Category Archives: Europe

A kind of solution

You’ve probably seen this:

I think it’s a work of genius, not least because of the way it anticipates an obvious objection from some of those hostile to its message – well, you may not be British, but I am, far back as you like… (Which indeed I could say myself, although there is a question mark over one of my great-grandfathers.) Anticipates and sidesteps it: you may indeed be British, son-of-British, son-of-British, etc, but every one of your glorious British ancestors almost certainly had to deal at some point with people who “moved in and unsettled the neighbours”. It’s true that there are quite long periods of English history when nobody was “moving in”, but all of them predate Queen Victoria – and who (apart from the Duke of Devonshire) has any sense of who ‘they’ were that far back? Overall, it’s a brilliant reframing of immigration, that fully earns its closing opposition of love and openness to fear and isolation. Good to have you with us, Jigsaw.

You may not have seen this, more sceptical response:

The reaction to Professor Goodwin’s comment hasn’t been entirely positive; Ian Dunt (no pinko he) contrasted the reception given to people defending immigration (“they should maybe dial it down a bit”) and people attacking immigration (“we should understand their legitimate concerns”). Other commenters took the opportunity to attack the perceived tendency in British political academia – personified by Goodwin and Rob Ford – to put out a conceptual Welcome mat for the UKIP/Brexit mindset, by arguing that UKIP weren’t racist, or else that UKIP supporters weren’t racist, or that attacking UKIP as racist would be a bad idea. (Update: on Twitter, Ford has clarified that his position is the third of these (“attacking UKIP as racist may not be the most effective way to counter their appeal”), together with a heavily qualified version of the second: viz. that the majority of UKIP supporters aren’t (or weren’t) racist, although there were more racists among UKIP supporters than among supporters of most other parties.)

I briefly got into this argument myself, asking – fairly pointedly – whether there was still a constituency of White working-class racists whose sensibilities we on the Left needed to be careful of. I wasn’t able to pursue the argument at length on Twitter – partly for time reasons, partly because, come on, it’s Twitter – so here’s what I was getting at.

1. The collapse of UKIP changes everything

Goodwin and Ford are some of the more prominent intellectually respectable advocates of what I’ll call the “legitimate concerns” model: the model of British politics that says that anti-immigration attitudes run both wide and deep in Britain, particularly among White working-class voters, to the point where any frontal attempt to call (or root) them out would be disastrously counter-productive. As if to say, yes, these people have some dreadful attitudes, but what can you do? Confront them? Good heavens, you don’t want to do that I’ve seen Ulster Unionists written about in similar boys-will-be-boys tones, not to mention (going back a few years) Serbian nationalists. The “legitimate concerns” model was based, it seems to me, on the existence of what grew to seem like a fact of nature between 2004 and 2015: a substantial and consistent vote preference for UKIP, expressed at general elections and in opinion polls as well as at European Parliament elections, generally putting UKIP in a solid third place with 15%-25% of the vote. Now that we’re back to a world of two-party polarisation – with Labour and the Tories between them accounting for 80-85% of voting intentions, while UKIP are down at 4%-5% and fighting the Greens for fourth place – that model isn’t required and should, I believe, be abandoned.

Note that I’m not saying that the model doesn’t work. If I said that model A (theirs) worked before the collapse of the UKIP vote but model B (mine) works now, I’d actually be disqualifying both models, theirs and mine. A lot of things have changed since 2016, but the very nature of reality itself isn’t one of them. Any model has to be capable of explaining the low as well as the high UKIP vote, and I’m sure that the “legitimate concerns” model – tweaked with a Brexit vote here and a ‘hostile environment’ there – can pass the test. (With May discredited, her party divided and the government patently foundering, why is the Tory vote so stubbornly high? Well, if you look at it this way…)

It’s not that the model doesn’t work; lots of models work. What the model lost, when the great UKIP threat went up in smoke, wasn’t its correspondence with reality, but something more fundamental and easily overlooked: the reason for us to choose it in the first place. It was a good enough reason, in its time. The Rise of UKIP was a great story (in retrospect) and an alarming one (in prospect): a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand in 1997 (a <3% combined vote for UKIP and the Referendum Party); a European breakthrough in 2004, consolidated in 2009 and built on in 2014; recognition by the pollsters in 2012, with vote shares at 15% or above from 2014 to 2016; second places in Labour seats in 2015, with the threat of a major breakthrough next time round… It cried out for explanation, before it was too late – and, to be fair, if you want to explain the fact that large numbers of people have switched to a party with policies A and B, hypothesising that large numbers of people have a strong preference for policies A and B isn’t the most ridiculous idea.

But something happened in 2017 that suggested that this phenomenon no longer needed explaining. (In fact it had started happening in 2015, in Oldham West.) Not to put too fine a point on it, the phenomenon that was crying out for an explanation isn’t there any more. People – some people – may still say Yes when they’re asked if they’re worried about immigration or political correctness or whatever, but the loss of a vehicle for those resentments makes them far less significant. How many people would have voted to re-criminalise homosexuality under Heath? to bring back the rope under Thatcher? to re-nationalise the railways under Blair? A fair chunk of people in each case; quite probably a majority of voters for the respective governing party. It didn’t matter, because there was no credible political subject constituted around demands like those, and consequently no electoral threat to the party in power. UKIP, and the respect with which UKIP was treated for so long, gave credibility to an unstable bundle of right-wing populist themes, ranging from vague nationalistic nostalgia to outright anti-Muslim racism; but that’s over now. It isn’t even correct to speak (as I did just now) of the loss of a vehicle for those resentments. UKIP’s right there, with a brand new badger-strangling leader; what’s happened is that it’s been abandoned by a large majority of its former supporters. And if those people don’t think it’s important to articulate their political identity in those terms, neither should we.

In short, if what was happening between 2004 and 2015 looked quite a bit like the constitution of a new White British nationalist political subject, what’s happened since 2015… doesn’t. I can understand why you might have wanted to start from there, then, but I really don’t think you should want to have started from there, now.

2. OK, so what has happened?

Since 2015? Two things – and they’re things we all know about; this isn’t Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World here. On one hand, the Brexit vote gave UKIP and its supporters everything that they, ostensibly, wanted. Note that qualification: Article 50 in and of itself doesn’t get us to banning the hijab or teaching kids about Agincourt or allowing smoking in pubs or bringing back the old money, or whatever. But leaving the EU was what it was all supposed to be about – and leaving the EU we, apparently, are. And UKIP now stands revealed as a contradictory formation. On one hand, it clearly isn’t (wasn’t?) a single-issue party: look at all the imperial nostalgia, all the xenophobic scaremongering, all the authoritarian table-thumping, all the bad-faith ‘free speech’ nonsense (you can’t say that any more…). There are forward-looking liberal democracies outside the EU and reactionary authoritarian states within it: we could in theory leave and be like Norway, or remain and be like Hungary. (In theory we could even advocate Leave as socialists.) UKIP stood for many things; occasional eccentricities aside, those issues form an unstable but reasonably coherent ideological constellation, and the simple fact of the UK being or not being a member state of the EU is far from central to it. And yet, on the other hand, UKIP was a single-issue party – the clue’s in the name – and, for the large majority of its supporters, once that issue was achieved the party was of no further use. If UKIP’s policies formed a loose ideological bundle, leaving the EU was the string that held the bundle together. Take that away and even the true believers fall apart.

The other key factor in the unravelling of UKIP has six syllables; three words, but the first one’s a small word. (Hint: begins with O.) Jeremy Corbyn has done something that hasn’t been done for a very long time, and has certainly never been dreamt of in the last twenty years: he’s signalled the intention of making Labour a genuinely left-wing party and making the next Labour government a genuinely left-wing government, dedicated to advancing the interests of working people at the expense of those of business. As I’ve documented on this blog, a statement of intent from the leader’s office is nowhere near enough to transform the Labour Party – that’s going to be a long job – but, ironically, it is enough to transform the electoral spectrum. As of June 2017, you can divide 90% of the British public into three roughly equal-sized groups: a bit less than 30% who think Corbyn’s ambitions for Britain sound great and will vote Labour to help make them happen; a bit less than 30% who think they’re a very bad idea and will vote Tory to prevent them; and a bit more than 30% who really weren’t joking when they said they didn’t care about politics. The only hopes of setting, or framing, or even tilting the agenda, from outside the old two-party system, lie with the parties voted for by the other 10% of the population. But half of that 10% is made up of Lib Dems, and most of what’s left consists of voters for Northern Irish parties or Scottish or Welsh nationalists; UKIP are nowhere. They did score solid second places in both the Oldham and Stoke by-elections – in Stoke Central they even increased their vote – but of course that’s not what they were aiming for. They thought they could win, and they weren’t alone; lots of commentators – from John Harris to Stephen Bush – thought they had a chance. And, who knows, under David Miliband or Liz Kendall they might have had a chance. Under Corbyn, no.

(On a side note, I genuinely had to stop and think for a moment to remember Liz Kendall’s name. That’s showbusiness!)

3. OK, but what happened before that?

Before 2015? What happened before 2015 can be told quite briefly. There are always ideologies – coherent bodies of ideas about how society works and how it should be organised – outside the bounded spectrum of permissible political views that we think of as the mainstream. If you’re a Green or an anarchist or a White supremacist or a Trotskyist or an Irish Republican or a Nozickian minarchist or an absolute pacifist or a small-r republican or a radical feminist or an anti-imperialist (to name but ten), you know that you’re unlikely ever to hear your spokespeople interviewed on Newsnight, or not without a lot of leading questions and interruptions. (And if eight of those unpalatably extreme viewpoints are broadly on the Left and only two on the Right, well, that just shows how clever Leftists are at coming up with new labels for themselves, doesn’t it – People’s Front of Judea, ho ho.)

What happened in the late 1990s was that the spectrum of political legitimacy was redefined and narrowed – delegitimising some previously habitable territory on both left and right – by New Labour, which then proceeded to occupy the whole of the reduced spectrum it had staked out. The Tories were boxed in; their only choices were to occupy (what was now) an unpalatable ‘far Right’ area or fight New Labour on (what was now) its own turf. Small wonder that they couldn’t return to power until the weird, Mule-like conjunction of a global financial crisis, a Blair-alike Old Etonian leader and a 23% vote for the Lib Dems, cruelly outplaying Labour at the “culturally liberal apolitical centrism” game. (It’s easy to forget just how strong the Lib Dem vote in 2010 was. Six million people voted Lib Dem in 2010 – that’s a million more than voted for any party other than Labour and Conservative in 2017.)

The other thing that happened in the late 1990s was the formation of James Goldsmith’s anti-EU vanity project, the Referendum Party. Insignificant as this was at the time, it marked the beginning of a period when the strongest and most vocal opposition to New Labour would come from a force determined to make its home in those disreputable ‘far Right’ badlands. Indeed, its location, off to the right of respectability, is one explanation for the ideological heterogeneity of UKIP: as David Cameron and Charles Kennedy competed with Blair on his chosen terrain of business-friendly social liberalism, UKIP was free to pick up all the rejected right-wing policies it could carry – and their supporters with them. Hence, too, the post-Brexit meltdown. It turns out that this wasn’t a whole new political identity, melding Islamophobia, British nationalism, social libertarianism and reactionary nostalgia within an overall anti-EU framework, as exciting as that might have been for political scientists. Rather, it was a loose alliance between believers in Islamophobia (and leaving the EU), British nationalism (and leaving the EU), smoking in pubs (and leaving the EU) and bringing back the old money (and leaving the EU), and the announcement that Britain was in fact leaving the EU took away the one thing that had been holding them all together.

What this doesn’t explain is why it was the UKIP area that provided the strongest and most vocal opposition to New Labour, and not some other politically-excluded school of thought. We don’t have that many Nozickian minarchists or absolute pacifists, to be fair, but both the far Left and the Greens have been substantial presences on the British political spectrum for the last forty years. Why did the right-of-Conservative area acquire the cachet of ‘respectable rebels’ and attract the enduring fascination of political scientists, centre-left journalists and BBC Question Time – to the point where it seemed to acquire much more substance than it ever really had – while the left-of-Labour area remained out in the cold, branded and outcast forever like Edmund? Why – let me put this another way – was respectability bestowed on people openly advocating policies which would make nobody’s life any better but only fuel ignorance and hatred while causing misery on a large scale, when people calling for ecologically-sound public investment and mixed-economy social democracy were either ignored or treated like apologists for Pol Pot?

I can’t answer that question. What I can say is that that is what happened: a phantasmal new political subject was conjured out of little more than the foul winds howling around the rightward extreme of the legitimate political spectrum, and given substance by a perverse determination to take it seriously, while studiously ignoring anything that might have been happening over at the leftward extreme. It worked for many years – too many – but now, I think, the game is up. Since the election, only two polls (out of 36) have put Labour below 40%; the average of the last ten has the Tories on 39.4% and Labour on 42%. Are the White working-class British nationalists going to come down from the hills and eat our lunch, as Labour’s middle-class liberal cosmopolitan bias costs it dear among its traditional supporters? To answer that question, it’s worth asking another: what would it look like if the answer was No? In such a world, might we see Labour with a solid lead over the Tories and UKIP in complete disarray, perhaps?

Returning to Professor Goodwin and Jigsaw: what to do if potential Labour voters start voicing legitimate concerns focused on immigration? The answer’s the same as it ever was: first and foremost, find out what those concerns actually are (rule of thumb: if they are legitimate, they won’t be about immigration – and vice versa). Ask if they vote at elections and if they support Labour, and give them good reasons for doing both; if you think they’re being racist, tell them so and tell they why. Treat them as you would anyone else, in other words – as potential allies, to be challenged, persuaded and won over. The only reason to treat them – and their incorrect opinions – with any more deference than that was the suspicion that they were part of something much bigger. We’ve entertained that suspicion for far too long; there’s no reason to continue with it now.


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?


I went to Stoke-on-Trent yesterday, to lend a hand with canvassing. I got off to a bit of a bad – well, late – start, and didn’t get there till 12.15. I met a canvassing team on my way to the GMB office and would have tagged along with them straight away, except that they were knocking off for lunch. I might as well have gone to the pub with them; when I got to the office I was told that Jeremy Corbyn was due to speak at 1.00, so I’d be better off hanging on till then and look for some people to go out with afterwards. Not knowing anyone, and not being adept at striking up conversation with strangers, I decided to head back into town and grab something to eat. I found what I was looking for – a stall selling, and indeed making, oatcakes, which was doing a roaring trade. (I still can’t get over the fact that they make the oatcakes right there. Thought they came in packets…)

Back at the office, there still wasn’t anyone to talk to – well, there were lots of people, just nobody I felt comfortable talking to. This is where it would have been better to get there earlier, or for that matter to join the Spoons party. Security for the Corbyn session was tight – well, tight-ish. Was your name down? Failing that, did you have your party membership card? Failing that, did you have some form of photo ID, a post-1998 driving licence perhaps? Failing that (the guy with the clipboard was sighing audibly by this stage)… well, could you write down your name and address on this piece of paper? I could manage that, fortunately. Starting to feel like Harry Worth, I made my way through to the side room, where three rows of ten chairs had been set out – either pessimistically or because that was all the chairs they had, I’m not sure. There were already forty or fifty people there who’d had to stand, and more were coming in all the time; Phil reckons there were 150 in there by the time Jeremy Corbyn spoke, and I wouldn’t say he was wrong.

As for the speech, Corbyn made some good if fairly basic points, and sounded genuinely passionate – genuinely angry at times. It wasn’t a tough crowd, but he got us pretty well worked up; oratorically he wasn’t bad at all, apart from an odd habit of breaking up the slogan-talk with little patches of bureaucratese – “Britain deserves better! We can do better! And we will do better, as I indicated in my earlier comments on health and social care!” (It’s an Old Labour thing, I guess, going back to the kind of meetings where people would be equally impressed by the rhetoric and by your grasp of which composite was which.) Overall I was pretty impressed – with the speech and with the man – although I was disappointed that he didn’t so much as mention Brexit or the EU. “Real fight starts here”, as he said – and the message, explicitly or implicitly, was that it’s the same fight it always has been, for democratic socialism and the welfare state. I think this is profoundly mistaken; I hate to agree with Tony Blair, but I think he was right to link the two issues, given that the inevitable post-Brexit downturn will be the perfect justification for further privatisation and wrecking of public services. Gareth Snell – the candidate in Stoke-on-Trent Central – is promising to deliver the best possible Brexit for the Potteries, but I’m afraid this is a bit like offering the best possible programme of compulsory redundancies. Or rather, almost exactly like.

Anyway, after the speech I hung around the main room while it cleared, intending to work my way to where the party workers were handing out clipboards and leaflets and throw myself on their mercy (er, sorry… Manchester… on my own… haven’t actually done this before… maybe if somebody could show me the ropes… sorry…). Fortunately this wasn’t necessary, as somebody was putting together a carload and I was able to volunteer to make up the numbers. To my surprise and alarm, nobody gave me any lines or talking points, or told me what to do in any way – other than telling me which door to knock and who was likely to be there – but it was fine; I picked up what there was to pick up pretty quickly.

We were a group of five, not counting Mike with the board. I’ve been out canvassing in a group of three before now, which is a large enough group to give you an enjoyable sense of getting through the route quickly. Five is even better – we smashed that route. Several times I finished an address, looked round and saw Mike a good hundred yards further down the road, giving out addresses to the lead members of the group; the stragglers would catch up, get our addresses… and repeat. It wasn’t a quick job – we went out at about 2.00 and didn’t get back till nearly four – but I think we canvassed that route about as quickly as it’s ever been canvassed. (For locals, it was Hartshill Road – numbers 100-500, give or take.)

Back at the office, I baled out rather than go out again, for no better reason than that I wanted to be home for tea. Yes, I’m a lightweight; never said I wasn’t. If I’d had any doubts on that point, incidentally, talking to some of my fellow volunteers would have dispelled them; our group of five included people from Watford and Berkshire, both of whom had come up for the day, and both of whom were still there when I left for my half-hour train journey back to Manchester. I spoke to more than one person who’d joined the party within the last eighteen months, including one 1980s member who’d rejoined (plenty of those in our ward branch, too). It’s worth emphasising: even after the Article 50 vote, even with a candidate who isn’t especially left-wing, the new recruits are still turning out and getting the work done.

What was it like? It was an extraordinary experience. The sheer variety of housing was mind-boggling. Finished that block of 90s redbrick flats? Take this semi-D set back from the road up a flight of 30+ steps, or these high Victorian Gothic mews houses (complete with iron-bound fake-medieval front doors with huge ring knockers), or that flat over a shop and accessible only by fire escape… Nobody in? Post a leaflet and move on (new pet hate: those furry hand-grabbers which appear to have been fitted to every letter slot in Stoke-on-Trent). I got more exercise yesterday afternoon than I have on a Saturday afternoon in quite a long time.

But that wasn’t the question, was it. What was the ‘doorstep experience’ like – what did people say? Well, mostly they didn’t say anything, because mostly they were out. The stockpile of talking points and instant rebuttals that I’d imagined us being given wasn’t needed; with one exception, the doorstep encounters were over in a matter of seconds. That exception was, ironically, the first door I knocked on: it was opened by an old woman who was only too happy to tell me about who she was and wasn’t thinking of voting for, and why. (Although even she didn’t mention Brexit; perhaps Corbyn’s approach is right after all.) Listening to her, I thought for a few mad moments that John Harris had a point. She’d always voted Labour, until recently; her father used to say that Labour was the party of the working man, and she’d always lived by that. But now – Jeremy Corbyn, well… Some friends of hers had been lifelong Conservatives, and they’d switched to UKIP, and they were very clever people – they’d gone UKIP because HS2 was going to go near their farm, and UKIP said they’d stop it. She didn’t support the Conservatives, though – she thought it was dreadful, what they’d done to the NHS; we never used to have these crises all the time. But UKIP had said they weren’t going to privatise the NHS, so… She liked Nigel Farage, too – thought he said some interesting things. She didn’t like Paul Nuttall, though – didn’t trust him, particularly with the Hillsborough story – so she thought maybe she wouldn’t vote for UKIP; maybe she wouldn’t vote at all. From there we somehow got on to Tristram Hunt; she didn’t like him at all, and (bizarrely) expressed some bitterness about the way he’d been ‘parachuted in’ in 2010. She wasn’t sure about the candidate this time round – was he married? Was he related to so-and-so Snell, that woman, what was her name…? (I know nothing about Gareth Snell’s personal life, and the only female Snell I can think of is Lynda, so I was no help there.) Then it was back to UKIP, and – perhaps inevitably – immigrants. Her take on immigration was, firstly, that there was far more traffic on her road than there ever used to be, and secondly that we shouldn’t be taking people in when we couldn’t look after our own; this in turn led to her fears that there wouldn’t be any adult social care for her when she needed it. I thought of pointing out that something like one in four of the people working in care homes in this country are EU citizens – so far from making it harder to provide, EU immigration is one of the things keeping adult social care afloat. But I wanted to get on – and it’s a complicated point to make, not to mention one which directly challenged her beliefs – so I let it slide. Besides, I was still boggling inwardly at the one about traffic.

It’s worth remembering that the over-75 former-Labour-voter demographic is small and atypical. It’s not that it doesn’t matter how many of them we lose – clearly it does – but that addressing the reasons why we lost them may not do us any good more widely. In any case, how would we address the ‘concerns’ expressed in the previous paragraph? “We shouldn’t take people in when we can’t look after our own” is a good, emotive talking point, but it’s based on a false premise – we can ‘look after our own’; we could do it with ease, if we had a government that wasn’t set on dismembering the welfare state. Yes, the NHS should be properly funded. Yes, adult social care should be properly funded and supported. All good Labour stuff – what were those overlooked and denigrated concerns, again? Just the traffic, really; that, and the sense that things have changed for the worse, and that ‘immigrants’ are something to do with it. There’s no logic there, unless it’s dream logic: that thing that worries you? how about we fix it by getting rid of those people you’re suspicious of? no, it’s not connected – well, maybe it is connected, who knows? – but even if it’s not connected it couldn’t hurt, could it? And, of course, this irrational fix – which is literally the stuff of nightmares, sating one kind of anxiety by hot-wiring it into another kind of resentment – is precisely what UKIP have been selling all these years, like the Tory right and the Fascist parties before them. UKIP have succeeded where their forebears failed, in surfacing that fearful, resentful dream logic and making it respectable. The idea that any given social problem was caused by “too many immigrants” was, literally, unspeakable for many years, but it was unspeakable not out of ‘political correctness’ but for good reasons: because the attitude it represents is not only hateful and divisive, but irrational and hence insatiable. Now it’s mainstream. I don’t know how – or if – Labour can put it back in its box, but I’m sure we need to work harder than we have done on holding the line against it. (I’m looking at you, Andy Burnham.)

I didn’t speak to many people on the doorstep, and apart from the woman I’ve been talking about very few of them raised any political concerns; only one, in fact, and that was a man who said he was voting Labour despite – not because – of the leader. Jeremy Corbyn, well… I hate to say it, but I think this is a problem for the party. I’ve been frustrated in the past by people’s unwillingness to say just what it is they don’t like about Corbyn, but I’m wondering now if that’s missing the point. The problem we’ve got now is that Corbyn’s stock has fallen so far that people don’t feel they need to object to anything specific: Corbyn just is a leader who you don’t take seriously. I’m not sure how we reverse that – or even if we can.

But if Corbyn’s leadership is a drag on the party, the effects don’t seem to be fatal – not in Stoke-on-Trent Central, anyway. I saw a number of Labour posters but no others, apart from posters for the Lib Dem candidate Zulfiqar Ali in the windows of a few businesses. I saw a few UKIP leaflets around the place; I think they’d done the same route before us. (The UKIP campaign’s current leaflet just says “We [heart] NHS” on one side; on the other it attacks Labour for accusing them of planning to privatise the NHS and says that UKIP would keep the NHS free at the point of use for British people (“it’s a national health service, not an international health service”). Very clever, very nasty.) As for the people I spoke to, there were three Labour intending voters (one critical of Corbyn); one Conservative; one ‘anyone but Labour’, balanced out by an ‘anyone but UKIP or the Conservatives’; one waverer who (as we’ve seen) had left UKIP for Labour but was wondering about either going back to Labour or abstaining; and two who said they weren’t going to vote. Generalised across the constituency as a whole, that would give vote shares of
Labour 45%-75%
Conservative 18%-25%
Lib Dem 0-18%
UKIP 0-18%
which would do me – although I suspect both the Kippers and the LDs will do a bit better than that. For Labour, I’m cautiously optimistic. For me, I’m glad I took the time out & would be happy to do it again (although, um, Thursday is actually a working day, and termtime, er…). Politics as in actually doing stuff with people – can’t beat it.


‘Twas the voice of the Wanderer, I heard her exclaim,
You have weaned me too soon, you must nurse me again
– Stevie Smith

I’ve been following the developing saga of Article 50 through a variety of sources – notably the UK Constitutional Law Association blog, Mark Elliott’s Public Law for Everyone, and the invaluable commentary on Twitter from Schona Jolly, Jo Maugham, Rupert Myers and others. (Exeter! Who’d have thought it?) For what it’s worth I’m inclined to think that Mark Elliott and Hayley Hooper‘s reading of the constitutional position is correct – that the UK’s EU membership is ultimately a matter of treaties concluded between governments, and that any individual rights arising from it were available to be applied from the moment membership was agreed, but were not (and could not be) applied until they had been brought into domestic law by Parliament. This being the case, if membership were to cease, the applicability of those rights would remain in law until such point as the European Communities Act was repealed, but it could have no effect, as the rights would no longer be available. To put it another way, any invocation of a right – or any other legal provision – which exists as a function of Britain’s membership of the EU must implicitly be conditional on EU membership subsisting at the time the invocation is made; to say otherwise would be to say that all EU-based legislation must be repealed before Britain could leave the EU, a proposition which (as far as I’m aware) nobody has advanced. This being the case, it must be possible for EU membership to cease and for EU-derived rights subsequently to be invoked (unsuccessfully, of course).

If the existence of EU-derived rights is no bar to leaving the EU by executive decision, neither is the principle of parliamentary democracy. It is true that the peculiar mechanism of Article 50 – with its inexorable two-year time limit – carries the risk of truncating Britain’s EU membership without any kind of Parliamentary agreement or even consultation, but this is only an idiosyncratic example of a much broader principle: it is governments, not Parliaments, that make treaties and dissolve treaties. Nor does the executive require Parliamentary approval for the making of treaties (as distinct from the enactment of those treaties’ effects into domestic law). Not only could the government have triggered Article 50 the morning after the referendum, as David Cameron originally suggested that his government would; in purely legal terms, Article 50 could have been triggered at any time, including before or even during the referendum campaign. This would certainly have been politically unwise, but it would have been within the competence of the executive; the “constitutional requirements” referred to in the text of Article 50 are undefined, and it would be decidedly courageous to argue that the British constitution requires respect for a specific referendum result. In this perspective, it could even be argued that the current appeal rests on a category error: the EU-derived rights which are at issue are not being disapplied in British law but extinguished at source, and there is – as a matter of constitutional principle – very little that Parliament can properly say about it. As a firm – not to say terrified – opponent of Brexit I don’t take any pleasure in this; nevertheless, it seems to me that this is where the law leads us. The current appeal, for me, is an eminently political case – and one which I strongly support on political grounds – but argued on legal grounds which are dismayingly weak. But we shall have to see what the SC makes of it. (I suspect that the interventions of the Scottish and NI governments may end up being a stronger part of the appellants’ case than their original argument.)

For now, here’s an argument that occurred to me recently, and which I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else (although I admit I’m not quite up to date with the UKCLA blog); it suggests that, despite the constitutional argument advanced above, the primacy of Parliament may still have a role to play.

Consider the Alternative Vote referendum of 2011. (For anyone in need of a spare rabbit hole, my thoughts on AV are here, and some thoughts on why the referendum was lost are here and here. Note appearance of Matthew Elliott and Daniel Hannan.) It’s commonly acknowledged that the AV referendum, if passed, would have been legally binding in a way that the EU referendum wasn’t; while the European Union Referendum Act 2015 simply enabled the public to express a preference (which we were informally assured the government would subsequently implement), the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 actually legislated to introduce AV, with a conditional clause providing that, when the result of the referendum was known, the relevant provisions should either be brought into force or repealed by ministerial order. If the referendum had passed, AV would have been introduced by the executive, without any further parliamentary scrutiny: Parliament had voted (albeit with substantial opposition) for a referendum result to have the power to force the executive’s hand in this specific way.

But there is nothing in the 2011 Act which mandates that the ministerial order should be made immediately, or in any specific time frame; it would have been possible for the government to drag its feet, even to the point where it was (regrettably) no longer possible to introduce AV in time for the next general election. More to the point, nothing in the 2011 Act precluded a future repeal. Even if we assume that the referendum result would have bound the government of the day to implement AV – and to refrain from taking steps to repeal it – the result would have placed no such obligation on individual MPs; it would have been entirely possible for an MP (of any party) to introduce an Alternative Vote (Repeal) Bill, which could then go through the Commons on a simple majority vote. (Anyone who doesn’t think that electoral reforms can be made and then reversed hasn’t been paying attention to Italian politics.) The point here is the obverse of the principle with which I started. Governments make treaties, but Acts of Parliament are made by Parliament – and what Parliament makes, Parliament can unmake.

The constitutional significance of the use of a referendum, in this perspective, is very limited. The 2011 Act specified that a referendum should be held and that its result should determine whether the Act’s AV provisions were brought into force or repealed. The AV referendum itself was thus an event within a process fully specified, and circumscribed, by an Act of Parliament – an Act like any other, available to be amended or repealed by subsequent Acts. Certainly the referendum result was binding on the government, but it was binding in a very specific way, set out in detail within a Bill which was the subject of parliamentary debate and scrutiny. The referendum provisions did not determine the detailed wording of the Act, still less permit the executive to disregard it; they simply modified the procedure for implementing the Act to incorporate two alternative paths and an external ‘trigger’ event to determine the choice between them.

So there is nothing about the use of a referendum which changes the rules of the game, when it comes to legislation made in Parliament. Normally, a Bill is put before Parliament, debated and voted on, and – if not voted down – becomes an Act of Parliament and brings about changes to the law. All of this, including contested votes in Parliament, was true of the 2011 Act; the only difference was that when that Act changed the law, it did so subject to a choice between two possible changes (both specified in detail), that choice being determined by the result of a referendum. There was nothing in the whole process to challenge the primacy of Parliament: the British people chose, but they chose from two alternatives both of which had been minutely specified in advance, and both of which had gained the approval of Parliament.

But this is not the situation we’re currently facing. What about the situation where a referendum result is addressed, in effect, not to Parliament but to the executive – and where what is at issue is not domestic law but an international treaty? Before exploring this scenario, it’s worth recalling that the British system of democratic representation is parliamentary all the way down. When we talk of ‘the government’ taking action, we’re generally talking about action being taken by or on behalf of the Prime Minister – which is to say, the member of parliament who last formed a government, on the basis that she or he was best able to command a majority in the House of Commons. In countries with an elected Head of State, Presidents may have their own legitimacy and exert power in their own right, even to the point of being involved in government formation. It’s impossible to imagine Britain having a ‘non-party’ government – as Italy has done more than once – let alone such a government drawing substantial legitimacy from having been approved by the Queen. Government ministers – even the Prime Minister – are MPs like any other, and they can be held to account by their fellow MPs in Parliament. The executive is whatever remains when the domestic politics are stripped out: the Prime Minister and other key ministers acting on behalf of the country, plus the civil service supporting them. But ‘acting’ is the operative word: no Prime Minister ever ceases to be an MP and a member of a party, and the call of partisan politics can never be entirely silenced. (Winston Churchill, perhaps more than any other Prime Minister, encapsulates our contemporary idea of a Prime Minister acting on behalf of the country as a whole – but it was he who said, less than a month after VE Day, that a Labour government would inevitably bring in “some form of Gestapo”.)

It follows that, while referendums can make demands of the executive, they can only legitimately make a certain kind of demand – which is to say, demands with no possible ambiguity; demands specified to such a degree that nothing is required of ‘the government’ but to turn up and sign on the dotted line. As a rule of thumb, if the action being demanded could be carried out by a senior civil servant, then a demand is being made on the executive. It’s also worth remembering where these demands will have come from. In some countries – Italy again springs to mind – referendums have an independent democratic function and can be initiated at the grassroots level; once a certain level of support is reached, the referendum goes ahead with binding effect. (It makes the Number 10 ‘petitions’ site look a bit feeble.) In Britain, referendums must be backed by specific legislation, which – of course – emanates from Parliament. And if the legislation setting up a referendum is faulty, it’s up to Parliament to put it right.

So, there’s a difference between demands made to Parliament and demands made to the executive. As we saw earlier, if the executive signs up to the UN Convention On Undersized Oily Fish there is nothing, constitutionally, for Parliament to say about it. Equally, if a referendum on whether Britain should remain bound by the UN Convention On Undersized Oily Fish gave a majority for Leave, parliamentary debate wouldn’t come into it; the relevant junior minister or senior civil servant would just have to go and un-sign. But there’s also a difference between the executive and what we think of as ‘the government’. The government, in this sense, generally refers to the PM and Cabinet – a group of elected MPs. Constitutionally, however, MPs are just that – members of Parliament, who debate with and are held to account by their fellow members of Parliament. A demand to the executive which cannot be implemented by the executive – which has to be debated, developed, amended and refined by MPs before it can be actioned – is not a demand to the executive at all. It’s impossible to imagine a referendum on “leaving that treaty we signed on that Tuesday that time, you know, the one with the blue binding, or maybe dark green” – this wording would obviously leave far too much scope for government ministers to identify a treaty of their own choice, effectively frustrating the will of the people (or most of them) while purporting to honour it. But a referendum with precise and specific demands could be equally badly formed, if those demands couldn’t be implemented without political debate and extensive planning – say, “implement a flat rate of income tax and balance the budget”. In effect if not in form, this would also be a demand for ‘the government’, not for the executive: a demand, in other words, for MPs to work out how the stated demand could be met, consistent with other government commitments, and then to meet it. But if something is a matter for MPs and not for the executive, then it is a matter for Parliament. If Parliament is to be excluded, the demand needs to be phrased in a way that obviates the need for debate.

The point about the EU referendum is that it was a lot more like the ‘flat rate tax’ example than the ‘oily fish’ one. What distinguishes the result of the EU referendum from that of the AV referendum is not that the latter was legally binding and the former advisory; both bound the government to a course of action. (Although this binding should not be understood to be permanent; governments can and do change course, as we’ve seen – and, in any case, a government cannot bind its successors.) The key difference between the two is that the course of action to which the AV referendum bound the government was fully and precisely specified, leaving no more work for the legislature to do. The course of action to which the government was bound by the EU referendum is almost entirely unspecified. The referendum question, and in particular the 2015 Act, was badly drawn up – presumably because nobody responsible, the then Prime Minister included, imagined that ‘Leave’ would win. As such, the referendum was, almost literally, half-baked; it was released on the world in an unfinished state, and should go back to Parliament to be specified in the appropriate level of detail. This being impossible, it should be recognised that it is for Parliament to define ‘Brexit’, to plan out what will be involved in leaving the EU, and to publicise its benefits and costs.

At present, far from having its hands bound by the result, the government enjoys an unparallelled degree of freedom to define the result how it pleases, or not to define it at all – all the while refusing to grant Parliament any substantive oversight. Constitutionally, this is a monstrous power-grab – not by ‘the executive’ but by a group of MPs – and it should not be tolerated. Parliament needs to have a say on the referendum result, not because leaving the EU will mean that certain rights are forfeit, and not because the referendum was advisory, but simply because the referendum was a badly-formed question. It was posed in such a way that the implications of a ‘Leave’ victory, and the precise nature of a ‘Leave’ settlement, could only be worked out after the fact, in a political debate among MPs. But if such a debate is to happen – and it is happening already – then it must happen in Parliament, not between the Prime Minister and her trusties. We should not permit the ouster of Parliament.

Our country (4)

Part 4: Been kicking down so long it seems like up to me

I’ve been arguing that, over the last couple of decades, mechanisms of democratic accountability have been progressively and more or less systematically dismantled – and that this has fuelled a lot of disaffection from politics, some quiet and resigned, some loud and angry. This doesn’t explain why it’s specifically migration that has emerged as the main ‘screen’ issue, onto which other forms of anger and insecurity are projected; that’s what I want to get to in this post.

I’ve also been arguing that migration in and of itself is a non-problem. This isn’t saying that no problems can ever be caused by migration; I’m not saying that we should all embrace the free movement of labour and capital to the point of surrendering any attachment to the place where we live. I supported the Lindsey strikers – the odd dodgy slogan apart – because I thought they had a right to object to their jobs being, effectively, exported from under them. As I wrote here, just before the 2015 election (which now seems a very long time ago):

If there’s not enough to go round, you demand more for everyone; if there’s not enough room in the lifeboats, you demand more lifeboats (or equal shares in what lifeboats there are). This, I think, is what was both wrong & deeply right about the Lindsey wildcat strike – the one that had the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ hung on it (mostly, it has to be said, by non-participants). To say that British jobs should, in general, be reserved for British workers is to blame the (foreign) workers for the competition they introduce. What the Lindsey strikers actually attacked – correctly – was the bosses’ action in importing an entire workforce, unilaterally removing a source of employment from workers living in Britain (and, incidentally, imposing differential pay rates). Workers are not the problem; deprivation of work is the problem, and it’s not the workers who are doing that. Immigrants are not the problem; service shortages are the problem, and it’s not the immigrants who are creating them.

I don’t believe that actual, identifiable problems caused by free movement of labour are what lies behind the wave of anti-migrant politics we’re living through now; apart from anything else, if they were, people would have identified them by now, and all these opinion pieces wouldn’t have had to be padded out with the ‘arguably’s and the ‘pace of change’ and the neighbourhoods ‘changed beyond recognition’. (Let me tell you about our high street, when we first moved here: Woolworth’s, Norton Barrie, Rumbelow’s. Even the Famous Army Stores has gone now. Changed beyond recognition, I’m telling you.)

I actually think it’s the other way round: we can explain the talk of competition for housing and pressure on services by referring to the unavowed, unnamed but powerful political force that lies behind it. I don’t just mean racism, either – although more and more, the universal indignation at being called racist does seem to go along with expressions of racist attitudes. (As an aside, the fact that being named as racist is now scandalous for almost everyone, and career-limiting for many, is probably a good thing, but it makes this discussion a lot harder to have in public spaces. The worst case scenario is that racism may manage to return to respectability by way of losing its name, like the fox that left its tail in the trap.)

It’s about hatred, or a certain kind of hatred. Like Richard, I don’t think we can ever really live without hatred, but I think his broader argument is only half right. Think levers: if I hate the boss who ignored the union and cut my pay, or the people who got their guy elected to the committee, or the people who got their policy passed, or the party that got their candidate elected, the emotion I’m feeling is expressed within a framework of action and accountability. I hate people who have used political mechanisms to change things to my disadvantage, and I can do something about that: I can use those same mechanisms myself. Take those mechanisms away, though, and where have you got to put your hatred? Talk about hating the boss in a non-union shop and you get funny looks – people know there’s nowhere for that antagonism to go (or nowhere that doesn’t end badly for them) and they learn not to express or even feel it.

In a world with no available, usable, everyday politics, it’s hard – or pointless, which amounts to the same thing – to hate people who have direct power over you. What happens instead is that hatred gets channelled onto safe targets, which means targets that aren’t going to hit back: either because they’re unreachably distant (those faceless Brussels eurocrats!) or because they’re powerless. And that’s what migrants are – like asylum seekers, benefit claimants, convicted criminals, terror suspects, Travellers: they’re people you can kick down against when you’re angry, without any concern that they might kick back at you. You’re angry, you feel hatred, you kick down. Politics turns into a different kind of lever-pulling – the lever pressed by the laboratory rat that delivers a food pellet or a jolt of electric pleasure. It’s habit-forming. What Harris, Toynbee and the rest have been reporting back over the last couple of weeks is that if you tell people they shouldn’t kick down, they won’t want to listen. That’s not surprising – they’ve got all this anger, after all, and for weeks now the Leave campaign’s been encouraging them to let it out with a good old symbolic kick. But we can’t take our political bearings from the frustrated anger of people who haven’t worked out, or are afraid to find out, who’s really been wrecking their lives.

This combination of powerlessness and kicking down also explains a particularly weird feature of the referendum campaign: its unreal, spectacular quality. People – some people – have a lot invested in expressing how angry they feel, by saying No to the government and telling some immigrants to piss off. (Although not, we’ve heard more than once, the ones that are already here – you’re fine, it’s those others we’re worried about. Highly reassuring.) But beyond that, I don’t think Remain voters think anything much will change – certainly not for the worse. Precisely because democratic political mechanisms have been neutered or dismantled – and political debate has been reduced to a game of fixing the blame on the powerless hate figure of the week – it genuinely doesn’t occur to many people that voting Leave might have serious effects in the real world. People think it’s going to be all right – that’s the only explanation I can think of for the Leave campaign’s blithe ability to thumb its nose at ‘expert’ opinion, or for Lisa Mckenzie’s extraordinary statement that The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. (What, all of them?) Anyone who’s old enough to cast a vote – and especially anyone who’s ever known hardship – knows damn well that things can always get worse; the only way I can interpret this statement is that they’re convinced that a Remain win won’t have any negative effects. Because, hey, it’s just a vote – it’s just us saying No to the government and all these immigrants. It’s not as if voting changed anything! Besides, Boris, he’s a laugh, isn’t he?

This is the world we’re in. In another, better political settlement there would be a serious debate to be had about the possibilities for democratic reform which might be opened by ending – or renegotiating – Britain’s membership of the EU (although even in that world the economic arguments would weigh very heavily in favour of Remain). But we’re not in that world and we’re not having that debate; the debate we’re having is mostly about angry voters kicking down against imaginary eastern Europeans, and cynical members of the political elite encouraging them for their own benefit. And in that situation there’s only one thing to be done. As Ben Goldacre puts it, sometimes you have to take a break from useful productive work to stop idiots breaking things.

Postscript: War is war

I can’t tell you how distraught and angry I was after Jo Cox was assassinated. I’d never met her – if I’m honest, I’m not convinced I’d even heard of her – but her death and the manner of her death… (I don’t know why nobody’s called it an assassination, incidentally; perhaps the thought is just too horrible.) I thought, this is where we are now. This is the world we’re living in. And I thought, no quarter. No compromise. No useless leniency. I was going to a folksong session on the Sunday night, and I spent a couple of hours looking for a song that would express how I felt; I couldn’t find anything angry enough, though. Something like a cross between Masters of War and Ford O’ Kabul River… At one point I seriously considered Bella Ciao – È questo il fiore del partigiano morto per la libertà!

It took me until the Sunday afternoon to calm down. Even now, I think there’s a lot of sense in what Ken wrote five years ago, after a greater – but horribly similar – crime:

Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity.

As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.

So: no quarter for those who deal with racists, white supremacists, imperial revanchists; for those who promote racist myths and xenophobic lies; for those who call their opponents traitors or liken them to Nazis. That doesn’t mean violence, I hasten to add, but it means no acceptance, no tolerance, no compromise; no laughing at their jokes, no appealing to their better nature, no sympathetic tutting at how far they’ve fallen. These people are our enemies, and this is a serious business – if we treat it as a game, we’ll be playing to their rules.

But this isn’t – despite some appearances to the contrary – a struggle against racists and Fascists. It’s more complex than that and more interesting. Racism is both a handicap – a map with the wrong borders marked in – and a morbid symptom of powerlessness; needless to say, it’s a symptom whose development doesn’t threaten those in power, and may even be encouraged by them. (New Labour did push back against overt racism, admittedly – but when do you think the very real concerns shtick got started?) As for Fascists, they’re simply the shock troops of the Right; their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.

The struggle the working class are caught up in is the same one that constituted us as a class-in-itself to begin with, and it’s one in which the enemy has not ceased to be victorious (to quote Benjamin). If the class is ever to act as a class-for-itself, it will need to be clear as to what its interests are, and who does and doesn’t oppose them. In the last analysis, racism and xenophobia – and other degenerate, lever-pressing forms of politics – are a distraction from the identification of the working class’s real concerns. (Which is also why our response to those who foment racism and lies should be so obdurate; think of them as ideological plague-spreaders.) Saying these things – even thinking them consistently – may not be easy or straightforward, but I believe it’s the only way.

By the time you read this polls will probably be open. Please do the right thing.

Our country (1)

Some thoughts on the latter end of the referendum campaign, mostly composed before the assassination of Jo Cox. I’ll be breaking this up into parts; hopefully I’ll get them all out by Thursday!

Part 1: Why oh why? Seriously, why?

Here’s Lisa Mckenzie in last Wednesday’s Graun:

In working-class communities, the EU referendum has become a referendum on almost everything. In the cafes, pubs, and nail bars in east London where I live and where I have been researching London working-class life for three years the talk is seldom about anything else … In east London it is about housing, schools and low wages. … In the mining towns of Nottinghamshire where I am from, the debate again is about Brexit, and even former striking miners are voting leave. The mining communities are also worried about the lack of secure and paid employment, the loss of the pubs and the grinding poverty that has returned to the north.

The talk about immigration is not as prevalent or as high on the list of fears as sections of the media would have us believe. …  the referendum debate within working-class communities is not about immigration, despite the rhetoric. It is about precarity and fear.

She’s talked to some people where she lives in east London, and other people in her home town (not sure about the generalisation to “the mining towns” or “mining communities”, plural), and in both places a lot of people are favouring Leave. But they’re voting Leave because of insecurity at work, low wages, high rents and pub closures. This is pretty alarming in itself, and I’d expect a sociologist who respected her subjects at least to pause at this point and query whether leaving the EU is likely to solve any of those problems – particularly under the government that created most of them in the first place. Believing that it would doesn’t seem to make sense; the only way to make it make sense – rhetoric or no rhetoric – is to refer back to immigration. People think like this, not because they’re stupid or irrational, but because they’ve been told that immigration is the source of these problems, and that leaving the EU would put at stop to it. This is a problem, but it’s not the one that Mckenzie focuses on.

Whenever working-class people have tried to talk about the effects of immigration on their lives, shouting “backward” and “racist” has become a middle-class pastime.

Which effects would these be? Which actual effects of immigration on their lives are we talking about here? As distinct from the effects of high rents, low pay and an economic slowdown – all of which the government has the power to change, and none of which would be addressed by taking away European investment, European regulation or European immigration?

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 … Shouting “racist” and “ignorant” at them louder and louder will not work – they have stopped listening. For them, talking about immigration and being afraid of immigration is about the precarity of being working class, when people’s basic needs are no longer secure and they want change.

Anyone who genuinely believes that things can’t get any worse is rather seriously lacking in imagination, life experience or both; I’ll come back to that later. What I want to focus on here is the weird argumentative two-step we can see in the last couple of quotes. First we get the – correct – recognition that lots of people do have very real concerns, in the old-fashioned materialist sense of the word ‘real’: lots of people are living lives of immiseration, precarity and anxiety. Precarity and immiseration don’t make the news very often, but immigration does; immigration is a tangible and widely-articulated issue, and it gets loaded up with people’s wider anger about these conditions and desire for change. So far so good, but then we get step 1: from “people are expressing their anger by focusing it on immigration (although they’re wrong)” to “people are expressing their anger by focusing it on immigration – and you can’t tell them they’re wrong”. Why on earth not? You might not want to, you might find it difficult, but surely you should try? (If someone’s angry because their neighbour’s stolen their lawnmower, shouldn’t I tell them if I know it’s still in the shed?) From there, of course, it’s a hop and a skip to step 2 – “people are angry about immigration, and you can’t tell them they’re wrong, because what they’re angry about is immigration (and the effects of immigration on their lives)”. I don’t think Mckenzie even believes this – most of the article is arguing against it – but it is what she says; her argument seems to lead her there despite herself.

Exhibit B appeared, also in the Graun, a couple of days before Mckenzie’s article. Polly Toynbee (for it is she) watches Margaret Hodge MP meeting her east London constituents:

They like her, a well-respected, diligent MP, but they weren’t listening. She demolished the £350m myth, but they clung to it. She told them housing shortages were due to Tory sell-offs and failure to build but a young man protested that he was falling further down the waiting list, with immigrants put first. Barking’s long-time residents come first, she said, but she was not believed. …  Roused by anti-migrant leavers, will they ever revert to Labour? 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. As high-status Ford jobs are swapped for low-paid warehouse work, indignation is diverted daily against migrants by the Mail, Sun, Sunday Times and the rest.

What’s going on in Barking? People are having a hard time and articulating it in terms of immigration, and relating that in turn to the EU: so far so familiar. But why assume that this is a permanent change of perspective and that these people are lost (to Labour) for good? (Do we even know that they have abandoned Labour, as distinct from disagreeing with party policy on this one issue? They turned out to meet Margaret Hodge, after all, and the rest of the meeting seems to have gone quite well.) What do we make of that passage about the primary school children – a ‘visible reminder’ of what? Just about anything could be an easy answer, after all – that’s what makes them easy. (Look, a pub! Ban alcohol and solve all our problems! Over there, a stray cat! Microchip cats and solve all our problems! And so on.) The sense seems to be ‘the presence of people who racists hate is a visible reminder of how racists hate them’ – to which those people might quite reasonably suggest that the racists should deal with it. As it goes, the ethnic makeup of Barking is something like 60% White (including 8% ‘White other’, i.e. European), 20% Black, 15% Asian and 5% mixed; if pupils at the school next door were (visibly) “almost all from ethnic minorities”, then you can bet that there’s at least one nearby primary school that’s almost all White.

There’s the same queasy not-saying-just-saying quality about that odd plaint about the neighbourhoods having “changed beyond recognition, without them being asked”: is that a problem or isn’t it? The non-White population of Barking has gone up by about 60,000 in the last 15 years, while the White population has gone down by about 40,000; that’s interesting (40,000 is a big drop) but does it matter? Never mind the easy answers and the indignation-diverting tabloids, is that in and of itself a problem that we should care about? And if it’s a problem, is it more of a problem than (for example) my neighbourhood having changed beyond recognition over the same period? (You can hardly buy anything on our high street any more – it’s all bars and charity shops. Used to have clothes shops, a draper and all sorts. There was a Rumbelow’s when we moved in, can you imagine…)

The entire argument is conducted in these vague thumbsucking tones, making it extraordinarily difficult to challenge or even unpick. There are, of course, practical difficulties in asking people whether they’re racists, but even recording a series of slammed doors and unconvincing denials would be more genuinely informative than this stuff (not saying that is how people think, but if they do think like that, well, who’s to say…). Not to mention the fact that the entire argument is at best irrelevant to the referendum debate: leaving the EU would either be neutral to Commonwealth immigration or accelerate it. The Leave-voting racists of Barking (if they exist) should be careful what they wish for.

If Leave wins, Polly argues, things could get nasty, precisely because the hopes some people are pinning on it wouldn’t be realised; fair point. Whereas if Remain wins:

If remain scrapes in, David Cameron may urge the other 27 EU members towards some brakes on migration. After our near-death experience, with France’s Front National leader Marine Le Pen advancing, Poles and Hungarians screeching right and even worse threatened, some change looks necessary. Social democratic values, sharing within a community, both are threatened by an entirely open door.

Y’know, Mahatma Gandhi was asked once what he thought about Western civilisation… “Social democratic values” and “sharing within a community” – have they actually been tried in this country? Certainly not under this government or the one before – and New Labour wasn’t exactly a beacon of touchy-feely pinko liberalism either. Just like Lisa Mckenzie, Polly slips from “these people say they’re worried about immigration, but they’re wrong” to “…and who are we to tell them they’re wrong?”, and finishes up with “…and they’re not wrong”: open-door immigration is a threat.

Why? Why would anyone think this? (Spoiler: I’ve got some ideas, which I was going to put down here, but given how long this has got already it’ll have to be a separate post.) In terms of public services – what’s most often cited as a genuine issue in this area – immigration is likely to be neutral over the long term: if 100 people working and paying taxes can support public services for 100 people, the maths for 110 or 120 people should work out exactly the same. In the short term, immigration is likely to be a net positive, because those extra 10 or 20 people are disproportionately likely to be young, able-bodied and childless. If public services in any given area come under short-term strain, a responsible government should redirect public spending accordingly – just as they should in the case of massive internal migration or a localised baby boom. Equally, if recent immigrants are undercutting local workers by being paid below the minimum wage, the government should make sure that enforcement officers have sufficient resources to stop that happening – just as they should if anyone else is being underpaid.

I simply don’t see any genuine and intractable problem with immigration, and I’m puzzled – and worried – by the concerns that Mckenzie and Toynbee are expressing. What’s actually going on here?



Lies, damned lies and the BBC News

I’ve always thought the BBC News was reasonably trustworthy. Very establishment-oriented, very quick to condemn disorder in any form, very slow to condemn the police or politicians (unless a readily identifiable bad apple can be found), basically rather right-wing, unthinkingly dismissive of the radical Left and rather too fond of displaying attacks from the Right as evidence that they have achieved ‘balance’. For all that, I’ve always thought they were basically reliable on matters of fact, not to mention on fundamental issues like the importance of not killing, not lying and taking the law seriously.

My confidence has been dented by some recent stories. I was disturbed by the BBC’s coverage of the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, parts of which didn’t so much skirt the ‘anti-extremist’ rabbit-hole as jump straight down it: “where does multi-culturalism end and extremism begin?” we were asked one evening, by the newsreader himself. (So, about these darkies – can we trust them as far as we can throw them?) Parts of the Gaza coverage have also been appalling. But it was last night’s news that really shook me – the story on restricting out-of-work benefits to EU migrants, specifically.

So here’s the story from PM, broadcast at 17.00 on 29/7/2014.

The government is defending new measures to restrict out-of-work benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance to EU migrants, saying they’ll save half a billion pounds over the next five years. EU claimants will receive only three months of payments unless there’s a very clear prospect of them getting a job.

On the 6.00 News (18.00, 29/7/2014), Norman Smith covered the politics of the announcement, and when I say ‘politics’…

Today’s curbs on so-called benefit tourism follow a string of similar announcements aimed at ending what the Prime Minister calls the “magnetic pull” of the British benefits system – the hope that barring EU migrants from claiming support after three months will deter many from coming here in the first place. But the move is also designed to reassure voters that Mr Cameron is serious about tackling immigration. … UKIP meanwhile, who have made immigration central to their appeal, mocked today’s announcement, insisting that under Mr Cameron immigrants would continue (in their words) to flood into Britain … The European Commission have also stepped into the fray, dismissing ministers’ concerns over benefit tourism and announcing a review into the legality of the government’s benefit changes. All of which is most unlikely to trouble Mr Cameron – provided today’s announcement helps convince voters he’s at least trying to address their concerns over immigration.

First off, there is nothing principled or even rational here. Smith distinguishes between the actual effect of the policy and its presentational impact, but the only effect cited – Cameron’s ‘hope’ – is that fewer people from other parts of the EU end up coming to Britain. Why is that a good idea? We’re not told; we don’t need to be told. But as well as this hoped-for reduction in the numbers of people speaking English with a foreign accent (and wasn’t there something about saving half a billion pounds earlier on?), the policy is designed to ‘reassure voters’ that the government is ‘trying to address their concerns’. By the end of the piece this has become the main purpose of the announcement: it’s not that the government hates foreigners, you understand, it’s just that lots of people out there do hate foreigners and the government wants their votes. As for the European Commission, we know that our Prime Minister doesn’t listen to them! (On a side note, the relentless personalisation of this story is depressing in itself – when was David Cameron elected president?) Those Europeans – they can talk about how there’s no evidence, and how it might be against the law or something, but why should anyone care what they say? Bunch of foreigners!

So there’s xenophobia; cynical attempts to pander to xenophobia, for no other reason than that somebody else is doing it; the design of government policy around vote-chasing, irrespective of whether it’s needed or what effect it will have; contempt for international obligations; contempt for evidence; contempt for the rule of law. This is disgusting stuff; to hear the BBC passing it on as political normality is depressing and, frankly, alarming.

But all is not lost. The programme included a second report on the same policy by Mark Easton, who seems to have more traditional ideas about how journalism works:

When the BBC asked how many migrants would be affected by the proposed changes to eligibility, we were told ministers simply didn’t know. There are no figures for EU migrants claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance for more than three months. The government blames the previous Labour administration for not keeping proper records. Our analysis suggests the number affected by the new measures could be as low as a few thousand across the whole country. … [The Prime Minister] told reporters today’s changes would save the British taxpayer half a billion pounds over the next five years. However, later Downing Street explained he was referring to estimates for how much might be saved by existing immigration controls. As we now know, they can’t tell how much the policy might save, because they admit they don’t have the evidence that would tell them.

Wait a minute – that’s a story right there. The Prime Minister announced the reduction of entitlement to out-of-work benefits from six to three months, and then he said – it was quoted all over the place – “Our changes today will save the British taxpayer half a billion pounds over the next five years”. None of your ‘existing immigration controls’ – our changes today. That claim was false – or speculative at best – and it’s been retracted, after the BBC did the numbers and asked for clarification. That’s the headline, surely. At the very least it’s a proud day for BBC News: “Government withdraws misleading claims under pressure from BBC”. This could have legs: “Furious Cameron demands source of inaccurate immigration figures”; “Cameron under pressure as ‘misleading’ immigration claims unravel”; “Fears for coalition as Lib Dems challenge immigration policy” (they haven’t yet, but get this out there and they will)…

At the very least, the story has changed: it’s no longer a story about how your government is going to save money and address your fears about all those nasty immigrants (with a nod and a wink to the grown-ups from Norman Smith: OK, so it’s all just scaremongering, but that’s politics for you!) It’s now a story about how the government has put forward a very controversial and possibly illegal policy, with the specific aim of making one group of very poor people even poorer, and first claimed to have evidence to support it, then admitted that there is no evidence.

News headlines, Radio 4, 19.00, 29/7/2014

The government is defending new measures to restrict out-of-work benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance to EU migrants, saying they’ll save half a billion pounds over the next five years.

Unless they use pre-recorded news headline segments, by the time that script was read out, the government wasn’t ‘saying’ that. The announcer himself had probably heard the retraction on the 6.00 News. The only reason for leaving that claim unchallenged is to save the government’s face – and that’s the last thing the BBC News should be doing, least of all when the loss of face is related to a baseless, evidenceless, cynical, hateful and illegal exercise in chasing votes and polluting the public discourse.

BBC News: shame on you.

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

Better in the long run

Pessimistic Clive, 28th December:

When I find myself largely agreeing with UKIP leader Nigel Farage over the two new EU member states, despite disagreeing with the very basis of his party and being largely pro-EU, how much longer can the Union continue to keep its loose supporters on board with all this prevarication, shoddy decision-making and incompetence? There’s only so long you can hold on to hope in the face of so much mounting evidence of ever-worsening illness, after all – and no matter how much you may love your dear dog, at some point the realisation has to dawn that it’s so poorly, so incapable of looking after itself, and so unlikely to recover that the kindest thing is simply to have the poor mite put down and go get yourself a new one.

Optimistic Clive, New Year’s Day:

In the short term, the lack of progress on the constitution, the lack of progress on deregulation, the ever-increasing piles of pointless directives, mountains of wasted produce, and continued disasters caused by the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies – all of these are problems, some more major than others.But all of these problems are transient in the grand scheme of things. Even if they continue throughout my lifetime, if these initial birth-pangs of an organisation that will only reach its half-century this year are the worst that the EU can produce – after all the centuries of warfare that Europe has suffered to date – then I think we can surive them, if this is what it takes for our children and grandchildren to inherit a better world.

It’s not the volte-face that bothers me so much the particular face Clive seems to have volted into. When I was about fourteen I converted to Communism; it came a bit after my flirtations with Buddhism and Christianity, but lasted a lot longer. I’d read a bit about Cuba, and the news from China was all very inspiring at the time, but what really did it was an anecdote our History teacher told in class (yes, it’s a story within a story – David Mitchell look out). Our teacher said that he’d once met the Russian Ambassador, and asked him whether he really believed that the socialist states were progressing towards communism. Apparently the Ambassador said that he realised that he wouldn’t live to see communism, and he doubted that his young children would – but maybe, just maybe, if everyone kept the faith and worked hard, maybe his grandchildren would live in a communist society. And that thought alone was enough to make him a believer.

To his great credit, our teacher told us that he personally couldn’t believe anything like that, but that he did believe that people could make things a bit better in their own lifetimes, and that was why he considered himself a socialist. Me, I was a sucker for the grand plans and the glorious hopes and the torch of faith handed down through the generations, and I fell for it. It sounds rather as if Clive has too. I’ve arrived at roughly the point my History teacher was at in the seventies – I don’t believe social projects have some sort of Hegelian essence which enables them to develop coherently over more than one human lifetime. I certainly don’t believe in birth-pangs that last half a century. I wonder where the Ambassador’s children are now.

To illustrate the kind of mentality I’m thinking about, particularly for anyone who’s puzzled about some of the terminology I used up there (whether the socialist states were progressing towards communism and so forth) here’s a poem, Roque Dalton’s “On headaches”. (Dalton was a Salvadorean guerrillero, tragically shot by his own side in 1975; he was 39.)

It’s a great thing to be a Communist,
although it causes many headaches.

And a Communist headache
is a historical phenomenon, which is to say
that it can’t be treated by painkillers
but only by the realisation of the earthly paradise.
That’s just how it is.

Under capitalism our heads hurt us
and they take our heads off.
In the struggle for the Revolution our heads are bombs with delay fuses.
During the period of socialist construction we plan out our headaches,
which doesn’t make them go away – quite the reverse.

Communism will be, among other things,
an aspirin as big as the sun.

It’s a beautiful dream – but I don’t trust politicians with dreams.

Update 3/1/06: Clive strikes back, and explains how he can be both cynical and idealistic about the European project. Long, but good stuff.

Good news week

Callooh! Callay!

All together now:

Ce n’est qu’un début! Continuons le combat!

Younger than that now

There’s some good stuff from Ross McKibbin in the current LRB:

the two major parties fundamentally share the same ideology. Despite assurances that the political elite is interested only in what works, this is the most intensely ideological period of government we have known in more than a hundred years. The model of market-managerialism has largely destroyed all alternatives, traditional and untraditional. Its most powerful weapon has been its vocabulary. We are familiar with the way this language has carried all before it. We must sit on the cusp, hope to be in a centre of excellence, dislike producer-dominated industries, wish for a multiplicity of providers, grovel to our line managers, even more to the senior management team, deliver outcomes downstream, provide choice. Our students are now clients, our patients and passengers customers. It is a language which was first devised in business schools, then broke into government and now infests all institutions.

But this rings oddly false:

there is still a sense in which the Conservative Party is not of the real world. Its infantile reaction (fully shared by Cameron) to possible reductions in the British EU rebate – like its attitude to Europe generally – is not the behaviour of a party which wants to be taken seriously.

I’m enough of a Marxist to get extremely twitchy when I hear the word ‘infantile’. Even if we could forget Lenin’s infamous use of the term, ‘infantile’ wouldn’t be a term that belongs in serious political discourse. It’s not criticism so much as gatekeeping: you and I, responsible adults, have our legitimate disagreements within the spectrum of legitimate and responsible politics, but as for them… dear oh dear, why don’t they just grow up?

It was (for obvious reasons) several years ago that Roy Jenkins appeared on Desert Island Discs and nominated a ghastly piece of Stalinist choral kitsch as his first choice (“And every propellor is roaring/Defending the USSR!”). It dated back, he explained, to his undergraduate days, when he indulged in “infantile leftism”. Which struck me.

Our Infant
Tell me, Vladimir Ilyich: when you swam
Those bright days, history running fast about you;
When you stood war from the green West, from the frozen sea;
When the paint was flaking, when last month’s posters
Flapped torn in the streets; when time resumed
And progress was stemmed; were you the only adult?
Were they children, who in that dawn saw other days,
Who would unwire your fences, lift the webs
Necessity had placed with your hands:
Were these people children, infants to be corrected? For they died without descendants, these children,
Soon after you died old. The young webs,
The temporary fences lived and flourished
Till a nation’s leader walked in the dark West,
Walked among the nations as an equal.
It was a glorious nation in its new,
Iron adulthood: a land of strength,
A young triumph over the old world;
And that great baby there was singing its song.

How young he was then! How childish to suppose
There was ever a young dawn in this dull world,
How rash to support the new ruler over the old!
Now, old in the old West, he looks back
On a life well-aged, on the drift of time
That has borne him into this maturity:
Now no bright dawn, now no land of glory
Singing in his voice; now in adult tones
He walks in adult passages, swaddled
In the soft belief that nothing could be better,
Drinking the sweet medicine of no change.

In most areas McKibbin has a sharp eye for New Labour’s ‘market-managerialism’, but when it comes to the EU he’s also drunk his medicine. But in a way that’s only to be expected. Hugo Young’s ‘blessed plot’, the entrenchment of unaccountable bureaucratic power at the European level, preceded New Labour – and seems likely to survive it.

Le jour de gloire

(Or “the glorious day”, for any lurking Citizen Smith nostalgics. Has Robert Lindsay ever done better work?)

I’ve known John Palmer, slightly, for some time – we were both involved in the Socialist Society in the early 1990s – and respected him for rather longer. Still, I can’t endorse his take on the European constitution.

There are six main points – which is to say, there are three main aspects to the constitution itself and three significant supplementary arguments. Very briefly: the new elements of the constitutional treaty can be grouped under the headings of economic liberalisation, democratisation and institutional consolidation. Moves to entrench the dominance and extend the scope of free-market capitalism in the EU would be, I think John would agree, a Bad Thing, which the Left would be well advised to oppose. However, John’s response to this aspect of the treaty consists of denying its existence:

If the constitutional treaty is killed, all the free-market provisions that the no side objects to will still be in force. This is because they are part and parcel of all the other EU treaties that will remain in force.

Really? Does the treaty do nothing to entrench the neo-liberal model or extend its scope, nothing to promote privatisation or assist European corporations? This has not, to say the least, been my impression. (Nor is it Victor’s, and he’s got references.)

Secondly, democratisation – of which, I think we can agree once again, the EU currently stands in crying need. John again:

What the new treaty does – for the first time in clear terms – is to balance the imperatives of economic growth and competitiveness with a commitment to a wide range of human rights and social values and standards, and to greater powers for the elected European parliament. This opens the way to the emergence of a democratic European polity where voters will be able to choose between rival European party programmes and candidates for election as president of the commission.

This strikes me, again, as a distinctly partial summary. Wouldn’t meaningful democratisation start by giving the elected European parliament power over the unelected Commission, not by giving the Commission a fig-leaf of democratic legitimacy? To whom would an elected EU president be accountable, and how? What John describes here sounds less like democratisation, more like a continuation of the long-term project of building a new Europe by stealth (“a political project dressed up in technocratic clothing”, in the words of one of the pieces I quoted here).

The third aspect of the treaty – and of the Yes campaign – John barely touches on, but I think it’s central. I’m talking about the provisions which make the EU look a bit more like a state, for example by giving it a President and a Foreign Minister. Some commentators are quite excited about the idea of a United (Capitalist) States of Europe emerging to challenge the global hegemony of the USA; a vision something like this is lurking in Habermas’s comments and, perhaps, in John’s peroration:

[rejection of the treaty] will also obstruct the urgent task of creating a genuinely common European foreign, security and defence policy. No wonder the neocons in Washington gloat as they prepare to celebrate.

For me this in itself counts neither for nor against the treaty. By which I mean that, in the current situation, it counts very strongly against. Were we talking about a reasonably democratic EU – let alone a social-democratic or socialist EU – institutional consolidation would be much to be desired. Since we’re not, I can’t see any justification for giving the governing elite even more power, or even more swollen heads, than they have already.

Those, I think, are the important questions – the first and second in particular. I’m not saying I’ve got a final answer to any of them. If (as John says) the treaty genuinely democratises the EU while doing nothing to tilt the balance in favour of neo-liberalism, it’s well worth voting for. If, on the other hand, it does little or nothing to bring genuine democracy while extending the reach of neo-liberalism, it’s well worth voting against. I’m leaning towards the second of these positions, but that’s not particularly important; the point is that these are the terms in which the treaty should be judged. That much should be reasonably clear.

If it’s not clear – and it certainly hasn’t been up till now – part of the blame lies with two supplementary arguments, both advanced in John’s piece. Firstly, John points out that we can’t choose our allies:

Perhaps the biggest self-delusion of the anti-treaty left is that it can ignore the link between hostility to the EU and hostility to immigrants and to the further enlargement of the European Union. These links are at the heart of the no campaign in the Netherlands.

This, though, is an appallingly bad argument. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a coherent Left case to be made against the treaty – or even against the EU – the fact that racists and xenophobes are also campaigning against the treaty can’t discourage us. If anything, it should make us work harder, precisely to demonstrate that not all critics of the treaty are racists – and, perhaps, win over some disgruntled democrats who have ended up on the Right because only the Right was prepared to criticise the EU. If there is a coherent Left case against the treaty, we can’t afford to leave the field to Kilroy. (Victor, again, is very good on this. Shut up, Victor – I stayed up late to write this post and everything…)

Secondly, John argues that the French Left should support the treaty on tactical grounds:

Rejection of the treaty – including its provisions to extend democracy and social rights – will only strengthen the determination of the majority of centre-right and conservative EU governments to weaken its democratic and social content further in any new negotiation.

If there’s a Left “No” and a Right “No”, in other words, it’s only the Right “No” that will be heard. We have been here before, and not very long ago – less than a month, as I write. We were told that we should hold our noses and vote Labour, since any swing away from Labour would only benefit the Tories; we – hundreds of thousands of us – went ahead and voted against Labour, mostly not for the Tories but for the Lib Dems or the Greens or Respect; the swing away from Labour was massive, the swing towards the Tories tiny. Blair reacted exactly as if there had been a major swing to the Tories. He’s deaf to appeals to move to the Left, but he can hear appeals to move Right loud and clear – even if they aren’t actually there.

Well, so much the worse. The vote was what it was: all those Labour MPs (and ex-MPs) whose vote crashed know that, even if Blair doesn’t. The vote is our means of communicating with our representatives: to vote according to our judgment of how they’ll react is to compromise ourselves and corrupt the vote. In any case, if it’s hard to tell between a Left “No” and a Right “No”, it’s even harder to identify a Left “Yes”. The referendum is a request for popular endorsement; to vote Yes is to endorse the treaty. C’est tout.

There’s a third supplementary argument, which John doesn’t touch on. It’s this:

This Constitution has been put together behind our backs, by delegates who may well be representative but were co-opted – in just the same way that Europe has been built by mechanisms whose inexorability leaves us sidelined. … A fog of political and media propaganda, broken all too rarely by attempts at explaining the issues, has ended up promoting the impression that we’re being taken for idiots: yes, the French people will be consulted, but they must not be allowed any alternative to accepting everything.

Zoe Margarinos-Rey, quoted from Le Monde. The level of discussion of the constitution in Britain, even among its advocates, has been abysmal: it’s generally assumed that this is simply one more obligatory step in the journey towards European integration, whereupon the discussion moves on to the more interesting meta-topics (“will Blair secure the backing of his party?”) and meta-meta-topics (“if Blair fails, how will the Tories exploit it?”). If I were voting in today’s referendum, I’d vote No on this principle alone: if this treaty is as important as it’s cracked up to be, it deserves a period of consultation so prolonged and intensive as to give every citizen the means and the opportunity to express an informed opinion – and have it heard. Anything less, in matters of this importance, really is taking us for idiots.

We all want to see the plan

Jurgen Habermas says:

Without the dynamic of economic interests, the political union would have probably never got off the ground. This dynamic only strengthens the worldwide tendency toward market deregulation. But the xenophobic perception of the Right that the socially undesirable consequences of this lifting of boundaries could be avoided by returning to the protectionist forces of the nation state is not only dubious for normative reasons, it is also outright unrealistic. The Left must not let itself be infected by such regressive reflexes.
What is vaunted today as the “European social model” can only be defended if European political strength grows alongside the markets. It is solely on the European level that a part of the political regulatory power that is bound to be lost on the national level can be won back. Today the EU member states are strengthening their cooperation in the areas of justice, criminal law and immigration. An active Left taking an enlightened stance toward European politics could have also pressed long ago for greater harmonisation in the areas of taxation and economic policy. The European constitution now creates at least the conditions for this.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit says:

A French ‘no’ will be the beginning of a period of confusion, or recrimination, of gradual unwinding of what we have already achieved in Europe. I fear that, for once, the right-wing press in Britain is right. A French “no” would be the prelude to an attempt to impose a purely economic vision of Europe, a market vision. Murdoch would jump for joy.

Denis MacShane says:

Europe’s new constitutional treaty belongs neither to the left nor the right any more than the French or American constitutions, in themselves, define the political or social choices of France and the United States. It is up to the left in Europe to develop a new agenda to achieve full employment and social protection. Let the conservatives, isolationists, souverainistes, and populists say No. The new constitutional treaty contains language for 450 million citizens which workers elsewhere on the planet can only dream of. The left should say Yes to Europe.

Pierre de Lauzun says:

At heart, they know that Europe can only be built on the basis of nation states. It’s for that reason that what they call the Constitution is actually an international treaty. But they do not draw the right conclusion from this: the myth of substituting Europe for nation states is utopian. Europe is above all the pooling of tools, whose true – national – political authorities judged that they were better implemented together than separately. If they want to go further than this, they need to define positively what the people of Europe objectively have in common, and to cease trying to build Europe in the abstract.But they prefer to continue with the political myth. Lacking content, the adopted solution has become procedural: taking abstract principles and judging any decisions based on their variation from them. The procedural and legal approach entirely invades the language of debate. We should not therefore be surprised by the indifference and sometimes hostility of the people, in spite of their previous benevolence. Europe is the paradox of an undemocratic construction built on a democratic foundation. It remains more the fruit of the will of the elites than of the people. Each stage was decided from above and was ratified, as well as it could be, after the fact. Being democratic is not its aim, in spite of the European Parliament: there is no public discussion between two parties or two programmes, sanctioned by the ballot boxes, in a common political space.
For the first time, the referendum puts the question of the nature of the European project. It’s no surprise that this should happen in France, where a voluntaristic faith in integration is combined with a refusal to recognise the inadequacy of the political basis of Europe. … Without the referendum, which let democratic light in on the Brussels game, nobody at the level of the French voters would have heard the constitution talked about – and it would have passed in the end, in one form or another. But this surreptitious approach can’t be continued indefinitely, certainly not in the field of politics. We need to get back to reality – and the merit of the current debate is that it enables us to do so.

Zoé Magariños-Rey says:

the main argument for a Yes vote consists in saying that the Constitution consecrates a community of values, with particular reference to democracy. It is all the more astonishing that nothing in the Constitution brings the EU closer to its citizens. … The powers of the European Parliament have been augmented quantitatively but not qualitatively. The most anti-democratic features of the EU remain: there is no separation of powers; there is nothing resembling a principle of popular sovereignty; the executive is politically unaccountable, with the exception of errors of management … This Constitution has been put together behind our backs, by delegates who may well be representative but were co-opted – in just the same way that Europe has been built by mechanisms whose inexorability leaves us sidelined.It is very tempting to treat this referendum, not as a matter of domestic politics, but as a historic referendum on the construction of Europe. This would be to overlook the 10% of new provisions, buried within the Constitution, which are the real subject of the referendum, given that the other 90% of the text will remain in force whichever way the vote goes. A fog of political and media propaganda, broken all too rarely by attempts at explaining the issues, has ended up promoting the impression that we’re being taken for idiots: yes, the French people will be consulted, but they must not be allowed any alternative to accepting everything.

Paul Anderson says:

Although I agree with rather a lot in the Green manifesto, including the proposals for a citizen’s income and for a massive rethink of environmental taxation, I can’t swallow the idiotic Euroscepticism. Campaigning against the European constitution as nominal pro-Europeans because you want a better one? Get serious.


What I really can’t get my head around … is the sheer idiocy of left-wingers deciding to become a tiny, swamped minority in a campaign that will be (a) overwhelmingly dominated by the Tories and far-right loons who want to destroy the welfare state, reduce workers’ rights, send immigrants home and tell the frogs to hop off; and (b), if successful, a massive boost for the Tories’ next election campaign. What on earth is going through the left Europhobes’ minds?

Meaders says:

This should not be difficult. It is a free market treaty with a few sops. That’s why the No campaign in France has been led by the Left.
Nowhere in this is any sense that other agencies or forces may exist that are better placed to deliver social justice than the venal political classes of Europe, committed for decades to a broadly neoliberal vision of the world. Quite why a declaration of faith in the existence of the EU by its citizens would alter their course is unclear.

(Brief excerpt from an excellent post.)

Sarah, in comments at Meaders’ blog, says:

Surely the important thing is not how a vote against the Constitution would be perceived but the fact that the Constitution should not be adopted in the first place. Because if it is adopted, “undistorted competition” will become legally enforceable (as set out in the third part of the Constitution), and this also applies to what are quaintly called “services of general economic interest” (known to normal people as public services). It is specified in the Constitution that it is a duty of member states to introduce further liberalisation (as quickly as their circumstances permit). It is further specified that they have to increase their military spending (nothing optional about that). This is not really a Constitution; it is a straitjacket for every member state’s future domestic policy.

Lastly, Henry Farrell says:

the EU is a political project dressed up in technocratic clothing – it’s succeeded in part because its day-to-day activities sounds so boring to outsiders.The problem with this, of course, is that over time, the European Union has begun to leach legitimacy, as it has become ever more powerful and less accountable. Hence the long-lasting debate over the European Union’s “democratic deficit” and how best to solve it. The primary solution over the last fifteen years or so has been to give more power to the European Parliament, which on its surface is the most ‘democratic’ of the EU’s institutions. The problem has been that European voters don’t pay very much more attention to the Parliament than they did when it was a toothless congeries of windbags, so that the Parliament is accumulating power without much in the way of democratic responsibility … Thus, we have a set of institutions (the European Union) which are increasingly politically powerful, but which don’t have much democratic legitimacy.
While EU policy is shrouded in technocratic gobbledygook, it has very substantial political consequences. Nor are these consequences what you might expect. The European Union is typically perceived by English-speaking non-experts as a vaguely social-democratic bureaucratic leviathan, in part because of criticisms from the British government and the British tabloid press over the last couple of decades. In fact, its most important impact has been to further neo-liberalism by creating European markets, and by wearing down the particularities of national economic systems that are incompatible with these markets. The European Union has taken over vast swathes of economic decision-making, and effectively taken them out of democratic control. It’s no wonder that people on both the left and right are beginning to get upset by this; what’s more difficult to explain is why it’s taken them so long to begin to mobilize their frustration.

All this means that the traditional means of furthering European integration – agreeing new treaties among heads of government, and then getting them ratified by a supine public (when the public is consulted at all) won’t work any more. Nor will tearful appeals to that public to pass the Treaty on the nod, because of the inherent worth of Europe, gloire nationale or whatever-you’re-having-yourself work very well either. For better or worse, the European Union is becoming increasingly politicized. Nor is this likely to change in the future. But exactly because it’s becoming politicized, it’s starting to become politically present in a way that it hasn’t been in the past. As best as I can tell, the question is beginning to change from one of whether Europe, in some abstract and ineffable sense, is ‘good,’ to one of what kind of Europe is good (as usual, the UK is the glaring exception to this generalization). .. the recent decision by the European Parliament to remove Britain’s opt-out from the Working Time Directive was portrayed by both sides as a blow in the fight over whether Europe should adopt a liberal-reformist or more traditional social-democratic model.

Thus, a new debate is beginning to emerge over what kind of European Union we should have – a Europe that’s more aligned with the social-democratic model, or a Europe that’s closer to the classical liberal approach; protection versus free markets.
these arguments are less obstacles to European integration than the birth pangs of a European Union in which voters actually begin to pay attention to what’s happening at the European level. The European Union is becoming a political space, in a way that it hasn’t been in the past.

Not much to add to all the above (you’ll be pleased to hear), except: interesting times. Let’s see the plan. I don’t believe that the Left opposition is going to make the running – but let’s not fool ourselves that it will have no influence at all. (Pessimism is not realism.)

Above all, let’s keep the discussion going rather than shutting it down. The last thing we need is another round of nosepegs.

Games without frontiers

Victor S. has an excellent piece expanding on this column by George Monbiot. It’s about a truly bizarre – but entirely real – attempt to weaken workers’ rights and protections across Europe, in the name of ‘harmonisation’. (Nice word, ‘harmonisation’. Victor’s piece is very good on ‘harmonisation’.) Meaders‘ comment on this is worth a look, too.

Anyway, what really struck me about the Monbiot column was this:

For those of us who recognise that absolute sovereignty is impossible in the face of globalisation, and that ours is not a choice between alignment and isolation but a choice between alignment with Europe or alignment with the United States, his proposal suggests that we might as well give up: either way we get market fundamentalism.

What, so supporting the Social Chapter and laughing at Kilroy and being a good European isn’t enough? You mean… gasp… the struggle will have to… continue?


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