, Walker had a unique style – at once declamatory and evasive, lyrical and brutal, epigrammatic and disjointed – and this is, if not that, very much in its neighbourhood.

    Some of David Bowie’s best and most interesting work arose out of a collision between different themes or strands of work – which generally indicated that Bowie had got bored with one thing (and/or felt he’d mastered it) and picked up another. Diamond Dogs is the “unwritten 1984 rock opera” album, but that only accounts for three tracks (four if you include the unreleased “Dodo”); it’s also the album on which Bowie takes on contemporary dystopian SF (the opening narration, the title track and “Skeletal Family”); and responds to Lou Reed, who’d just released Berlin (the “Sweet Thing” suite and the alternative “Candidate“); and meditates on being a rock star and the gap which now existed between him and his fans (the two central tracks, “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock and Roll With Me”). Thematically it’s a mess, in other words – you could just about say that “Rebel Rebel’, “Sweet Thing” and “Diamond Dogs” are all ‘street’, while “Diamond Dogs” and “Big Brother” are both ‘sf’, but really, those are three very different streets (and two very different forms of sf). (And I haven’t even mentioned the music, which at one point goes from Isaac Hayes to Jeff Wayne in the space of two tracks.)

    Something similar seems to be true of 1. Outside: it’s an album with a group of Leon tracks and a couple of new tracks inspired by Leon; it’s the album where Bowie “did” Scott Walker (“The Motel”, “A Small Plot of Land”, “Wishful Beginnings”); it’s the album where he put some of his thoughts about art and artists, outsider artists included (“I’m Deranged”, “No Control”, “Architect’s Eyes”); and it’s also the album where he parked some other material that he wasn’t finished with, and/or that didn’t seem to belong anywhere else (“Outside”, “Strangers”, “Hallo Spaceboy”). (No wonder it’s so long.)

    The question then is where we put “The Voyeur”, taking into account that it was begun before the Leon sessions – and in particular whether we consider it, and “Wishful Beginnings”, to be part of the Leon group. As told in the 1. Outside booklet, the Baby Grace story features an unnamed artist who carries out some form of ritual murder and desecrates the corpse in the cause of art, but I wonder if this represents a later fusion of the story told in Leon with the artistic concerns of 1. Outside. If we put “The Voyeur” and “Wishful Beginnings”, along with “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”, into the “thinking about modern art” section of 1. Outside – “thinking very dark thoughts about modern art”, specifically – and assume that Leon didn’t originally tell the story of a “ritual art murder”, where does that get us? Does taking the ‘Minotaur‘ out of the picture make Leon harder to understand – or easier?

    Something really fishy: Leon

    David Bowie’s 1994 sessions produced anything up to 30 hours of recordings, most of which has never been released either officially or unofficially. Three segments totalling about 70 minutes have been leaked, under the fan-assigned name “The ‘Leon’ Suites”; some elements of this are familiar, having been reworked and incorporated into 1. Outside, but most – the great majority – isn’t. This, in fact, is the missing link (or one of them) between Eno’s multilingual future space-jam and Bowie’s pre-millennial art-ritual murder plot. Among other things.

    Here (as far as I can tell) are the lyrics to the Leon Suites. Apart from regularising the spelling and punctuation, and correcting mishearings in a couple of places, I’ve only made a couple of departures from the texts a couple of people have put online. There are no breaks or track titles in the leaked material, so I’m treating the whole thing as a single piece of work. I haven’t incorporated the (sometimes speculative) character names, for similar reasons. I have set most of the spoken-word passages as prose (no line-breaks) and in quotation marks. I also admitted defeat on the final song of the third suite, which rapidly degenerates into what may be patois – or indeed Wolof – but is probably just nonsense syllables. (Phonetic transcriptions are available, but they’re not very enlightening.) Rather than spend half an hour deciding what to put down – for example, whether Bowie was singing “sun-dressed Cecil” or “sun-drenched shizzle” (neither of which makes any sense at all) – I’ve just labelled the whole passage as “[incomprehensible]”. This does mean that the Suites end on a bit of an unsatisfactory note – but then, they do. The running order of the Suites comes courtesy of an unknown bootlegger; nobody knows, or indeed ever will know, what Bowie would have preferred – other than what he did prefer, which was to forget about the whole thing and work on something new instead. Which was, after all, his established approach, ever since the time that Tony Hatch failed to make him a star with a song that sounded a lot like “Downtown”, and he decided to model himself on Anthony Newley instead. But he left some intriguing material behind as a result and a few outright mysteries – and there isn’t much more mysterious in his catalogue than the “Leon” suites.

    But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

    THE “LEON” SUITES

    “25th June, 16th, Wednesday, July 6th, 2001 midwinter, June 6th, Wednesday, August 18th, 9th, 1999, 12th, Michaelmas, August, 13th, October 13th, afternoon, in view of nothing, 2001, Martin Luther King Day, 12th, August 13th, 17th June. 19th January, midwinter”

    The first time that I felt your grace
    A tear [pronounced ‘tare’] ran down my cheek
    The first time that I saw the boil
    Put it on the neck…

    “I never see English anymore. Last time I saw him he was standing by a pile of cantaloupes under the lamplight. I look up at the blood-red sky and I saw the words ‘Ramona A. Stone’. As sure as you can see the nose on my face, or the graze on my arm, or the boil on my neck, or the foot on my ankle, or the car in my garage, or the wife in my kitchen, or a cloud in the sky, or a cow in a field, or the sun and the moon. Holy sun!”

    We go through the crowd,
    In Oxford Town
    Moving on the sidewalk,
    Faces to the ground

    Oxford Town, Oxford Town
    Oxford Town, Oxford Town…

    “You got a breath-filled crowd here tonight, Eli!”

    “Someone once said that beauty is only a deep skin. Why, it’s always been a stone in my flesh, I’ll tell you that for nothing. You’re better off without it. I mean, who eats the hard skin now? It ain’t Ramona A. Stone, that’s for sure. That don’t-wanna bitch is hanging around with cannibals, producing shots of white babies fastened to the arms of blind heifers.”

    All the babies left home
    The babies left home
    And the sky’s made of chrome
    A breath-filled sky and it’s made of chrome

    It was the night of an OK riot
    She swanned along the street
    With her waving hair and her research grants

    OK riot, OK riot
    It was an OK riot
    With waving hair
    OK riot
    It was an OK riot
    OK riot
    With waving hair

    Choc-a-bloc babies in the heart
    A block of black decay in the room
    O what a room it was, O what a room
    What a womb, what a tomb it became
    I’d rather be an OK riot
    I’d rather be chrome
    Yeah I’d rather be chrome
    I’d rather be chrome
    Yeah I’d rather be chrome
    Yeah I’d rather be chrome
    Than stay here at home

    Don’t go near the bones
    Leon can you hear?
    Get away Julie, don’t go there,
    There’s really a lot to fear

    A breath-filled crowd
    They might be super loud
    They eat the hard skin and they sit on lamplight
    They’re white and black and loud

    I’d rather be chrome
    Yeah, I’d rather be chrome
    I’d rather be sitting on a cloud
    I’d rather be eight foot loud
    I’d rather be chrome
    I’d rather be chrome

    Well, I’ll bitch slap her home
    I’m gonna be, I’m gonna be
    Gonna, gonna, gonna be chrome
    Gonna be chrome
    Beauty is a stone
    I wanna be chrome
    I wanna be, wanna be chrome

    “Friends of the Trust, you’ve been a breath-filled crowd tonight. You’ve been positively fly boys. We are surely on our way upon that superhighway of information. As far I’m concerned, you are all number one packet sniffers! So sing with me:”

    We’ll creep together, you and I
    Under a bloodless chrome sky
    We’ll creep together, we’ll creep together,
    We’ll creep together, you and I

    We’ll find the small things, you and I
    We’ll just have small friends, you and I
    We’ll be small together, we’ll be small together
    We’ll be small together, you and I

    We’ll end together, you and I
    We’ll end together, you and I
    We’ll end together, we’ll end together
    We’ll end together, you and I

    “Huh! As far as I was concerned, There was always the slime end of the silicone chip biz. It seems that Ramona and Leon had just spiralled down into the cesspool. Like I always say, a person who loses a name feels anxiety descending. But hey, if I heard it right, she was always behaving like some don’t-wanna bitch. She was a well-blind woman, he was a well-intentioned man; this makes for a bad end. As I always said, it would end in chrome. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

    O Ramona, can you hear me?
    O Ramona

    I am with name, I am with name
    I am Ramona A. Stone
    A night fear female
    Good timing drone
    I am with name, I am with name

    I am with name, I am with name
    I am Ramona A. Stone

    “And she should say:”

    Twitch and scream, It’ll end in chrome
    The night of the female good time drone
    I am with name,
    I am Ramona A. Stone

    “And she should say:”

    “A person who loses a name feels anxiety descending – left at the crossroads between the centuries, a millennium fetish.”

    I am with name, I am with name,
    I am Ramona A Stone
    I am with name
    Night fear female
    Good timing drone
    I am with name
    I am Ramona A Stone

    “And she should say:”

    I am with name
    I am Ramona A Stone

    “Anxiety descending, anxiety descending…”

    I won’t eat me, it will hide me
    He should take them, I won’t tell it
    She can’t take them, it will do less
    He said tell it, he said smell this
    He should do this, he should be there

    She can’t hide me, he said do less
    He said tell it, I won’t take them
    She can’t eat me, he said kill that
    He said take them, he said be there
    I won’t kill that, it will be there
    She can’t eat me, I won’t hide me

    It will tell me, he said hide me
    I won’t be there, he said hide me
    He said be there, I won’t hide me
    They won’t smell this, he should hide me
    I won’t kill that, it will take them
    They won’t tell it, she can’t be there
    They won’t hide me, he should hide me

    They won’t hide me, she can’t be there
    It will hide me, he should eat me
    He should take them, he should take them
    I won’t kill that, they won’t be there

    They won’t tell it, I won’t take them
    I won’t eat me, I won’t eat me, I won’t eat me

    They won’t do less, he said tell it
    They won’t take them, it will hide me

    It will smell this!

    They won’t kill that, he should hide me
    I won’t hide me, she can’t be there

    I won’t tell it, I won’t eat me
    They won’t tell it, he should smell this,
    He said be there, he should kill that
    I will take them, they won’t eat me

    She can’t eat me, I won’t hide me
    They won’t do less, he should eat me
    He should hide me

    They won’t smell this!
    She can’t tell it!
    I won’t be there!
    He should eat me!
    He said tell it!
    He said tell it!
    He said tell it!

    Smell this…
    Smell this…

    “Old Touchschriek was a domain name server, suspected of being a shoulder surfer or finger hacker. This old guy didn’t know from shit about challenge response systems – he was way back in the age of cellular clones. We knew that Ramona A. Stone was selling interest drugs and magic cookies; she got males all hung up on her mind filters. She was a router and a swapper – she was, if you don’t mind me saying so, a fuckin’ update demon. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to when it all began.”

    “I was Ramona A. Stone. I started with – with no enemies of my own; I was an artiste in a tunnel. But I’ve been having a MIDI-life crisis and I’ve been dreaming of sleep and apemen with metal parts. I’ve spat upon deeply-felt age – come to life, goddess! I’ve hid my hearts in under a freckham sky. I’ll get the funny-coloured English… Oh… we’ll creep together, you and I. We know who the small friends are. My, this is a crazy world. At this time, you could think of me as a ‘syllannibal’: someone who eats their own words.”

    We’ll creep together
    We’ll creep together, you and I
    We’ll creep together, you and I
    Just a trip of the tongue
    From a slump male
    A mumble slouch unreal

    “Maybe a true remark”

    We’ll creep together, you and I
    Way back in the Laugh Hotel
    I’ll reel out the window
    You die for diamonds
    But you won’t live for love

    She’s a don’t-wanna bitch
    Behaves like a don’t-wanna bitch
    She’s a don’t-wanna bitch
    But she is all I’ve got
    I am with rose, I am with babies
    I am with chrome
    I am Ramona A. Stone
    I am Ramona A. Stone
    It’ll end in chrome
    This is the chrome, this is the chrome
    My friends, the chrome

    “Then there was nothing left to do but to bring on the Nut Soldiers, round up the packet sniffers and clear up what remained of that sensational mouth. It’s sensational, her mouth – just a little untight. Excuse me while I wax poetic. The ashes that ran, fleshy debris and silicone chip-bits, electrocutes the evil and smells. Thank you. For me, it’s like plain chaos, and I am the fixer.”

    “Thank you very much… Well, thank you very much… Well, you asked for them, so here they are – The Leek Soldiers!”

    Twist, fly boy, twist, fly boy,
    Brace for me, twist, fly boy
    Wrecked, flexed, heaven erect,
    Brace for ready,
    Twist, fly boy, twist, fly boy!

    Twist hardware, twist hardware,
    Push the ziplock, twist hardware,
    Melt them, wreck them, break through
    Melt them, go for the flare
    Fly boy, fly boy, fly boy, fly boy…

    “At this time, before you could say boo to the goose, Leon was up on that oh-so-heavy party stage, with a kris-kris machete. He could not wait for 12 o’clock midnight. He slashes around, cuts a zero in everything – I mean, a zero in the fabric of time itself. I says to myself, Whoa! Quelle courage! What nerve!”

    They won’t kill that, it will hide me
    He should take them, I won’t tell it
    She can’t take them, it will do this
    He said tell it, he said smell this

    He should do less!

    He should be there, she can’t hide me,
    He said do this, he said tell it,
    I won’t take them, she can’t eat me,
    He said kill that, he said take them,
    He should be there!

    He should do less!

    “Some day the Internet may become an information superhighway. Some day, some day. Some day the Internet may become an information superhighway. Don’t make me laugh! A 19th century railroad that passes through the badlands of the Old West. Someday the Internet may become an information superhighway. Do not make me laugh!”

    “It was a great conversation.”

    “Hey Bunny, say goodnight”
    – Say goodnight
    “Say goodnight Bunny”
    – Goodnight Bunny
    “Say ‘goodnight’, Bunny”
    – Say ‘goodnight’, Bunny
    “No no, say ‘Goodnight’, Bunny”
    – Say ‘Goodnight, Bunny’
    Say ‘goodnight’, Bunny’
    – Goodnight, Bunny
    Say goodnight, Bunny
    – Say ‘goodnight Bunny’

    “Hey hey, here we are back at the Laugh Hotel! I was sittin’ there at the Laugh Hotel the other night looking for window demons, when in comes this Leon in a jungle weed, a mumble slouch unreal, maybe a triple-lock, a trip of the tongue from the slump male…”

    “I’m Mr. Touchshriek of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy, and I sell egg shells off the she-sore and empty females. I met Leon once. Bit of a dark spiral with no end, I thought. Sunday mail-over with his deeply felt grace.”

    “What are you in terror of? Life needn’t step on baby fingers. The minutes fall, and the demons find their ways unencumbered, half dead, poisoned by their own fatal art. Each dirty tune produces its own nobility of form; each pays a different piper – a daft pauper. O machine, how did we fail thee? I guess I feel like a machine that cannot be cranked any more. My gathers are broken and bent, like a wall strangled by ivy -”

    “I remember a dame called Ivy – drove around in a hearse. Some way south on Oxford Town, near the mosque. Graffiti, cappuccino, you name it – they had it all. Those were the days. In those days everyone was psycho-balletic – not the humbug packet sniffers they are now. Take Leon… please!”

    “I think we’re stuck in a web. A sort of… nerve net, as it were; a sort of… nerve Internet, as it were.”

    Red dog, red dog, scum, red dog, scum, red dog, red dog, scum, red dog, scum

    “We might be here for quite a long time – here in this web… or Internet, as it were”

    And, and, and, and, and, red dog

    Got to get away, get away, got to get away
    Got to get away, get away, got to get away
    Got to get away, get away, got to get away

    “The editors have done an excellent job. The selections are generous, the notations are scrupulously scholarly. To believe that the quality of a CD-ROM can be conveyed through translation may seem presumptuous, but I believe the enterprise is greatly successful.”

    “This is a magnificent achievement, a major triumph of Wolof music; a truly precious addition to the sum total of Wolof in English.”

    “The editorial apparatus of this CD-ROM leaves nothing to be desired”

    “The editorial apparatus of the CD leaves nothing to be desired”

    It leaves nothing to be desired
    Nothing to be desired!
    Nothing to be desired!
    Nothing to be desired!

    Mind changing
    Mind changing
    Change your
    Mind changing
    Mind changing
    Change your mind changing
    Mind changing
    Stand by
    Mind changing
    Mind changing
    Stand by
    Mind changing
    Mind changing
    And there’s nothing to be desired!
    Nothing to be desired!
    Nothing
    If not dishy

    Nothing to be desired!
    Nothing!
    Nothing to be desired!
    It’s your mind changing
    Mind changing
    Change your mind changing
    Mind changing
    Change your mind changing
    Mind changing
    Change your mind changing
    Mind changing
    Change your mind changing

    “In far off California, there is no natural plan. Its mighty branching and its preponderant boughs weigh heavy on a Sontag morning.”

    “Test, testing, testing. This… Grace is my name. And, and there was… It was a phot… a fading photograph of a patch, a patchwork quilt. And they’ve put me on these… Ramona put me on these interest drugs, so I’m thinking very, too, bit too fast like a brain patch, like I’ve got this… this soul brain patch, and it’s got… I got the shakers on it with this neuro-transmitter. And… they won’t let me see anybody except the breeders in the enclave and the check players, and I can still hear some…. if I want to sometimes and I ask I can still hear some pop… popular musics and aftershocks. And they say what… they say what were… what were you doing? what was I doing when I saw the small friends? And I said that I’ve been watching a television of, a television of Jeffreys In the Press, about the British revolution and something about the second Protector, who was a news coaster in the homelands – yes, the new homelands. And then I recognized the small friends because one of them was a very infamous, and he was a grand visionary, he was the grand visionary, the one who was on a television, who made soul patches the law, and… that’s all I can remember. And now they just want me to be quiet and to worship the lot, and I think something is going to be horrid.”

    “Hello Leon. Would you like something really fishy? Hello Leon. Would you like something really fishy? I gave up flogging in Oxford.”

    The enemy is fragile!
    The enemy is fragile!
    Who has seen this furious man? Who will rid me of this shaking head?

    “Hello Leon. Would you like something really fishy?”

    “It was just a fading photograph, slumped on the black leather sofa, glass fronted, forgotten by the last tenant.”

    Who will rid me of this shaking head? Who has seen this furious man?
    The enemy is fragile!
    But he has no, has no
    The enemy is fragile!
    The enemy has always been here.

    “You could have been fighting to the death, but no! Well, wrap up and we’ll go dancing, Leon! Dance fishing?”

    Something in her mouth.
    There’s something in her mouth,
    Something mysterious.
    There’s something in her mouth
    Between patois and Beckett.
    I bet it is a speech.

    “Sample techniques, exponents of the greatest Wolof band of the 21st century. Phase techniques, and rich 21st century Spanish incantations.”

    You are – a permutation
    You are – a patois
    You are – Chinese poetry
    You are – something mysterious
    You are – speed through delay
    You are – patois and Beckett
    You are – fighting to the death
    You are – flogging
    You are – something really fishy
    You are – whispering
    You are – warning

    “My name is Mr Touchshriek, of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy. I sell egg shells off the shesores and empty females. I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop to a Mr Wolof Bomberg, a reject from the world-wide Internet. He is a broken man; I am also a broken man. It will be nice to have company; we could have great conversations. Possibly, just maybe, after a nice cup of tea, from a trip of the tongue we’ll creep together down a memory lane, and then we’ll be young and full of bubbly ambition, instead of the slump males that we are. Looking through windows for demons, watching the young advancing, all electric… A small shop on the corner is really no more than a dark spiral with no end. I’m in a street behind the Museum of Modern Parts. The buildings are close together, no more than ten feet between one side of the street and the other. There’s not much in the way of daylight, but at least we don’t get the rain, which is a blessing. Some of the houses still have inhabitants in them; I’m not sure if they’re from this country or not. I don’t get to speak much to anyone, or that sort of thing. If I had another broken man – oh, I dream of something like that. Not sure if they’re from this country or not…”

    “I mean, who am I supposed to be driving?”

    “A snapper with a foetal heart who resents all stupid questions, Ramona A. Stone put her arms around a boy – the golden boy with a lion’s heart, the boy who lives outside, an urchin among immortals. Leon! Lift up your eyes! The very stars are calling! Your name is Leon, Leon is your name! Murder you will do!”

    Leon, lift up your eyes!
    [incomprehensible]

    Something really fishy: 1.

    In 1994, David Bowie – aged 47, with 21 studio albums behind him and nothing to prove – did something peculiar.

    He booked a studio and assembled a four-piece band, all of whom he’d worked with before – Reeves Gabrels (Tin Machine) on guitar, Mike Garson (Aladdin Sane/Buddha of Suburbia) on keyboards, multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kızılçay (Never Let Me Down/Buddha/Blah Blah Blah) on bass and Sterling Campbell (Black Tie White Noise) on drums. Then, under the supervision and direction of Brian Eno, they improvised – for several weeks. (“They” here refers to the four musicians; Bowie was in the studio, but spent most of his time painting.)

    Building on whatever it was that had brewed over this period, Eno then came up with futuristic character profiles for everyone involved – including Bowie, himself and the two engineers – and they carried on working. Here’s Bowie’s profile:

    You are a member of an early 21st Century “Art and Language” band. You make incantations, permutations of something between speech and singing. The language you use is mysterious and rich – and you use a melange of several languages, since anyway most of your audience now speak a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof. Using on-stage computers, instant sampling techniques and long delay echo systems, you are able to build up dense clouds of coloured words during performance. Your audience regards you as the greatest living exponent of live abstract poetry. Samuel Beckett is a big influence.

    “a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof … Samuel Beckett is a big influence”. Make a note of that. (We can quietly ignore the “early 21st century” reference, though. It was the 1990s.)

    The other players were also given pseudonyms, which were anagrams of their names: Mike Garson was “G. Noisemark”, Kızılçay was “Azile Clark-Iday”. Kızılçay’s profile told him:

    It’s 2005. You are a musician in a soul-Arab band in a North-African role-sex club. The clientele are rich, sophisticated and unshockable – this is to the Arab world what New York was to the US in the Eighties. You play a kind of repetitive atonal funk with occasional wildly ambitious ornaments to impress your future father-in-law, the Minister of Networks for Siliconia, who is in the audience. You love the recordings of Farid El Atrache.

    It was the kind of thing you either ‘got’ or didn’t, and by all accounts Kızılçay didn’t (“I don’t need a letter to play Oriental stuff”). To be fair, if you’re going to take on a futuristic imaginary persona, you might want to aim a bit higher than the house band in a sex club (something more like ‘greatest living exponent of live abstract poetry’, for instance). He probably wasn’t overjoyed to be confined to bass, either; when he’d worked with Bowie before he’d played keyboards and drums, and occasionally guitar, violin and trumpet. For whatever reason, Bowie dropped Kızılçay cold soon after these sessions.

    Bowie himself wasn’t playing anything – not saxophone, not even his trusty twelve-string – which meant that he had a lot of time to fill. He also had a lot of work to do. Whatever music was eventually going to be created by G. Noisemark and Azile Clark-Iday (together with Elvas Ge’Beer and P. Maclert Singbell, I’m afraid), the chances were it wasn’t going to be instrumental. Bowie wrote songs: across those twenty-one albums there are, by my count, 16 instrumentals, and they’re confined to four albums (Low, Heroes, Black Tie White Noise and The Buddha of Suburbia). But he didn’t improvise songs – at least, not while working with a band, who were also improvising. If he were to improvise a song (or a whole set of songs) while in the persona of a renowned performer of “live abstract poetry”, how would that work – and (borrowing a question from Sudden Sway) how would it actually sound?

    This is where things get confusing. We know where the process ended up: the album Outside (or 1. Outside, or possibly 1. Outside. The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-Cycle). Outside tells the story of a “ritual art murder” taking place on the 31st of December 1999 – more than five years in the future at the time Bowie began work – and introduces a whole cast of characters: Nathan Adler, art-world private eye; Baby Grace Blue, a fourteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered by a sadistic artist, who then put her body parts on display as an installation; Leon Blank, a young artist who appears to have been framed for the murder; Ramona A. Stone, the sinister art dealer who seems to have been involved; and the (even more) curiously named Algeria Touchshriek, an old shopkeeper whose involvement in any of this can only be guessed at. The actual culprit also appears but is never named (although canonically he is known as “the Minotaur”). The whole thing draws on Bowie’s involvement with the contemporary art world and expresses his longstanding fascination with religion and its replacements; beginning with the idea that suppressed religious urges were being discharged through the medium of art, he speculated that those urges would grow stronger as we approached the year 2000, ultimately finding outlet in what was essentially a human sacrifice.

    (And then he did the voices.)

    This is all well and good – albeit that it’s weird as hell and more than a little unpleasant, particularly the details of the Baby Grace ‘installation’ – but how do you get there from a band convincing themselves they’re playing in various 21st-century scenarios (Gabrels in “the Afro-Chinese ghetto in Osaka”, Campbell orbiting the moon) and a vocalist making sonic patchworks in “a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof”?

    The answer is: Leon. Or Leon, or “Leon!” – or all three.

    [to be continued]

    On left antisemitism

    This from Dave Renton is a fascinating post on the issues posed by the possible return to the Labour Party of ex-MP Luciana Berger, and in particular on the abuse suffered by Berger from the Left.

    I hope Dave doesn’t mind if I set up this post with a couple of comments from the blog, one mine and one his. Me first:

    We do tend to forget that what Berger charged Corbyn with didn’t involve guilt by association or the reinterpretation of words which also had a more innocent meaning or the expression of political views which (while legitimate) may cause offence, or any of the other more or less strained ways in which charges of antisemitism have been weaponised. It was inconvenient for us, God knows, but she had Corbyn bang to rights – he was self-convicted of unthinking tolerance of straightforwardly antisemitic tropes. (Why this happened and what lessons we should have drawn from it is another matter; suffice to say I don’t think it rose to the “Corbyn must go” level, but “Corbyn must do something” should have got through a bit more clearly.) We also forget that Berger had a record of calling out left antisemitism of precisely this kind (use of antisemitic tropes for emphasis) dating back to before she was an MP.

    Having said all of which, I don’t think she’s any friend of the Left – and I wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to readmit somebody who sat in Parliament as a representative of Change UK and the Lib Dems.

    Dave’s reply:

    Agree on your first half, Phil. On the other points, a friend on facebook pressed me and I ended up writing the following: One of the ways I’ve often thought about this is – imagine I was going to someone’s home and ask them to take part in an anti-fascist demo, and I realised they were Jewish, and mainstream, middle of the road Jewish, i.e. someone who backs Israel against Palestine, the Labour right against the left, etc. And they said, Why should I support your demo when I remember how the left treated Berger? I’d want to be able to say I remember that, and explain what I did, without feeling any shame. So, the first part of the conversation would have to be Yes, I remember that and saw it. (Seeing is a big deal). Then – in order to feel proud in that situation, there might be different things you could say. EG when I realised what had happened, I didn’t stop criticising her. Why should I, when she was criticising me and my politics? But I tried to think of her with respect. EG, when I criticised the people who left with Change UK, I never singled her out, I never treated her as worse than the others. I never used her name as a shortcut for all of them. I never spoke about her with derision or used insulting words. I knew that she’d become a symbol in people’s heads, and that process of turning her into a symbol was itself a problem. And when I saw other people doing the same, I had words with them. I continued to disagree with her, but I always treated her as a whole human being.

    And back to me (this began as a comment but has clearly grown to the length of a blog post in its own right).

    I think one of the things that makes this so difficult to talk about is that people feel they’re being accused of a kind of active, deliberate antisemitism – in other words, accused of being primarily motivated by hatred of Jews; as if nobody on the Left had the slightest problem with Berger until they realised she was Jewish, and as if any Jewish member of the party would have attracted the same kind of hostility. And when I say “people feel [etc]”, it’s more that people on the Left are being accused of this kind of brute antisemitism, by opponents and enemies from Margaret Hodge on rightwards. It’s an outrageous, hurtful and (almost always) entirely baseless slur, and people get defensive; it’s understandable if, when people try and raise the issue of antisemitism within the Left, they feel that they’re being accused of it all over again, and shut down as a result.

    It’s understandable but it’s also idiotic, and demonstrates a worrying lack of understanding of antisemitism – a failure to treat it in the way that we’ve always claimed to treat it, as just one form of racism among others. What kind of defence against a charge of anti-Black racism or Islamophobia would it be if we angrily insisted that we didn’t bear Black people or Muslims any malice, and then refused to hear any more? It’s like something from the 1980s – nobody on the contemporary Left would suppose that that kind of defence was adequate if they were told their words or actions expressed racism, or homophobia or sexism or even class prejudice.

    Antisemitism is different somehow. The old line is that racism equals prejudice plus power; at one time I remember Alexei Sayle extending that logic to argue that the British working class was relatively powerless in comparison with BMW and Nissan, ergo anti-German and anti-Japanese jokes weren’t really racist. I suspect the reason why antisemitism of any but the most blatant kind tends to get overlooked is similar – British Jews aren’t systematically deprived or marginalised, and on average they’re doing OK, so where’s the structure of prejudice backed by power? But if you think about it, racism doesn’t have to actually be backed by power every time a racist statement is spoken or decision made. It is prejudice plus power (I think that’s still a useful formulation), but in the sense that it expresses the desire to bind power to prejudice. To put it more straightforwardly, if I use racist (or sexist, or homophobic…) language as a put-down, I’m saying that I want it to be a put-down. I’m saying, in that moment, that I want to live in a world where being identified as non-White or Jewish (or as a woman, or gay, or…) is bad for you – because it would be bad for you, in a way that it isn’t for me. Racism is power plus prejudice, even when – pace Alexei Sayle – there is no power involved: racism goes beyond prejudice because it invokes the power that I want the prejudice to have. But not everyone is going to grasp that – particularly when grasping it involves asking yourself some hard questions.

    If this explains why people on the Left might overlook or tacitly tolerate antisemitism, it doesn’t explain why they might express it themselves. To understand that I think we need to go back to the 80s again: to the argument (which I’m pretty sure I heard in more than one workplace) that (a) being bullied by the people in charge was normal and (b) those people would use anything for the purpose – including any stereotypical or prejudiced attitude that might apply to you – without themselves being bigots. Why did they do it? They did it to get under your skin, to put you on the back foot – nothing more than that. No harm intended; it was just part of the working life (so toughen up, bloody toughen up…). So now, in a battle for the soul of the Labour Party, what do you do when you want to get the Right on the back foot? You hit them with whatever you’ve got – and if that includes insinuations about paymasters and puppetmasters, well, they should bloody toughen up.

    I’ve explained one thing that seems incomprehensible (leftists using antisemitic tropes) with another (leftists being bullies). But this is progress: all we’ve got to do now is explain why leftists might want to be bullies – and, for a bonus point, why more leftists might, perhaps, want to be bullies now than at other times. It comes down to that old – and deceptively difficult – question, “is your hate pure?”. I know from introspection that I feel an unquenchable hatred for everyone I know to have played a part in undermining Corbyn’s leadership (see leaked report for details). I also know from introspection that an unquenchable hatred is an uncomfortable thing to live with, particularly when there’s never likely to be any way to express it.

    Now, a feeling adjacent to that hatred but quite different from it – and in a way offering relief from it – is the furious anger that builds up and discharges (often on Twitter) when it seems like somebody’s taking the piss or overstepping the mark. What they’ve actually done doesn’t need to be that bad – it certainly doesn’t need to be anywhere near bad enough to incur unquenchable hatred, for instance. They just need to have been really stupid, or shown their true colours, or let their guard down; they just need to have made themselves available as a target. Because then you can rage, and you can let them have it, and you can feel a bit better for letting your hatred out. But it’s not a pure hatred; it’s disproportionate and vindictive. It’s bullying, in fact, or it would dearly like to be – in that moment, you want to make somebody squeal.

    I’m afraid one of the disservices Corbyn did the Left was his eternal “they go low, we go high” policy, which in practice meant that the hatred and anger we – inevitably – felt (what with being kicked around and mocked by the Right and their mates) was repressed. And we know what happens to negative emotions when they’re repressed: they return, with added righteousness and lack of proportion. Combine that with the Left’s reluctance to take antisemitism seriously and we’re in trouble. There’s also a willingness to turn a deaf ear to antisemitism which can come with the territory of Palestinian solidarity, purely because you can’t engage with Palestinian opinion for very long without hearing from people who sincerely and unreservedly hate Jews; I don’t think this is a big factor for many people, but it may be for some – Corbyn himself included.

    Put all of that together and you can see how a weird and toxic emotional pathway gets built: how sincere and principled anti-racist leftists, wanting relief from getting shafted by the Right, can end up venting borderline antisemitic abuse against people who scarcely even deserve to be a target of their anger. Perhaps.

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