Author Archives: Phil

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 Ellipse of Power.

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, but the last two TIGers aren’t far behind. 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) – and he was standing as ‘Independent Labour’, as he hadn’t even been selected to stand for the SDP in his new seat. (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 I 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 lose 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.

The radicalisation of Keir Starmer

A few thoughts on Labour’s abstention on the Overseas Operations Bill. (And a thought on initial caps, which is that I’m in favour – I’d read the Graun story twice looking for the title of the bill before I realised that the “overseas operations bill” they referred to was in fact the Overseas etc. I’m not a fan of this wrinkle in the Guardian style guide. Apart from anything else, there could in theory be any number of “overseas operations bill”s; there have certainly been any number of “terrorism bill”s, mostly not entitled Terrorism Bill. But anyway.)

1. Good principles make good tactics

I owe this point partly to noted ex-blogger Dan Davies, on the Twitters. Two things are true about the distinction between issues that fall under the heading of day-to-day political tactics and matters of firm political principle. One is that the gap between the two is obvious to all; it’s not a gap so much as a gulf – an unbridgeable, fathomless chasm. The other is that no two people agree on where it is. Everyone agrees that some things are up for grabs while others are beyond any possible debate – and most people agree most of the time on which side of the line most of those things are – but in any given discussion it’s possible that the person you’re talking to will think your unshakeable commitment ought to be treated as political small change, or vice versa. In practice, a lot of political argument is about making sure an issue is parked on the Principles shelf, out of reach of any possible argument, and stays there.

It seems pretty clear that Labour was whipped to abstain on the Overseas Operations Bill primarily so as to draw a line between Starmer’s “new management” and the Corbyn-era party, and incidentally between Starmer loyalists and the left-wing holdouts who broke the whip; certainly Starmer hasn’t been slow to use the split to this effect. (Given that this was a one-line whip – “Considered advisory, providing a guide to party policy on an issue” – the sacking of Nadia Whittome, for example, has to be seen as a deliberate choice.) In the light of the previous paragraph, though, the question isn’t whether shielding British soldiers from prosecution for war crimes is an issue of principle which should never be instrumentalised in this way. Clearly this can be argued either way, clearly it has been, and some guy with a blog isn’t going to settle the debate for the ages. The question is where you get to if you argue one side or the other, and which way you end up pointing.

To put it a bit less cryptically, you can make a coherent argument that war crimes are among the things the Labour Party quite definitely opposes, and voting against a bill which would make them harder to prosecute is therefore the right thing to do. You can also make a coherent argument that, for the Labour Party in 2020, expressing opposition to war crimes is less important than expressing opposition to Jeremy Corbyn – or if that’s too blunt, that it’s less important than telling former Labour voters that one of their reasons for not voting for the party no longer applies, precisely because the party under Corbyn would have voted against this bill.

Now, these are very different positions, and they express very different commitments – which is to say, they commit the party to different directions of travel. And, while we can take a guess at which one is more ‘principled’ and which more ‘opportunistic’, that doesn’t in itself tell us which one will work – in any sense of the word. There’s certainly no guarantee in politics that you’ll come out ahead by doing the principled thing, but there’s also no guarantee that you won’t. Raw tactical opportunism may pay off in the short term, but it’s liable to bring its own policy commitments with it – if only because people like to make sense of what they’re doing and fit it into a bigger framework – and you may end up committed to a course that you (or your supporters) can’t bring yourself to take. If you avoid that trap (“no, honest, I’m a pure opportunist!“), opportunism may land you with an incoherent bricolage of incompatible commitments. Some combination of these two outcomes accounts for what happened to Yvette Cooper’s career, and to a lesser extent Andy Burnham’s, after they did the smart, tactical thing and abstained on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in 2015. (And we know what happened to the one candidate for leader who broke the whip and opposed.)

The decision to whip Labour MPs to abstain on the Overseas Operation Bill may have been wrong in principle (I think it was); the decision, as well as the disciplinary actions taken since, was certainly petty and vindictive; and it may have been a tactical mistake.

Also, it may have been doomed to failure.

2. Not weak enough

So far I’ve been talking about ‘tactical’ actions in general terms, but clearly not all tactical moves are alike. If there were a big vote coming up, in a hard-to-fix electorate like the party membership, it might make tactical sense to discredit the Left of the PLP (or engineer a situation where it discredits itself), and the leadership might judge that it was worth burning the odd principled commitment to achieve that.

But that’s not what’s going on here; the NEC election isn’t till November, apart from anything else. With the exception of losing Leftists from three very junior payroll positions – an equivocal gain for the leadership, as the loss frees those MPs to speak out – nothing obvious was either gained or lost through the leadership’s tactical move. This was a particular kind of tactic; one defined in terms of image and credibility.

Credibility can mean two things. To begin with, let’s take the more obvious meaning – let’s assume that being “credible”, for a political party, means being recognised as a legitimate political actor by other political actors. Making tactical moves, potentially at the expense of principled commitments, in the hope of restoring credibility (in this sense) has two closely-related problems. Both were amply visible in the Conservative Party’s response to the vote:

Hashtag Same Old Labour; no change, no credibility gained. But that’s the thing about credibility: like respect, it isn’t granted automatically, it has to be earned. And the thing about earning respect from the Conservative Party is, what kind of idiot are you? To put it another way, if your problem is the school bully calling you names, you’ve actually got a bigger problem than that, which is that he’s the school bully and you can’t stop him calling you whatever he likes.

So: the trouble with taking policy commitments off the Principle shelf, and treating them as expendable for tactical purposes, is that by doing so you are actually making a policy commitment, and one which may not sit well with other commitments – or voters – you want to retain. And the trouble with doing this for the sake of credibility (in this sense) is that your credibility is largely in the gift of your enemy.

Which brings me to those two closely-related problems. The first problem with trading principles for credibility is that there’s no limit to what you may be asked to do, how far you may be asked to go, what existing principles and commitments you may be asked to burn – and this is (a) true in the abstract, (b) doubly true of the Conservative Party, which has never been renowned for playing fair and (c) have you seen the Conservative Party lately? I was reminded of this forcibly by some of the responses to the abstention the other night, to the effect of well, obviously this is something that the Left would want to oppose, that’s just why it’s an obvious trapthis, of a bill which is counter to Britain’s obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture and has been criticised by the EHRC and Amnesty International.

If the Tories want to make minimal adherence to international human rights law the bar that Labour has to limbo under, they will; that doesn’t mean that it’s smart politics to oblige them. Particularly not given the second problem I mentioned, which is, of course,

that they have absolutely no obligation to grant us any credibility if and when we do pass their test, and every reason not to.

3. Down your street again quite soon

There is another way of looking at credibility, however. This has to do with cost: in the criminal underworld, or in situations where credibility can’t be externally verified more generally (the theory runs), a credible signal is one that carries a cost for the person sending it. If I spend money on a joint venture that I may not get back, or if I grass up an ally of mine so as to make your life easier, you’re more likely to believe that I genuinely want to work with you and that I’m not just looking to rip you off.

Now, Nadia Whittome’s a rising star and someone we’re going to hear a lot more from, but I doubt that finding a new PPS will cost Jon Ashworth all that much, let alone Keir Starmer. What might make the signal Keir Starmer has just sent costly, though, is – ironically – what initially appeared as the whole reason for sending it: the fact that it will at best strengthen the Left both numerically and politically (where the Left is defined as “everyone who liked the look of Starmer’s ten pledges but is not intending to give him the benefit of the doubt forever”), and at worst alienate the Left from the party altogether. Bluntly, this will cost Starmer support within the party, and could end up costing Labour members and votes. (It’s not the first time I’ve reminded myself that, as a member, I’ve got a reason to hang on until the NEC election in November – but it is the first time that I’ve asked myself how many more times I’m going to have to tell myself that.)

If we follow through the logic of the second section of this post, this just makes Starmer’s tactic look even more ridiculous: he’s deliberately risked throwing away a non-negligible chunk of votes and members, for the sake of gaining credibility by courting the approval of the Tory Party – an approach which has never worked and never will. But this second model of credibility creates a different possibility. Suppose that the potential loss of support – for Starmer personally and even for Labour – is the stake, the price Starmer is willing to pay to drive the message home; suppose that the message is not “look, we’re credible now (even the Tories say so)”, but a simple and straightforward “look, we’re not that any more”. This would also imply that the chosen terrain of international law and human rights (in the red corner, with the British Army in the blue) was just that, chosen; it wasn’t simply the test that the Tories happened to have set for Labour this week.

But if we’re “not that any more”, what is ‘that’? And what are we instead?

This?

4. The Sound of Ideologies Clashing; Also, The Sound of Ideologies Harmonising, Interlocking, Overlapping, Merging, Splitting And Just Plain Co-Existing

Here’s a thought: people have lots of different views about different things, which fit together in constellations of ideas and commitments; I’m talking about ideologies. Another thought: the natural habitat of ideologies is the social group; individuals see the world through ideologies, but we derive those ideologies from the groups of which we’re members, which (in most cases) existed before we joined them and will exist after we’ve moved on. Ideologies – existing in social groups rather than in people’s heads, remember – have their time; they develop, thrive and decline over time, and in particular settings. Two similar societies, separated by geography or history, may be characterised by similar ideologies, different ones or some of each. Also, it’s possible for one person to see the world – and to interpret the news, and to vote – according to multiple different ideologies, depending which seems the best fit to the situation and/or which is uppermost in their mind at a given time. Hence the sexist trade unionist; hence, for that matter, the picket-line-crossing Guardian-reading liberal.

Political parties generate support and mobilise supporters by appealing to ideological commitments, encouraging people to see the world through one set of ideological lenses rather than another – and in so doing they strengthen those ideologies, making them seem more natural and normal. While “Corbynism” was never an ideology in its own right, when he became Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was strongly associated with a couple of ideologies which he’d upheld for thirty years as a backbencher: an ideology of human equality, of every person (anywhere in the world) mattering as much as any other; and an ideology of constructive empowerment, of mobilising people to make the world a better place. As Labour leader he found, probably to his surprise (certainly to mine), that appeals voiced in terms of these ideologies were actually quite popular, despite the mainstream media positioning them – and him – somewhere between Fidel Castro and Jim Jones. It didn’t hurt that, in 2017 at least, his outsider status let him appeal – consciously or not – to another ideology that’s flourished in Britain in the last decade: this combines short-term pessimism with an openness to big, dramatic changes, on the basis that, whatever we’ve got when the dust settles, it can’t be much worse than this.

What happened in 2019 and why it happened is outside the scope of this (already fairly long) post. Suffice to say that Labour has a different leader now, and early hopes of ideological continuity have already been dashed – hopes that were initially encouraged, to be fair, by promises of ideological continuity, made in broad terms but made publicly and repeatedly for all that. But we ken the noo; we know now that the ideologies Starmer is articulating are definitely not those Corbyn championed (call them “Equality Everywhere” and “Let’s Get To Work”). Nor, for that matter has Starmer got any sympathy for the “Big Bang? Bring It On!” ideology which Corbyn tapped into (perhaps the only thing he shares with Boris Johnson, and certainly the only shred of justification for calling him a Brexiter).

What does Starmer believe in? I’ve no idea, and I don’t really care. The important question is, what sets of beliefs is the Labour Party under Starmer giving voice to – what ideologies is it articulating, and thereby strengthening and normalising? It’s early days, but the image above contains a number of clues: the reference, not to the people of Britain, but to Britain as a country, elevated over all other countries; the specific reference to “growing old” as a concern that the audience might have; and, of course, the Butcher’s Apron for backdrop, a choice which ostensibly evokes the UK as a whole but actually suggests that the nation being championed is rather narrower than present-day Britain, or else some way in the past. Put that lot together and you have, I think, something close to the diametric opposite of the ideologies Labour upheld under Corbyn; it combines a sense that some people very definitely do matter more than others with a sense that something should be done for those people, as well as an appeal to how the world used to be. (Never mind when, exactly; the point is to look back. A national flag is only a forward-looking symbol when it’s being raised on Independence Day.)

Is this a coherent ideology? We’ll see, but I think it just could be; I think a lot of the grudges being sedulously borne in our society can be brought together under a heading of “When’s Our Turn?” – yes to patriotism, tradition, the armed forces and support for pensioners (they’ve done their bit); no to internationalism, cultural innovation, human rights lawyers and hand-outs for scroungers (let them do some work for a change). And, if I’m right, that’s the direction Labour is heading.

4. The Radicalisation of Keir Starmer

Let’s talk about radicalisation – by which I mean, let’s talk about grooming. If you want someone to do something that they find repugnant, the first thing you do is work on the repugnance, then bring them round from tolerance to approval and hence participation. A good way to do this is to surround the victim with people who will affirm that the repugnant act isn’t all that bad after all, and encourage them to think of it as normal. It’s differential association, really – the more people the victim associates with who affirm the normality of the act and the fewer who deny it, the sooner they too will affirm that it’s normal.

But the key point about that model is not that somebody is manipulating the victim, nudging them over the jumps; the key point is that there are no jumps – no firebreaks, no step-changes. There’s just a continuum of behaviours, each of which has a lot in common with its neighbours. For a less emotive example, imagine a woman who’s had a particularly sheltered upbringing and has always objected to bad language, and who by a quirk of fate falls hopelessly in love with… a docker, let’s say. A sailor. A trooper. Somebody who swears a lot, anyway. Now, what happens as we go from stage one in this person’s habituation to bad language (“remain seated with hands clenched and eyes screwed shut, resisting the urge to flee the room”) to stages two (“remain seated, concealing shock and breathing normally as far as possible”) and three (“express disapproval and continue conversation”)? The key thing that happens, I would argue, is the passage of time. With time, the shock diminishes; the woman’s original, spontaneous responses cease to be triggered; and her own responses progressively frame the repugnant behaviour as a little less repugnant, a little more normal. Nobody is grooming this unfortunate woman, nobody is pushing her through barriers; there are no barriers. Once a direction of travel is set, one stage leads naturally to the next.

And so it is with ideology. I said in the previous section that I don’t care what Keir Starmer believes in; more to the point, I don’t think he believes in anything, other than that a Labour government would be a good thing and that he knows just the boy to head it. But he is happy to work with ideologies; specifically, he’s happy to pitch to the people who the message quoted above resonates with, and happy to cut loose everyone who identifies more with the ideologies voiced by Corbyn.

Which is where radicalisation comes in. Clearly, Starmer has already gone well beyond clenching his hands and screwing his eyes shut if anyone brings out the Union Flag. More schematically, we can distinguish between tolerating a discourse – allowing it to be used in one’s presence, or indeed in one’s political party’s communications; mimicking the discourse, borrowing its terms to jazz up one’s own arguments; using it, articulating one’s own arguments in those terms (modifying those arguments where necessary); and promoting it, centring it in one’s political practice.

The journey from toleration, through mimicry, to usage and finally promotion is a journey of radicalisation. Passage from one stage to another is not automatic, but neither are there any barriers in its way; given habituation, the passage of time and the continuation of the stimuli that initially led to toleration, it will tend to happen. Moreover, given that ideologies are social productions and do not exist in any individual’s head, the radicalisation of discourse users also strengthens the ideology, making it seem more relevant and hence more powerful – more capable of describing the world and expressing users’ beliefs and desires.

As far as the discourses of “Equality Everywhere” and “Let’s Get To Work” were concerned, Jeremy Corbyn was never in any danger of radicalisation, for the simple reason that he was already radical; he centred those discourses in his practice, and worked to affirm and strengthen them in society, quite openly and unapologetically. With regard to the discourse of “When’s Our Turn?”, however, I sense that Starmer – like Gordon Brown before him – has no particular commitment to it and is planning to use it instrumentally: mostly mimicry, perhaps a little use, definitely no promotion.

We’ll see how successful he is in avoiding radicalisation. Early signs, it has to be said, aren’t good. Ideologies are not the kind of thing one can dabble in; if, as Labour leader, you say that you believe in making Britain the best country in the world, people will tend to believe you – and the people who believe in this kind of thing will tend to be confirmed in that belief, and identify Labour with it.

Radicalisation doesn’t stand still, in other words; the process that has been begun under Starmer’s leadership could end up giving us a patriotic, nostalgic, troops-supporting, pensioner-friendly Labour Party. This would be a disaster for Britain – in itself, because of the alternative possibilities being squandered and because of the cultural and political movements which it would embolden. (And it almost certainly wouldn’t win a General Election. It might win back half the people who told me they weren’t voting Labour last winter, admittedly, but it would repel the other half – and we’d never find out, because it would also repel most of the people who do the canvassing.)

Let’s hope that Starmer reverses course before the damage is done.

I’m no leader (2)

Time for a post-NEC-voting-reform, post-RLB-sacking, post-David-Evans update to my earlier post, in which I was – if not cautiously optimistic – at least just plain cautious about Keir Starmer’s leadership.

1. The Pledges and the Backers

which is going to dominate?

pledges are just pledges and can be abandoned any time, or simply revised and qualified into non-existence; your backers are your backers, and you’ve got to keep them sweet.

pledges are pledges, and if Starmer were to break them they could immediately be hung round his neck, causing just the kind of internal strife he most wants to avoid; the people who backed his election campaign are just some people who thought he’d serve their interests, and once elected he owes them nothing.

Sooner or later Starmer is going to have to jump – or at least sidle – one way or the other

Well, he hasn’t actually broken any of those pledges, so there’s that. But he’s avoided doing so by, essentially, avoiding saying anything at all. The people who backed him, though, have been well rewarded. Not looking good.

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

the rapid promotions given to centrist MPs such as Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested a real commitment to building a head of steam behind the “soft Left”, whatever we – or Starmer – may take that to mean.

When the junior shadow ministers were announced, of course, there they were … an absolute raft of Blairite old lags. What does this mean? One, pessimistic, reading is that the old Right is in place to step into the current Shadow Ministers’ shoes when a reshuffle seems urgent – when an election is in prospect, for example.

How real – and how substantial – is the “soft Left”, and how strong is the Right? The answer to the second question can be gauged from the number of times “Labour” commented on education in the voice of Rachel Reeves, or Lucy Powell, or basically anyone but the inconveniently left-wing and independently-minded Shadow Education Minister. The answer to the first lies in the number of memorable and substantive statements you’ve heard from Starmer, Anneliese Dodds and Nick Thomas-Symonds. The various Blairites, rentagobs and Blairite rentagobs who are currently paying their dues in the second line must fancy their chances; I would.

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

the requirements of party unity rest much more lightly on the Right than on the Left, due no doubt to the former’s greater sense of proprietorship over the party: if we dissent from their leadership we’re betraying the party, if they dissent from ours they’re just trying to stop us betraying the party (from above). …

In the longer term there are three possible resolutions …

  1. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer covers for them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he doesn’t care about real party unity and takes a decisive step to the Right.

  2. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer sacks them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he does care about real party unity and takes a decisive step away from the Right.

  3. Right-wing wreckers don’t kick off, indefinitely, but act like disciplined centrists for so long that they actually learn how to be disciplined centrists.

I’d file this one under “inconclusive but not hopeful”. There hasn’t been a lot of kicking-off, but Starmer certainly seems to be quite relaxed about (say) shadow ministers attacking Rebecca Long-Bailey for being close to the unions or Ed Miliband for being insufficiently business-friendly. Just do it anonymously, eh, there’s a good Wes.

Every day that people like Streeting, Powell and Reeves keep their ministerial positions is a day when the Right’s assumptions can inflect on-the-fly policy-making and the articulation of existing policy … On the other hand, while Starmer clearly isn’t a Corbynite, he does have principles; more importantly, he has a strong motivation to stake out his territory somewhere other than the neo-Blairite Right of the party. This in turn means leaving much or most of the Corbynite transformation of Labour policy unreversed, while declining to pick a fight with the Left qua Left.

Two months on, I’d revise this paragraph in a couple of ways, both pessimistic. Starmer does have a strong motivation to stake out ideological territory distinct from New Labour; what I wonder now is whether he has the ability, either as an original thinker or purely in terms of there being any ideological territory to stake out (see above re: soft left). On the other hand, picking a fight with the Left qua Left may not be necessary; all Starmer needs to do is to delegitimise part of the Left, and then justify any action against the Left as a move against that particular element, which we’ve all agreed to be beyond the pale. And if this involves building up a rare and remediable failing on the Left into a sin that’s both widespread and unforgivable, with the inevitable consequences of false positives and malicious reporting, well, you can’t purge a party without breaking eggs.

Here are some more general Qs and As.

How do you think Keir Starmer is performing as leader of the opposition?

Dreadfully. Look at the state of the Tories, look what they’re doing to the country – under any other leader we’d be twenty points ahead!

In all seriousness, Keir Starmer is not performing as leader of the opposition – he’s offering the government no opposition at all, to the point of strenuously refusing to offer any alternative direction (on the pandemic, on Brexit… even on hospital parking charges). His strategy is transparently to pitch for Tory voters – as a competent leader who would deliver the government’s policies but do it properly – and gamble that the Left will have nowhere else to go.

The trouble is, as of 2020 Tory voters don’t seem to care much about competence; the government’s key policy – a hard Brexit – is one that’s basically impossible to “do properly”, except perhaps in the sense of damage limitation. And if people are voting in their millions for the Let’s Cut Our Own Hands Off! party, are you really going to win them over with a platform of Let’s Take Care To Sterilise The Blade?

So far, to judge from the solidity of the Tory lead in opinion polls, it’s very much not working; it looks as if all Starmer’s managed to do is bring back a lot of 2019 Lib Dem voters – and they could easily be replaced by equal or larger numbers of Labour deserters if the Lib Dems go for the gap in the market and pitch for the Left vote.

Do you feel that Starmer has made the Labour party more or less electable?

We don’t know, but there are good reasons to be sceptical. The narrowing of the Tories’ poll lead is a fact. It’s also a fact that Labour aren’t closing the gap – quite the reverse. Another inconvenient fact is that Labour had similar and better poll figures – and the Tories had similar and smaller leads – many times between 2015 and 2019; if our memory stretches back further than a year, we may recall that the previous leader’s critics treated the fact that Labour was trailing by 5-10% as evidence of how poorly the party was doing and how urgently it needed a change of leader.

In any case, talking about electability in 2020 is academic; electability is about what happens when an election is called. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn went into the 2017 election campaign trailing by 20%, and finished it neck and neck with the Tories. Labour under Tony Blair went into the 1997 election campaign leading by 25%, and finished it leading by 10%. This suggests that what we need at the next election is either a barnstorming campaign that overturns all the conventional wisdom and breaks through the Tory hold on the media, or for the Tories to discredit themselves so thoroughly beforehand that Labour is already seen as a safe pair of hands, and consequently goes into the campaign (with its inevitable barrage of hostile media coverage) with a huge lead.

I see no sign that Starmer has any interest in the first of these, or that he has the capacity to make it happen. Presumably he’s banking on the second, but it hasn’t happened yet – and Starmer isn’t doing anything to help bring it about. If anything, he’s helping to maintain the credibility of the government. His unwillingness to make political capital out of two of the greatest self-inflicted national disasters in British history – the pandemic and a hard Brexit – is genuinely puzzling and raises the question of whether it’s the will that’s lacking or the ability.

Do you have any concerns?

Starmer’s campaign statement and his ten pledges explicitly pitched to the Left of the party and promised that the direction set by Jeremy Corbyn would be maintained. We’re now starting to see how much those words were worth.

Starmer and his entire front bench team seem to be determined to say as little as possible, and to avoid actually challenging the government at all costs. The one principled and independent-minded member of the team was sidelined and then sacked on basically sectarian grounds – the Steve Reed case suggests that what mattered was not taking a consistent stand against antisemitism but getting rid of a potential internal critic, while hanging the label of antisemitism on the Left. The worst of the Labour Right have been appointed to second-rank positions – ready for promotion when the Left has been driven out or beaten into submission, presumably; however junior or marginal they are on paper, the likes of Reeves and Streeting have been welcomed with open arms by the media outlets which never quite accepted the Corbyn leadership. Organisation is key, as both Blair and Corbyn knew. The appointment of old Blairite David Evans and the rigging – sorry, democratisation – of the members’ section of the NEC suggest how Starmer sees his leadership, and how seriously he takes the job of uprooting the Left.

My only consolation is the fact that Starmer quite clearly isn’t Tony Blair – he may have Blair’s ruthlessness but he’s got none of his charisma or his genuine originality – which suggests that his transformation of the party is doomed to fail. I just hope he doesn’t do too much damage to the party – or let the Tories to do too much damage to the country – in the mean time.

Would you take us to your leader?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

***

Petronius gave a shiver and shook his head like a wet dog. The R-jump itself was (thankfully) imperceptible, but the comedown afterwards never seemed to get any easier. Still, he’d arrived – or rather they had, if you considered a Basic Android Simulation of Intelligent Life to be a person (and if you didn’t, you should probably get yours upgraded).

Petronius’s own BASIL stood alongside him, expressionless and apparently quite unaffected by the R-jump. Time to get down to work.

“OK, Basil. Tell me about this civilisation. Why are we here?”

“Shall I answer the second question first? It might be quicker.”

Petronius sighed. They didn’t call these androids ‘basic’ for nothing. “Go on.”

“We’re here to consider some problems that have recently surfaced in the Triune Foundation. The Triune Foundation is one of the main – let’s say ‘governmental’, although the word is imprecise – organisations in this civilisation; it has held governmental power only briefly, however, the administration generally being steered by the Lilac League.”

“I’m sorry – the Lilac…?”

Basil shrugged. “They’re not important right now, except inasmuch as they keep winning and the Triune Foundation keeps losing. Don’t feel too sorry for them, though, the Trapezoid Bloc hardly ever wins at all.”

“When you say ‘win’… We’re talking about governmental organisations, aren’t we? Are you saying they also engage in some form of sport or competitive exercise, or a contest of ability or skill?”

Basil looked stern, insofar as his near-immobile synthetic facial features permitted. “You are expected to do some preparation beforehand.”

“You’re quite right, and I did see that bit. They run a regular contest whose outcome determines who gets to govern, and it’s decided partly on the basis of an assessment of ability to govern, but also partly on performance in various more or less stylised sub-contests presented to different sub-sections of the population in different media, and partly on simple popularity, which itself is assessed through an elaborate competitive procedure. It’s quite confusing, I had trouble getting my head round it.”

Basil inclined his head. “As you say. And, as I say, we are concerned here with the Triune Foundation, not with the sortition process of which you speak.”

“Except insofar as events within the Triune Foundation may have impacted upon the outcome of that process.”

“And I see that you have done… some preparation. Let’s proceed.”

Basil enabled data visualisation.

“Hold on, what are all all these?”

“Ah. I should have said, in this civilisation it’s still very much the norm to serialise one’s thoughts in alphabetic form. Hence…”

“Hence all… this. How very cumbersome.”

“And yet, evidentially…”

“I’m not sure I see the point you’re making. We could simply ask them, couldn’t we?’

Although Basil’s features didn’t move perceptibly, you would have sworn he had raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, it’s one of those civilisations. Very well, then. It may be just as well that they’ve gone to the trouble of putting their thoughts into numbers.”

“You’ll find it’s letters, mainly, but yes. Take this first example…”

“So, what we’re seeing here is that there’s a sortition process coming up, and one individual with responsibility for sortition-related and other forms of campaigning within the Triune Foundation writes: Let’s hope the Trapezoids can do it. I’m sorry, what?”

“The person in question appears to hope that the Trapezoids will win the sortition in question.”

“Thankyou, Basil, I had got that far. But the person in question is responsible for the Triune sortition campaign. You wouldn’t expect them to have any doubts about who to support.”

“Or to express those thoughts to Triune colleagues, on a Triune communication channel.”

“Good grief. Were they – all of them – actually working against their own Foundation? Why?”

“Firstly, not all of them, but quite a few – up to and including the then Grand Wazir. As to why… well, let’s look at the next piece of evidence. So, here’s somebody who enjoyed ridiculing the leadership…”

“The Triune leadership?”

“Yes, their own leadership – there’s going to be a lot of this, so I should get used to the idea; they enjoyed ridiculing the leadership and dismissed anyone who supported them as Mameluke seditionaries.”

“Mameluke… I did read about this, but I forget the details. But meaning very marginal to the Foundation and very bad?”

“Meaning a whole variety of things – but yes, in this context the main meaning was ‘very bad’.”

“And why do we care about this unpleasant and disloyal individual?”

“Mainly because they came under suspicion. Not from the leadership – from their colleagues; they were suspected of being a bit of a Mameluke on the quiet.”

Petronius pinched the bridge of his nose and blinked. The after-effects of the R-jump seemed to be lasting longer than usual.

“You mean to say, people in responsible positions at the Triune Foundation were so obsessed with the threat of these… Mameluke tendencies… that they ended up working against the leadership of their own Foundation – and even dismissed anyone who didn’t agree with them completely as a Mameluke in their own right? How did they ever get those positions of responsibility? How did they keep them? Were they just astonishingly good at their jobs?”

In reply, Basil highlighted another area of the visualisation. “Here we come to the question of anti-Khazar abuse.”

“Ah, now, I do remember the part about the Khazars. So at this stage our traitorous office-holders are dealing with… sorry, how many? In a foundation with half a million… surely there were more cases than that? And they’re taking… what? Why are they taking so long? And they haven’t got a process for tracking cases? None at all? Sorry, that’s a lot of questions.”

“All good ones,” Basil murmured.

“Ah, but weren’t these… Mamelukes, was it… weren’t they also supposed to have trouble with Khazars? Maybe the reason those people weren’t processing complaints was that the leadership were slowing them down.”

“Actually, no. The leadership appears to have washed their hands of some close allies and personal friends, if those people seemed to be getting close to using anti-Khazar language.”

“I’m confused now. The Foundation was dealing with them?”

“Ah, no. I said that the leadership washed their hands of them, not that they were promptly removed from the Foundation itself. This note here, for example, shows that one prominent individual’s case was allowed to drag on for over nine goloqs.”

Petronius pinched his nose again. “For over nine…?”

Basil cut across him. “For a very long time. Khazar groups were up in arms about it. And, since this person was politically and even personally close to the leadership, naturally people suspected that the leadership was responsible. But they weren’t; if anything they were pushing for expulsion.”

Petronius shook his head, but it didn’t seem to help. “Let me get this straight. People working within the Foundation, with responsibility for membership and discipline, believe that the leadership are all Mamelukes, and Mamelukes are all Khazar-haters. A friend of the leadership makes statements insulting to Khazars. The leadership cuts this person off, but the Mameluke-hunters – who are the ones with the power to kick them out of the Foundation – do nothing about it, for over nine…”

“Nine goloqs, yes.”

“Were they just very, very inefficient? What’s this one say – they had a very basic system for tracking complaints about members, which they then replaced it with another equally basic system, which they didn’t consistently use? Again, whyever not?”

“Very hard to say – not using a system doesn’t create much evidence. But it doesn’t seem to be a Khazar-related thing, if only because all sorts of complaints were being dealt with just as slowly and just as inefficiently. As far as we can see the only time these people really sprang into action was when there was a leader sortition, and a chance of party members deposing the leadership.”

“I suppose they would want to help that along,” Petronius said with a thin smile.

“It’s more that they hindered the people who wanted to vote for the leadership. Lots of Triune members suddenly discovered they were ex-members, or else that they’d been suspended for the length of the contest.”

“They used membership of the Triune Foundation as a political tool?”

“To be granted and withheld as they saw fit.” Now it was Basil’s face that wore a mirthless smile.

“Ah well. At least it didn’t work. Still, you’d think the leadership would have noticed what was going on; you’d think they’d complain about having people in charge of membership who were good at kicking out allies of the leadership and bad at kicking out actual Khazar-haters. I mean, assuming there were any actual Khazar-haters in the Foundation to begin with, and it wasn’t just part of the big Mameluke hunt…”

“Let me stop you there.” Basil looked stern. “If you think back to the pre-briefing, you’ll remember that anti-Khazar prejudice has deep historical roots in this civilisation; it takes many different forms and can be found in all the main governmental alliances, the Triune Foundation included.”

“OK, OK.” Petronius was chastened. “I just thought, seeing that so few of them were being expelled, perhaps there wasn’t enough…”

“Oh, there was plenty of evidence. After the Grand Wazir – well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Anyway, to answer your question, the leadership were well aware that their membership and discipline specialists were kicking out far too many of the wrong people and far too few of the right ones – not least because some pro-Khazar activists made sure that they knew about it.”

“That’s where this Khazar4Evar individual comes in, is it?”

“Yes. Quite suddenly the membership people are being bombarded with hundreds of vague, half-formed accusations against people who may or may not have been in the Triune Foundation to begin with. And they deal with this in two ways.”

“Let me guess – number one is ‘very badly’?”

Basil nodded. “And number two is ‘by reporting that everything was fine’.”

“This all looks quite efficient, though. They’d had this many complaints from the Khazar4Evar account; they’d all been investigated; this many were against Foundation members, and investigation had led to this many expulsions. What’s wrong with that?”

Wordlessly, Basil highlighted another section of the visualisation.

None of it was true? And we know that none of it was true – the data was right there and they…” Petronius shook his head again. “They lied about it? Even though they were all in favour of getting rid of anti-Khazar activists, even though it had the potential to embarrass the leadership – which, as we know, they wanted to do?”

“I suppose visibly failing to deal with the anti-Khazar problem had the potential to be even more embarrassing to the leadership,” Basil said coldly. “Or they may not have thought that far ahead; they may just have been extraordinarily inefficient.”

“At anything other than kicking out allies of the leadership and other suspected… what is that word… Mamelukes.”

“Yes. The Foundation was a hard organisation to get kicked out of, if you weren’t an ally of the leadership. You could transmit anti-Khazar propaganda or various other forms of bigotry; you could even advocate joining the Lilac League. If you were reported once, it was an isolated occurrence; if you were reported twice or three times, your case had already been looked at so there was no need to do anything else.”

Petronius frowned. “This isn’t sectarianism, though – just rampant inefficiency; these people seem to have treated senior jobs in the Foundation as if they were sinecures requiring only that they turn up for work, and gone on acting that way even when there was vitally important work to be done.”

“Let’s not lose sight of the broader picture. It would be fair to say that these individuals  exhibited both sectarianism – in opposition to their own leadership – and rampant inefficiency. There is a happy ending of sorts, though: at this point here, there’s a new Grand Wazir, and almost all of the other people mentioned here resign. The disciplinary process becomes considerably more efficient as a result, as you can see here.”

Petronius looked at the figures. “A ninefold… no, a tenfold increase. No, wait. A factor of 25. In fact, in one sense it’s a factor of 45. It’s a big improvement, anyway.”

Basil nodded. “But there’s more. If you’ll just take in this audio-visual element…”

A little while later, Petronius shook his head again, more as a demonstration of his agitated state than because he hoped it might help. “Unwritten guidelines… leadership interfering… anti-Khazar sympathies… obstructing their investigations… This just isn’t true! It can’t be true.”

“As I say, this is one of those civilisations where veracity can’t always be relied on.”

“Clearly.” Petronius made to shake his head again but controlled himself. “Apart from anything else, if the leadership had the power to impose these ‘guidelines’ which supposedly slowed everything down so much, how could all of those leadership sympathisers have been excluded? And how could the process of dealing with the anti-Khazar element have got so much better when the leadership had a new Grand Wazir and new people in place? What they say here simply cannot be true. One can sympathise with them in a way – nobody likes being reminded of how inefficiently they’re working, least of all when they have ceased to support the goals of the organisation they’re working for. But this reaction is… excessive.”

“Some would call it a pack of lies.”

“I dare say they would, Basil, and how right they would be. So, remind me, what’s the remit of our investigation?”

“We’re to investigate the content of this data release.”

Petronius nodded. “Quite right too.”

“Also, the circumstances under which it came to be released. Oh, and we’ll be working with individuals nominated by the Foundation under its new leadership, specifically including one known supporter of the former Grand Wazir -“

“I’m sorry, the former Grand Wazir?”

“If I might finish – one supporter of the former Grand Wazir, and one individual who was actually a staff member in this period and whose name appears in the release.”

Petronius succumbed to temptation and shook his head, hard. “What is wrong with this Foundation?”

Basil shrugged. “I imagine we’re about to find out.”

 

 

 

 

I’m no leader (1)

About two weeks ago I was mulling over a post about the prospects for Labour under Keir Starmer, and why there might still be room for some cautious optimism. Then the report on the handling of antisemitism in the party appeared, and watching the fallout from that kept me busy for, well, most of the next two weeks, as well as giving me some more food for thought about the party and where it’s heading.

But it’s a shame to let a good blog post go to waste, so here’s more or less what I was going to write.

We don’t know which way the party is going under Keir Starmer. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that which way the party is going is still undecided. What will decide it will be the resolution of three tensions within the leadership; three opposed pairings which are currently more or less in balance, but won’t stay that way forever.

1. The Pledges and the Backers

I read Starmer’s campaign statement when I went to my CLP’s nomination meeting; I was pleasantly surprised and genuinely reassured. (Not reassured enough to vote for him – either then or in the vote that mattered – but enough to feel that a Starmer leadership wouldn’t actually be a disaster.) He committed himself to maintaining Corbyn’s transformation of Labour politics, both in general terms and with specifics. There were more specifics in his campaign pledges; I combed them for weaselly phrasing, and I did find a few examples (“support common ownership” of the utilities?), but overall it looked as if this was our guy. We knew he wasn’t our guy, of course – we knew the kind of people who were backing him – but still; all in all, as I say, it looked like a Starmer-led party would be solidly on the Left.

At the same time, we did know who was backing him – and we knew that quite a few of them were only on the Left in a “how dare you suggest that Labour has a right wing” sense. Indeed, one of the more startling parts of the antisemitism report was the revelation of quite how strong, in some (important) places, what has to be called the extreme Right of the party still is; apart from anything else, from what I’ve read it would appear that, until quite recently, the General Secretary’s office was run by people who thought that everyone left of Liz Kendall was a Trot.

The question then is, which is going to dominate? Viewed from one perspective, the answer’s simple: pledges are just pledges and can be abandoned any time, or simply revised and qualified into non-existence; your backers are your backers, and you’ve got to keep them sweet. The trouble is, viewed from the opposite perspective the answer’s just as simple: pledges are pledges, and if Starmer were to break them they could immediately be hung round his neck, causing just the kind of internal strife he most wants to avoid; the people who backed his election campaign are just some people who thought he’d serve their interests, and once elected he owes them nothing.

Sooner or later Starmer is going to have to jump – or at least sidle – one way or the other: there is no way to split the difference between “reverse the Tories’ cuts in corporation tax” and “public services should be in public hands”, on one hand, and people who believe that policies like these belong to “Trots”, on the other. And the possibility of a real regression – a rewind to 2015 or even 2010 – does exist; but it’s not the only possibility, and recognising it as a possibility doesn’t make it likely, let alone inevitable. There’s still room to be cautiously… well, there’s still room to be cautious.

2. The Front Line and the Second Line

When Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet was announced, a lot of us breathed a cautious sigh of relief: a “ministry without portfolio” for Reeves (who would have been a truly disastrous choice for Chancellor of the Exchequer, or for DWP for that matter), and no sign of Streeting, Phillips, Kendall, Kyle, Powell… Admittedly the ministries weren’t in the hands of the Left, either – with the exception of Long-Bailey at Education – but the rapid promotions given to centrist MPs such as Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested a real commitment to building a head of steam behind the “soft Left”, whatever we – or Starmer – may take that to mean.

When the junior shadow ministers were announced, of course, there they were – a few leftists, a few “soft Left” types and an absolute raft of Blairite old lags. What does this mean? One, pessimistic, reading is that the old Right is in place to step into the current Shadow Ministers’ shoes when a reshuffle seems urgent – when an election is in prospect, for example. On paper this is true, but in practice the leadership has a lot of latitude in who gets appointed to a shadow ministerial post – the 2016 resignations (and their replacements) demonstrated that, if nothing else. A lot can change in a couple of years; Rebecca Long-Bailey was a very junior shadow minister until February 2017. There may not be many mute inglorious Keir Starmers on the back benches, but I dare say the PLP could rustle up another Nick Thomas-Symonds; and, you never know, Starmer may yet come under pressure to appoint from the Left. (And if he doesn’t, the Left needs to keep pushing until he does.)

Again, things could go very badly, but that doesn’t have to be the case; things could still go… less badly.

Lastly, the “junior Shadow Minister” question overlaps with the third unresolved tension:

3. Party Unity and the Wreckers

One thing the leaked report appears to show is that the requirements of party unity rest much more lightly on the Right than on the Left, due no doubt to the former’s greater sense of proprietorship over the party: if we dissent from their leadership we’re betraying the party, if they dissent from ours they’re just trying to stop us betraying the party (from above). (And if the short-term result is a Tory government, well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, or so they tell the eggs.) Tactically speaking, this sense of entitlement is a real strength for the Labour Right: it enables them to act and speak freely and with total self-confidence, however vacuous their policy recommendations and however destructive their actions.

However, when the leadership is held by a genuine centrist – and nobody has made a convincing case that Starmer is personally on the Right – this strength is also a weakness. When more than one tendency is represented within the leadership, “unity” can’t simply mean “we do what we like and the Left puts up with it”; it has to have some content that isn’t entirely factional, even if it’s only “the leadership does what it likes and everyone puts up with it”.

The question then is, how are the various Right-wing leakers, ego-trippers and coalition cosplayers going to take to being required to show a bit of restraint? My sense is, not very well. Some, to be fair, will be only too happy to repeat whatever line they hear from Starmer – and if it’s not particularly Left-wing or confrontational, so much the better – but some have a record of bigging themselves up whenever there’s a vowel in the month, and/or briefing against anyone to the Left of Bill Clinton. (Never underestimate just how right-wing parts of the Labour Right are.)

The usual suspects are keeping fairly quiet at the moment – something something Mantle of Ministerial Responsibility no doubt – but one wonders how long it can last. (Indeed, one bright spark appears already to be on manoeuvres. It’d be awful if the things he was advocating turned out not to be party policy, eh readers?)

In the longer term there are three possible resolutions (not two this time), namely:

  1. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer covers for them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he doesn’t care about real party unity and takes a decisive step to the Right.
  2. Right-wing wreckers kick off, Starmer sacks them in the name of Party Unity; he thus demonstrates that he does care about real party unity and takes a decisive step away from the Right.
  3. Right-wing wreckers don’t kick off, indefinitely, but act like disciplined centrists for so long that they actually learn how to be disciplined centrists.

1. would be very bad, but it would undermine Starmer’s claim to be above the factions, create an immediate opening for the Left and generally stir up the silt with a long stick; that being the case, I don’t think we can be sure that it’s more likely than 2. I’m not even sure that 3. can be ruled out altogether – or, if not, how bad it would be.

In short, it’s principles vs people all the way down, and it’s surprisingly hard to call. On one hand, incremental change is a real danger. Every day that people like Streeting, Powell and Reeves keep their ministerial positions is a day when the Right’s assumptions can inflect on-the-fly policy-making and the articulation of existing policy; see the (bizarre) shift from pandemic-related rent suspension to rent deferral, which only makes sense if you think that Labour should be standing up for landlords. On the other hand, while Starmer clearly isn’t a Corbynite, he does have principles; more importantly, he has a strong motivation to stake out his territory somewhere other than the neo-Blairite Right of the party. This in turn means leaving much or most of the Corbynite transformation of Labour policy unreversed, while declining to pick a fight with the Left qua Left.

One possibility I haven’t considered, finally, is that all this stuff about the old Right and the undefined centre may turn out to be irrelevant: the territory Starmer stakes out may be an ideological terrain all of his own, an -ism to rival Corbyn and Blair. But there’s a reason why I don’t consider that.

ya know?
i’m no leader
i just can’t see myself following you…
and that’s not in a “heavy” way you

not you personally but…
you personally…
– doseone

So, farewell then

1. Him

The first thing I want to say about Jeremy Corbyn is how much I admire him as a person, and how grateful I am to him. There was some adverse comment during the 2019 election campaign about his ‘tetchy’ and ‘sarcastic’ manner with hostile interviewers, but in the context it’s hard to blame him for that – the context being four and a half years of relentless aggression, harassment and bad faith, both from the media and from people who he could reasonably have expected to be on his side. A small example is the press pack we frequently saw on BBC News, camped out outside Corbyn’s house, ready to fire questions at him as he walked to his car. Corbyn never answered questions outside his house, and indeed had explained that this was his policy – and yet they carried on doing it, en masse, day after day and month after month, hoping that they could goad him into letting something slip. This isn’t reporting, it’s harassment – and the mere fact that Corbyn never lost his rag with them attests to a superhuman level of patience. (I would have snapped within a week.)

It’s been suggested recently that media hostility to Labour was predictable, so the way they stitched us up during (and before) the last election campaign actually reflects on Corbyn’s lack of a strategy to manage the media. Given the level of hostility Corbyn faced, this is a bit like saying that everyone knew what Harvey Weinstein was like, so any woman who got assaulted by him only had her lack of an Entitled Creep Management Strategy to blame. Only that particular entitled creep is in prison, and everyone believes his victims. (We used to believe victims of press harassment, come to think of it – wonder what changed.)

As well as for managing to be “Mr Zen”, I admire Corbyn for sticking to what he believed in – more than that, for the integrity he displayed; for getting the message across that not sticking to what he believed in wasn’t an option, wouldn’t even occur to him. To go into politics because you want to achieve X, Y and Z, to state frankly that you want to achieve those things and to answer every question from the point of view of someone who wants to achieve those things – it doesn’t sound like much, but the break it represents from Labour’s recent history can’t be overstated.

The managerial, clientelist ‘realism’ of the old Labour Right; the hesitant, defensive triangulations of the centre-left past and present; Blairism, with its toxic combination of charismatic populism and rightward-trimming calculation: all these different traditions shared one fundamental assumption, the pessimistic certainty that you can’t go Left. It’s a pessimistic assumption, and it’s also disabling: if you’re trying to run a party of the Left and you’re convinced that sooner or later you’re going to need to move Right, a degree of capitulation is built in (left-wing policy? they won’t have it in Mansfield), as well as a degree of dishonesty and even self-deception (right-wing policy? are you calling Labour policy right-wing?).

Corbyn’s leadership swept all of that away, for a time at least; he demonstrated that you can go Left, and – perhaps the single biggest attraction of Corbynism – that if you’re a Labour politician and you go Left, you can hold your head up: you don’t have to capitulate or lie about anything. The Labour Left has always prided itself on political principle; in Jeremy Corbyn we had a chance to see what a principled political leader might look like, and it looked pretty good. It looked like someone who wasn’t in love with his image or his historical mission, didn’t feel he had to meet anybody’s expectations, didn’t feel he had anything to apologise for and was comfortable in his own skin (literally and politically).

This is also why I’m, eternally, grateful to Jeremy Corbyn: not so much for what he did as for what he showed was possible. It’s always been possible to be on the Left in the Labour Party – the party has certain ideals and certain traditions, after all, and there’s nothing to actually stop you believing in them, if you want to. What hasn’t been possible, at least for as long as I can remember, is being on the Left and having any kind of prominence in the party. (Yes, I remember Michael Foot. I remember him running for the leadership on a pledge to stand above the factions and unite the party, and then backing the Falklands expedition and trying to bar Peter Tatchell from standing for Labour. At best, Foot led from slightly left of centre – and even that was enough to trigger the spectacular wrecking operation that was the SDP.)

Corbyn showed that it was perfectly possible for the Labour Party to have a left-wing leader, a left-wing leadership team and left-wing policies. This alone was a revelation. There are certain principles I believe in, and certain policies that are particularly strongly associated with those principles. With the exception of the 1995-2010 period, I’d always supported the Labour Party because of these commitments; this remained the case even while I was wearily aware that it was unlikely ever to offer the policies, and had a sneaking suspicion that its leadership was only paying lip service to the principles. Under Corbyn, suddenly none of this applied: the Labour Party actually shared the commitments that were the reason why I’d supported them all that time. Suddenly there was no cause to be jaded or suspicious: the principles were there, pure and simple, and there were the policies to back them.

That’s an experience that won’t be forgotten – especially since the resultant combination turned out to be rather popular: it turned out that a left-wing Labour Party could offer the country things it both needs and wants. Bear in mind, the 2017 election wasn’t just another loss, or even just a near miss, and it certainly wasn’t a case of a weak opposition fumbling a loss against an unpopular government (a bizarre and counterfactual story that still circulates on the Right of the party). Theresa May’s Conservatives took 42.3% of the vote – the highest Tory vote share since Thatcher’s second victory in 1983, and an increase of more than 5% as compared with 2015. We underestimate the extent to which the 2017 election actually went to plan, for the Tories; May called it to give her government a secure majority, and 42.3% of the vote – up from 36.9% – really ought to have done the trick. Instead, the Tories lost seats, and Labour deprived them of the slim majority they’d had. Although we were polling in the mid-20s when the election was called, on the night Labour took 40% of the vote – our highest vote share since Blair’s second victory in 2001 and an increase of 9% since 2015. Taking turnout into account, Labour took 14 votes for every 10 we’d got just two years earlier.

At the same time Labour transformed the political agenda: in two years we went from a country where the Labour leadership was endorsing austerity to one where the Tories felt the need to disown it. If Corbyn had been any other leader – or rather, if he’d been a leader from any other part of the party – the pundits would have been sitting at his feet asking how on earth he’d done it. But, of course, if they had asked the answer would have been “by consistently supporting democratic socialist principles and inviting other people to support them; by having beliefs and sticking to them, saying what I believe and only what I believe; by disregarding your assumptions and rejecting your calculations”.

2. Him and Us

Am I grateful to Jeremy Corbyn for making me believe in the Labour Party again, and for leading me (and a few hundred thousand others) to join? Well, yes and no. Being a member of a Labour Party branch in the last few years hasn’t always been the most rewarding experience, as I’ve documented on this blog from time to time. Corbyn’s election took place under peculiar, almost paradoxical circumstances – a left-winger became leader of a party whose internal democracy had largely been dismantled by the Right, thanks to the empowerment of individual members by reforms promoted by the Right. What this meant was that his victory was acutely uneven: substantial layers of the party were not only unaffected by it but resistant to it, to the point of continuing to treat the Left as a marginalised minority even while it was represented by their own leader. Attitudes like these ran deep, grounded as they were in that basic pessimism about the possibility of ever moving Left. Persuasion and dialogue were never going to make a dent in them; those groups could only be brought into line by action, either from above or from below – or, ideally, both.

Unfortunately the Left on the ground was a lot weaker than it appeared on paper – not least because many (most?) of the new recruits were relatively new to party politics, and unlikely to be enthused by the prospect of sitting through a meeting in a church hall for the sake of possibly getting some guy you don’t know elected to some position you don’t quite understand instead of some other guy you don’t know (who seems perfectly nice and is friends with all the local councillors). Perhaps we could, even so, have had a big push to deselect the Right – officers, councillors, MPs – or at least to deselect enough of them to let the others know who was boss; if so, we let the moment pass. As for action from above, again time was of the essence. We can now see that Corbyn wasted a lot of time trying to extend the hand of friendship to the Right in the PLP, and then had to waste a lot more time fending off the ridiculous Smith leadership challenge. By the time reselection of MPs was on the agenda, the conditions were all wrong – there was an election in the offing and the leadership was on the back foot once again. It would have been far better to move on day one – get reliable people in key positions (starting with the Whips’ Office) and let Momentum take responsibility for getting the unreliable ones replaced, or at least putting the fear of God in them. The Right of the party, and their friends in the media, would have thrown a fit – but really, what’s the worst that could have happened? Hostile profiles, recycling old smears and rumours? Accusations of sexism and racism? Resignations from the Shadow Cabinet? Resignations from the Labour Party? New centrist parties? How terrible that would have been, eh?

(Parenthetically, this is what “I welcome their hostility” means. It’s not “I welcome their opposition”; it doesn’t mean you’d rather have people opposing you than working with you – what would be the sense in that? It means that, if you know perfectly well that somebody’s opposed to your entire political project, you would prefer them to bring it on, and stop pretending they just want what’s best for everyone (which, let me check, why yes, it does involve your entire political project being defeated, good guess). And you’d prefer that partly as a matter of honesty, but mainly because you know it’s eventually going to come to that anyway: either your political project is going to go away (and it’s not), or there’s going to be conflict. At some level, hostility implies respect; you welcome them taking you seriously enough to recognise that you’re in their way. (If they really thought you were as laughable as they keep saying, why would they keep saying it?) This, in my experience, is one translation of the vexed phrase “soft Left” – the soft Left are “the Left who hate the hard Left but don’t want to make a big thing of it and would rather they just went away”. Give me hostility any day.)

I am one of those who voted for Tom Watson for deputy leader; he promised that he would support Corbyn, and forgot to add “like a rope supports a hanged man”. I still think that an alt-Tom Watson – a version of Tom Watson who could spell the word ‘loyalty’, say – could have made a great enforcer for Corbyn and supplied something his leadership sadly lacked. And this, I’m afraid, comes back to a weakness in Corbyn himself – at least, a quality in Corbyn which turned out to be a weakness in a leader of the Labour Party. It relates to his pure-and-simple advocacy of the causes he believed in, backed by the confidence that people who listened would join him in supporting them. While this was a huge strength in itself – if only, as I’ve said, because it made such a pleasant change from most other Labour politicians – it brought with it a blind spot with regard to people who weren’t going to listen to him, weren’t going to believe what he said, weren’t going to be persuaded. Perhaps this goes back to Corbyn’s “movement” background: if you’re campaigning for destitute asylum seekers or imprisoned trade unionists, you can’t afford to care about all the people who don’t support you, you just want to maximise the number of people who do. Whatever the reason, I think Corbyn’s attitude has always been “I tried, they didn’t listen, I’ll just keep trying”, or in other words “with you if possible, without you if necessary” – and a party leader’s attitude really needs to be “with you if possible, over your dead body if necessary”. Apart from anything else, the leader owes it to their followers to apply some pressure on backward elements in the party – there’s only so much we can do from below.

This relates to another weakness, which again is connected with Corbyn’s strengths as a communicator and campaigner. The confected scandal over antisemitism in the Labour Party had a real issue at its root, and an issue which Corbyn fumbled badly. The “IHRA” definition of antisemitism was developed as part of a long-running campaign to get anti-Zionism classified as anti-semitism, thereby delegitimising much anti-Israel activism. Moreover, it’s not strictly speaking a definition at all, but an open-ended list of behaviours which may constitute antisemitism; as such it’s peculiarly ill-suited to being used as a way of identifying behaviours – and individuals – which are antisemitic, as it’s guaranteed to be over-inclusive. (This point has been made by the definition’s author, Kenneth Stern.)

Facing demands to adopt the definition (and its examples), entire and unadapted, for internal disciplinary purposes, Labour politicians from Corbyn down could have set out some of this background and acknowledged that the leadership’s position on the state of Israel was more critical than that of any Labour leadership in memory, and that this was – sadly – likely to repel many Jewish voters. Instead they responded by reaffirming their heartfelt opposition to antisemitism, then by delaying and attempting to find some sort of compromise, and then by wholeheartedly caving in – a third stage which Keir Starmer is intending to prolong indefinitely, if we’re to believe the Observer (a very big ‘if’, admittedly).

The issue here is not that Corbyn has anything to retract or apologise for with respect to antisemitism – he doesn’t, a point which was conceded (in calmer times) by at least one of the people who were demanding retractions and apologies. (No, I don’t understand it either.) The issue is that, while “principle pure and simple” works well as a form of advocacy, once you get into argument it’s a one-shot strategy; if it doesn’t work, you’ve got nothing to back it up except trying it again. Corbyn didn’t just refuse to get into personalities (“they go low, we go high”); all too often, he refused to get into detail – and that left the space for his enemies to define the issues on which he was being challenged. Not once did we hear Corbyn acknowledge that he is a long-term friend of the Palestinian cause (a position which many people disagree with, particularly in the Jewish community, but which has nothing to do with antisemitism); or draw attention to the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism (which has to be understood if we are to promote justice in the Middle East while standing firm against Europe’s oldest racism); or even point out the fundamental problems with the IHRA “definition” (problems acknowledged, as we’ve seen, by the definition’s own author). Even Corbyn’s affirmations of support for the Jewish community in Britain weren’t backed up by any details – details which he could easily have supplied. Again, the pure-and-simple style of advocacy left the field open for people who were only too happy to fill in the details, to the disadvantage of the anti-imperialist Left – and it gave very little cover to those of us who came under attack.

Corbyn’s a campaigner; you’d never mistake him for a machine politician or for a policy wonk. In many ways that’s been a strength, but it comes with weaknesses. The way his leadership got trampled on by his own MPs, and the relentless negative campaigning that did so much to torpedo our campaign last winter, suggest that we need a bit more of the operator and a bit more of the geek from our next leadership team. (These aren’t necessarily qualities that one person has to embody, just as long as somebody covers them – and as long as the leadership works together. Angela Rayner, Hammer of the Centrists? Stranger things have happened.)

3. Us

What about us – what now for the Left in Labour? The prospects are fairly gloomy; apart from anything else, if we haven’t managed to take the party over by now, we aren’t likely to manage it under the new leader – particularly if (as seems likely) the new leader is Keir Starmer. It’s even possible that we’re all about to get expelled – or, more realistically, that they’ll expel enough of us that the rest of us feel honour bound to take the hump and leave. (I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I think it’s a real possibility.)

Assuming we have a future in the party, what can we learn from the last few years? Again, I think it’s a matter of strengths and weaknesses. At its best the Corbynite Left has looked a lot like a social movement: the enthusiasm, the good humour, the playful creativity and above all the sheer numbers; the sense that everything could be different now, in the line from Victor Jara I borrowed back at the start of it all, Porque ahora no estoy solo – porque ahora somos tantos! Diversity in unity and unity in diversity – and so many of us!

The trouble is, we weren’t – and aren’t – a social movement; we were and are a faction within a political party. This matters in two ways. First, organising within a political party requires organisation. We’ve had organisation, or rather we’ve had an organisation in the form of Momentum; what we haven’t had is any real articulation between the leadership’s strategy and what Momentum were pushing at any given time. I’m guessing the leadership adopted a hands-off approach to Momentum because of the bad press they would have incurred otherwise – and, again, this seems like a missed opportunity, if only because it’s hard to see how the press they got could have been much worse. In the absence of strategic steers from the top, Momentum has had to come up with its own strategy for party activists – and, as a group formed to support Corbyn’s leadership, its focus has understandably been on securing Corbyn’s position within the party. The problem with that is that it tends to turn every issue into a meta-issue – “the NEC is divided, so we should push hard on issue X” – or a meta-meta-issue – “the Left gaining advantage at this point would provoke the Right, so we should hold off on issue Y”. Which is, ironically, the very opposite of the “principle pure and simple” approach that drew so many of us to Corbyn in the first place.

It’s tempting to recoil from this kind of organising into a dream of a pure ‘movement’, but I’m afraid we can’t take much comfort there either. It’s a question of scale. A Corbynite social movement would have been a movement linking up people doing, and campaigning for, the things we all believe in: people who were active in trade unions and legal advice centres and tenants’ unions and environmental campaigns and occupations and workers’ co-ops and direct action campaigns and food banks and women’s groups and solidarity campaigns and credit unions and, and, and… Labour meetings should have been down time by comparison – a chance to compare notes with fellow activists and co-ordinate bigger actions. It’s no answer to say that the background level of activism is too low, or the landscape of radical self-help isn’t there any more, or that all of this sounds like a throwback to the seventies – those things are all true, of course, but what that tells us is that we weren’t all that much of a social movement.

Arguably turning the groundswell of support for left-wing policies into a social movement – and refocusing Labour members’ attention on what there is to do locally – is a long job; arguably it was getting under way before the election with the work of the Community Organising Unit (although it’s saddening to realise that the unit was only launched in September 2018). But there’s also been a tendency – and I’m not innocent of it myself – to see the Left as a social movement within Labour, and to see working within the party as an end in itself. People only have so many evenings and weekends (or so I recall), and they may not want to spare very many of them, but I do feel that we can do better – and that we need to reorient. Work within the local party, if that’s possible; if not, work to take positions in your local party, if that’s realistic; but in any case, be a Labour member outside the party. Don’t wait for the ward secretary to organise the next round of door-knocking or litter-picking; put a Labour Party badge on your jacket and act on your beliefs, do something that needs doing. (This is a Note To Self, of course; I don’t assume it’s got any wider application.)

New times will call for new forms of organisation, bad new times especially; Momentum has a big part to play (as long as it isn’t proscribed), but it can’t be the whole answer. We are almost certainly going to need to fight to hold every inch we’ve taken within the party – but we can’t let that be our sole focus. What comes out of the strange, sometimes harrowing, sometimes wonderful period we’ve just lived through won’t live up to all the hopes we’ve held – but it won’t be a return to business as usual either. Led by Jeremy Corbyn, we have already changed British politics. We’ll keep on changing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Democracy now

I was surprised, midway through my local Labour Party AGM, to hear the name “Steven Fielding”. Could it be?

Yes, it could.

Point of information #1: I think the number I heard cited was 970. As of the 2019 local elections, the electorate of the ward stood at 10,452; if we carry on recruiting we’ll soon be up to one in 10 adult Chorlton residents. Plus 970 is actually higher than the number of votes received by the second-placed (Green) council candidate in 2019. We probably don’t need to bust a gut campaigning this year.

Point of information #2: the factions. Those subtle, subdued factions! (Very Chorlton – factions by Farrow & Ball.) I defer to Steven’s expertise here; my highest qualification in Politics is a Master’s, and my book is only incidentally about electoral politics and political parties. But it seems to me that there weren’t actually two factions visibly active on Monday night, just the one – and that its operations weren’t at all subtle, but rather overt.

Perhaps it comes down to definitions. Put it this way: here are statements on behalf of two groups of people, A and B, both of whom are members of the same party.

A: “We support the elected leader and thoroughly approve of the party’s current programme – and so do our allies who have been denied party membership!”

B: “We think the party’s policy is wrong and the leader needs to change direction – and so do our allies in other, rival political parties!”

Call me an old eccentric, but I’d always thought that the label of ‘faction’ applied properly to group B, but not to group A. Ten, twenty, a hundred people who are involved in collective lobbying for the party to change (and may have other loyalties): that’s a faction. Ten, twenty, a hundred people who are content with how the party is now and back it every time: that’s not a faction, that’s just some happy party members. Broadly speaking, I’d always thought that supporting the party’s policies and leadership was the one thing a party member can do which is definitely not ‘factionalism’. True, sometimes parties go into crisis – I might mention the Cultural Revolution, I might mention Comrade Delta – and under crisis conditions it might make sense to talk of a ‘leadership faction’. But the Labour Party certainly wasn’t in that kind of crisis at the time of the 2017 AGM; we’d just deprived the Tories of their majority, apart from anything else, and were averaging 42% in the polls. This is the AGM that Steven referred to in his second Tweet; it’s also the one where I stood for election as a CLP delegate and (as I wrote at the time) found myself in the absurd position of “effectively running as a left-wing outsider, on a platform consisting of supporting the party’s elected leader and its agreed manifesto”. Running, in other words, against the locally dominant anti-leadership faction. (And didn’t get elected – a record I’ve maintained at both subsequent AGMs.)

Steven for his part was elected as a delegate this year – as his Tweet says – and good luck to him. I noticed that his personal statement led with his involvement in Another Europe Is Possible, a group whose Labour members surely ticked every group B box: an organised group, lobbying for a change to established party policy, on grounds of principle rather than pragmatism. (Whether that principle was correct, and whether it was important enough to override pragmatic considerations, are separate questions.) But the Remain cause has been big in our ward for a while – the incoming Chair is an enthusiast herself, according to her report from last year – so a reckoning with that particular faction of ideological purists may be a long time coming.

There was a report from last year from the incoming Chair…? Well spotted, imaginary reader. The incoming Chair could write a report because she had previously been a branch officer; the branch clearly didn’t think this was a problem, though. In fact, several officers either stayed in post or moved sideways, and several posts were uncontested. Contested elections are a pain, of course, particularly when you’re using paper ballots (in a branch with nearly 1000 members, at that) – and who can blame officers who want to go on working with people they know, or else try their hand at a different role? Still, though; 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.

It might also seem odd – or at least logistically challenging – for a branch this big to hold an all-member AGM: what did they do, hire a sports hall or something? No need, imaginary reader, there was no need. 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 is very much not one in 10 Chorlton residents; it’s not even one in 10 of those 970 members.

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. Back in 2017, those Corbynite hotheads might have thought they could change the world by publishing a slate (i.e. printing some names on a piece of paper), but these days everybody knows what’s what and acts accordingly. Groups that are out of power don’t bother putting up candidates for inevitable defeat; the group in power doesn’t bother mobilising its softer supporters; and the wider membership ignores the one email they’ve been sent, and stays away from what sounds like a tedious meeting. 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.

You could argue that all this is beside the point: the party has able and effective officers, many of whom have proved their effectiveness in previous years; we have three Labour councillors; our Labour MP was re-elected in 2019 with a majority of 52%; what’s the problem? True, the dominant political tenor of the branch has been out of tune with the leadership for the last few years, but that’s not a problem – we don’t go around suspending branches just because they disagree with the leader – and besides, it may not be the case for much longer, depending on whether Keir Starmer wins (and which of his supporters he betrays). And, let’s not forget, the local party has nearly 1000 members, and they don’t seem to mind; they certainly didn’t turn up to complain.

But this doesn’t represent a healthy democratic party. A hard-fought meeting at which you pull out all the procedural stops, pour your heart into your statements and end up defeated is depressing enough, God knows, but a meeting where almost nothing gets fought because there’s no point trying is ten times worse. And what kind of message do these conditions send to the membership – 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? Come to that, should we be concealing from members the fact that different people in the party – although we all support Labour – think different things about the best way to get a Labour government, or about what a Labour government should do when it is elected? Reading party mailings – and attending party meetings – I often get the impression that we’re concealing that knowledge from ourselves.

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. Depending how you define ‘faction’, of course.

Update The second Labour Party meeting this week saw Withington CLP’s leadership nominations go to Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, neither of whom I voted (or will be voting) for. These nomination meetings are something of a formality now – with three of the four leadership and four of the five deputy leadership candidates already on the ballot – and Withington’s nomination doesn’t actually have any effect on the vote, unless there are members out there willing to vote for whoever an email from the local party tells them to, which I would hope isn’t the case. (Then again, some people at the meeting were seriously arguing that we should vote for Starmer on the grounds that our MP supported him, an argument which to my ears sounds not so much unpersuasive as downright weird – we elected him, he didn’t delegate us.)

Anyway, it doesn’t matter greatly in the scheme of things that Keir Starmer won the vote over Rebecca Long-Bailey – although I feel compelled to mention that the win was fairly narrow and depended on transfers from Lisa Nandy’s supporters (so much for “time for a woman leader”) – or that Angela Rayner walked it for deputy (with Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler in distant second and third places).

The candidates’ statements – and the speeches in favour of them from attendees – were interesting, though. I’m not going to say much about the deputy leadership contest, but I do want to say a word for Richard Burgon’s statement; some really interesting proposals, particularly to do with democratising the party, which make me think he’d be a good complement to either of the main leadership candidates. His cause wasn’t helped on the night by his partisans, though – one went big on his (symbolic and easily circumvented) “peace pledge” proposal, while another said that Burgon would help Long-Bailey stay true to the “Corbyn project” (a phrase not guaranteed to win over the doubters).

More generally, there were some interesting contrasts between the speeches in favour of the three main candidates and those candidates’ statements. I tell a lie, there were some interesting contrasts between the speeches in favour of Keir Starmer and Starmer’s own statement. Long-Bailey and Nandy’s statements, and the interventions in their favour, both followed quite similar lines, viz:

Long-Bailey: policy 1, policy 2, policy 3, democratise the party, political experience, personal experience, local woman

Nandy: rebuild the party, unite the party, towns and cities, new, different

Starmer, not so much; his statement was quite policy-heavy and included some fairly explicit commitments to maintain the course set by Corbyn (which I found – in fairly rapid succession – surprising, gratifying and suspicious).

But – perhaps needless to say – this was not what made Starmer appeal to the people advocating him; the speeches in his favour (and there were several) could be summed up as three parts “unite the party”, two of “electability” and one “experience in senior roles”. As in Chorlton branch, there seems to be an odd association, for many members, between “not being on the Left” and “(correctly) having no position at all”. Later in the evening, as people ran out of more specific things to say and tempers began to fray, we were treated to several interventions on the theme of “you can either have the perfect ideological position [said with contempt] and be in opposition forever, or you can try and win the next election”. This is objectionable in a number of ways – it rewrites the history of the 2010-17 elections, which you’d think we’d want to learn from, as well as being quite extraordinarily insulting to members who are on the Left and have worked rather hard to try and get Labour MPs elected (thanks all the same). But what really stands out is the blithe assumption that they, the speakers, don’t care about having “the perfect ideological position”; that they’re a non-Left non-ideological non-faction.

(Nobody really spoke for Emily Thornberry, incidentally. It’s genuinely surprised me the way that she’s effectively dropped off the ballot; on paper it’s hard to see what Keir Starmer’s got that she hasn’t (ho ho). At one point somebody had the impertinence to ask whether Starmer’s “electability” had something to do with him being a white man from London who looks good in a suit. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an actual chorus of disapproval before.) 

The other interesting thing is how thinly attended the meeting was. This will sound like crazy talk to anyone who was there – we packed out a sizeable school hall, and the debate between loyalists and the anti-leadership faction was pretty lively. But consider: total attendance was in the region of 320. There are seven wards in the constituency and consequently seven party branches; one of them (as we’ve just seen) has a membership of 970. None of the others is that large or anywhere near, but total membership across the constituency must be around the 3000 mark. So: turnout at a meeting to decide, at least symbolically, who the constituency wants to see as the next leader of the party was approximately 10%. Which is 50% better than the 7% we managed on Monday night in Chorlton – but that’s a low bar.

The Labour Party’s half a million members are, still, a sleeping giant – even now, four years on from 2015. That’s an enormous, untapped asset; viewed less cynically, a membership that size has the potential to change the political culture of this country from the ground up, and at the very least to change the way that we think about political party membership. But if that’s going to happen, they’ll need to be mobilised, and mobilised politically – which means abandoning the pretence that everyone in the Labour Party thinks the same thing, or that all that any of us care about is electing good, hard-working Labour councillors and a good, hard-working Labour MP to represent all the good, hard-working local Labour voters. (Apart from anything else, how is that going to draw anyone in? Let’s face it, a diet of “re-elect Councillor X” and “what shall we ask the council to do about local issue Y?” is pretty thin gruel, even if you supplement it with events to mark key calendar dates.)

The trouble is that the keys to making that kind of mobilisation happen are, very often, in the hands of people who gained their current position in just the conditions of unchallenged factional dominance – with all its depoliticising and demobilising effects – which need to change.

 

What happened?

My MP has just asked me – and a few thousand other members of his CLP – what went wrong in December: what do we blame for Labour’s defeat?

Now, you don’t ask a ‘quantity’ question if you want a ‘quality’ answer; if you wanted to hear a measured argument weighing up multiple factors before coming to a judiciously qualified conclusion, you wouldn’t ask several thousand people at once. Presumably what our man is after is something to replace the row of dots in a statement like “Members have told me over and over again that…” or “What I’m hearing again and again is…”. So I don’t suppose my MP will be reading and considering my arguments very carefully, or (to be brutally honest) at all. But I wanted to get it straight in my head, so I thought it was worth doing for that alone. And hey, free blog post!

What do I blame for Labour’s defeat in 2019?

1. Brexit. Brexit has to be top of the list; it was always going to make winning in 2019 a long shot. Ultimately I don’t think it mattered very much exactly where Labour’s policy ended up – we were always going to lose x% to hard Brexit parties and y% to hard Remain parties, it was just a matter of which was bigger. Perhaps a more Brexit-friendly position would have saved some (net) votes and seats, but we can’t be sure – although I definitely don’t think that going any further towards Remain would have helped. What we do know is that the constant lobbying and nudging to shift Labour’s Brexit policy didn’t help at all – it made us look indecisive, made our policy look incoherent and exacerbated divisions within the leadership. In retrospect we should have set out a line quite early on and stuck to it – even if that line was ‘accept Brexit but blame the Tories’.

2. Populism. Brexit also exemplified a broader problem – the way that politics (“the art of the possible”, objectives and how to achieve them) has increasingly been supplanted by a kind of populist spectator mentality, in which people cheer on their side and don’t care what actually happens as long as the other side loses. Talking policy to an audience primed for slogans is a waste of breath – but how did we end up with an audience that wants slogans, and how do we get them to think about policy again?

3. Margaret Hodge. Or if that’s giving too much prominence to one person, I blame the lack of loyalty and discipline within the PLP more generally. Like him or loathe him, after 2016 there was no possibility of removing Corbyn as leader; anyone who continued to agitate against him, under those conditions, was only working for a Tory victory. But, as disgraceful as many MPs’ conduct was, they don’t bear all of the blame here; Corbyn’s lack of interest in party management came back to bite him, and us. The next leader must do better, which means learning (selectively) from New Labour. (A little Leninism goes a very long way, as Philip Gould once said.)

4. Online. Postal votes are one of the things killed us – I suspect that many of the people I spoke to on the doorstep, and thought I’d persuaded to consider voting Labour, had already voted Tory. I think the underlying lesson is that the Tories’ online operation – particularly targeting Facebook – is scarily good; we need to work on ours. (We also need to rethink what we think we’re doing – and in particular who we think we’re talking to – when we do online campaigning.)

5. The manifesto. The manifesto was a programme for a sweeping social-democratic transformation of the economy; we could never have done it all in one term. I don’t think there’s much wrong with the proposals themselves, but we should have been clearer about what we were proposing for the first term and what was more of an aspiration. Also – most importantly – we should have been working towards those policy announcements from 2017 onwards, not springing them on an unsuspecting electorate with a few weeks to go till the election.

6. There is no point 6. I’m not saying a word against Jeremy Corbyn – plenty of people will do that for me – but even if I did I wouldn’t put the leadership’s contribution to our defeat any higher than sixth in a field of six. Scapegoating Corbyn might be satisfying, but it’s a distraction – and won’t help us win next time.

Rethinking radicalisation – new paper

I’ve got a paper in the current (Winter 2019/20) issue of the (OA) Journal for Deradicalisation.

Here’s the abstract and (some) references:

Antagonism, Conflictuality and Resilience: A New Model of Societal Radicalisation

This paper proposes that, instead of framing radicalisation as a process undergone by individuals, society’s political sphere as a whole should be considered as a site of radicalisation: a social setting built on discourses which can themselves be characterised by their level(s) of ‘radicalism’. The radicalisation of individuals’ patterns of discursive action needs to be understood in the context of (changing) levels of societal radicalisation. Unless they also address this societal context, efforts to counter or forestall the radicalisation of individuals and groups can have only local and temporary success. Any counter-radicalisation intervention conducted purely on the basis of an individualised ‘contagion’ or ‘strain’ model will be unable to envision – let alone address – phenomena of societal radicalisation. Building on the literature on securitization, resilience and agonistic conflict, this paper offers a model of societal radicalisation and of the social and political conditions likely to foster this process. Societal radicalisation is seen in terms of the corrosion of agonistic politics and its replacement by antagonism; this is related to deficits in societal qualities of conflictuality and resilience, which are discussed. The radicalising drift from agonism to antagonism, when promoted at government level, is further related to the literature on securitisation. Lastly, one possible mechanism for societal radicalisation – ‘antagonistic amplification’ – is identified and directions for further work are suggested.

Key references

Bailey, G. and Edwards, P. (2017), “Rethinking ‘radicalisation’: Microradicalisations and reciprocal radicalisation as an intertwined process”. Journal for Deradicalisation 10.
della Porta, D. (2018), “Radicalisation: A Relational Perspective”. Annual Review of Political Science 21.
Demetriou, C. and Alimi, E. (2018), “Relational radicalization”. In: Dépelteau, F. (ed.) (2018), The Palgrave Handbook of Relational Sociology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Edwards, P. (2016), “Closure through resilience: the case of PREVENT”. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 39(4).
Edwards, P. (2009), ‘More work! Less pay!’: Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-7. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Malthaner, S. (2017), “Radicalization: The Evolution of an Analytical Paradigm”. European Journal of Sociology 58(3).
Mouffe, C. (2013), Agonistics. London: Verso.
Ruggiero, V. (2017), “The Radicalisation of Democracy: Conflict, Social Movements and Terrorism”. Critical Criminology 25(4).
Stephens, W. & Sieckelinck, S. (2019), “Being resilient to radicalisation in PVE policy: a critical examination”. Critical Studies on Terrorism.
Tarrow, S. (1998), Power In Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tilly, C. (2005), “Terror as Strategy and Relational Process”. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 46 (1–2).

The paper grew out of a suggestion by my colleague Gavin Bailey. “Radicalisation” in its conventional usage is a “black box” concept – an unknown process that must have happened before a violent attack takes place. As such it’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify a process of radicalisation while it’s happening, which is obviously when it would be useful to identify it. In practice a precautionary logic tends to prevail, with the term being applied to behaviours which people think may be associated with political violence. This carries an obvious danger of excessive and discriminatory labelling; it’s tempting just to discard the concept altogether. But, even if we can’t reliably identify a specific series of changes and transitions which add up to Radicalisation with a capital R, might it not still be possible to say that something identifiable as “radicalisation” can be seen happening in people’s lives – taking place, in particular, every time somebody adopts a more intransigent, more antagonistic political framing? Gavin’s concept of “micro-radicalisations” got me thinking about what it was that was being radicalised – the person or the conflict? This in turn led me to the idea that a society’s political sphere can itself be radicalised, in the sense of losing conflictuality – the capacity to articulate and contain polarised social conflicts – and/or losing the resilience to deal with disruption. The more conflicts are excluded from the political sphere, the more disruptive the return of a repressed conflict will be; the lower a political sphere’s resilience, the more it will be weakened further by any disruption. As for what constitute conflictuality and resilience on the scale of a society’s political sphere – and what this ‘sphere’ thing is anyway – I’m afraid you’ll have to read the paper.

I’m quite pleased with the end result (particularly after the rewrites suggested by Reviewer 2; thanks also go to Phil), not least because it represents a return to the social movements literature where my academic career began; it’s nice to be citing Charles Tilly and writers influenced by him again (myself included!). The model I’ve ended up with is rather more austere than is the norm in that school – the people in it are considerably less important than the patterns of discursive action they reproduce – but I believe it’s valid; at least, I believe it’ll make an interesting bit of kit to think with.

As for operationalizing the key variables and testing the assumptions… that’s a whole other project, or two.

You can read the Journal for Deradicalisation here; my paper is here. Share and enjoy!

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