Category Archives: class

Real slap in the face

“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” – W. I. Thomas

“At the shatterproof heart of the matter, things are as they seem” – John Cooper Clarke

Unless you’re reading this in a remote and non-English-speaking nation, or in the far distant future (hi! glad we made it!), you’ll be familiar with the phrase ‘real concerns’ and similar terms like ‘legitimate concerns’, ‘valid concerns’, ‘genuine grievances’, ‘real issues’. They’re generally deployed as argumentative trump cards when the appeal of right-wing populism is being discussed, and in particular the affinity between the relatively novel appeal of populist parties like UKIP and the long-established reality of racism. Sociologically speaking, the idea that racism might have something to do with support for UKIP isn’t a stretch. Given that racist and xenophobic views were accepted as normal until relatively recently, given that UKIP’s policies counterpose the defence of British interest to immigrants and the European Union, and given that UKIP activists are known to have used racist and xenophobic rhetoric, you might think it’s an open-and-shut case.

If you do make the connection, though, you’re liable to be told that, while some hypothetical working-class White racists might well vote for UKIP for racist reasons, these working-class UKIP voters most certainly aren’t racists: on the contrary, they have real concerns. So you’ll sometimes hear people airing their (real) concerns about immigration while strenuously maintaining that they aren’t racists, often to the accompaniment of somebody from the Guardian or New Statesman telling us not to ignore those people or judge them. This screams bad faith, to me; it reminds me of nothing so much as “Gee, Officer Krupke” (“Our concerns! Our concerns! Our legitimate concerns!”). Sometimes a commentator playing the real concerns card will takes a bit more critical distance – and may even acknowledge that if it looks like racism and quacks like racism, it probably is a bit on the racist side – but the conclusion is always the same: if we want to understand what’s going on out there, we need to resist the temptation to call out racism and concentrate on the real concerns.

So what’s going on here? Part of it is a tendency to reject any accusation of racism, seen as tantamount to accusing someone of being A Racist – which in turn is seen as marking that person out as utterly beyond the pale. Now, given this country’s imperial history, racism is in the cultural groundwater; pointing out that someone’s said something ‘a bit racist’ should be about as loaded as ‘a bit unthinking’ or ‘a bit outmoded’. The way it’s often received, though, ‘that’s a bit racist’ is about as acceptable as ‘gosh, you’re a bit of a paedophile’: the charge is no sooner heard than it’s rejected, generally with righteous indignation that anyone might think we were like that. The terminus of this way of thinking is the rejection of any and all charges of racism as cynical moves in a political game, with no content apart from their power to exclude and offend: as this young Trump voter put it, focusing on racism

really just annoys and angers conservatives more than anything, because it is usually a straw man attack … Accusing [opponents of] racism or sexism eliminates the possibility of an honest discussion about politics.

The way that racism has been tabooed, since about 2000, may not have helped here. If you impose a mandatory five-year prison sentence for dropping litter, it may seem that you’ve clamped down on litter to the point where the problem will rapidly be eradicated. In reality, courts would avoid imposing such an absurdly excessive sentence, the police would stop bringing charges, and the problem would go unchecked. Perhaps something similar happened with charges of racism: everyone knows that racism is something our society doesn’t tolerate, so the accusation has become too powerful to use – and if you do call someone a racist, you’re labelling them some sort of quasi-fascist renegade from decency. (It’s also possible that ordinary and well-intentioned people can hear ‘that’s a bit racist’ as constructive criticism and refrain from taking it personally – in which case the indignation of the ‘how dare you call me a racist?’ response is spurious as well as obfuscatory.)

Either way, the reaction to charges of racism is only half the picture; the other half is those ‘real concerns’ themselves. It’s an odd but powerful phrase. We’re always saying two things – what we assert and what we don’t assert – and never more so than when words like ‘true’, genuine’, ‘real’ are at stake. Clement Freud (relation) wrote once that anyone beginning a sentence with ‘Actually’ is invariably lying. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do believe that anyone speaking ‘really’, ‘truly’, ‘honestly’ (etc) is invariably saying more than one thing. To put it a bit less gnomically, when we affirm that X is true we’re also affirming that not-X is false; the reason the Christian Creeds seem so fiddly and pedantic, my father told me once, is that they’re systematically affirming all the things that non-believers don’t believe in.

So if somebody – John Harris, perhaps – tells you that UKIP supporters in Wisbech (say) may sound a bit racist but that we won’t win them back unless we address their real concerns, what work is that word ‘real’ doing? (To be fair, ‘real concerns’ don’t appear in that article, although Harris does talk of ‘whispers and worries’ and ‘issues [claimed to be] real, but endlessly denied’; he also tells us what those worries and issues are, which is handy for any Guardian readers who want to hear some racist rumours. We also learn about the ‘Immigration Issues in Wisbech’ Facebook forum, whose proprietor has “no issue whatsoever with people coming over here who want to do better for themselves”, but finds it suspicious that Eastern European immigrants “have not suffered [in the recession], and they’re opening up shops”. So you’ll be fine if you come over to do better for yourself, but mind you don’t do too well – that might be an issue.)

Anyway, real concerns – real in what sense? Or rather, real as opposed to not real, in what sense? The simplest possibility is what we might call real-vs-delusional: they think they’re worried about X, but their real problem is Y. But straight away we hit a problem: we weren’t being asked to consider people’s real problems (which they might not be aware of or understand) but their real concerns, which by definition are things that people should be able to articulate to some extent, even indirectly. (Psychotic thought patterns are delusional; neurotic thought patterns express underlying concerns.) So ‘real-vs-delusional’ isn’t going to be any use, unless we turn it on its head and use it to contrast delusional theories about how people think with the reality of what people actually say. But in that case we’re basically saying that the appearance is the reality, and our inquiry can stop before it begins. This (rather unsatisfactory) framework is what underlies the pseudo-radical belief that working-class people have privileged access to the reality of their own condition – and hence that the issues which working-class people believe they’re experiencing are ipso facto real issues, and anyone saying otherwise must be elitist, or dismissive or something.

We can do better than that. Another possible framework is ‘real-vs-epiphenomenal’. If you’re tired all the time because of an undiagnosed thyroid malfunction, your thyroid is your real problem. The tiredness exists, but it’s not a problem in its own right – it’s not its own cause, and it won’t go away unless you deal with the cause. Real-vs-epiphenomenal is a serviceable explanatory tool, contrasting the real with the only apparently real. Since Marx, historical materialism has given the Left a ready-made framework for this kind of diagnosis: you thought you were worn out because you were struggling to keep on top of your workload, but really the problem was the working conditions that had landed you with that workload and left you unable to challenge it.

So ‘listen to the real concerns’ could mean ‘listen to the issues people are really worried about, not the rhetoric and imagery they use to express those worries’ – and I think, on the Left, that’s our starting-point; that’s what we think we’re getting when we see ‘real’, ‘genuine’ and what have you being deployed. But it could also mean the diametric opposite – ‘don’t waste time with theory, just listen to what people are telling you’. There are other possibilities, but they all tend the same way as the second option. ‘Real-vs-potential’ says that the concerns being expressed shouldn’t be overlooked, as they represent the advent of some phenomenon which has always been possible but never been realised up to now. ‘Real concerns’, in other words, are concerns we thought we’d never have to listen to, but which have now become too ‘real’ to ignore. Relatedly, ‘real-vs-unreliable’ says that there are misleading and fraudulent explanations for what’s happening, and then there’s the real story. In this framing, ‘real concerns’ are concerns that people have held for some time but never come clean about, up till now.

Finally there’s ‘real-vs-honest’, in which a ‘real’ assertion is used to give credence and emphasis to a statement the speaker knows to be false. Therapists hear a lot of this sort of assertion, often with a negative – No, I’m sure I didn’t mean that! or No, I definitely don’t resent my mother… What seems to be going on in these situations is that the mind
(a) momentarily entertains the possibility of the negation – Do I hate my mother?
(b) rejects it as unpalatable
(c) checks the affirmation for plausibility – Can I think of examples of me being nice to my mother?
(d) finds it plausible – Damn right I can! – and
(e) reaffirms the affirmation, loudly and emphatically so as to blot out any memories of steps (a) and (b)
The trick that the mind wants to work here is to make that reaffirmation at (e) and move on – lay that down as the new reality and have it recognised as such, however shaky its foundations are; words like ‘real’ serve to weight the new ‘reality’ down. This is why therapists so often use silence; leaving a statement like this hanging can do wonders to unravel steps (c)-(e) and throw the person making it back to (a) and (b) – That is, I wouldn’t say I resent my mother, but…

Is any of this relevant, though? Aren’t we dealing with a simple and uncontroversial real-vs-epiphenomenal framing? If the apparent problem is “immigrants taking all the school places” or “landlords catering to immigrants buying up all the houses”, surely it’s reasonable to say that there are real problems there, viz. local authority schools being unable to expand in response to demand and an under-regulated private letting market. Those are real problems, after all – and problems which have nothing to do with immigration and an awful lot to do with the attack on public services that’s been under way since 2010. The problem is that, in the kind of article we’re talking about, concerns of that type are only sporadically acknowledged; they never seem to be what we’re being asked to focus on. All too often, people like Harris and Polly Toynbee start with the appearance of xenophobia towards immigrants, dig all the way down to the reality of ‘free movement’ and stop: hostility to current levels of migration is explained by the fact of current levels of migration. Why do people seem to hate new people coming to their town? Well, there are all these new people coming to their town, aren’t there – stands to reason. Case closed.

This kind of writing isn’t just unimaginative or superficial; the worst part is how sympathetically these supposed insights are presented. Lisa Mckenzie (or her sub-editor, to be fair) tells us that “[w]orking-class people are sick of being called ignorant or racist because of their valid concerns”. Her article lists a whole series of eminently valid concerns – housing, schooling, low wages, job insecurity – before returning, like a dog to its vomit, to how hard it is for working-class people to “talk about the effects of immigration on their lives”. (Which effects? We never find out.) Toynbee accepts both racism and conservatism as utterly natural, unchangeable features of the proletarian landscape, one of them an entirely understandable reaction when the other is challenged. “Their neighbourhoods have changed beyond recognition, without them being asked. Children emerging from the primary school next door, almost all from ethnic minorities, are just a visible reminder for anyone seeking easy answers to genuine grievance.” The assumption that racism comes easily is telling. In any case, if demographics ‘changed beyond recognition’ are the problem, then those kids aren’t just a scapegoat – they are the genuine grievance. (How do those children – and their parents – feel about ‘their’ neighbourhoods, I wonder. Or do we not count them?) As for Harris, when he’s not accusing the ‘metropolitan’ Left of sneering, he’s as good as celebrating the ‘working class revolt‘ that was the EU referendum. It’s just a shame he wasn’t around in 1968 to cover the dockers who marched for Powell (or did they?).

In short, the ‘real’ which we’re supposed to extract from the appearance of working-class racism, in all these articles (and so many others), isn’t real-vs-epiphenomenal (‘not racism but genuine social issues’). If anything, it’s real-vs-delusional (‘never mind the shrill voices of the fashionable metropolitan set, this is genuine working-class hatred of incomers’), with guilt-tripping elements of real-vs-potential and real-vs-unreliable (‘all this time we’ve been deceiving ourselves about the White working class not being racist, now we need to admit that they are’).

I’m not convinced these writers are innocent of ‘real-vs-honest’, either – the use of ‘real’ to end an (internal) argument and avoid facing uncomfortable facts. Mckenzie:

Working-class people in the UK can see a possibility that something might change for them if they vote to leave the EU. The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. The referendum has become a way in which they can have their say, and they are saying collectively that their lives have been better than they are today. And they are right.

I’m fighting the temptation just to write ‘State of that’ and fold my arms. (I’ve been on Twitter too long.) Just to make the most glaringly obvious point, somebody can be right about their life having been better in the past without also being right to cast a vote in a certain way – the two things really are that disconnected, and a writer who cared about not misleading her audience or misrepresenting her subject could have made that clear. The word ‘all’ in the second sentence is irritating me, too; right now I really want to know when Lisa Mckenzie carried out her research, how many ‘women in east London’ – and how many men, in how many ‘mining towns’ – she spoke to, and how many of them voiced that opinion.

But however many it was, every man and woman of them was lying – lying to themselves first of all, presumably, but lying nonetheless. ‘The worst is not as long as we can say “this is the worst”‘; every moment you’re above ground, if things stay the same for another moment, then the worst thing has not happened. And I mean, come on – have you got paid work? Imagine losing it. Are you out of work? Imagine not finding work ever again. Benefits been sanctioned? Imagine they never get reinstated. It’s always possible for things to get worse; anyone who’s ever been in poorly paid or insecure work, or out of work, knows that perfectly well. Cameron’s government disempowered and marginalised those people, then asked them to endorse the government’s claims that everything was just fine; it’s not surprising if they did cast their vote the other way. But in order to do that, they had to tell themselves that voting No to David Cameron wasn’t also voting for a gang of charlatans to implement a half-thought-out plan to create a poorer, meaner, more hateful country – which unfortunately it was. No wonder if people come up with a better story to explain their vote. We should certainly listen to these people’s valid concerns, but we shouldn’t have any patience for self-serving fictions.

Ultimately I agree with Jeremy Corbyn, up to a point: the real concerns of the working class are what they always were – jobs, housing, healthcare, education – and we urgently need to address them through a programme of milk-and-water Keynesian social democracy (which is about as radical as even the Left of the Labour Party gets these days). The preachers of real concerns, valid concerns, genuine issues, legitimate grievances purport to cut through the popular bigotry which the Tories and their allies have encouraged and show us what lies beneath, but somehow they always end up validating the bigotry itself. The idea that the people you’re interviewing don’t directly perceive the true nature of their problems – that the concerns they’re articulating may not be real at all – seems to be a step these commentators can’t or won’t take. These are real people (outside the Westminster bubble) so their concerns must be real, the logic seems to run. Impose my own interpretive framework on them? What kind of elitist do you take me for? But this is immensely dangerous; treat racism as a real concern – something that people can reasonably be expected to feel and express – and you make it a reality; you validate it as part of the actual political spectrum in Wisbech and Peterborough and Barking, and as a topic for respectable discussion in the Guardian and the New Statesman. Go much further down that route and we could be hearing that racism, as well as English nationalism, is “real – and rational“. Let’s not, eh?

Statues dressed in stars

A couple of quick thoughts, or irritations. Very different sources, but I think they’ll turn out to be connected; let’s find out.

First irritation: this piece from yesterday. Slightly edited quote:

Some believe the Richmond Park defeat could catapult [Labour] into an electoral crisis as the Lib Dems gain support in pro-Remain and historically Conservative areas, while Ukip gains confidence among working-class voters in Labour’s heartlands of the north and Midlands.

“We do have two different strong pulls. There are metropolitan seats, in London, Manchester and Leeds; they are strongly pro-EU. Then equally, there are dozens and dozens of seats which are working class, where many did not vote to remain. There’s no doubt it’s difficult to balance the two,” [said] a senior Corbyn ally

None of these statements are obviously self-contradictory, but the combination is hard to make sense of. Are Manchester and Leeds not Labour heartlands in the North? Come to that, does Labour actually have heartlands in the Midlands? (Birmingham certainly isn’t a Labour city in the same way Manchester is, not to mention Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield…) Yes, there are dozens of constituencies which have a working-class majority and were majority Leave, but equally there are lots of majority Leave constituencies that are mainly middle-class; come to that, there are lots of working-class people who are rock-solid Tory, and there always have been (where else did the figure of Alf Garnett came from?).

FourFive different ways of dividing the country are uneasily superimposed in the passage I’ve quoted. There’s geography (rather hazily understood); there’s class; there’s Labour loyalty (solid, wavering, non-existent); there’s Leave vs Remain. Then there’s the fourthfifth layer, which has the weakest moorings in reality but the strongest in emotion: the anti-‘metropolitan’ leftist cultural cringe, which says that anything that happens (a) in London or (b) among people who read the Guardian is shallow, inauthentic and to be discounted. Put them all together and you get a horribly clear picture of the divided opposition to the Tories: divided between solid Labour heartland voters, who voted Leave because they’re working class and are just asking to be poached by UKIP, and shallow metropolitan socialists, who are likely to drift off to the Lib Dems because they’re middle-class Remainers with no Labour roots. It’s a clear picture, a simple picture and a picture that’s almost completely unreliable. Unfortunately it seems to be immune to counter-evidence – see e.g. Oldham West, just twelve months ago. (Working-class majority-Leave Labour heartland voters don’t drift off anywhere, but give Labour an increased majority? Naah, that would never happen.)

Viewed from the perspective of a (not very active) Labour Party member – and with Oldham W in the back of my mind – these prophecies of doom are reminiscent of those crime surveys where they ask people if they think crime is a major problem, then ask whether they think crime is a major problem in their area. This invariably results in much lower figures, as people effectively reality-check their opinions against what they’ve seen and heard (the local news included). Similarly, my own immediate reading of the threat of a Lib Dem/UKIP pincer movement was maybe in some places, but it’s never going to happen round here. Round here – in Manchester – the council recently went from 95-1 (Labour/defrocked independent ex-Labour) to 96-0, and then back to 95-1 (Labour/Lib Dem). At the last round of council elections, there were lots of council seats where the Lib Dems are in second place, but they were mostly really bad second places. And yes, there were lots of other council seats – in parts of Manchester with fewer Guardian readers – where the Kippers were in second place; but again, we’re mostly talking really bad second places. At those elections, the Lib Dems threw everything they had – including the former local MP – at two council seats, and won one of them. They’ve got a pretty good ground game, but their cadre is thin – too many young enthusiasts, not enough old hacks – and the number of members they can deploy isn’t great. Maybe they’ll make it two out of 96 next time round, or even three. I can’t see it happening myself (Labour didn’t let that one seat go easily; our runner-up got more votes than several of the winning candidates in other wards) – but even if they do pull it off, so what? Without an Alliance-style surge in membership and self-belief, the LDs are never going to be in a position to target and win more than a handful of seats on the City Council. As for the Kippers, the most they can say about last time – in a vote held a month and a half before the EU Referendum – is that there were three seats in which their candidate took nearly half as many votes as the winning (Labour) candidate. Even then – when their support in the polls was running a good 5% higher than it is now – they couldn’t overcome their weaknesses: their ground game is poor, their membership’s never amounted to a great deal and their cadre’s basically non-existent. (Such is Labour’s grip on Manchester, even former Tories joining UKIP aren’t likely to be former Tory councillors. There hasn’t been an elected Tory councillor in Manchester since 1995 – and the last time they won a seat from another party was 1988.)

Thinking about voting behaviour I get something of the same double vision as those crime survey respondents. Out there, in all those other places, I’m prepared to concede that people may think like Leavers or Remainers and vote for the Leave-iest or most Remainful candidate they can find. Round here, though, not so much. Round our way, it’s more a matter of organised political machines, or the lack of ditto; who’s organising the door-knocking, who’s getting the posters distributed, who’s going round one more time on the morning of the vote and then once more in the evening. It’s about getting the vote out, in other words; it’s about reminding people that there’s an election on, that there’s a candidate for our party standing, and that there are good reasons to support that candidate. It’s an exercise in organised capillary political communication, one-to-one interactions on a mass scale. And it’s something parties do; barring the odd Martin Bell or Richard Taylor candidacy, it’s something only parties do. Support for political parties is always going to wax and wane, but the speed at which those changes happen in a given area is inversely related to the strength of party support in that area – and that’s directly related to the health of the local party and the resources it can mobilise.

Ultimately, it’s about two different ways of thinking about politics. To the extent that the Labour vote consists of the people who have a personal investment in a particular set of policies and in the leader who puts them forward, the Labour vote is genuinely threatened by Brexit: if what you want is a leader who will campaign to overturn the referendum result – or a leader who will campaign to have it carried out – it’s not at all obvious that Jeremy Corbyn is the man for you. But, to the extent that the Labour vote is a function of the number of people in an area who would say that they ‘are’ Labour, on one hand, and the members and other resources available to the local party, on the other… maybe not. To the extent that we’re talking about organised party politics, that is, and not about some kind of vacuous narcissistic popularity contest (who’s the leader for me?).

Second irritation. I found out that Fidel had died through the medium of Twitter (him and David Bowie, now I come to think of it). I was on my way out, but I thought I’d take a moment to make my feelings on the matter clear.

If you want it at greater length, Corbyn’s tribute contains nothing I disagreed with. (Paul Staines & others made hay with “for all his flaws”, of course – but then, they would, wouldn’t they?)

Some time later I read Owen Jones’s take; as with the piece I quoted at the start, this gave me the odd experience of not quite being able to disagree with any of the individual statements, but wanting to throw the whole thing across the room.

Socialism without democracy, as I wrote yesterday when I caused offence, isn’t socialism. It’s paternalism with prisons and persecution.


Many of the people uncritically praising Cuba’s regime are tweeting about it. Practically no-one in Cuba can read these tweets, because practically no-one has the internet at home … sympathisers of Cuba’s regime would never tolerate or endure the political conditions that exist there … is it really acceptable to expect others to endure conditions you wouldn’t yourself?

Yes, but I’m not sure that was exactly what I was…

There are democratic radical leftists in Cuba, and they warn that “the biggest obstacle for democratic socialist activists may be reaching people who, disenchanted with the Stalinist experience, believe in purely market-based solutions.”

Well, second biggest, after being massively outgunned by groups with an interest in those “purely market-based solutions” and the means to impose them. But yes, decades of Stalinism is the kind of thing that tends to give socialism a bad name. And decades of Stalinism plus some uncritical tweets – that ‘practically no-one in Cuba’ will read – is even worse, presumably.

Championing Cuba in its current form will certainly resonate with a chunk of the radical left, but it just won’t with the mass of the population who will simply go — aha, that’s really the sort of system you would like to impose on us. Which it isn’t.

Sorry, are we still talking about Fidel Castro?

From the top: there’s a difference between defining what you want to achieve in the world and recognising something someone else has achieved. Socialism-the-thing-I-want-to-achieve certainly wouldn’t look a lot like Cuba, but we’re not talking about me or my ideals. If you’ve taken an offshore resort colony and turned it into a country with state ownership of industry, universal healthcare and universal education – and maintained it in the face of massive opposition and resource starvation – I’d say what you’ve achieved deserves to be called socialism and you deserve to be congratulated for it. It’s a form of socialism to which I’m personally bitterly opposed, but at the end of the day I’d rather be poor under a socialist tyranny than starving and illiterate under colonial tyranny. That – putting it in its most hostile terms – is the change Fidel made, and he doesn’t deserve to be vilified for it.

As for ‘uncritically praising Castro’s Cuba’, if this means ‘praising Castro’s Cuba and explicitly denying that any criticism is possible’, then fine, I’m agin it. In the present context, though, I suspect it meant something more along the lines of ‘praising Castro’s achievements on the occasion of his death, without also taking care to get some criticisms into the 140 characters’. In which case, I think Owen’s inviting me to take a purity test, and I frankly decline the invitation. When I – and others – responded to Castro’s death with tributes and expressions of solidarity, without pausing (in our 140 characters) to condemn press censorship and the harassment of political opponents, was it really likely that we either (a) didn’t know that Castro’s Cuba had carried out these things or (b) supported them? We can expect the Right to insinuate that (a) or more probably (b) must be true, but I think we can expect better from the Left – or, for that matter, from anyone prepared to use a bit of common sense. (If you know a prominent character to have done something awful and you meet a self-confessed supporter of that character, do you start by assuming that they approve of the awful thing? Think carefully. (Or think Cromwell.))

The final quote is just odd. Perhaps “championing Cuba in its current form” would resonate with the radical Left, perhaps not; I don’t know. (I don’t much care what the radical Left thinks, and I don’t intend to champion Cuba anyway.) But it’s the next part of the argument where Owen really goes wrong. We can’t possibly know what “the mass of the population” thinks; more to the point, we can’t be guided by what people already think. Politics isn’t about putting forward policies that match what people think; it’s about identifying what’s needed and campaigning for that. You certainly need to get a sense of what people are thinking, but only so that you know how much effort you’ll need to put in to get them to support what you believe to be right. Sometimes you’ll be in tune with the public mood, sometimes you’ll need to reframe your campaign in terms that connect with how people are thinking, sometimes your policies will just be downright unpopular. Sometimes you’ll be pushing at an open door (funding the NHS), sometimes the door will be closed so hard it’s not worth pushing (abolishing the monarchy). But you start with what you believe to be right, not with what you believe to be potentially popular; still less by doing what Owen’s actually proposing – ditching anything that looks as if it might be interpreted as being similar to something unpopular.

To put it another way: Owen, this isn’t about you. It’s not about the credibility of the British left, it’s not how the Labour Party can win back “the mass of the population”, and it’s not about making sure that the political stance of prominent Internet leftists is specified in sufficient detail to be beyond critique, at least to the satisfaction of those prominent Internet leftists themselves (it’s not as if the Right aren’t going to attack you anyway). What it’s about is paying tribute to somebody who made a big, positive difference in the world on the sad occasion of his death, and having the decency to reserve whatever else we could say about the guy to a later date.

Again, it comes back to two ways of looking at politics, I think. There’s a frame of reference within which the correct response to Fidel’s death, and the correct view of his achievements, is radiantly clear, and it’s the frame of reference that goes like this: OK, so which side are you on? Allende or Pinochet? The Sandinistas or the Contras? Apartheid or the ANC? (Not questions which the contemporary Right can answer without blushing, or so you’d have thought.) Then there’s a frame of reference that says that we – the Left – can’t be seen to be overlooking this, condoning that, failing to denounce the other, we must always be mindful of the need to maintain our principles on the one hand, without losing touch with the public on the other hand, and so we must move on from the old and discredited whatever it was, while not overlooking the and so on and so forth. To return to my first point, one of these sounds like it’s based in actual political struggles. The other sounds like it’s based in – well, vacuous narcissistic personality contests (where’s the Left for me?).

If Brexit tells us anything it’s that weightless decisions – individual decisions based on nothing more than mood, individual preference, popularity – are bad decisions. We need a lot more politics in this world – in the sense of people getting together and working for their goals, using existing machinery where necessary – and a lot less attitudinising and questing for the perfect platform.

Our country (3)

THE STORY SO FAR: according to opinion polls, 43% of the British people are currently intending to vote Leave, as against 44% intending to vote Remain. Labour supporters’ contribution to the Leave vote isn’t dominant, but it’s not negligible either – apparently Labour supporters currently split 64%/26% in favour of Remain. Some Labour voters may be voting against the EU on anti-capitalist grounds, but most of the Remain minority appear to have bought one or more of the myths currently floating around: that leaving the EU would lead to increased funding for the NHS, higher wages, more school places, lower rents, etc. On examination, most of these myths rest on hostility to immigrants and the – mistaken – belief that if EU migrants were prevented from coming to the UK there would be “more to go round”.

So: how did we get here?

Part 3: A question of levers

There’s a perfectly respectable justification for working-class racism and xenophobia: people know they’re having a hard time; they see (and are encouraged to see) new people coming in, competing for jobs and scarce resources; but they don’t see (and aren’t encouraged to see) that jobs and resources don’t have to be scarce; they don’t see ‘austerity’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ or ‘a cynical bunch of Tory chancers who care about nothing except extending their own stay in power’. (But before we go any further, let’s not forget that lots of people do see those things; ‘people’ up there doesn’t mean everyone who’s having a hard time. The middle-class Labour vote is pretty chunky, but it’s certainly not big enough to account for that 64% Remain vote.)

This model – the idea that people have genuine grievances, but they articulate them in terms of immigration – is quite widely accepted. The question is, of course, why immigration is the ‘screen’ issue of choice – and not, for instance, alcohol consumption or stray cats or the moral decline of the West. Perhaps what lies behind this question is what makes the argument rhetorically unstable; as we’ve seen, when used it tends to turn into the assertion that nobody should tell working-class people not to complain about immigration, which in turn decays into the assertion that working-class people have good reasons for complaining about immigration. It may be a non-problem (the logic seems to go), used to express real problems that can’t be articulated in their own right, but there must be some good reason why the non-problem of choice is immigration; what might that be? Perhaps it’s not such a non-problem after all? This unargued, half-thought-out logic lends itself to double-counting and equivocation, as in John Harris‘s suggestion – you can hardly call it a statement – that “[f]or many places, the pace of change and the pressures on public services have arguably proved to be too much to cope with”. Walk us through that, John: is it the (actual, measurable) pressures on public services or the (nebulous, subjective) pace of change that’s causing the trouble? He’s not saying. And has it proved too much to cope with? Maybe, maybe not – but arguably it has, do you see?. He couldn’t be any shiftier if he was ‘adumbrating’.

It seems to me that the real reason why migration is the non-problem of choice is – well, there are two reasons. First, because politics has stopped working. The Situationists used to argue that politics only meant anything if it was part of your everyday life, by which they meant the revolutionary transformation of your everyday life. They had a lot of fun at the expense of ‘activists’ – people who take up a political cause as a hobby and turn it into a career – arguing that they were no more radical than any other hobbyist or middle-manager. I think this was half right. I think political activity – even a political career – can be a worthwhile way of making a difference to the world under capitalism; but I do think politics needs to have a footprint in everyday life if it’s to mean anything.

But this means levers. This means that when you vote for a councillor, an MP or an MEP you’re voting for someone who will try to make a difference, and who will have some power to do so. It means that if you’re a member of a political party, you’ll be able to vote on your party’s policies and its local representatives, and your vote will count. In terms of where we are now, it means giving policy-making powers back to the party conference, taking decision-making powers away from mayors and nominated ‘cabinets’ and back into the council chamber, giving councils responsibility for raising their own taxes as well as spending their own money – in short, it means rolling back a whole series of changes which began under Thatcher, accelerated under Blair and have continued under Cameron. Democratic mechanisms have been systematically broken in this country; if democracy means deciding how money is spent locally or what policies your local party candidate stands for, then democracy has largely ceased to exist. And that’s a problem for all of us – a functioning democracy is good for our social health – but most of all for the working class, particularly the most excluded and exploited parts of the class. They need the kind of change that can only be brought about through politics, and they’re now being told that they can’t vote for any change at all – it’s all being decided by somebody else, somewhere else, and it’s probably been decided already.

We urgently need to think about how we can roll these changes back; we need more democracy – more actual, functioning democratic mechanisms – not less. And, as this article points out, we need to make use of the mechanisms that are there; an elected mayor or an elected Police and Crime Commissioner might be less democratic than what it replaces, but you still get a vote; you don’t want to wake up the next morning and realise you haven’t played any part in achieving – or trying to prevent – the result.

Right now, though, it’s not surprising if some people are angry – and it’s not at all surprising if, given the chance to vote for something the Prime Minister doesn’t want, they seize it. But calling it a “working-class revolt”, as Harris does, is woefully misleading. The point isn’t just that this ‘revolt’ is led by some of the working class’s staunchest enemies, as Paul Mason reminds us. More importantly, it’s not actually a revolt. Putting a cross in a box, talking about it a bit on social media, maybe putting a poster in a window – this is participation in the democratic system working as usual, albeit in a weird one-off variant. That’s a good thing, but it isn’t any kind of rebellion – nothing is being taken back, nothing is being built, nothing is being changed. Nothing is even being demanded – there are no working-class demands in the Brexit movement, only working-class endorsements of nationalism, xenophobia and outright lies. I’m deeply dismayed by the failure of commentators like Harris, Toynbee and Mckenzie – or even Mason – to see this and challenge it, without equivocation.

But I said there were two reasons. What’s the second?

100 Years Ago (4)

Let’s revisit the “working class drift” model. Here’s Stephen Bush:

Under Ed Miliband … Labour was divided between “people who drink wine, and people who drink lager”. Wine drinkers drifted away to the Green Party. Lager drinkers trickled away to Ukip. The result: thumping defeats across England and Wales. Under Corbyn, that Greenward drift has gone into reverse. … The Ukip trickle, however, is turning into a flood in some places.

And Rafael Behr:

the immediate worry is Ukip gobbling up Labour’s white working-class support

the malaise in Labour heartlands is … a function of votes long taken for granted, combined with a sense of Labour’s capture in the 90s by arrogant southern elites: that it was “poncified”. That expresses deeper alienation, connected to the decline of secure manufacturing jobs and to mass migration

[Corbynism feels like] a catalyst for decline … distinct from Blairism only in the sense that they are opposite sides of one Islington coin

Feel the liberal middle-class guilt: those poor white working-class voters, left stranded by the destruction of heavy industry, feeling beleaguered by immigration, finding nobody to speak for them but a bunch of privileged southerners who’d rather be speaking to immigrants anyway… Labour has abandoned its (White) working-class roots, and the White working class is returning the favour by drifting away from Labour. Moving to the Left is no help, because these days that just means attracting wine-drinking, Guardian-reading Green sympathisers (Bush) or another variety of soft southern elitists (Behr). What we need is… well, what do we need, at the end of all this? What do we need, to address the people of the heartlands whose deeper alienation is associated with mass migration, and who are so disconnected from political debate that they see no difference between Blair and Corbyn? What starts as introspective New Labour guilt-tripping ends as straightforward UKIP populism – anti-political (seriously, no difference between Blair and Corbyn?) and distinctly tinged with racism.

In another, saner world Labour Party watchers would have seen last week’s by-election as the test of whether there was any truth to the “working class drift” model, and would have greeted the result with whoops of joy. Because, surely, if this theory was ever going to work anywhere, it would work in Oldham, with the most left-wing leader Labour has had in decades. Ta-da – the theory’s been put to the test and it’s failed: there isn’t a vast, inexorable drift of working-class support to UKIP and away from Labour! Happy days! Better put that political obituary on hold, and get back to thinking about how we’re going to win next time.

In reality, of course, the reaction has been rather less positive. Some people have simply trotted out the same old story again: an article on LabourList takes the “it’ll happen next time, you mark my words” approach, while Roy Greenslade wonders whether to revise a piece he’d prepared earlier (“I spent days wondering whether I should publish this piece”) and decides not to bother:

It has been noticeable for many years that there has been a disconnect between the culture, lifestyle and social outlooks of the majority of the party’s MPs and the people they seek to represent. Note, for instance, Ukip’s level of support in Labour working class areas where its anti-immigrant message has proved a potent vote-gatherer.

I feel your pain, Roy. Or rather, pleasure, obviously – what Labour supporter wouldn’t be pleased by a result like that? (Come on, Luke Akehurst is pleased. Yes, it’s happened – I agree with Luke Akehurst, up to a point.)

But, as we saw in the first of these posts, most of the commentariat reacted to the good news by simply shifting from one line of attack to another, rather less plausible line. You can’t say working class voters are drifting away from Labour when the figures in front of you say they aren’t, but you can say that the majority wasn’t as big as it looked, it should have been bigger, it doesn’t matter anyway, and so on. (And look over there! Enver Hoxha!)

Coming from self-avowed Labour supporters, it’s all very odd – but maybe not inexplicable. One of Freud’s breakthroughs in analysing dreams was the – apparently dogmatic – insight that all dreams are wish fulfilment: the fear and disgust you feel in dreams are states of affairs you want to relive, either because they’re perversely coded as security and pleasure or because they’re a price you believe you should pay, and hence fantasise about paying, for those things. Working out why you have those attachments, and what they’re rooted in, is the job of dreamwork – the patient’s free-associating disentanglement of the dream and everything related to it (and everything that comes up in dreamwork is related to it). I’m not saying that the rise of UKIP is a fantasy – it’s out there and we’re stuck with it, at least for the time being (the party’s ever more overt racism is surely a sign of desperation). But UKIP’s clamorous success in the 2015 General Election owed a great deal to two one-off political events – the implosions of the BNP and the Liberal Democrats – and one anomalous condition which has thankfully ceased to obtain, viz. the attention and respect which the BBC paid to the party during the last parliament. I don’t think it’s the case that UKIP’s modus operandi is poaching votes in large numbers from Labour – still less that the party has a hotline to the collective unconscious of the ‘White working class’. If Labour people are having that kind of nightmares, it’s because they want to have them. Perhaps, deep down, they can’t imagine a working class that isn’t collectively ignorant and bigoted; perhaps they believe that sacrificing their liberal principles to appease ignorant bigots is the price they should pay for taking power.

Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. The aftermath of last week’s election reminded me forcibly of a period in the 1980s when by-elections always seemed to be greeted by Anthony King or Ivor Crewe announcing that this was a very disappointing result for Labour, even if Labour had just won the seat. I remember a Steve Bell strip in which an unnamed Newsnight pundit is challenged on his relentless negativity and replies, “Well, you just have to look at the facts. And the facts are that I don’t like the Labour Party, I never have liked the Labour Party and I never will like the Labour Party!”

And maybe that’s all there is to it. If King, Crewe, Peter Jenkins, Polly Toynbee(!) and the rest were relentlessly negative about the Labour Party in the 1980s, that’s not unrelated to the fact that they were pinning their hopes on an entirely different party – a party that could only succeed by replacing, or at least displacing, the Labour Party. Perhaps Behr, Bush, Cowley, Harris et al are also hankering after an entirely different party – not the SDP but the party that absorbed (or re-absorbed) some of its best people, which is to say New Labour. If so, though, it’s not at all clear what their game plan is. The SDP had a plan and followed it through: first split Labour, then discredit the party, then defeat it electorally (and Profit!). However, it didn’t work, and led most of the leading participants either into the political wilderness or round the houses and back into the Labour Party; it was also instrumental in giving the country 18 years of Tory government, which was a bit of an adverse side-effect. So the nostalgists for New Labour are fighting shy of splitting the party, and long may they do so (I agree with Luke on that one). But this isn’t accompanied by a broader rethink on how to replace the party with something entirely different, or even whether replacing the party with something entirely different is actually a good idea. Rather, they’ve simply skipped to step 2, discrediting the party, and set up camp there: attack the party’s leadership, pour scorn on the party’s members and talk down the party’s achievements, and repeat. (From Mao to Momentum to that disappointing result in Oldham… to Hoxha, and off we go again.) I don’t know what this is supposed to achieve, or how it’s supposed to achieve it; the sad thing is, I don’t think they do either. At this point I circle back to thinking about psychological explanations – if you know, deep down, that Labour Party politics is about abandoning your principles and playing to the middle ground, the rise of a politician like Corbyn must be almost physically painful. I picture the first draft of some of these columns reading something like this:

Jeremy Corbyn today no! no! wrong!

Jeremy Corbyn announced today that he NO! WRONG!

Jeremy wrong! WRONG! Not how we do it!

Then they go and make a coffee, take a few deep breaths and sublimate the rage into printable snark:

Jeremy Corbyn today shocked even his diehard acolytes with an announcement seemingly straight out of the Eastern Bloc playbook

and that feels a bit better, for a while.

In the fifth and final part: all right, clever clogs, what did happen in Oldham?

Dangerous decisions? (2)

The second decision I wanted to talk about was the Divisional Court ruling in the case of Unison (No.2), R (on the application of) v The Lord Chancellor. Unison had challenged the imposition of fees on would-be employment tribunal claimants, claiming that this denied any effective access to justice to many – or most – potential claimants, while also discriminating indirectly against some (poorer) groups. (More detail and discussion from Lauren Godfrey.)

The case report in Unison (No.2), as it will probably be abbreviated (or R v The Lord Chancellor, as I like to think of it), is distinguished by a weakness, an equivocation and a monstrosity. The weakness, on the claimant’s side, is probably sufficient to explain the negative finding, but it needs to be sharply distinguished from – and set in the context of – equivocal and monstrous arguments advanced by the defence. Once that’s done it’s clear that this is, still, a case which cries out for justice, even if the particular form it’s taken may doom it to a judicial dead end.

So far, so gnomic; let’s crack on. Unison’s case was, not that the imposition of ET fees would tend to put ET claims out of the reach of claimants, but that it actually had done so. Sadly, this claim was undermined by a key weakness in the union’s argument. An earlier application, based on the anticipated impact of the fees before they were introduced, was rejected on the grounds that the union had (of necessity) relied on hypothetical examples. This application relied instead on statistical data, which the Divisional Court (Lord Justice Elias and Mr Justice Foskett) found highly persuasive:

  1. There is no doubt that the reduction in the number of cases brought is striking. The Tribunals Statistics Quarterly for October to December 2013, published on 13 March 2014 show that, comparing the period October-December 2012 with the period same period in 2013 (the Fees Order having come into force on 29 July 2013), 79% fewer claims were accepted by the ET . For equal pay claims, the figure was 83% and for sex discrimination it was 77%.
  2. The Quarterly for January to March 2014, published on 12 June 2014, confirm the continuing dramatic effect of the Fees Order and suggest that the earlier statistics were not aberrant. Between January and March 2013, 57,737 claims were brought in the ET. However, for the same period in 2014, just 10,967 claims were brought. That is a drop of 46,660 claims or 81%. There is other evidence to similar effect.

The interpretation of these figures presents two issues, one of which the court (perhaps surprisingly) conceded: the reference to the continuing dramatic effect of the Fees Order takes it as given that the huge drop in cases was in fact caused – in some way and to some extent – by the introduction of fees. The second issue is more problematic: what is the nature of that causal relationship? The claimant’s case – denial of effective access to justice – requires that the fees regime made a tribunal application so expensive as to be effectively impossible. But this is fearsomely hard to prove in any individual case. If you think about it, affordability is an inherently elastic metric. Every time a fashion-conscious youth tribe makes the news – from the Teds to the New Romantics and beyond – there are stories of young men with menial jobs wearing ridiculously expensive suits, which they’ve bought by saving literally every penny they earn. On the same basis, anyone who earns enough to run a car could ‘afford’ a Rolex, just so long as they didn’t mind walking everywhere for a year.

The point here is that the vagueness built into the concept of ‘affordability’ makes it hard to prove that – in any given case where person A declines to spend money on purchaseable good G – the reason was that the potential purchaser could not afford the asking price. But, if something’s hard to prove in a single case, it’s just as hard to prove in several thousand cases. And if something’s not proved it can’t be assumed, or not without very good evidence in its favour – irrespective of whether we’re talking about one person or many. The fact that there are not one but 46,660 people who may have found ET fees unaffordable doesn’t, logically, make the case for unaffordability in any individual case any stronger – on the contrary, the case for applying the ‘unaffordability’ argument to many people depends on first proving it in at least one case, showing that at least one person has been deterred. That certainly looks like what has happened; discussing the alternative factors proposed by the Lord Chancellor, the case report notes that “[these factors] do not begin to explain the whole of this very dramatic change”. But a legal finding that it has happened would require much stronger evidence:

  1. … I suspect that there may well be cases where genuinely pressing claims on a worker’s income will leave too little available to fund litigation. But the difficulty with the way the argument has been advanced is that the court has no evidence at all that any individual has even asserted that he or she has been unable to bring a claim because of cost.The figures demonstrate incontrovertibly that the fees have had a marked effect on the willingness of workers to bring a claim but they do not prove that any of them are unable, as opposed to unwilling, to do so.

Note the last phrase – I’ll be returning to it. The implication of this paragraph is that only an approach based on actual cases would meet the appropriate evidential standard, although, as Lauren says, this would have its own pitfalls: “[f]aced with individual cases, the Lord Chancellor would no doubt argue they are atypical.”

As for the equivocation mentioned above, this relates to the second charge, of discrimination. Unlike the charge of outright denial of effective access to justice, the charge of indirect discrimination is open to the use of aggregate figures: if an identifiable group verifiably comes off worse, there’s a case to answer, even if no individual is complaining. In this case, as long as there is an identifiable group of potential claimants who have been differentially discouraged by the fees regime – and hence, ultimately, disadvantaged relative to the majority who were not discouraged in the same way – it does not need to be shown that any individual claimant has been compelled outright to abandon a claim. What does need to be shown, however, is that the discriminatory effect was caused in pursuit of a broader social goal which is not meritorious enough to justify it, either because the goal is wanting or because the discriminatory cost is disproportionate. The Lord Chancellor’s representative met this challenge with an argument which seems to have satisfied the two judges hearing the case, but… well, see what you think.

  1. The evidence shows that in setting up the fee scheme the government were seeking to achieve three specific and quite distinct objectives: the first was to transfer a proportion (one-third) of the annual cost of running ETs and the EAT to those users who benefit from it and can afford it; second, to make Tribunals more efficient and effective not least by removing unmeritorious claims; and third, to encourage alternative methods of employment dispute resolution so that litigation is not the first resort. This last objective goes hand in hand with the government’s promotion of ACAS conciliation which became mandatory for all ET claimants from 6 May 2014. The government considers that it should encourage quicker, cheaper and less emotionally damaging alternatives to the judicial process.

As with the previous quote, the last sentence is an interesting one – keep it in mind. For present purposes, the point is that the imposition of fees has been justified in three “quite distinct” ways. That there are multiple objectives is key to the government’s case here: one of the stated objectives, and perhaps the most obvious – saving money – is not regarded as sufficiently valuable to justify discrimination, for obvious reasons (denying healthcare to non-Whites or education to girls would save loads of money, after all). (In the interests of completeness I should note that the case report also argues that “requiring a contribution towards the cost of running the Tribunal Service” is not equivalent to “costs saving”, but the reasoning at this point is obscure.)

That leaves the two objectives of promoting efficiency (at least in part by “removing unmeritorious claims”) and of encouraging early recourse to conciliation and mediation. Lauren is unimpressed:

it must be doubted that there is a meaningful distinction between fees on the one hand – which reduce cost to both government, in running the Employment Tribunal system, and employers in defending claims – and the requirement on claimants to enter early conciliation on the other, as both requirements unquestionably serve the same identical dual aims. Further, and with due respect to the Court, they are requirements whose aims are grounded in cost alone.

I think this misses something. It’s certainly true that an ET system which charges a fee for each case and an ET system which processes fewer cases will both be cheaper to run, relative to the status quo ante, but I don’t think this is the main point here. The argument is that the fees will change some groups of clients’ behaviour: those claimants with conciliable claims will be encouraged to have them conciliated, while those with unmeritorious claims will be deterred from proceeding and will sling their hook.

I am surprised that the Divisional Court let this argument get past. The case report limits itself to a few comments on whether claimants who have weak claims or ought to be in mediation might in fact be encouraged to do the right thing by the imposition of fees. But the fee regime is, of its nature, imposed on claimants in general. The argument thus rests on an equivocation. The figure of the tribunal claimant, the person against whom these measures are directed, drifts in and out of focus as we read: he’s a trouble-maker and a chancer, who knows that he hasn’t really got a hope but plans to clog up the courts with his spurious claim anyway; she’s an unfortunate victim of workplace misunderstandings, who would rather not get the law involved but thinks she’s got no other option. Perhaps we could justify treating all claimants as no-hope chancers, on the basis that the good claims would stay in the system; perhaps we could justify treating all claimants as mediation clients gone astray, on the grounds that unmediable claims would find their way back to court. We certainly can’t justify treating all claimants as both these things – and, even assuming that both these groups exist in significant numbers, it’s hard to imagine any possible package of incentives which would address these two groups and nobody else.

In fact these aren’t two distinct objectives but one objective with two benefits. Given the lack of any possible mechanism to single out weak or inappropriate claims, and the lack of any evidence as to the prevalence of such claims in the system before the introduction of fees, the Lord Chancellor’s aim must have been – at best – to reduce the number of weak and inappropriate claims by means of an overall reduction in claims. The objective, then, is to divert people out of the system; the benefits are that these two groups, to the extent that they exist, will be dealt with more appropriately. The cost, meanwhile, is that a completely unknown proportion of the potential claimants who would otherwise have made claims – a proportion which may be anything up to 100% – will have had claims which would have been worth testing in court, and which will now go unvindicated. Not only is this an unknown proportion; it’s a proportion which there is, now, no way of knowing. The Lord Chancellor has in effect justified the introduction of fees on the grounds that it would reduce the use of the system – as indeed it has done.

Which brings me to the monstrosity. The context is the earlier argument about effectiveness; Ms Chan is representing the Lord Chancellor.

  1. Ms Chan’s basic submission, however, is that whatever the statistics say they cannot of themselves demonstrate that the principle of effectiveness has been infringed. It is not legitimate to infer that some litigants cannot pay from the fact that a significant number do not pay. Ms Chan accepts that the imposition of a fee will necessarily deter some litigants from taking their cases but contends that there are likely to be a variety of reasons for this. Some workers who in the past may have pursued a weak case, if only in the hope of securing a small settlement in their favour, will now be reluctant to do so because of the risk of having to pay fees if the case goes to the tribunal. Others will quite properly choose to spend their limited resources in other ways rather than gamble on litigation.

Savour that. Your elected government, ladies and gentlemen, doesn’t want you to gamble on litigation. It’s up to you how you choose to spend your limited resources, and if you don’t choose to spend them on vindicating your legal rights, that’s perfectly fine: the choice is yours. It’s your choice, except in the sense that it didn’t exist a couple of years ago: the decision whether or not to spend your money on employment tribunal fees has been created by this government, with the explicit intention of encouraging claimants to decide not to. Nothing says more about this Lord Chancellor’s contempt for the legal system than that pious invocation of ordinary people frugally husbanding their resources and choosing not to gamble on litigation. Legal rights? Never mind, your employer will respect them, probably. Best not worry about it.

Perhaps it was simply ultra this particular court’s vires – perhaps it’s more a matter for judicial review – but the real question at issue is stated in that quoted paragraph. By introducing a fee where none existed before, the government has restructured the terms on which people decide whether or not to go to a tribunal, with the express intention of discouraging them from doing so. In effect, the difficult, stressful and long-drawn-out process of going to an employment tribunal has been turned into a difficult, stressful and long-drawn-out process with a high up-front cost – a cost which in many cases will wipe out any monetary award which might eventually be made. This change has been made without any evidence that it would have a differential effect on cases which should not be going to court, or even that large numbers of such cases existed. Rather, it has been made in the knowledge that it would lead to a general reduction in the number of people asserting their rights under employment law, and (we can only assume) with that intention.

This is monstrous, and it should not be allowed to stand. I’m not sure that the Unison case is the vehicle by which it will be successfully challenged, but we can hope. Leave has been given to appeal.

A man he may grow

Michael Rosen’s written a long and thoughtful piece about his experience of the grammar school system in the 1950s. I don’t know if it’s going to appear in print or on a higher-profile blog, but at the moment it’s just a post on his own blog – and he’s such a prolific poster that it’s going to roll off the bottom of the front page at any moment.

So catch it while you can – it’s a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the debate around grammar schools, or interested in debates about selective education, or secondary education in general. And anyone who’s got kids at school, has kids at school or is ever likely to. And anyone who went to a grammar school, or a selective school, or a comprehensive, or a secondary modern… Basically, you should read this.

It rings so many bells, both positively and negatively (really? we didn’t do that) that I’m tempted to live-blog my reactions to it, but that would be rather self-indulgent. I’ll just mention one small detail of Rosen’s story. He mentions that he was born in 1946, his mother’s second son, and that she died in 1976, aged 55. My own mother had her 55th birthday in 1976; I had my 16th. The coincidence of one date, and the differences of the others, raise all sorts of questions. I can’t begin to imagine my life if my mother had died in her 50s; it was hard enough when it did happen, thirty years later. Then: is it easier for an adult to lose a parent who dies relatively young? Then: easier than what?

But back to school, and a detail of Rosen’s story that sparked off a problem-solving train of thought. He writes:

the pass rate for the 11-plus wasn’t the same for boys and girls and it wasn’t the same from area to area. That’s to say, it panned out at the time that girls were generally better than boys at passing this exam. However, the places for boys and girls was split evenly between us. Somehow or another they engineered what was in reality something like a 55-45% split into a 50-50% cent split. Clearly, some five per cent of girls were serious losers in this and some five per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

But that last sentence can’t be right.

Say for the sake of simplicity that the children taking the test were evenly divided between boys and girls, rather than being 49:51 or 48:52. Then we want to know how many kids passed, and then how many were pushed up or down to even up the figures. Another thing I learned from Rosen’s post is that the pass rate varied from region to region(!), depending on the availability of grammar school places(!!), but let’s forget that for the moment and assume that about one in five passed the 11-plus (in fact the proportion ranged from 30% down to 10%).

So we’ve got, oh, let’s say 10,000 kids, made up of 5,000 boys and 5,000 girls, and 2,000 of them are going to Grammar School, the lucky so-and-so’s. Now, 55% of those 2,000 – 1,100 – are girls, and only 900 are boys. So we need to balance things up, and we skim off the dimmest 100 girls who passed and promote the brightest 100 boys who didn’t (each and every one of whom is officially less bright, and hence less able to benefit from grammar school, than the 100 girls we’ve just sent to the secondary mod, but we avert our eyes at this point).

So that’s 5% of girls demoted, 5% of boys promoted? No – it’s 100/5000, or 2%. When you massage that 55% down to 50%, the 5% that’s lost is 5% of the cohort that passed the exam (male and female), not of the girls (passed and failed). You could also say that the really serious losers – the ones who have been unfairly discriminated against even by the system’s own standards – are 100 out of the 1,100 girls who passed: roughly 9.1%. The serious gainers, on the other hand, are 100 out of the 4,100 boys who failed, roughly (reaches for calculator) 2.4%.

So there you go: applied maths for real-world problem-solving.

Clearly, some two per cent of girls (or nine per cent of the girls who passed the exam) were serious losers in this and some two per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

At which point I feel a bit like Babbage correcting Tennyson, but it’s right, dammit. And besides, without the maths I wouldn’t have arrived at the figure of nine per cent – for the girls who passed the eleven-plus but were artificially failed to even up the numbers – which is pretty shocking.

Just another country

1. The obligatory Italian parallel

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

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

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

2. Three tweets about looting

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

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

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

3. Why Cynthia Jarrett is less relevant than the Martians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. A concluding unscientific postscript

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

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

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

And Laurie:

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

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

The news, it doesn’t change

I’ll get back to the question of violence soon. In the mean time, here’s a thought about two kinds of radicalism – and two radicals.

One is concerned about threats to her job and its terms and conditions; when her union agitated for strike action on these issues she enthusiastically supported it and urged fellow workers who seemed undecided to vote Yes. On the day of the strike, she’s on the picket line, looking workers who cross it in the eye and asking them to turn back and support the strike. One or two do, which makes her feel she’s achieved something.

The other is concerned about nuclear weapons and about the imperialist blocs which claim the right to use them, and about nuclear power. She is selling tickets for an annual concert to raise money for the orphans of Chernobyl; this year it will also be an occasion to express concern about Fukushima and opposition to the British intervention in Libya. Not many people are interested when she tells them about the concert, but one or two people do buy tickets, which makes her feel she’s achieved something.

What do these two people have to do with each other? (Clearly they could be the same person on different days, but that’s not really the point.) Or rather, what do these two activities have to do with each other? Both of these people are committing time and energy to intervening in the social world, in person and by trying to persuade other people to do likewise. They’re both trying to change things, persuading other people to join their cause and raising awareness. What I can’t see, however, is any necessary connection between the two causes – “don’t sack us or cut our pay” on the one hand, “help the victims of this and express opposition to that” on the other.

Long hours and low wages are, always and everywhere, long hours and low wages. (They may sometimes be outweighed by other factors – the menial job in a glamorous industry which was worth taking because it enabled you to get spotted; the art gallery job at pocket-money wages, designed for people with rich parents and rich friends – but the rule holds: in those cases the worker involved either isn’t on a low wage for very long, or isn’t really on a low wage at all (if by ‘wage’ we mean ‘what you live on’).) Moreover, resistance to hours getting longer and wages getting lower is the same everywhere, and (it seems to me) can never be a reactionary cause. (Again, we can envisage exceptions – self-proclaimed British workers refusing to work with lower-paid immigrants; men refusing to see their pay cut to the level of women’s – and again, the rule stands up to the test: the demand in these cases is “do not cut our wages”, which is only a little way from “do not cut the wages for this job”.)

Campaigning of the fund- and consciousness-raising variety is a very different animal. We could make a stab at a general definition by saying that premature death and avoidable suffering are, always and everywhere, premature death and avoidable suffering; this is true as far as it goes, and it’s also true that opposition to these things cannot be a bad thing. In political terms, however, this definition isn’t particularly incisive: once you get away from the obvious cases (starvation, natural disasters, cancer research) it would give you a bewilderingly large variety of evils to combat, and in many cases wouldn’t give you any guidance at all. (The UN Security Council hasn’t endorsed the intervention in Libya so as to prolong suffering, after all.) In practice what people define as avoidable suffering – or rather, as avoidable suffering which is worth campaigning about – is quite varied. What differentiates our anti-nuclear campaigner from somebody holding a social event to raise money for the Countryside Alliance, or to raise awareness of how wind farms spoil the scenery, or to gather support for a campaign against asylum-seekers? I can’t see anything essential to differentiate these from the anti-nuclear example, apart from the fact that I tend to think they’re wrong. Moreover, I can’t see any obvious reason why the anti-nuclear activist would necessarily be on the side of the striker – any more than the Countryside Alliance activist would be. We know that actually existing anti-nuclear activists do tend to support strikes, and real live Countryside Alliance types tend not to, but this seems to me to be a cultural statement more than a political one: being the kind of person who supports strikers is fairly strongly correlated with being the kind of person who opposes nuclear weapons. Opposing nuclear weapons doesn’t entail supporting strikes in any way that I can see.

What this suggests is – one of two things. Either

1. The Left is a broad social and cultural milieu which bears forward, and continues to develop, a complex but internally coherent vision of the injustices of the world and how best to remedy them, which draws on the heritage of Marxism but also on other sources. Trade unionists are employees organised in their own interest.


2. The resistance of organised workers is fundamental to the continuing task of challenging the rule of capital, which will eventually be superseded by workers’ control over the means of production and distribution on a global scale. What goes by the name of the Left these days consists largely of single-issue campaigners.

What do I think? Now, I’m not going to point any moral – I’ll leave that for yourself. But I will say that the starting-point of this post was hearing somebody promoting a concert commemorating Chernobyl and raising money for Chernobyl orphans (it’s a good bill, by the way, there’ll be folkies as well as classical and balalaika). Unfortunately the speaker strayed onto the general topic of the evils of nuclear power and was politely but loudly heckled by a member of the audience who works in the industry –

…and we can all do something to reduce our dependency…
– Yes, we can stop using electricity.
…we can stop using electricity… er, we can reduce our use of electricity… and in view of the tragic accident at Fukushima… when we think that it could happen here…
– No it couldn’t!

Awkward, as they say.

A treasure hunt, but the treasure’s gone

Recent discussion on CT has made me aware of some startling disparities:

UK(2001) Oxford admissions (2009)
White 71.1% 84.9%
Mixed 3.2% 4.6%
Asian 12.1% 4.6%
Black 10.9% 1.0%
Chinese 1.1% 1.8%
Other 1.6% 0.3%

A massive over-representation of the White majority, together with a really glaring under-representation of British Asian and especially Black students, who are being rejected literally nine times out of ten, whereas…

Hang on, wrong figures. That first column is the ethnic breakdown of the population of London (which is where David Lammy MP was born and has lived most of his life, not to mention the obvious point that it’s where he works). Here’s the UK:

UK(2001) Oxford admissions (2009)
White 92.1% 84.9%
Mixed 1.2% 4.6%
Asian 4.0% 4.6%
Black 2.0% 1.0%
Chinese 0.4% 1.8%
Other 0.4% 0.3%

White majority: slightly under-represented. Chinese and mixed-race groups: over-represented. British Asians: very slightly over-represented. Black British…

Well, OK, Lammy has got something here, but it’s not quite as big an issue as it might look if you’re coming at it from an ethnically-mixed background (also known as a ‘city’). The UK population in 2001 was still 92% White – there are whole areas of the country where you just won’t see a brown face, or if you do you’ll go home and tell somebody. I won’t be surprised if the figure that comes out of the 2011 Census is a bit lower, but I’ll be amazed if it’s below 90%. So the fact that the Oxford student intake is 85% White is not, in itself, a problem, except insofar as it suggests that recruitment from Scotland, Wales and the North-East might need a bit of work.

All the same, it’s true that Black students are seriously under-represented; a factor of 2 isn’t as bad as a factor of 10, but it’s not good. But this seems to be a point specifically about Black students and not about non-Whites more generally. If racism on the part of Oxford admissions tutors is at the root of what’s going on here, either it’s specifically anti-Black racism or there are other factors outweighing racist attitudes towards other groups.

Or is the problem at the application stage? Here’s how applications look in comparison to UK population figures (bearing in mind that these are 2001 figures and hence almost certainly out of date). In 2009, there were approximately 185 Oxford applications for every 1,000,000 UK citizens. If the same figure is calculated for each ethnic group, you get the following:

Applications per million Over/under
White 155 83.5%
Mixed 703 379.4%
Asian 353 190.7%
Black 192 103.8%
Chinese 918 495.2%
Other 364 196.6%

Relative to the size of their ethnic group within the population as a whole, White students are under-represented. Asians and the ‘Other’ group – which consists mainly of people who declined to state their ethnic group – are over-represented; Chinese and the ‘Mixed’ group are massively over-represented. Black students are right in the middle of the distribution, a fairly small population represented – relative to the total of applications – proportionately to its size.

Here are the admission figures again, this time side by side with the application figures:

Applications Admissions Success Over/under
White 76.9% 84.9% 27.6% 110.0%
Mixed 4.4% 4.6% 26.5% 105.6%
Asian 7.6% 4.6% 15.3% 61.0%
Black 2.0% 1.0% 12.2% 48.6%
Chinese 2.1% 1.8% 21.6% 86.1%
N/K 6.3% 2.8% 11.1% 44.2%

The “over/under” figure gives the relative success of each group as compared with the overall success rate of 25.1%. And it’s an interesting figure. Relative to applications, White students are quite substantially over-represented, while every other group is under-represented, with the exception of the ‘Mixed’ group (the cynical explanation that they’re seen as ‘white enough’ suggests itself).

Here, finally, is what it looks like if you put it all together. (These are the same numbers I’ve been crunching so far. The ‘Over/under’ figure for applications is the ratio between the number of applicants per million in each group and the number of applicants per million UK residents. The ‘Over/under’ figure for admissions is the ratio between the success rate of applicants in each group and the overall success rate of applicants.)

% of population % of applications Over/under % of admissions Over/under
White 92.1% 76.9% 0.835 84.9% 1.103
Mixed 1.2% 4.4% 3.794 4.6% 1.057
Asian 4.0% 7.6% 1.907 4.6% 0.610
Black 2.0% 2.0% 1.038 1.0% 0.488
Chinese 0.4% 2.1% 4.952 1.8% 0.862
Other 0.4% 0.8% 1.966 0.3% 0.428

Every line tells a slightly different story. The Mixed ethnic group comes off best, with a massive over-representation in applications which is entrenched at the admissions stage; Chinese students are also over-represented, with a larger over-representation among applicants only slightly scaled back at the admission stage. A smaller over-representation over Asian students is almost entirely reversed by the rejection of 85% of applicants. The White group is significantly under-represented among applicants, although the admissions process partially compensates for this with a slight over-representation, relative to applications. Alone among all the major ethnic groups, Black students apply to Oxford at roughly the same rate as the population as a whole, neither over-represented among applicants (like most others) nor under-represented (like White students). However, the Black group suffers enormously at the admission stage, with a rejection rate of nearly 88%; this compares with 74.9% for all applicants and 72.4% for White students.

So what is going on? A large part of what’s going on seems to be that White schoolchildren aren’t getting the top grades in the numbers we’d expect – although this is still being compensated during admissions. Where Black Oxford applicants are concerned, it seems undeniable that something is going wrong somewhere in the admission process. The numbers of Asian – and to a lesser extent Chinese – applicants are cut down fairly significantly in the admissions process, but this is compensated by a massive over-representation of those groups among applicants. Black students get hit both ways: they’re not over-represented (although I would find it hard to label this as a fault, particularly given the performance of my own ethnic group), and they’re turned away at an even higher rate than Asian applicants. Oxford’s own investigation concludes that subject choice must bear some (most? all?) of the blame:

BME students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed courses. Oxford’s three most oversubscribed large (over 70 places) courses (Economics & Management, Medicine and Mathematics) account for 43% of all BME applicants and 44% of all Black applicants – compared to just 17% of all white applicants.

Well, maybe, but I can’t help feeling that this explanation stops where it ought to start. It’s hard to believe that subject choice is the only reason why Black students’ faces so consistently fail to fit; more to the point, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ subject choices themselves are not entirely weightless and without a history.  I passed this snippet on to my wife (we met at Cambridge). Apparently Black students aren’t being advised to choose the right subjects, I said, and that’s why not many of them get into Oxford. What, she said, they’re not applying to do Land Economy?

A gift from the Queen

Drink to the men who protect you and I!
Drink! Drink! Drain your glass! Raise your glass high!

I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days, you may not be surprised to learn, and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.) Initially this was because I felt I was being asked to endorse Britain’s role in the Falklands conflict and the Irish war: both the British Legion and the government seemed actively to encourage a blurring of the line between the dead in the World Wars and the very different Fallen of the 1980s, which I thought was pernicious. Still, for a few years in the relatively peaceful 1990s I did wear a poppy on November 11th, with the Second World War and more particularly the defeat of Fascism in mind. But for several years now we’ve been back in a period of imperialist war, and I prefer not to celebrate it. I do mourn the dead – including the British dead – but for me they’re dead in a cause that’s pointless at best, barbaric at worst; and you can’t get a poppy with “End this slaughter now” written around the outside.

On the topic of poppies and neutrality Owen is impressively logical:

The red poppy, as the white poppy-producing Peace Pledge Union points out, occupies something of a privileged position among emblems of charitable causes. If you’re a police officer or a TV presenter for the BBC, you’re not allowed to wear a wristband, coloured ribbon or any other kind of symbol that shows your support for a charitable or political cause, and especially not a white poppy, but red poppies, and red poppies alone, are fine.

There are two possible justifications for this that I can see: one is that the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal is neutral in a way that other charitable causes aren’t; the other is that the Poppy Appeal is, out of all the charitable causes in the world, a uniquely commendable cause.


all charities are legally required to be politically neutral, but if you can’t wear an AIDS ribbon or a Livestrong wristband on the BBC then clearly that kind of neutrality isn’t sufficient. But the Royal British Legion clearly doesn’t meet this requirement; the Poppy Appeal is manifestly not even politically neutral; every year the RBL creates ‘Fields of Remembrance’ which are intended as a “tribute to the memory of ex-Service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country.” This year there will be one at Wootton Bassett, where the bodies of members of the armed forces killed in Afghanistan are brought. This implies that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security. Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, it’s quite clearly not a politically neutral position.

And as for whether the Poppy Appeal is uniquely worthy of our support – well, why would it be?

I’m sure the justification most people would give, if asked, would be something about the fact that servicemen and women put themselves in the line of fire to make the rest of us safer

– but this brings us straight back to the assumption about “all conflicts which the UK has been involved in being justifiable on national security grounds”, which is awfully hard to demonstrate with regard to (say) Suez, or the Malayan insurgency (Britain was agin it, in quite a real and tangible way).

The logic is impressive, but I think Owen misses a couple of obvious counter-arguments – one which I’ve already touched on, and one which Will sums up:

Wearing a poppy is quite a unique thing. There aren’t many ways that the British are able to symbolise a positive relationship to nation without descending to nationalism, to recognise the honour of the military without veering into militarism. It also has a beautiful ambiguity. It may represent something very patriotic and proud, or a form of pacifism. It needn’t mourn the dead of any particular war or even any particular nation. It may even represent mourning for the horrors of the twentieth century more generally. It’s not irrelevant that most of those who have died in war over the last 100 years did not go into the military as a career, but were dragged into hellish territorial disputes. Some people might feel particularly moved by those conscripts, others won’t. These various ambiguities allow people to congregate symbolically without being defined symbolically.

The poppy is about “a positive relationship to nation” and “the honour of the military”. It celebrates membership of a nation state with armed forces, with all the ambiguities and differences of emphasis which that allows: for different people, the same symbol can commemorate an imperialist adventure carried out by professional soldiers and a continent-wide war to defeat Fascism waged by a mass army of conscripts. But these different forms of commemoration remain within the framework of the nation-state: my 1990s anti-Fascist poppies were, precisely, celebrating the role of the British Army in licking Hitler.

This is why it’s beside the point to point out that very few people actually believe that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security – and that anyone putting forward this hyper-militarised view of the world would scarcely qualify as “politically neutral”. The implicit argument here is not that the nation-state is neutral with regard to politics, but that it’s prior to politics: the British state, and the armed forces which underwrite its monopoly of legitimate force, are the precondition of any kind of politics in Britain – and of any kind of public sphere. We are not saluting those who died for no good reason in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Falls Road, but the men who protect you and I. (What we are certainly not doing – and here I entirely agree with Will – is saying that we think being injured is bad and being killed is even worse: an even more pre-political appeal, and one which evacuates the actual poppy ritual of what little politics it still gives houseroom to.)

And it’s because the poppy is a salute to the armed forces – our armed forces – that (coming to my second argument) neither wearing a poppy nor refusing to wear one is a free choice, in the sense that it’s a free choice to wear or not to wear a pink “breast cancer” ribbon or a Help For Heroes wristband. To say that the nation-state is prior to politics – to say that we enjoy British democracy and British liberties – is to say that we, as members of that nation-state, bear allegiance to the ultimate authorities of the state, and the armed forces which are both symbol and last-ditch embodiment of their power over us. (I lived in a Forces town as a child; if nothing else, it leaves you with an abiding respect for the armed forces’ ability to get the job done – whatever the job might be.) And if we bear allegiance, then, once in a while, respect should be paid. Declining to wear a poppy is opting out of allegiance to the state: it’s either an explicit protest or rather distastefully eccentric – after all, why wouldn’t you? (I see this in my children’s reaction to my failure to wear a poppy; I really should make my protest more explicit.) (I’ve never worn a white poppy, incidentally. The white poppy still has an air more of eccentricity about it than protest, perhaps because it says that the wearer wants to join in the ritual of commemoration and yet withdraw from it – like joining a march but insisting on making up your own slogans.)

The danger in all this is that sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not to pay respect to authority – and the time of war may be one of those times. In January this year I was in a pub when a loud and emotional argument broke out between a drunk and a squaddie who was about to ship back out to Afghanistan, where he’d recently seen his best friend killed. He was holding his drink quite well, but he was obviously quite well gone himself. The argument consisted mainly of the squaddie taking exception to everything the drunk said, and trying to shut him up by the drunk man’s usual method of talking over him, very calmly, very loudly and at great length; the drunk responded with the even drunker man’s tactic of carrying on regardless, in the blithe confidence that if he went on talking for long enough everyone in the world would agree with him. It was a fun evening. (I wouldn’t have minded so much, but we were trying to have a singaround at the time.) Anyway, nothing the drunk said upset or offended the squaddie so much as his profession of support and sympathy – “We’re all behind you, mate, we want to get you out of there and get you home safe and sound.” Big mistake. They had a job to do, we were told, and they were going to get it done. Anyone who said different just didn’t understand. There was a job to do, the army had been sent out there to do it and they were going to stay there till the job was done. They had a job on hand, the job was going to get done and they were going to make sure it got done.

From within the armed forces, of course, this is very much how you’d expect the world to look: they’re an instrument of the state and they’re there to get the job done, provided the job involves either weaponry or boots on the ground. The danger of paying respect to our state and our armed forces is that we as citizens buy into this heads-down goal-oriented mindset: theirs not to reason why (why Iraq? why Malaya? why Ireland?), and ours neither. Support the troops, we’re urged – and we’re asked to support them in just the same dogged, unconditional way that they’re told to do their job. But that way, our sympathy for the poor bloody infantry leads us to echo their unquestioning support for the goals they’re asked to achieve – and that’s precisely what we as civilians shouldn’t be doing. They don’t have the luxury of asking whether they should be going where they’re sent, but we do – and we owe it to ourselves to use it.

So: because I don’t think the British nation-state is prior to the politics that matter, in a way that my working-class ancestry decidedly is; and because, while I mourn the loss of life in Britain’s current imperialist adventures, I can’t endorse them; and, above all, because there is a war on, and I believe this is precisely the moment when spaces for debate and dissent most need to be opened up: for all these reasons, I’m not wearing a poppy.

Update A song for today.

Now the grownups have gone

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

Dear George Osborne,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript

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

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

Imitation of life

Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.

Mrs Duffy had asked him about immigration and also mentioned student tuition fees, among other subjects.

The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman asked Mr Brown to explain what he meant when he said he had misunderstood her comments.

He said: “I thought she was talking about expelling all university students from here who were foreigners. I misunderstood it.”

It’s a sidestep of genius, allowing both Brown and Duffy to be in the right – someone who had said that to Brown would have been a bigot; he simply made the honest mistake of thinking that Mrs D. was that someone.

I also think it’s probably sincere. Here’s a section of the full transcript:
Continue reading

You talk so hip

In the previous post, I wrote:

not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read us a story

I considered voting Tory the other day.

It didn’t last – I knew within a minute that I just couldn’t do it – but for a moment it really seemed like a good idea. I was reading Ross McKibbin’s piece in the LRB about the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF, the government’s latest system for funding academic research, gives a lot of weight to “impact”: deliver[ing] demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life. 25% of the final rating will be decided on the basis of ‘impact’, and funding for university departments will be decided on the basis of those ratings. McKibbin does a great, if inevitably depressing, job on unpacking all the many things that are wrong with this idea; if you haven’t read it, go and read the piece now (it’s not paywalled). Suffice to say that ‘impact’ criteria will be so hard to meet, in just about any discipline, that the government might as well just have announced that it was cutting university funding by 25%; it would have saved us all a lot of time and effort.

So I was sunk in McKibbin-induced gloom when I read this line:

David Willetts, the shadow minister for universities and skills, has said that the Conservatives will delay the REF ‘by up to two years to establish whether a sound and widely accepted measure of impact exists’.

I could have kissed the man (and yes, I do know who David Willetts is). Certainly voting Tory suddenly seemed like the right choice. For a moment it really seemed like a good idea, but I knew within a minute that I just couldn’t do it. You’d have to leave the house intending to vote Tory, walk down the road planning to vote Tory, and when you got to the polling booth… bear with me, this part is hard to talk about… In the polling station you’d have to get your ballot paper, and then you’d have to take it to the polling booth and in the polling booth you’d have to… I mean, you’d actually have to pick up the pencil and you’d have to…

No. Best draw a veil, I think.

On one level I’m not a Labour loyalist – I gave up on the party some time around 1992 and have never voted for them since. (Green, mostly, or any token Leftist who’s available. Might have voted Lib Dem once, possibly.) Deeper down, though, a Labour loyalist is precisely what I am: the question “Labour or Tory?” causes me about as much hesitation and heart-searching as the question “What’s your name?” On that basis I was surprised that Andrew Rawnsley was surprised to hear that Roy Hattersley had decided to pan his book sight unseen (I had not realised that Roy possesses such advanced critical faculties that he is able to decide that he will give a bad review to a book before he has actually read it); can he really have thought that career Labour politicians would sabotage the party’s chances for the sheer joy of sticking the knife into Gordon Brown? Apparently he did:

There has been little loathing lost between Lord Mandelson and Ed Balls. Tony Blair will campaign for a Labour victory despite the oceans of poison … that flowed between him and Gordon Brown. It may be hilariously bogus for these men to pretend that they are all good friends. But there is also something quite awesome about their ability to subordinate so much venomous personal history in the greater cause of retaining power for their party. … Despite the odds against Labour, despite the epic deficit that will be inherited by the next government, despite all the hatreds that seethe below the surface, they will still fight to the last ditch to stay in power.

But of course they will – what else would they do? Not even Mr Tony Blair actually wants a Tory victory. (Not sure about Patricia Hewitt – although I love Alex’s “signalling” idea in comments to that post, not least because it confirms my main point.)

It’s been interesting, now an election is looming, to see Labour starting to tap into these deeper reserves of support; in any case it makes a change from endlessly trying to impress us with their patriotism, fiscal rectitude and intolerance of yobs. Our own candidate, the ghastly Lucy Powell, recently sent round a ‘questionnaire’ concluding with two tick-box questions: which party you intended to vote for, and whether you would prefer a Labour or a Tory government. This is a Lib Dem seat – gained from a right-wing Labour MP on an anti-war vote – which the Tories have zero chance of winning. (Even the Lib Dems have written them off: they’ve started telling us that the Greens “can’t win here”.) But a Labour or a Tory government… hmm. If that’s dog-whistle politics, then tickle my tummy and call me Rover.

With all that in mind, this from Jenny Diski was interesting:

In 1979, there was a strike at the National Theatre that caused trouble with a Simon Gray play Pinter was directing. Fraser writes: ‘“Union selfishness and violent behaviour at the National” was what convinced Harold to vote Tory in May. I too voted Tory but that was quite unashamedly in order to see a woman walk into No. 10. Neither of us knew much about Mrs Thatcher’s politics.’ She got her wish, Mrs Thatcher did walk through the door of No. 10, but ‘subsequently, Harold, by his own account, regretted his vote.’

That’s nice to know. Diski also comments on the radical stands Pinter took – “always of the astonished variety”,

as if, having read or thought nothing on the subject previously, he woke up one morning and discovered that there was torture or tyranny occurring in the world beyond. Then he’d pronounce it a bad thing in a poem, a one-act play or a speech to the rest of us who were assumed to be entirely ignorant of such events. Sometimes he, Antonia and other fascinating famous people attend a lily-waving demonstration outside the wrong kind of embassy to bring his awareness to the notice of the entire world. His rage at corruption and the misuse of power was wholly admirable, but his sense of it as a brand new, unpleasant discovery was odd, I always thought.

Travelling light makes it easier to see things with a fresh eye, I guess; and seeing things with a fresh eye is a good thing, I guess. But I lean more towards Robert Wyatt’s answer when asked about his ‘politics’ – I don’t have ‘politics’, just certain loyalties. I’m also reminded of Marc Riley’s brisk demolition of Paul Weller, and in particular Weller’s 1980s re-emergence as a beacon of Leftist integrity –

Who loves the Queen and who votes Tory?
Come on, joker, read us a story!

Green and yellow pinky-blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That goes for any Party.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too pale a hue

June? June?

Oh well – I’m back, probably.

What’s been happening? Looking back at the last two posts, both those papers got rejected; in one case it was more of a “revise and resubmit”, so I’m not particularly distressed. The other was more of a “hit the back wall without bouncing” rejection, which did stop me in my tracks for a bit – but I’ll get a resubmission out of it. And my book is almost out, and almost has its own Web page (a holding page as I write this, but I’m going to fix that RSN).

I was going to kick this blog back into life with a few thoughts on blogging, or a political meme that drifted past in the summer, or some thoughts on the mainstreaming of Fascism, or possibly even my long-planned post on the ethics of armed struggle. (Armed struggle: I’m agin it.) Instead of which, I’m going down that time-honoured route to a blog post, the comment that got too long for the comment box. Sparked off by something on Daniel’s site, which has an odd sort of big-fleas-little-fleas appropriateness about it.

First off, how about a bit of Tronti? (Borrowed from my book, which is out soon.)

Capitalist society has its laws of development: they have been formulated by economists, applied by governments and endured by the workers. But who will discover the laws of development of the working class? … We ourselves have put capitalist development first, workers’ struggles second. This is wrong. We need to reverse the problem, change its sign, begin from first principles: and the first principle is the struggle of the working class. Where capital is developed on the social scale, capitalist development is subordinate to workers’ struggles: it follows on from them and has to shape the political mechanisms of its own production accordingly.
Mario Tronti (1964), “Lenin in England”

More generally – Tronti and the workerists argued – capitalist development is parasitic on workers’ intelligence and creativity, which they use in the refusal of work. You get the job done with half an hour to spare and sneak off for a fag; your employer cuts your working day by half an hour and cuts your pay accordingly. Result: profit. You do eight hours’ work in six hours; your employer increases your workload by 33%. Result: profit.

And so to Thomas Friedman.

we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public [i.e. state] school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.

[the] problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses — when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don’t, there’s no telling how “jobless” this recovery will be.

Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

For a start, the “untouchable” theme is a striking example of Friedman’s legendary tin ear. To use “untouchable”, as a noun, to refer to people at the top of the heap – people who will thrive while the rest of us struggle – is bizarrely insensitive. To do so when what we’re struggling against is competition from low-wage countries, like, say, India – ugh. Brane hertz.

The “work-smarter-not-harder” stuff in the last paragraph quoted above is pretty insulting, too – at least, it is for those of us who have been hearing it from management gurus, year in and year out, ever since the last recession. The sermon changes from year to year – sometimes there’s just no money around; sometimes there’s lots of money but lots of people competing for it; sometimes it’s neither of the above but the world is changing! – but the message is always the same. There’s always some compelling reason why we’ve got to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to achieve this and save money on that. We can’t just get on with our jobs – that would be wrong. (More to the point, it would mean we didn’t generate more profit than we did last year. See Tronti.)

But Friedman has something more specific to say here. Something that goes roughly like this:

“Only a minority of American workers are doing well out of globalisation – everyone else is getting shafted! As nobody could possibly have predicted (except for everybody but me)! So we need to move all American workers into that minority! And the key to that is education, government-provided education in particular! And what we need to do to government-provided education is, oh, damn, time’s up.”

I was particularly struck by the line about the $40-an-hour jobs. He’s literally proposing to fix the problem at the margin – by moving everyone who’s being affected by global competition into the margin of jobs so skill-intensive, and skills so specialised, that they can’t be done for less than $40/hour. Because if they could be done cheaper they would be, and if they’re done cheaper on the other side of the world, hey, them’s the breaks.

In The age of insecurity, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson liken globalisation to a strong wind – a conventional enough image these days. They then say that the anti-protectionist orthodoxy is a bit like saying we should deal with this strong wind by opening all our doors and knocking down walls where possible. (That wind is out there whether we like it or not! It’s a fact of life! It’s the way the world is!) Friedman has been urging on a process which other people said should be resisted or slowed down, because it would lead to disruption and immiseration on a large scale. He’s now claiming that it has led to large-scale disruption and immiseration – and his only solution is for the 80% to clamber on board the 20%’s lifeboat. And if that doesn’t work, well, it’s probably the fault of the government.

If a tree don’t fall on me

Apparently I’m up to blogpost #100, a little short of the blog’s first anniversary. How about some beer?

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well); I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The local with the pale, hoppy ales I’ll call Old Local. It’s not particularly old – it’s six or seven years old, in fact – but it looks it; the decor is classic Pub Basic. It’s a small pub, tied to a small local brewery; on an average night they have four or five of the brewery’s ales on, plus a couple of guests and a real cider (from a one-gallon barrel, kept in the fridge). It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away and handy for a good Chinese takeaway.

Then there’s New Local, which was opened a little more than a year ago and looks it. It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away (in the other direction) and handy for a good Indian; it’s a Thwaites’ pub, usually serving Bomber and Thoroughbred plus a couple of guests. New Local doesn’t serve real cider, and they serve the bitter a couple of degrees too cold. But it’s good ale – their Thoroughbred in particular is a very nice pint, without the slightly curdled caramel heaviness of the Bomber. New Local also has a bar snacks menu consisting mainly of things like miniature salamis and Japanese rice crackers. (Old Local, to be fair, serves Kettle Chips and Bombay mix, so it’s not that stark a contrast; I’m not sure where you’d go round here for pork scratchings.) Another difference between the two is that you don’t hear many local accents in New Local; from what I’ve overheard I get the impression that most of the clientele are incomers (like me), working in the social services or education (like me).

Can you guess which of the two has a no-smoking policy?

Last October I wrote (in comments here)

I could approve of a complete smoking ban if we were arguing about the effects on pub staff, whose exposure to smoke in pubs is much more extensive than any(?) of their customers’. If we’re talking about the punters (as people discussing a ban generally are) the case is much less clear. You express puzzlement that market forces have failed to create choice between smoking and non-smoking pubs, but actually this was entirely predictable for as long as smoke actively repelled a lower proportion of pub customers than the absence of smoke. Since smokers have historically been either a majority or a large minority among pub-goers, and since non-smokers aren’t likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of clean air, these conditions haven’t obtained; the balance has also had an added level of ’stickiness’ owing to the lack of anywhere for non-smokers to actually go. What’s happened recently is that smokers have dwindled to a small enough proportion of the population that some pub managers can afford to disregard their preferences; there’s also been a decrease in the tolerance of the non-smoking population, although I don’t think this is anything like so significant a factor. Consequently non-smoking pubs have become a reality (one opened from scratch a year ago, just down the road from me in Manchester, & is now doing a roaring trade) – which in turn makes competitive pressures that much freer to operate.So what worries me most about the proposed smoking ban – and almost equally draconian half-measures such as the creation of airtight(!) smoking rooms – is that this nannyish attack on the pleasures of the working class* will take place precisely when it’s no longer necessary.

*Pardon my Johnreidism, but this does seem like the most class-correlated proposal I’ve seen in a very long time – and not in a good way, either.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the pending smoking ban is that it won’t come into force for another eighteen months. I imagine that the imminent threat of a ban will give market forces another nudge, so that by the time the ban actually takes effect it will look even less necessary than it does now. (But then, ‘market forces’ only ever make sense within a given framework of law, custom and expectation.)

But it’s not just clean air that the ban will promote – or rather, it’ll promote clean air by promoting a broader shift of values. And that’s what worries me. I’m a middle-class incomer, with an incomer’s accent, an incomer’s taste in beer and an incomer’s habit of taking the LRB to the pub and sitting on my own reading it (or sometimes, particularly in Old Local, standing on my own reading it). Or maybe that last one’s just me. But anyway – middle-class incomer I am. But I like Old Local because I can feel at home there without being entirely surrounded by other middle-class incomers; conversely, I like New Local, but I’d like it more if it wasn’t quite so full of people like me. I’m settled here – I’ve been in Manchester for 23 years and in this specific area for 18 – but I still feel like an incomer, and I think that’s appropriate: I like the fact that I share a local with people who are actually from around here, and I don’t object to being reminded that I’m not. At some deep level, the opening of New Local and places like it feels like a different kind of middle-class influx – not so much immigration, more colonisation. And the smoking ban seems like a big vote of confidence to New Local, and a big ‘up yours’ to the Old Local crowd.

I wonder if Chris goes far enough:

To New Labour, health egalitarianism is a strong enough principle to justify restricting freedom, but not strong enough to justify seriously attacking inequality.

I think we can simplify: to New Labour managerialists, just about any principle is good enough to justify restricting working class freedoms, and just about any principle is more important than seriously improving working class life chances. (And no, the smoking ban isn’t about doing just that – or if it is, it’s a peculiarly limited and indirect way of achieving that goal. See Chris’s post for more.)

Update A friend challenged me today to specify less coercive means of effectively protecting bar staff from passive smoking. I don’t think it’s that difficult. Firstly (and symbolically), you’d give legal status to smoking bans imposed by the management of pubs and clubs: you light up and it’s not just the management you’re taking on, there’s a chance you could actually be fined. (Or at least have a fee extorted – but that’s another rant.) This in itself wouldn’t do much more than make it easier to non-smoking establishments to open. Secondly, you’d legislate so that the continued tolerance of smoking, in a smoking establishment, rested on the consent of the people who work there: you’d enable bar staff to hold binding ballots on converting to (or, to keep it fair, from) non-smoking status and encourage pubs and clubs to hold such ballots regularly – starting now. If there is any groundswell of support for a smoking ban, among pub customers or pub workers, this should be enough to turn it into reality. And if not, what are we doing imposing one?

Updated update: Brian‘s post reminds me that, with the exception of the clause about balloting the staff, I’ve just reinvented the 2005 Labour manifesto position on smoking. Since the Blairite takeover there have been numerous cases of people and policies moving from respectable centre to extreme left without actually changing; it usually takes a bit longer than this, though.

We’re never together

Back here, I wrote:

Social software may start with connecting data, but what it’s really about is connecting people – and connecting them in dialogue, on a basis of equality. If this goal gets lost, joining the dots may do more harm than good.

It’s not about connecting machines, either – and the same caveat applies. Via Thomas, I recently read this item about location-based services (which, I remember, were going to be quite the thing a couple of years ago, although they seem to have faded since people started actually getting their hands on 3G technology). Anyway, here are the quotes:

This project focuses on [location-based technology’s] collaborative uses: how group of people benefits from knowing others’ whereabouts when working together on a joint activity … we set up a collaborative mobile environment called CatchBob! in which we will test how a location awareness tool modifies the group interactions and communications, the way they perform a joint task as well as how they rely on this spatial information to coordinate.

And how did that work out?

“We found that players who were automatically aware of their partners’ location did not perform the task better than other participants. In addition, they communicated less and had troubles reminding their partners’ whereabouts (which was surprising). These results can be explained by the messages exchanged. First the amount of messages is more important in the group without the location-awareness tool: players had then more traces to rely on in order to recall the others’ trails. And when we look at the content, we see that players without the location-awareness tool sent more messages about position, direction or strategy. They also wrote more questions.”

Really, we’re back with ‘push’ technology – which was going to be quite the thing round about 1998, as I remember. Give people device for talking to each other: works. Give people device which gives them a constant stream of information: doesn’t work.

The trouble is, we’ve got the technology. The problems with social software are social; see this deeply depressing Register story.

Alongside video on demand TV services from Homechoice, the SDB [Shoreditch Digital Bridge] will offer a “Community Safety Channel” which will allow residents “to monitor estate CCTV cameras from their own living rooms, view a ‘Usual Suspects’ ASBO line up, and receive live community safety alerts.”

Other aspects of the Shoreditch Digital Bridge are less controversial, but likely to be considerably harder to execute. The SDB proposes an education channel, “allowing children and adults to take classes, complete on-line homework assignments and log-on to ‘virtual tutors'”, a “Health Channel” allowing patients to book GP appointments, and providing “virtual Dr/Nurse consultations and on-line health and diagnosis information”, a “Consumer Channel, allowing on-line group buying of common services such as gas, electricity and mobile phone tariffs”, and an “Employment Channel, providing on-line NVQ courses, local jobs website and virtual interview mentoring.”So within that little lot, the educational aspects will require substantial input from, and involvement of, existing schools and colleges, the Health Channel will need a whole new interface to NHS systems that are already struggling to implement their own new electronic booking systems, and the Consumer Channel will merely have to reinvent the co-operative movement electronically.

But CCTV – ah, now, we’ve got CCTV…


Yet again, the technology arrives promising us a vibrant civic and economic future … then beds down as a means of protecting us from each other.

Or rather, as a means of protecting us from Them (caution – sweary link).

If we’re talking about social software or social networks, let’s be clear that we’re talking about connecting people rather than dividing them. Connecting machines doesn’t necessarily help connect people.

Who took the money?

This is a fascinating post (in Italian) by Pietro Speroni on the relationship between authority, communities and markets. This is an interesting and controversial area; the fact that Pietro also invokes the Long Tail (which, as you’ll recall, is not what it seems) makes it all the more compelling (to me at least).

I’ll translate as I go along; hopefully Pietro will correct me if I go wrong.

I don’t believe that the ruling class has vanished. I believe that it has simply been transformed – just as the world itself is being continually transformed from day to day. Decades ago, our world was simpler – more homogeneous, less diverse. If you followed a martial art, it would be judo or karate. A game? Chess. A religion? Christian, Jewish, perhaps Muslim at the outside.

on the Net, via Google (and wikipedia), you can find the specific branch of the specific religious tradition which best meets your needs. … And this is not true only of religions, but of everything: interests, political groups, passions, games, ways of life.

Now, every one of these groups has its own implicit hierarchy. … And everyone is a member of more than one group. And in every group you listen to some people, and what you say influences other people.

[In every area of my life] I have leaders: people I trust; people who I admire and learn from. But they’re not the same people as your leaders. Not only that, but there are other people who come to me to learn (worse luck for them!), in some fields more than in others. The process of diversification tends towards having as many groups as people – and every one of us, of necessity, becomes the small-scale leader of a small-scale group, scattered around the world.

This whole process mirrors what’s happening in the economy, where a market consisting of niches is growing explosively … The key phrase is Long Tail.

So I don’t believe that the ruling class is vanishing, but that we’re seeing a gradual diversification of interests, which leads to the diversification of the ruling class – accompanied by the redefinition and contraction [ridimensionamento] of the role of traditional leaders.

There’s a lot that I like about this – I think Pietro’s right to say that there’s a new kind of process of diversification under way, and to trace it back to the Internet’s basic sociality, its nature as a medium for conversation.

But… a transformation of the ruling class? Non tanto. Pietro’s larger argument is undermined by a couple of strange elisions. Firstly, it’s true that we all have multiple ‘authorities’ – the topics of folk music, statistics, Belgian beer and operaismo are all important to me, for instance, and in each case I could name an authority I’d willingly defer to. But those people aren’t the people who enforce the laws I obey, or set the level of tax I pay, or price the goods I buy, or write the newspapers I read, or appear on the news programmes I watch. The ruling class, it seems to me, is still very much in place, and whether I’m a tequila-crazed Quaker or a tea-drinking Tantric Buddhist is a matter of sublime indifference to it. Roy Bhaskar has written that historical materialists, by virtue of starting from the material facts of social existence, cannot propose absolute freedom, “a realm free of determination”; what we can envisage is moving “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. The world Pietro describes is a world which is governed only by those needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination. It sounds good, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

Secondly, on the matter of niche marketing. Pietro assumes that a proliferation of niche markets will lead to a proliferation of niche suppliers, and hence the dilution of the authority of the big suppliers. I don’t see any reason to believe that this is the case. Indeed, one of Chris Anderson’s own preferred examples is based on Amazon sales rank – and there’s nothing very diffuse about Amazon, or the authority wielded by Amazon. Much of the buzz around the ‘Long Tail’ seems to derive, ultimately, from this confusion of the two meanings of ‘niche’. Clearly, mining niche markets can be profitable, if you’re a monopolistic behemoth like Amazon; but, equally clearly, it doesn’t follow that niche suppliers can make a living in the same way. Indeed, making niches visible to companies like Amazon actually threatens existing niche suppliers. (Ask your local bookshop, if you’ve still got one.)

Of course, Long Tail proponents tell a different story. Back in July, Scott Kirsner quoted George Gilder thus:

His central thesis is that Internet-connected screens in the home – whether it’s the PC in your den or the plasma screen on your living room wall – are going to change the way we consume video by offering us infinite choice.

“The film business will increasingly resemble the book business,” he says, with a few best-sellers that achieve widespread popularity, and lots of publishers making a profit selling titles that no one’s ever heard of.

Lots of who doing what? Run that past us again, could you? While you’re at it, send the good news to the novelist A.L. Kennedy, whose wonderful FAQ includes this:

SO, WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF PUBLISHING?Fewer publishing houses concentrated in conglomerate hands, trying to produce more books of less quality. No full time readers, no full time copy editors and therefore missed newcomers and pisspoor final presentation of texts on the shelves, silly covers, greedy and simple-minded bookshop chains, lunatic bidding wars designed to crush the spirit of unknown newcomers, celebrity “tighten your buns and nurture your inner pot plant” hard backs and much related insanity.

Mass markets are where the units get shifted; niche markets – like literary fiction – are where survivors linger on (until they’re bought out) and upstart competitors emerge (and hang on until they’re bought out). It’s the logic of the monopoly, which is to say that it’s the logic of the market. Some years ago a McDonald’s spokesman, asked if the fast food market had reached saturation point, responded that, as far as his company was concerned, the market would only be saturated if there were no cooked food outlets anywhere on the planet apart from McDonald’s. I don’t think Amazon, or the publishing conglomerates, or the media companies who would source Gilder’s ‘infinite choice’, think any differently.

But Pietro’s half right: there is something interesting going on, even if it doesn’t mirror what’s going on in the economy; there is a process of diffusion and diversification, even if it doesn’t affect the main sources of authority over our lives. In fact, what’s significant about the Net is that it can host conversations which escape the marketplace and evade pre-existing (‘unneeded and unwanted’) forms of authority. That said, it can also reproduce the marketplace and reinvent old forms of authority – just like other conversational media.

In short, what’s good about the Web is – or can be – very good; what’s bad about is – or should be – very familiar.

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