Category Archives: pinkoes

Cap in hand (4)

Since about 1974, the two-party system established after 1945 has been gradually unravelling. (This means, of course, that the period of unchallenged two-party stasis is actually shorter than the period since it ended. Not only does nothing last forever in the British House of Commons, nothing (since Victoria) has lasted longer than about 40 years: first Whigs and Tories, then Liberals and Conservatives, then National Governments for most of the period from 1918 to 1945, then the Labour/Conservative duopoly, and then the unravelling begins.) For much of the period between 1945 and 1974 third-party representation was minimal: in the 1964 House of Commons there were nine third-party MPs in total, meaning that Labour had an overall majority despite having only thirteen more seats than the Conservatives. That hasn’t been the case for a long time; throughout the Thatcher and Blair years, despite the unchallenged dominance of their respective parties, the number of seats not available to the two main parties has steadily increased.

There look like being around 90 third-, fourth- and nth-party MPs in the next Parliament, meaning that the gap between the two main parties needs to be that much bigger for either to gain an overall majority. The number of seats the winning party would needs is still the same – formally, half the seats in the Commons plus one, or 326; the difference is that, to achieve an overall majority, the first party now needs a much larger lead over the second party, which must win no more than 234 seats. Instead of the two parties splitting the lion’s share of the seats 52%/48% (as happened in 1951), the split thus needs to be at least 58%/42% in favour of the largest party: any less and, as in 2010 (54%/46%), there is no overall majority. Prior to 2010, of course, this was not an issue. Curiously, in the same period that the minor-party bloc was growing, its effects were masked by a series of huge parliamentary majorities: the governing party never accounted for as many as 60% of the first two parties’ MPs from 1950 to 1979, but majorities on this scale were achieved in five of the next six elections, two under Thatcher and three under Blair. The scale of the split between the first two parties in 2010 – 306 to 258 – was more typical of election results in the 1950s and 1960s; something similar will almost certainly be seen this year.

This raises the issue of coalitions and alliances, deals and understandings. There are, of course, many ways to form a coalition and just as many ways to justify choices of coalition partner. Nick Clegg has declared that the Lib Dems would only work with the party given the biggest ‘mandate’ in the election – and that a government formed on any other basis would lack legitimacy and be unable to function. (He has subsequently retreated from the assertion about legitimacy.) This echoes a line being run by the right-wing press, to the effect that the party with the most seats will be the rightful winner of the election, whether or not another party can put together a more durable parliamentary majority. However, there is no constitutional justification for this argument, or for Clegg’s slightly more nuanced position. At this stage it’s unhelpful at best; at worst it’s pure mischief-making, driven by a determination to maintain the coalition with the Tories and keep the Lib Dems in government on that basis. Ironically, it also gives the Tories a strong incentive to attack the Lib Dems: every seat the Tories can take from them makes it more likely that the Tories will be the largest single party.

As well as fetishising the largest single party (evidently on the assumption that the Tories will be that party), the right-wing press has denounced the possibility of a coalition between Labour and the SNP, arguing that this would be undesirable, illegitimate and inherently unstable – although, given the arithmetic, a Tory-led coalition is likely to be considerably more unstable. A simple and straightforward answer to both these charges would be to say that governments are formed on the basis of a majority in the House of Commons; that there is no clause barring members of the SNP, or any other elected party, from forming part of that majority; that the solidity of the SNP vote, and the congruence of Labour and SNP policies, make a Labour/SNP majority a virtual certainty; and that this is a good thing, guaranteeing that the new government would be both representative and stable. However, Labour politicians from Miliband on down have refused to say anything like this, insisting that the party is fighting for an overall majority – something which, on the basis of the current numbers, is implausible for the Tories and downright unbelievable for Labour.

It’s Labour I want to concentrate on in this post. When it comes to allying with the SNP, Labour are in a difficult position. Given the distortions of the ‘first past the post’ system, support for the SNP has risen to the point that it effectively wipes out the other parties’ chances of electing any but a very few MPs in Scotland. A recent poll gave the Lib Dems 4% of support in Scotland, the Tories 15%, Labour 26% and the SNP 49%; on that basis (according to the UK Polling Report swingometer) the SNP would win 54 of the 59 Scottish seats (+48), Labour 4 (-37), the Lib Dems one (-10) and the Tories none (-1). Given that there were 40 Labour MPs in the outgoing House of Commons, this is an extraordinary turnaround – and one with serious implications for Labour’s position overall. Projections showing Labour taking 295 seats – a net gain of 39 from the current 256 – are actually showing a net gain of 76 English seats. It also helps explain a certain deafness on Labour’s part to friendly overtures from the SNP. Even if the two parties’ policy commitments were identical, for Labour to accept the SNP as a member of an anti-Tory alliance would be to abandon 36 MPs (the 37th was Eric Joyce).

A revival of Labour in Scotland – assuming for the moment that this is a possibility – could also have game-changing effects for the House of Commons as a whole. If Labour were to wave a wand and take 10% of Scottish support from the SNP – taking the two parties’ support in Scotland to 36% and 39% respectively – this would only correspond to a 1% rise in UK-wide support, but its effects would be enormous: the largest party in Scotland would be Labour with 31 seats, followed by the SNP (24) and the Lib Dems and Tories, both on two seats. If this corresponded to a UK-wide increase in support from 35% to 36%, it would take Labour from 295 to 322 seats; an effective majority together with Plaid Cymru, never mind the SNP. There’s also the intriguing suggestion that the level of ‘undecideds’ is substantially higher in Scotland than in the UK overall, running at anything up to 28%. A Labour campaign which could engage with undecided Scottish voters to the extent of bringing Labour 15% out of that 28% and the SNP 10% – instead of 7% and 14%, reflecting the breakdown of the ‘decided’ vote – would take the vote split from 49%/26% to 45%/33%, giving Labour 17 seats.

So, the best way for Scottish Labour to encourage its supporters to vote – and its activists to get the vote out – is to stick to the message that Labour cares about every seat in Scotland; it’s also an easy message to stick to, as it’s the truth. A post-election alliance with the SNP is feasible for Labour in a way that it isn’t for the Tories, and in the abstract this is a plus point for Labour; however, for as long as (Scottish) Labour is also the enemy the SNP has to defeat, (GB) Labour can’t make anything of it. To put it another way, it’s not surprising that Labour might have some difficulty welcoming SNP MPs into a broad progressive alliance, when we consider that two-thirds of those MPs will have been elected for the first time on May 7th, after defeating a sitting Labour MP.

The implications of this position are greater than they seem, though. Labour could rule out a deal with the SNP then come to power as the head of a post-election anti-Tory alliance, formal or informal. If this looked like being a likely result – or the only likely alternative to a Tory victory – then the situation for Scottish voters would be exactly the same as if Labour were promising to ally with the SNP: there would be no reason to vote SNP rather than Labour, and all those Labour seats would be just as much at risk as they ever were. To make the party’s position credible, Labour has to make the further commitment not to ally with the SNP, even at the cost of losing power.

This could be seen as a case of “costly signalling”: making commitment to a position credible by associating it with personal costs. The costs in this case are not entirely personal, though – in fact, if you’ll forgive me a quick diversion into populism, the costs aren’t personal: even if we have another five years of Tory rule, Ed Miliband will still be drawing an MP’s salary at the end of it. Given the stakes involved, Labour’s position is reminiscent of the debased variant of signalling theory practised by Richard Nixon, which he called “madman theory”; this involved making threats with consequences so dire that no sane actor would choose to incur them, while creating uncertainty as to whether he would carry them out anyway. This was certainly the reaction of Nicola Sturgeon:

“I heard Ed Miliband and he sounded awfully like he was saying – and I hope I’m wrong about this because I think people across Scotland and the rest of the UK would be appalled if I’m right – he sounded as if he was saying that he would rather see David Cameron and the Conservatives back in government than actually work with the SNP.

“Now, if he means that, then I don’t think people in Scotland will ever forgive Labour for allowing the Conservatives back into office. But if he is a minority government, then he will not be able to get policies through without winning support from other parties.”

‘Other parties’ here meaning, primarily, the SNP. But – to follow that train of thought through – if Labour can’t get policies through without winning support from the SNP, and if the SNP has a lot of the same policies as Labour anyway, then there’s no reason on earth to vote Labour rather than SNP in a Labour/SNP marginal. What looks like wild irresponsibility may actually be the logical consequence of a commitment to fight for Labour votes in Labour seats.

Labour’s apparent acquiescence in the other line being put forward by the Tories and their media allies – the idea that the largest single party has a right to rule – baffled me for a long time. Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has openly endorsed the ‘largest single party’ model, saying that a strong result for the SNP would directly benefit the Tories: “If this poll [giving the SNP all the seats in Scotland] is repeated on election day, David Cameron will be uncorking his champagne, because he might cling onto power; not because Scotland’s gone out and voted Tory, but because Scotland has voted against the Labour party and made sure David Cameron has the biggest party”. Perhaps the Scottish context is the key, and we’re still in the realm of costly signalling. If the next government could be formed by putting together an anti-Tory majority – as in fact it can, constitutionally speaking – then there would be no reason to try and save all those Labour seats, other than pure party loyalty. Therefore (for a politician in Murphy’s position) there must be some way in which losing Labour seats to the SNP would affect the outcome; the only significant difference the loss of those seats could make is that it might stop Labour being the largest single party; therefore, it must be the case that the largest single party wins. The cost is rather high – it involves not only lying about the British constitution but endorsing a lie put forward by David Cameron for his own ends – but the signal is sent loud and clear: vote Labour. Vote Labour or else. The problem is, of course, that the message sent to potential Labour voters in Scotland is entirely negative; it essentially says that the Scottish political battle (between two Left parties) has to be treated as if it were a battle between Left and Right, because the Labour leadership says so. We’re not in the world of “Tartan Tories” any more, but the effect is much the same.

Could it be different – could Labour fight for those Scottish seats (and those undecided Scottish votes) without threatening to bring the roof down on us all? Could the nationalist parties be treated as friendly rivals rather than mortal enemies – fight for every vote on May 7th, shake hands on May 8th? Can it still be like that? I wonder; I worry. At the moment – three days out – I think there are three main possibilities, which unfortunately get worse in ascending order of probability.

1. Perhaps we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop – just as Labour announced they were going to “control immigration” and then revealed that this actually meant enforcing the minimum wage so as to stop gangmasters illegally undercutting British workers. Very clever. (Perhaps a bit too clever, but that’s by the way.) Perhaps on Wednesday morning Miliband will say something like,

“I said ‘No deals,’ and I meant it. But that’s not to say I’ll refuse support if it’s offered. We’ve got a plan, and we intend to stick to it; if other parties want to support that, great. I say to them, we’re not going to change our plan to suit you – we’re genuinely not interested in deals. But if you want to support Labour’s plan for the country, please do.”

I think that would shoot several foxes & almost certainly make Miliband PM. Unfortunately I can’t see him doing it. I hope I’m wrong, though.

2. The Labour leadership may be thinking in terms of keeping their heads down until Thursday, fighting hard (and sending out costly signals), and then forming a minority government. In this case – as Sturgeon says – ruling out a deal may not make much practical difference. In a minority government the parliamentary arithmetic would be exactly the same as in a coalition – the government’s majority would just be re-assembled every time, generally from the same parties as the time before. This would have the additional advantage of disrupting the Tory/LD bloc by encouraging individual MPs – or entire parties – to support Labour legislation. This would be a hegemonic strategy, in other words, from a position of apparent weakness. I think this would appeal to Miliband on several levels.

3. Sadly, the explanation for Labour’s current tactical choices may be simpler than either of these: it may be that they’ve bought the Tory line, illegitimacy of SNP involvement in government, largest-party-goes-first and all. Or at least that they’ve taken the decision to act as if they’d bought it, as they did in 2010 (disastrously) with the “Labour overspending caused the crash” story. (Miliband is challenging that now, but it’s a bit late.)  Debating with Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Murphy even said… well, this:

Murphy also indicated that Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament. Murphy told Sturgeon the last time the losing party had formed a minority government was in 1924. “It was so long ago, there wasn’t a Queen’s speech. It was a king’s speech,” he said.

Sturgeon retorted that Gordon Brown had tried to broker a deal to continue as prime minister despite coming second behind the Tories in 2010 – disproving Murphy’s thesis. But the Scottish Labour leader implied that the former prime minister was wrong, saying there was “an unstoppable force” behind the Tories which made it clear they were correct to form the government.

Largest single party = “unstoppable force”? Labour would “resist pressure to vote down the Tories”? Either this is the madman theory in full effect, or Murphy actually believes it. I fear the latter possibility, and I fear that he’s not alone. I have a lot of trust in Ed Miliband’s judgment – he’s shown that he’s not someone to be underestimated – but we’re electing a party, not a president, and there are some Labour MPs I wouldn’t trust as far as I can throw them. I’m not giving names, both because it would be a distraction and, more importantly, because they don’t tend to use names – see for instance “some members of the shadow cabinet”, bravely disagreeing anonymously with their own party leader in the middle of an election campaign in today’s Murdoch Times (not that I’m cross about this or anything). If anyone in the Labour party is thinking along those lines – if anyone is thinking in terms of stepping graciously aside and giving the Tories another turn in government… well, there’s a quote for that.

Let’s not forget, the Tories only got into government in the first place by allying with a party which had previously opposed most of what they stood for – and whose support has dropped like a stone since they made that alliance. Essentially, the Tories are in power under false pretences; there’s an anti-Tory majority out there for the taking, a progressive, left-wing alliance there to be built. If Labour don’t take that chance, a lot of people will be asking what the party is good for. In the words of the song, I can’t understand why we’d let someone else rule our land…

Cap in hand (2)

Initially, the Tories’ current campaign strategy – which centres on various forms of shroud-waving at the prospect of a Labour/SNP government – left me genuinely puzzled: even granted the premise (which clearly I don’t share), I couldn’t see any logic to it at all. “A Labour government would rely on SNP votes, therefore you should vote Tory”? How could that possibly work? The implicit comparison is between a Labour arrangement (of whatever sort) with the SNP and a Tory majority, but surely that’s a false choice. There isn’t anything magical about a Tory vote that makes it capable of bringing about a single-party government; the Tories, just as much as Labour, are going to be fishing for allies in the 80- to 90-strong ‘small parties’ group. And the attacks on a potential SNP lash-up remind us that, unlike Labour, the Tories have no hope of making allies of the majority of that group – if only because the majority of that group will almost certainly be SNP. The Tories will be able to call on any Kippers and Official Unionists, as well as the Lib Dems, the DUP and Alliance (NI); Labour will be able to talk to the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP, the Green(s) and perhaps even Respect – as well as the Lib Dems, the DUP and Alliance (NI). Potential Tory allies (rough estimate): 30, giving a bare minimum of 296 Tory MPs for a (fragile) majority. Rough estimate of potential Labour allies: 80, giving a minimum Labour group size of 246. Most current forecasts have both parties on between 270 and 280 MPs. That would be fine for Labour – with the SNP on their side they might even be able to dispense with the Lib Dems – but it’s no good for the Tories: barring a massive revival of Lib Dem fortunes, 280 Tory MPs would not be able to form a government with any imaginable combination of allies.

The brute facts of current polling – including current polling in Scotland – are extremely unkind to the Tories, and this situation is unlikely to change unless they find and broadcast some positive reasons for voting Tory in short order. This being the case, at first I was baffled by the amount of time and energy they were devoting to pointing out, in effect, how well the SNP are doing and how unlikely it is that they’ll support the Tories after May 7th. As time’s gone on, though, the message has become more sophisticated. The initial message, focusing on how undesirable a Labour/SNP government would (supposedly) be, has been supplemented by three more: an argument that a Labour/SNP government would be, not merely undesirable, but inherently unstable and unworkable; an argument that the largest party (and/or the one with the largest popular vote) should get first go at forming a government; and – doubling down again – an argument that a Labour minority government sustained by the votes of the SNP would somehow be unconstitutional or illegitimate.

Nick Clegg – who on current form is surely destined for a Tory seat in the House of Lords – has spelt it out, speaking to the FT and the BBC . As well as “rul[ing] out any arrangements with the SNP” on political grounds, Clegg dismissed the SNP as essentially untrustworthy, arguing that a coalition dependent on the SNP for its majority would be “on a life support system, where Alex Salmond could pull the plug any time he wants”. Governmental stability seems to be a preoccupation for Clegg, but on closer inspection stability doesn’t seem to mean the numerically-guaranteed ability to win votes and pass laws. Rather, stability and instability seem to be intangible qualities deriving from the conditions under which the government was formed: a blessing (or curse) bestowed on a government in its cradle: “You cannot provide stability, you can’t take difficult decisions, if people are constantly questioning the birthright of a government”. We are told that “Liberal Democrats will ensure that any government is legitimate and stable”, which is nice of them. What this actually means, though, is something quite specific and potentially rather ominous.

“That means that, in a democracy, the party with the greatest mandate from the British people – even though they haven’t got a majority – seems to me, to us, to be the party that has the right to try to assemble a government first. They may not succeed, but they should surely be given a chance to succeed.”

Clegg would only talk to the second party if the largest party’s coalition-building efforts had failed. And woe betide any second party which stole a march on the Lib Dems and put together a parliamentary majority without waiting to hear from them. Even with Lib Dem involvement, Clegg suggests, a “coalition of the losers” could lack “legitimacy”; without them, presumably, legitimacy would be a lost cause. A second-placed Labour Party might be able to get the numbers, but it wouldn’t have the birthright.

This all deserves a bit of analysis. The comment about Alex Salmond pulling the plug is odd, to say the least. Any large minor party in a coalition (e.g. the Lib Dems, 2010-15) has precisely this power; the Fixed Term Parliaments Act makes it less straightforward to use, but obviously this would apply to the hypothetical Labour/Lib Dem/SNP coalition as well as the actual Tory/Lib Dem one. What Clegg seems to be telling us here is that not all minor parties are like those rascally nationalists: once the Lib Dems have chosen their coalition partner, they will never defect. Which is nice, I suppose, although it doesn’t seem like terribly good politics. (Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. If we take into account Clegg’s reference to Labour’s “frothing bile” towards the Coalition – a line which goes back to 2010 – perhaps what he’s saying is simply that he has chosen his coalition partner, and will never defect.)

Secondly, is it in fact difficult to get things done when – or rather because – a government is seen as lacking legitimacy or having its ‘birthright’ challenged? Setting aside other sources of difficulty, such as a small majority or a divided governing party – which would make it hard to win votes whether the government’s birthright had been impugned or not – I can’t think of any examples. The outstanding example of a government having its creation called into question is surely the election of George W. Bush in 2000, and that controversy doesn’t seem to have had any long-term effects at all. Admittedly, the question was officially resolved in fairly short order, but many opponents of Bush didn’t think the book was closed; I remember seeing “Re-elect Gore” .sig quotes months afterwards. The effectiveness of the government doesn’t seem to have been impaired. If we get away from government as a whole and look at specific government policies, Thatcher and Heseltine mobilised millions of people against pit closures, which went ahead anyway; Blair mobilised millions against British involvement in the second Iraq war, to no effect. (Both Blair and Thatcher did eventually step down, but not for another four and five years respectively.) Conversely, if we think in terms of questioning the ‘birthright’ of an individual political leader, we need look no further than the MP for Doncaster North: the legitimacy of his election to lead the Labour Party has been weighed and re-weighed by the right-wing press, and found wanting every time. Not only is Ed Miliband still the leader of the Labour Party, he has the distinction of being the leader of the Labour Party who broke with the Murdoch press and halted a US-led drive to war with Syria – not the sign of somebody who “can’t take difficult decisions” for all the awkward questions people keep asking.

The idea that the SNP would have blackmail power over a minority government is an odd, sensationalist misrepresentation of the position any junior partner occupies in that situation, including the Lib Dems over the last five years; there’s no reason to believe an agreement with the SNP would be any more volatile than the Tories’ agreement with the Lib Dems, assuming of course that an equally binding agreement was reached. (If the larger party doesn’t offer the SNP an agreement, but challenges it to support a minority government, volatility is guaranteed – but that’s not the SNP’s doing.) The idea that the ‘birthright’ of a government needs to be unimpeachable if the government is to operate is even odder. In fact, this doesn’t seem to have any basis in reality at all: as long as the government can get things done, how it came into being doesn’t matter.

On inspection, Clegg’s idea of securing the birthright of the next government seems to boil down to the slightly more mundane idea that any minority government should be led by the largest single party: “the party with the greatest mandate from the British people” is “the party that has the right to try to assemble a government first”. Perhaps Clegg’s undertaking that “Liberal Democrats will ensure that any government is legitimate and stable” simply means that the Lib Dems will refuse to join any coalition not led by the largest single party – and will denounce any such coalition formed without them. I’m sure we’re all lucky to have such guardians of constitutional rectitude to hand. Or are we? This government has, unusually, published a manual documenting how the government works – the two houses of Parliament, the Cabinet, relations with the devolved governments, the works. What the Cabinet Manual says on this topic is

Prime Ministers hold office unless and until they resign. If the Prime Minister resigns on behalf of the Government, the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government.

it remains a matter for the Prime Minister, as the Sovereign’s principal adviser, to judge the appropriate time at which to resign, either from their individual position as Prime Minister or on behalf of the government. Recent examples suggest that previous Prime Ministers have not offered their resignations until there was a situation in which clear advice could be given to the Sovereign on who should be asked to form a government. It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention.

An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.

Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government.

And, er, that’s it. As you can see, the ‘largest party goes first’ principle isn’t there; it’s a reasonable description of the Lib Dems’ behaviour in 2010, but nothing in constitutional principle made them do it. Nor will they be able to claim constitutional backing for such an approach this year. Interestingly enough, what we may call the Clegg Principle did appear in a draft of the Cabinet Manual, but it was removed in 2011 (Tristram Hunt, who is a historian and knows precedent-setting when he sees it, referred to this as a “Liberal Democrat attempt to change our constitutional procedures”). There are many ways to approach coalition formation: we could argue that the ‘formateur’, charged with pulling together a coalition of its allies, should be the party with the best chance of gaining an overall majority; or we could give the role to the party with the main responsibility for the previous government falling; or we could start by eliminating any parties whose vote has dropped since the previous election, then apply one of the other tests. Alternatively, perhaps the formateur should (as Clegg says) be the party with the ‘greatest mandate’, but this in turn could mean a number of things: the largest single party; the party with the highest vote; the party whose vote has risen the most in absolute terms; the party whose vote has risen the most in proportion to its previous vote… I very much doubt that’s an exhaustive list of approaches. The idea that a coalition is illegitimate if it’s not centred on the largest single party, or even that the largest party should always get the first go at forming a coalition, is “absurd” (in the words of Vernon Bogdanor, who knows this area fairly well).

In reality there is no reason why a government should not be formed excluding the largest single party, and in some cases this may be a very good idea: the second party may have the highest vote; its vote may have risen the most; and it will almost certainly have some responsibility for the situation in which the previous government is unable to carry on. Most importantly, it may have the best chance – or even the only chance – of gaining an overall majority. Most of these things look like being true of the Labour Party on May 8th, even if it doesn’t have the largest number of seats (although I hope it will). It may also be the case that Labour needs the Lib Dems’ support to achieve an overall majority (although I fervently hope it won’t). Even in that unfortunate situation, however, we can be fairly sure that the weight of the minor parties would be more or less unchanged. This in turn means that the Tories, even with more seats than Labour, would be a long way short of a parliamentary majority – and that it would be significantly easier to form a majority with the SNP than without them. For Nick Clegg to refuse Labour his party’s support in that context would be, at best, to usher in a ramshackle Tory/UKIP/DUP/Lib Dem alliance, which would struggle to agree any policies – let alone to get then through the Commons. A more likely result would be a Tory/Lib Dem minority government, permanently a couple of votes short of a majority, surviving from one vote to the next on temporary alliances and defections. To take that choice on the grounds that a Labour/SNP/PC/Green/Lib Dem majority government would be unstable is enough to make a cat laugh.

The Tories – and their allies – seem determined to stay in power after May 7th, majority or no majority; arguments to the effect that re-electing the Coalition would exemplify stability, legitimacy and adherence to constitutional principle are ringing increasingly hollow. Which, perhaps, is why the assault on the legitimacy of the next Labour government has taken a new and nastier turn, with the outright delegitimation of the SNP. But I’ll stop here and cover that in the next post.

Cap in hand (1)

As the dullest and most weirdly static election campaign of my adult life drags to a… hold on, let’s check that. 1979 was a historic disaster; 1983 was all the fun of having our faces rubbed in it, with the added piquancy of some terribly nice middle-class people splitting the Left down the middle and doing Thatcher’s dirty work for her. 1987 wasn’t all that dramatic, Kinnock: The Movie apart – Labour did well, but it would have been surprising if they’d done well enough to win. It left the Tories with quite a small majority, though, and felt like a step in the right direction. 1992, on the other hand, was a crushing disappointment: lots of us thought that Labour could at least manage a hung parliament – which would lead to an alliance with the Lib Dems, which would necessarily (ha!) lead to PR, which would give the Left its own voice in Parliament and generally shake things up big time. 1997, well. In retrospect 1997 was a bit like the SDP coming back from the grave and actually achieving the kind of mould-breaking mind-wipe they threatened to bring off in 1982; if you weren’t swept along, it was quite strange. Dull it wasn’t, though. I don’t remember much about the 2001 election, but this may be because my father died a few weeks afterwards – to say nothing of what happened a couple of months after that. Then there was 2005 – the election of ‘Backing Blair’ and the mobilisation of the anti-Iraq vote – and 2010, which was anything but dull.

So yes, this is the dullest and most static, etc. And, perhaps, the oddest. The other thing that jumps out from that quick retrospective is that the two least interesting elections in the last 40 years – 1987 and 2001 – were the ones where there was least at stake (reasonably enough): nobody really expected Labour to win in 1987 or the Tories in 2001. On paper the situation we’re in now is more like what we faced eighteen years ago in 1997, or (oddly) eighteen years before that in 1979: an exhausted governing party with no new ideas, beset by internal rivalries and dependent on deals with minor parties to get legislation through, is faced by a united opposition party with an untried but confident leader. And yet voters don’t seem to be abandoning Cameron as their predecessors abandoned Callaghan and Major respectively, and there’s no sign of a Thatcher- or Blair-scale swing to Miliband. In fact, nothing seems to be happening at all. Well, perhaps not nothing; I’m as fond of psephological close-reading as the next geek, and it is the case that – although the last crop of polls wasn’t obviously favourable to Labour – every one of them represented either an increase in Labour preferences or a drop for the Tories relative to the previous poll from the same polling organisation. Zoom out a bit, though, and it’s hard to deny that very little has happened since January.

(Chart c/o UK Polling Report.) Feel the stasis! A few Kippers have drifted back to the Tories and a few Greens back to Labour and the Lib Dems, but otherwise we are still pretty much where we were.

Which is to say, we are still facing a post-election impasse that will make the arithmetic of 2010 look like child’s play. All the projections point to a hung parliament, and one that can’t be turned into a stable majority by simply putting two parties’ MPs together, as Cameron and Clegg did in 2010. What’s more, it looks as if these conditions are here to stay. Look at this chart:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.08.57

(The last column is a projection, but everything up to there shows what actually happened.) Look, in particular, at what happened along the top of the chart in February 1974, 1983 and 1997. Although there were Ulster Unionists in each of the parliaments prior to 1974, it was only in February 1974 that they stopped automatically voting with the Tories; from that point on they could be filed under ‘Others’. The Liberals also got a boost that year – getting into double figures for the first time since 1950 – while the first SNP surge took them to 11 MPs in October 1974. In 1983, following the number the Gang of Four had done on the Labour party, the SDP/Liberal Alliance doubled the Liberals’ previous number of MPs – from 11 to 23. Then in 1997, with the collapse of the Tory vote, the Liberal Democrats had another leap forward, taking 46 seats; the same year, the SNP took 6 (having previously fallen back to 3).

What’s particularly striking is that, despite the ebbs and flows in particular parties’ representation (and the Lib Dems are headed for another ebb this year), the direction of travel is fairly constant: 1974, 1983 and 1997 weren’t turning points so much as inflection points in the gradual disintegration of a parliamentary duopoly. Plurality voting in single-member constituencies is notoriously slow to register shifts in public loyalties, but they get picked up eventually – and once they’ve been registered they aren’t entirely forgotten. People get out of the habit of voting either Labour or Tory – at different times and for different reasons, but once it’s happened it remains an available option. And once it’s happened on a larger scale, it remains an option available to a larger number of people. The process never seem to go into reverse for very long or by very much. The picture’s clearer in this simplified version:

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The 1945 Parliament had an unusually high rate of representation of small parties, particularly on the Left – Independent Labour Party, Common Wealth, Communist. Even then, the combined parliamentary strength of the Labour and Tory parties amounted to over 96% of the House of Commons; between then and 1974 it only dropped below 98% once. (And no, I’m not excluding Northern Irish seats: there was little or no Nationalist representation in this period, and the Unionists took the Tory whip.) The Labour/Tory figure fell to below 95% in 1974 and continued to fall, dropping below 94% in 1983, below 90% in 1997 and falling to 85.8% in 2005. Unless something very unusual (relative to current poll data) happens on May 7th, the figure in the next Parliament will be similar – which is to say, Labour and the Tories between them will have around 560 MPs total, out of 650 (the 2005 figure was 554 out of 646).

What this means is that, over time, a ‘small party’ group of MPs has been developing, which can’t be ignored in the way that the six Liberals in the 1959 parliament could be. In 2015, for the third election running, that group looks like numbering 85-90. This in turn means that thinking about overall majorities has got a lot more difficult. In 1964 Labour took 51% of those seats that were either Labour or Tory and gained an overall majority, with 50.3% of all seats. In 2010 the Tories took 307 seats – 54.3% of the Labour/Tory bloc but only 47.2% of all seats. You can see how the two ratios – largest party / total and largest party / largest + runner-up – have diverged over the years here:

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The gap between the red and blue points in 2010 – the difference between an overall minority and a substantial majority of Labour/Tory seats – is the result of a ‘minor party’ bloc of 85 MPs. If we hold those 85 seats constant, the only way for the Tories to gain an absolute majority would have been to raise their share of the Labour/Tory bloc to 57.7% – and, while this kind of domination was achieved by Thatcher and Blair in their time, it was clearly beyond Cameron’s reach. The projection I’m using for 2015 has Labour as the largest single party, with 295 seats – 52.9% of Labour or Tory seats, but only 45.4% of the total; again, only a huge victory over the Tories would give an overall majority, and this doesn’t currently seem remotely likely. The same goes for the Tories, mutatis mutandis; while we don’t know which of the two will be the largest party on May 8th, by that same token we can be reasonably confident that there are no landslides in the offing.

This isn’t to say that major-party hegemony is a thing of the past – on the contrary, the hegemony of the major parties is alive and well. But these figures do suggest that the major parties’ duopoly is (a) gone and (b) not coming back: from here on in, nobody gets to form a government on their own. In that context, Labour has an enormous advantage over the Conservatives: from the radical leftists of the Green Party to the reactionaries of the DUP, everyone wants to work with them. The only party that has overtly expressed a preference for a Conservative-led government is UKIP, and that’s an endorsement which the Tories might prefer to be without. (To be fair, Nick Clegg on behalf of the Lib Dems has said something similar through the medium of nudges and winks – but he’s also said he rules out working with UKIP, which would make a blue/orange/purple rainbow alliance a bit problematic.)

The SNP in particular is going to be a major presence in Parliament after May 7th; they have made it quite plain that they’re ready and willing to work with Labour, and that they’ve got no interest in working with the Tories. It’s a major weakness for the Tories, and a major asset for Labour. So why are the Tories currently working so hard to advertise this weakness as if it was a strength – and denouncing Labour’s strength as if it was a weakness? And why on earth is Labour letting them?

(Some answers in part two.)

Towards the rule of law

Here’s the opening of a paper I’ve just submitted:

Law, counter-law and the rule of law: resources for radicals

The law and the ideal of the rule of law are often associated with the maintenance of the status quo, and with ideas of ‘law and order’. But is the rule of law an inherently reactionary ideological formation? Do ideas about law have anything to offer to the perspective of a classless society? This paper sets out some basic definitions of the law, and of the rule of law, and considers the impact on them of Marxist and Gramscian critiques of ideology. An examination of some attempts at counter-law and regulation from below leads to the conclusion that the model of law, and the ideal of the rule of law, may offer more resources for radical and progressive movements, and for democratic politics more generally, than Marx’s or Gramsci’s critique would seem to imply.

The collection it’s intended for has an abolitionist & anarchist slant; I don’t usually refer to ‘the perspective of a classless society’ as a framing device. (Not that it’s necessarily a bad framing device.) The “attempts at counter-law” I examine are those associated with gangs in Salford (via Walklate), the IRA in West Belfast (via Hamill) and the Italian armed struggle groups of the 1970s; the Red Brigades were particularly fond of claiming law-making power for themselves, and particularly bad at exercising it.

And here, for anyone curious about where I’m coming from, are the references.

Brehm, S. and Brehm, J. (1981), Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. New York: Academic Press.
Cole, D. (2001), “‘An Unqualified Human Good’: E.P. Thompson and the Rule of Law”. Journal of Law and Society 28(2): 177-203.
Della Porta, D. (1995), Social movements, political violence and the state. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fuller, L. (1964), The morality of law. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Hay, D. (2011; originally published 1975), “Property, authority and the criminal law”. In Hay, D., Linebaugh, P., Rule, J., Thompson, E. and Winslow, C. (eds.), Albion’s Fatal Tree. London: Verso.
Engels, F. (1968; composed 1890), “Letter to Conrad Schmidt”. In Marx, K. and Engels, F., Marx and Engels Correspondence. New York: International Publishers.
Gramsci, A. (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.
Hamill, H. (2002), “Victims of paramilitary punishment attacks in Belfast”. In Hoyle, C. and Young, R. (eds.), New visions of crime victims. Oxford: Hart.
Manconi, L. (1986), “The language of terrorism: a critique of the Red Brigades”. Emergency 4:37 40.
Manconi, L. (1991), ‘The political ideology of the Red Brigades’. In Catanzaro, R. (ed.) (1991), The Red Brigades and left-wing terrorism in Italy. London: Pinter.
Marx, K. (1968; composed 1845), The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, K. (1977; composed 1859), A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers; text.
Monicelli, M. (1978), L’ultrasinistra in Italia 1968–1978. Rome: Laterza.
Moss, D. (1989), The politics of left-wing violence in Italy, 1969–85. London: Macmillan.
Progetto Memoria (1994), La mappa perduta. Milan: Sensibili alle foglie.
Progetto Memoria (1996), Le parole scritte. Milan: Sensibili alle foglie.
Simmonds, N. (2005), “Jurisprudence as a Moral and Historical Inquiry”. Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 18:249-76.
Simmonds, N. (2007), The law as a moral idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thompson, E. P. (1975), Whigs and hunters. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane.
Walklate, S. (1998), “Crime and community: fear or trust?”. British Journal of Sociology 49(4):550-569.
Waldron, J. (2008), “The concept and the rule of law”. Georgia Law Review 43(1):1-61.

I made a couple of false starts on this paper, one of which was a critique of Hay; I realised after I’d written a couple of paragraphs that defining the rule of law, examining Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and offering a close reading of “Property, authority and the criminal law” would be altogether too much to ask from my readers. I’ll return to that some time and try to get a paper out of it. The other writers I was hoping to get round to in this paper are Pashukanis and Kamenka & Tay; again, that will have to be another paper. Right now I’ve got to write something intelligent – and not too tendentious – about restorative justice. Oh, and mark 78 essays, or possibly 80…

You know how it is

I want Labour to win this election, but they’re not exactly going all out for my vote at the moment. I learned this morning, courtesy of Obsolete, that Labour stand for sending people to prison for possession of drugs for personal use – at least, they attack the Lib Dems for not supporting this policy. I wouldn’t say it’s having the opposite of the intended effect: never mind a nose peg, you’d have to stuff my nose with garlic, coat my eyes with butter and fill my ears with silver (and the rest) to make me vote Lib Dem. But Labour certainly aren’t calling me home.

This, of course, comes on top of That Mug. Now, being a pedant to my bones – and having worked for a publishing and events company – my immediate reaction to this story was to point out tetchily that it wasn’t a matter of one mug; we were talking about Those Mugs plural, which is to say That Marketing Strategy for Those Pledges plural. But, if anything, this makes matters even worse for Labour: if “why that mug?” was a good question, “why that pledge?” is an even better one. If the Labour Party, going into an election it needs to win, wants to highlight five pledges – five commitments encapsulating what the party will do in government – why on earth should one of them be ‘Controls on immigration’? (Particularly since our membership of the EU makes controlling EU immigration extremely problematic, as everyone involved knows perfectly well.)

Paul Bernal has an excellent list of alternative pledges. Any one of them would be an improvement; in fact, I think Paul’s pledges 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7 would make good replacements for all five of Labour’s. An interesting discussion of the ‘immigration’ pledge itself – and its importance to the voters – has also developed in the comments box. Since I’m one of the main participants, I’ll continue it over here. It began with a comment on the salience – and relative visibility (or at least audibility) – of Eastern European migrants, as distinct from those who have come to Britain from the New Commonwealth. (And with whom UKIP, and others playing the migration card, are of course absolutely fine; the new anti-migration politics is not racist in any way, shape or form. Mostly.) Here’s the comment:

One other point, white migrants from Eastern Europe locally stand out because they are white and quite often not speaking English amongst themselves. We are used to people of non white descent speaking languages other than English to the point where it goes almost unnoticed and unremarked.

In response, I pulled out this quote from the papers in 2010, when Thatcher’s 1979 obiter dicta in Cabinet became available under the 30-year rule.

[In July 1979, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher] said that “with some exceptions there had been no humanitarian case for accepting 1.5 million immigrants from south Asia and elsewhere. It was essential to draw a line somewhere”. [Deputy Prime Minister] Mr Whitelaw entered the debate, suggesting to the prime minister that refugees were a different matter to immigrants in general. He said that according to letters he had received, opinion favoured the accepting of more of the Vietnamese refugees. Lady Thatcher responded that “in her view all those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes” … “She thought it quite wrong that immigrants should be given council housing whereas white citizens were not.”

Lady Thatcher asked what the implications of such a move could be given that an exodus of the white population from Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – was expected once majority rule was established. She made clear, however, that she had “less objection to refugees such as Rhodesians, Poles and Hungarians, since they could more easily be assimilated into British society”.

Emphasis added.

(In passing – “all those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes”! Stay classy, Margaret.)

So in 1979 it’s obvious that Asians are harder to assimilate than Poles – they’re not White!
And in 2015 it’s obvious that Poles are harder to assimilate than Asians – they’re not non-White!

My interlocutor replied:

I am not condoning these attitudes, but seeking to understand and explain them. I am afraid the migration is wonderful (stick your fingers in your ears) etc approach will not change hearts and minds, unless those advocating it address the concerns of those not sharing that view.

Perception is reality, even if there is very little evidence to support that perception. And you are not going to change the perception by saying let us have uncontrolled migration.

Which raises the question of how an evidence-free perception can be changed – not with evidence, presumably. I thought about this a bit more and came up with the following, which (as you can see) got too long for a comment box.

Thinking some more about this notion of ‘real concerns’ which underlie expressions of racism, there are two points I’d make. First off, there is a very general tendency to be prejudiced against people who are Not Like Us, particularly if those people are in a minority and visibly (or audibly!) different. Most of us outgrow these feelings, recognise them as unworthy or at worst learn to repress them; more importantly, most of us have life experiences which tell us on a personal level that ‘those people’ are Like Us, that some of ‘them’ are Us. (All the more so in recent decades – my son had more non-White friends at school than I ever did; come to think of it, more than I ever have.) But some people never have those experiences, aren’t very reflective or generous-minded and don’t mix with people who are, and those people will have a genuine, personal, emotional reaction to the arrival of more of ‘those people’. (My grandmother, God rest her, went to her grave convinced that Indian cooking was ‘dirty’. “She probably thinks the brown comes off their fingers,” my mother said.) I don’t know what’s to be done about people like that, except for God’s sake not to encourage them. They do not have very real concerns. Their views are not valid. Yes, there was a time when we all used those words. No, you can’t say those things any more. Good.

Secondly, at the moment I live in an area with very real pressure on services. The local primary school, an Edwardian structure with ‘BOYS’ picked out in stonework over one of the entrances, recently put on a third year-group (i.e. an expansion in capacity of 50%), with extensive new building to accommodate it (they essentially built another school on top of the school); getting a doctor’s appointment has been a pain for a while, but following a recent reorganisation it’s now a pain and a half. What does this tell me? The expansion of the school tells me that pressure on services can be met with an expansion of service provision. The reorganisation of the health centre tells me that if service provision doesn’t expand in response to pressure (perhaps being subjected to a half-arsed reorganisation instead), that’s the problem. What doesn’t occur to me – genuinely doesn’t occur to me, any more than it would occur to me to wear shorts to work – is to blame the people who have moved into the area.

This, clearly, is what’s going on when people voice their very real concerns, so it may be worth establishing why it is that I don’t do it. It may be because I’ve no idea who those incomers are, or even if there is any identifiable group of incomers (people may have stopped moving out; older people may have died and younger people, with families, moved into their old homes; there are a variety of possible scenarios). It may be because I’m a well-meaning Guardian reader, or – relating back to the first point – that I’ve been socialised to beware of prejudice and to try and make sure my beliefs are supported by evidence. But I think the most important factor – my most important value in this respect – is the conviction that you don’t kick down. If someone’s in the same boat as you – or even worse off than you – you may not extend a friendly hand; you may not particularly like them or want them around you. But you don’t blame them for what’s wrong with the world. This seems like basic common sense to me: politically speaking, there are people running things (stop me if I get too technical), and if things are running badly it’s basically going to be their fault, by and large. Down here at ground level – down among the wage slaves and the ‘consumers’ – the way things are is basically not our fault, except in the sense that we’re all perpetuating an unjust system through wage labour and commodity consumption; and in a Marxist perspective even that’s scarcely our fault, morally speaking. If the people in power screw things up, somebody in a position of power needs to put them right. 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.

How to address the concerns of people who want to see controls on immigration (and who, presumably, will be more likely to vote Labour if the party offers them)? Tell them they’ve forgotten something very important: you don’t kick down. (I say ‘forgotten'; they may never have known it in the first place, but it’s kinder not to remind them.) It’s not about well-meaning liberals telling hard-pressed working people that “migration is wonderful” (“Love your neighbour, wherever they’re from” as Ian Dury put it). It’s about who’s causing the problems and who isn’t; where solutions are going to come from and where they aren’t; who they – and all of us – should be angry with, and who we shouldn’t. There’s a lot at stake here: there’s a great deal of latent anger out there (some of it not entirely latent), and if we get the wrong result in May it could easily be channelled in some very unpleasant directions. I know Labour’s leadership are aware of this; I had hoped they would act, and campaign, accordingly.

On inspection, incidentally, Labour’s actual proposals for controlling immigration turn out to be the enforcement of the minimum wage and an unpleasant but largely meaningless clampdown on the ‘benefits tourism’ non-problem. So they actually aren’t kicking down to any great extent. But, by the same token, they’ve left an open goal for any political opponent or hostile interviewer: the pledge says ‘Controls on immigration'; where are they? All in all it’s dreadful stuff. The idea seems to be triangulation, straight out of Bill Clinton’s playbook – pitching a left-wing policy in language that ticks the Daily Mail‘s boxes – and, absent a leader with Bill Clinton’s personal charisma and charm, I don’t believe it can possibly work.

About a boycott

A few basic principles about boycotts.

1. Politically-motivated choice is legitimate

1.1. Jane is purchasing a good, which we’ll call G. What G is doesn’t matter – some oranges, a magazine subscription, a cultural event which her organisation will host. G1 and G2 – the offerings from suppliers S1 and S2 – are more or less equivalent in Jane’s estimation. She has to choose one or the other; she chooses G1 over G2 not because of anything to do with the good itself, but because political principle P predisposes her against supplier S2.

1.2. This choice, as described, is plainly legitimate. It’s a familiar kind of calculation: under apartheid, South African apples and wine were (probably) as good as similarly-priced alternatives; like many other people, I chose not to buy apartheid produce. Ultimately it is no different from a politically-motivated positive choice: the choice to shop at the Co-op rather than Tesco, say, or to take out a subscription to Red Pepper rather than the New Statesman.

1.3. Of course, we may not agree with the specific principle P which motivates Jane’s choice, and if so we may not approve of the choice. But we should not expect to approve of all Jane’s choices, unless we already know that we are in complete agreement with Jane. If Jane’s purchases are guided by her enthusiasm for veganism or her support for the Liberal Democrats, she is not going to make the same choices that I would make. Her choices are her concern.

1.4. One person’s choices may have effects on other people. If I disagree with Jane’s principles, then – to the extent that her choices affect me – I may well not be happy about them; if Jane is doing my shopping for me, I may even end up asking somebody else, with more sympathetic principles, to do it. But Jane’s choice – like my choice in this second scenario – remains legitimate: she is a free and rational individual who has the right to hold her own set of principles P and choose how to follow them, as are we all.

2. Boycotts are legitimate

2.1. A boycott is a special type of politically-motivated choice. Jane boycotts supplier S when she chooses to go without good G altogether rather than offend against principle P. It is intrinsic to a boycott that G is valuable. (If G were not of particular value – if it were a matter of choosing between broadly equivalent rival Gs – we would be looking at a choice rather than a boycott; and if G were of no value to Jane she would not have chosen to purchase it in the first place and the question would not arise.) A boycott is a sacrifice: Jane is giving up G, which she values, for the sake of P.

2.2. Somebody carrying out a boycott imposes a disproportionate cost on herself – disproportionate in the sense that P is taken as an absolute constraint, not to be weighed as one factor among others. This, too, is legitimate. When I was younger I had a particular fondness for Granny Smith apples – no other fruit hit the spot – but I would and did deprive myself of them rather than buy South African. Again, we can liken the disproportionate cost of a boycott to the disproportionate cost of a positive choice: the decision to take out a subscription to Red Pepper in the certain knowledge that one wouldn’t read it, for example. (Perhaps because one already had a subscription. It’s really quite good these days; the cultural coverage has improved a lot.)

2.2.1. The value of G is not an argument against boycotting S. A boycott is a sacrifice; the more valuable G is, the greater is the sacrifice undertaken in boycotting its supplier S. A boycott cannot be challenged by emphasising the value of G (but you really like Granny Smiths!). If anything, the value of G counts in favour of the boycott: if G is extraordinarily valuable, the boycott is an extraordinarily powerful demonstration of Jane’s commitment to P.

2.3. We saw, in the broader case of political choices, that one person’s choice can affect other people, and that someone who disagrees with P may not approve of choices motivated by P. Both of these points necessarily apply in the case of a boycott. Suppose that Jane is an extreme right-winger who supported the Pinochet regime and holds a grudge against all subsequent Chilean governments. Most people reading this will not approve of Jane choosing not to buy Chilean produce, all other factors being equal, on those grounds; a fortiori, we would certainly not approve of Jane applying an absolute boycott to Chilean goods on those grounds.

2.4. Nor would we be happy about Jane doing our shopping for us, if we were housebound or incapacitated. But Jane’s choices are still legitimate, despite the repugnance of their grounds – and hence of their consequences, or rather of the implications which can be drawn from their consequences.

2.4.1. The value of G to a third party is not an argument against boycotting S. The argument at 2.2.1. holds: the message of the boycott is now that Jane’s commitment to P is such that she is willing to bear the cost of disappointing other people by depriving them of G. An ethical greengrocer could choose to refuse to stock South African produce, even in the knowledge that its customers had a particular fondness for Granny Smiths and did not share her beliefs. The choice might not be good business, but it would be legitimate and should be respected as such.

3. Politics come first

3.1. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as harmful or costly: a boycott is a sacrifice. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as disproportionate: it is in the nature of boycotts to be disproportionate.

3.2. A boycott is a costly and disproportionate act carried out in commitment to a political principle. To the extent that we do not share that commitment, we will not approve of the boycott.

3.2.1. However, to the extent that we do not share that principle, we would not approve of any action motivated by it, just as we would not agree with any statement made to advance it.

3.2.2. The political discussion is separate from the question of the legitimacy of the tactics used.

3.3. The key question to be asked of a boycott is: assuming rational actors motivated by a genuine commitment to a political principle which can legitimately be held, can this disproportionate sacrifice be justified? (The question is not whether we believe that it is justified.)

3.3.1. This is a question expecting the answer Yes. A boycott is, in principle, a legitimate political tactic, irrespective of our position on the political cause involved. (It may on occasion not be the best tactic to use, but this is a question for the people using it.)

3.3.2. To say that a boycott is not a legitimate tactic is, generally, to say that the principle for which it is undertaken is not a legitimate political cause.

4. Inconsistency is irrelevant

4.1. If I have never stolen, I can steal for the first time. If I have never handled other people’s money without stealing, I can choose not to steal for the first time. Perhaps the acts I have never carried out are political: I have never taken out a magazine subscription on the basis of a positive political commitment, or crossed ‘apples’ off my shopping list on the basis of a negative commitment. This has no bearing on whether I choose to do either of these things in future.

4.2. The value of an action is not determined by whether the actor has ever done it before; the legitimacy of a choice is not determined by whether the actor has ever made that choice before.

4.3. To criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle one supports, would amount either to holding them to account for something they are no longer doing or criticising them for an improvement in their conduct.

4.3.1. We may believe that the boycott is an aberration and that in future their conduct will return to its original course; however, this in itself does not give any grounds for criticising their present behaviour, which by definition we approve of.

4.4. We may criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle we do not support; in this case, however, we would not be criticising their inconsistency but (simply) the fact that they were taking action in support of a principle we did not support.

4.5. The fact that a boycott is being imposed for the first time cannot make it illegitimate.

5. Selectivity is inevitable

5.1. In one light, selectivity at a given time and inconsistency over time are the same concern, and are equally irrelevant. Why did I steal from that particular newsagent when I’d never stolen before? Because that was where I happened to be. Why did I hand over this purse untouched when I’d always stolen from them before? Because that was the one I was handling when the pangs of conscience struck. There is no reason to ask these questions.

5.2. Someone boycotting a particular supplier S, on the basis of a particular (legitimate) principle P, can be accused of ‘singling out’ S. There may be many potential suppliers – S1, S2, S3… – whose deserve to be boycotted on the basis of P. Moreover, there are many legitimate political principles – P1, P2, P3… – on the basis of which boycotts could be implemented. Why this principle? Why this supplier?

5.2.1. To guide one’s conduct by every imaginable political principle (P1, P2, P3…) is an obvious absurdity.

5.2.2. To guide one’s conduct, to any significant extent, by every political principle to which one assents would in practice be impossibly burdensome, unless one’s political commitments were extremely limited.

5.3. The narrower goal of applying a single principle with complete consistency – boycotting every supplier who infringes it (or else boycotting none of them) – may seem realisable in theory, but reflection shows that complete consistency would require complete knowledge and the willingness to take any imaginable cost.

5.3.1. Complete consistency in the application of a single principle is an ideal rather than a standard: in Fuller’s terms, part of a morality of aspiration (a set of excellences one aims to realise) rather than a morality of duty (a set of minimum requirements one undertakes to meet).

5.3.2. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one supports is to criticise them for failing to realise an ideal, not failing to meet a standard.

5.4. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one does not support is, in general, to criticise them for acting on that principle at all (see 3.2.1.).

6. Equality is difficult

6.1. Although the effects of a boycott on third parties do not, in general, affect the legitimacy of the boycott (see 2.4.1.), a boycott whose effects tend systematically to disadvantage a particular population group – by depriving them of goods or services, or even by causing them offence and distress – may be illegitimate for that reason.

6.1.1. This is true of any action which has such effects; there is nothing about boycotts making them particularly liable to delegitimation on these grounds.

6.2. The principle of non-discrimination is unproblematic in the case of innate characteristics such as gender and ethnicity, and relatively unproblematic in the case of religion (which very often amounts to an innate characteristic, at least in the perceptions of the believer herself).

6.3. Extending it to political beliefs – even long-held and hard-to-change beliefs – is problematic, however.

6.3.1. To hold a political belief is to believe that certain changes should be made to the distribution of wealth, power and relatively advantage, and that certain arguments should be made and listened to more widely.

6.3.2. To pursue a political belief is to make arguments which may offend one’s opponents, and to attempt to realise changes which will disadvantage them.

6.4. There is an asymmetry built into prejudices against innate characteristics: the political actor who aims to disadvantage Jews, Muslims, women or children has many opponents who are not political actors.

6.4.1. By contrast, political prejudice is symmetrical: to be prejudiced against Liberal Democrats, for example, is to be prejudiced against political actors like oneself.

6.4.2. Within the political context, animosity towards other political actors is normal; within this context, the idea of political prejudice has very little meaning.

6.5. To delegitimate political discrimination is to cantonise politics as a specialised pursuit, only engaged in at set times and in certain places.

6.5.1. This is undesirable.

6.6. To delegitimate political discrimination in a given area is to delegitimate political action in that area.

6.6.1. In some areas (e.g. the employer/employee relationship) political action should in fact be illegitimate, making the delegitimation of political discrimination unproblematic.

6.6.2. In others, outlawing political discrimination (and hence political action) may be the only way to be sure of outlawing racial or religious discrimination.

6.7. In all cases, delegitimating political discrimination has a cost and should only be undertaken with that cost borne in mind.

No top and no bottom

1. I agree with Vladimir Putin, up to a point

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.

It’s the way he tells ’em.

To be fair, Putin’s address to the American people did make some good points, in particular this one:

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

I liked his conclusion, too:

I would rather disagree with a case [Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.

In passing, I was amused to see that this last glimpse of the blindingly obvious had annoyed Thomas Friedman. Who does this so-called President Putin think he is, making out that America isn’t the greatest goddamn country on earth?

2. Inter arma enim silent leges, only not just yet

But is the man from the KGB really standing up for international law – and what does it actually say about Syria? This is a bit less of a live issue, thankfully, than it was before the rush to war was stopped in its tracks (well done that weakling!). The UK government’s case for intervention, set out by Attorney General Dominic Grieve, rested on the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”. The argument was that it would be permissible under international law for the UK (or, presumably, any other state) “to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime”. Such an intervention would be legal under three conditions:

That there is “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief”; it is “objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”; and the proposed use of force is “proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need”.

In response, Dapo Akande of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict pointed out that neither the second nor the third condition had been met. The third was particularly hard to get past:

“Even if there is a rule allowing intervention to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that rule would not simply permit action to deter and disrupt use of chemical weapons,” Akande said. “This standard is too lax. It would be a rule about preventing and about stopping. The UK is not proposing to take action which will actually prevent or stop further uses of chemical weapons.”

Unless, of course, what the UK government was planning was to carry on bombing until every last chemical weapon in Syria had been put beyond use; we’ll never know. It’s probably just as well.

Akande also made a broader point, which is that the idea of legality invoked by Grieve is rather a provisional thing. To the extent that it’s codified in any way, international law provides for military action in self-defence, in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution and, er, that’s it. What Grieve is referring to is the informal or ‘customary’ international law which is constituted from year to year by what states actually do.

when the attorney general’s advice says international law allows Britain to take measures to alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe without security council approval, this can only be in reference to customary international law which is based on the “views and practices of states”. [Akande] said there is “very little evidence of state support for this view. Indeed most states have explicitly rejected this view.”

3. Better not ask them to split the bill

The BBC canvassed opinions from Akande and four other lawyers (Geoffrey Robertson QC, Professor Sigrun Skogly, Professor Robert McCorquodale and Professor Dr Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg) as well as the political analysts Dmitry Babich and Sinan Ulgen. Their views stacked up as follows. There were five key issues: the role of the UN, including but not limited to the UN Security Council; the legality of “humanitarian” interventions; the legality of past interventions in Iraq and Kosovo; the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in the case of crimes against humanity; and the appropriate response to breaches of the ban on chemical weapons.

ROBERTSON: Intervention to prevent crimes against humanity – such as the use of banned chemical weapons – does not require UN Security Council approval; the legality of humanitarian intervention was established even before the UN was founded, in the context of actions against piracy and slavery. The intervention in Kosovo was not condemned by the UN Security Council, making it legitimate.

SKOGLY: Normally, any intervention needs to be approved by the UN Security Council. However, the legality of humanitarian intervention is a separate question. UN member states have a duty to promote human rights; consequently, if the regime has used chemical weapons, they have committed crimes against humanity. This means that UN member states are obliged to act on the basis of the responsibility to protect.

McCORQUODALE: Military action must be approved by the UN Security Council; failure to gain this approval means that the Iraq intervention is considered illegal. Intervention for humanitarian reasons, or on the basis of the responsibility to protect, is not lawful in terms of international law, although it may be in future.

AKANDE: The principle of responsibility to protect “does not create a legal right for intervention without Security Council approval”. The doctrine of humanitarian intervention rest on “a view of international law that has been rejected by most states”. (The humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, while not approved by the UN Security Council, was in pursuit of demands made by the UNSC.) A General Assembly resolution might be a possibility, but permanent members of the UNSC are unlikely to offer the GA that kind of authority.

HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG: In the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, intervention could only be justified on the basis of “customary international law”. The US and allies acted on this basis in their humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, although many states still regard this intervention as illegal. International treaties outlaw chemical weapons but do not provide for military intervention in response to their use. Some states currently turn a blind eye to limited action against chemical weapons, but this may change.

BABICH: Although the US might cite chemical weapons as a justification, UN Security Council approval is essential to make any intervention legal. Iraq and Kosovo didn’t have UN approval and were therefore illegal. And let’s not forget that they never found any chemical weapons in Iraq.

ULGEN: Only action approved by the UN Security Council would have “full legitimacy”. An alternative would be to try to get a resolution passed by the General Assembly. Other possibilities, outside the UN framework, include the responsibility to protect principle (invoked successfully in Kosovo) and international law banning chemical weapons, going back to the 1925 Geneva Convention.

4. At the shatterproof heart of the matter

So what does that lot add up to? For McCorquodale, Akande and Heintschel von Heinegg (three of the five lawyers), as well as Babich, the lack of UN approval makes intervention illegal. At the same time, all three lawyers acknowledge that international law changes over time and that customary international law may, arguably, give support to actions which are formally illegal. In this respect they contrast the Syrian situation unfavourably with Kosovo, although it’s a question of degree: none of them goes so far as to assert that the Kosovo intervention was legal. They also note, as does Babich, that customary international law is contested: one state’s customary international law may be another state’s illegal aggression.

Robertson dismisses the idea that UN approval is needed before military action can be taken. He argues that humanitarian intervention is legitimate, and that it’s legal under international law unless and until it’s ruled to have been illegal. Robertson’s invocation of piracy in this context is odd; action against piracy was justified historically on the basis that pirates were hostes humani generis, enemies of mankind and outside the protection of any nation. Robertson also refers to slavery, which seems more relevant: British actions in suppressing the slave trade – such as detaining slave ships and offering the slaves their freedom – could certainly be seen as outside the law, and did cause international incidents. However, these were at worst acts of unlawful expropriation, for which the slaveowners and their governments could (and did) ask for redress. Any parallel with the proposal to ‘free’ the people of Syria from the use of chemical weapons through outright acts of war is stretched in the extreme. Skogly and Ulgen both argue that the responsibility to protect could justify intervention, although Ulgen does acknowledge that this would be outside the UN framework. Skogly goes so far as to argue that “responsibility to protect” makes intervention obligatory, although she avoids stating outright that it would be legal.

Four of the experts refer to the “responsibility to protect” principle; only Akande notes, correctly, that it supplies a reason for intervention rather than a separate justification, and does not justify action by individual states outside the UN Security Council framework. (McCorquodale says that a state-level “responsibility to protect” would not make intervention lawful; Skogly and Ulgen both suggest that it would.) Another word worth watching is “legitimate”, a particularly slippery concept in this context (and only used by Robertson and Ulgen out of our experts). “Legitimate” doesn’t have a precise definition, but I’m taking it to mean “of uncertain legality, but unlikely to be challenged”. Of course, this is a fundamentally political judgment, as it depends on what you regard as a challenge: a nasty comment on Voice of Russia? a formal diplomatic rebuke? a referral to the International Court of Justice? (Or, if you’re a Republican President, none of the above?)

Having picked my way through all these different opinions, I think things ultimately are as simple as Babich makes them seem. The putative legal justification for an intervention has been variously rested on the 1925 Geneva Protocal banning chemical weapons (which doesn’t justify intervention), on the doctrine of preventing crimes against humanity (which is purely customary) or on the ‘responsibility to protect’ (which is codified, but doesn’t justify intervention outside the UN Security Council framework). In short, there’s nothing there, unless you define ‘international law’ as ‘what states do and then claim to be legal’ – and that’s not really satisfactory if the reason you’re invoking international law is to justify your state doing something and then claiming it to be legal. In this ‘customary’ perspective, international law (like reality) really is “what you can get away with“. This approach may work for a while if, like the USA, you’re one of those states that tends to get away with things (Britain historically isn’t, to its credit). But it’s not a principle that could ever coherently be generalised – which may be why, as Akande says, most states don’t want it to be. Remove this impossible option – of a kind of informal international legal order built on generalised lawlessness – and we’re left, as Putin effectively said, with a choice between international law and exceptionalism: either the law applies to everyone, or we maintain that it doesn’t apply to us because we say so.

This isn’t to say that there will never be an international mechanism for intervention in cases of humanitarian crisis, or that the ‘responsibility to protect’ will always be subject to agreement at the level of the UN Security Council. International law can and does change. But it hasn’t changed yet – not in the way that the interventionists would have liked.

5. Hark, now the drums they beat again

I think the failure (legal as well as political) of the arguments for intervention is significant – and very welcome, if that doesn’t go without saying. It should, hopefully, set an enduring precedent.

I have some sympathy for the people who say

it cannot be the case that [Security Council authorisation] is the only way to have a legal basis for action … We could have a situation where a country’s Government were literally annihilating half the people in that country, but because of one veto on the Security Council we would be hampered from taking any action. …That is why it is important that we have the doctrine of humanitarian intervention

or

a system of law that would countenance mass atrocity without any remedy simply because the interests of a veto-wielding power at the UN blocks remedial action is morally unacceptable, indeed intolerable; and so where the UN itself becomes delinquent by not upholding some of its own most fundamental principles, the UN not only may, it should, be defied by member states willing to give those principles more respect.

or, more succinctly,

Viewed from the angle of UN legality, military action against Assad cannot possibly be legal … If military action against Assad is morally justified then that must be the case regardless of whether or not it is ‘legal’.

(James Bloodworth, David Cameron, Norman Geras. Not necessarily in that order.)

I don’t agree with them, because I believe they’re missing two very important points. One is that legality – even the cobbled-together legality represented by international law – is a virtue in itself, and an extraordinarily important virtue. If the legal system of England and Wales governs 56 million individual actors, the international legal order governs 200 (give or take a few). If a handful out of 56 million actors defect from an agreement, they’re in trouble; if a handful out of 200 defect, the agreement is in trouble. An action in breach of international law isn’t simply an action with the quality of not being internationally legal  – it’s an action which breaches international law, leaves a (customary) breach in it. In other words, it’s an action which makes international law harder to invoke from then on, and harder to develop further. (Let’s say we hope to gain Russian and/or Chinese agreement to the principle of “responsibility to protect”. Would acting unilaterally now make gaining this agreement in future (a) easier or (b) harder?)

Pace James B, if military action against Assad (or anyone else) is illegal, that must be the case regardless of whether or not it’s morally justified – or, to put it another way, regardless of how much we may want it to be legal. And if you’re going to use your moral justification to knock a hole in the – already horribly imperfect – edifice of actually existing international law, it’s going to need to be a very good moral justification. Which brings me to the second point, touched on by Akande. Politically, the great merit of a rush to war is that it gets you into the war nice and quickly, without too much time to sit around debating the whys and wherefores. Conversely, one of the great merits of insisting on legality – at least, insisting on stopping for long enough to have the argument about legality – is that it creates a pause in the rush to war, in which there’s time to ask the awkward questions: in particular, what is the government trying to achieve, and has it chosen the best means to do it? Fortunately – and thanks to some excellent political footwork from Ed Miliband – there’s been a long enough pause for those questions to be asked; I think it’s fairly widely acknowledged now that the UK (and US) government’s goal was all too unclear, and the means chosen seemed likely to be horribly counter-productive. But it was a close thing.

Too often, when the drums start beating, the appropriateness of military force goes unquestioned, even by people who position themselves on the Left. But if all your solutions look like craters, I think you need to ask yourself why you believe that all your tools are missiles.

How can a good man keep the wolf from the door?

Twenty-two years ago today, Peter Bellamy took his own life. He was 47. His discography includes three albums made with the seminal vocal group The Young Tradition and (at a rough count) seventeen solo albums, some only released as privately-produced cassettes. Most of his material was traditional; some consisted of his own settings of poetry, mostly by Rudyard Kipling; some was self-composed. One of his outstanding achievements was the Transports, a self-composed “ballad opera” written in traditional styles and telling the true story of a couple transported to Australia aboard the First Fleet in 1787. He worked with Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, the Watersons, Tony Rose, June Tabor, Dave Swarbrick, Shirley and Dolly Collins… basically, if you can think of a British folkie active in the 70s and 80s, the chances are that he worked with them at some point.

At the same time, Bellamy had a fierce commitment to his own vision – wherever it was leading him at any given time – and a reputation for independence bordering on self-imposed isolation. What his politics were nobody seems quite sure, but he had little time for the Communism of many of the 50s and 60s revivalists, or for the more woolly Guardian-reader liberalism which characterised the later folk scene. Traditional songs were his passion, and if (as it turned out) there were rather few traditional songs about fomenting revolution, going on strike or hunt sabbing, it didn’t bother him; he would sing what was there, even if it was about less right-on topics such as fox-hunting, fighting for England’s glory and loyalty to the boss. Take the political wrong notes this attitude produced, add his fascination with Kipling (the great poet of Victorian Empire), his spiky personality and his insistence on accompanying himself on concertina rather than the more ‘normal’ acoustic guitar, and it’s not entirely surprising that the 1980s – the ebb tide of the folk revival – weren’t kind to him.

By the end of the decade it seems as if the folk world had decided to leave him to it. At around this time of year a few years ago, his friend Michael Grosvenor Myer gave some details of his last days in a thread on Mudcat, from which I’ll quote a couple of lines here:

I remember his once showing me an almost empty forthcoming gigs diary, and saying words to the effect that “I did The Transports, everyone loved and respected it – and from that moment my bookings practically ceased and my career went phhhttt!” … a few days before he died, he spent the entire evening playing right back through all his records, listening carefully and as best he could objectively, and said at the end, “Well, I AM good! What the hell has gone wrong?!”

Was he good? He was an inspired songwriter, a superb interpreter of traditional songs and a unique, unforgettable singer. Yes, he was good. I don’t know what the hell went wrong, but twenty years on folkies up and down the country, from Bellowhead and the Young ‘Uns on down, are paying him the homage of listening to his music and singing his songs. If he’d hung on a few years he could have been massive. How he would have hated that.

Heffle Cuckoo Fair (Kipling/Bellamy)

Minesweepers (Kipling/Bellamy)

The Innocent Hare (traditional)

I once lived in service (Bellamy, arr. Dolly Collins; sung by Norma Waterson)

The fox jumps over the parson’s gate (traditional)

Death is not the end (Dylan)

The most cruel

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

Joan Jara:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria…

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

2/2/43

STALINGRAD (Peter Blackman)

Hushed was the world
And oh, dark agony that suspense shook upon us
While hate came flooding o’er your wide savannas
Plunging pestilence against you –
All that stood to state: “Where men meet
There meets one human race!”

Therefore did men from Moscow to the Arctic
Rounding Vladivostok to the South where Kazbek lifts its peak
Still work and working waited news of Stalingrad
And from Cape to white Sahara
Men asked news of Stalingrad
Town and village waited what had come of Stalingrad
The tom-tom beat across thick forest
While every evening at Palava
Old men told of Stalingrad
The gauchos caught the pampas whisper
The windswept hope of Stalingrad
And in the far Canadian north
Trappers left their baiting for the latest out of Stalingrad
In the factories and coal fields
Each shift waited what last had come from Stalingrad
While statesmen searched the dispatch boxes
What they brought of Stalingrad
And women stopped at house work
Held their children close to hear
What was afoot at Stalingrad
For well men knew that there
A thousand years was thrown the fate of the peoples
Stalingrad, oh star of glory
Star of hope, oh star of flame

Oh what a midwife for this glory
Take for the pattern Pavlov and his men
A soviet soldier and his nine companions
Who full seven weeks sleepless by night and day
Fought nor gave ground
They knew that with them lay
That where men meet should meet one human race

Carpenters who had built houses
Wanted only to build more
Painters who still painted pictures
Wanted only to paint more
Men who sang life strong in laughter
Wanted only to sing more
Men who planted wheat and cotton
Wanted only to plant more
Men who set the years in freedom
Sure they would be slaves no more
They spoke peace to their neighbours in tilling
For in peace they would eat their bread
Uzbeks, Tatars, Letts, Ukranians
Russians, Muscovites, Armenians
Who ringed forests wide around arctic
Brought sands to blossom, tundras dressed for spring
These kept faith in Stalin’s town
We may not weep for those who silent now rest here
Garland these graves
These lives have garlanded all our remaining days with hope
Stalingrad, oh star of glory
Star of hope, here spread your flame

Now when news broke that Stalingrad
Still lives upon the banks of Volga
That Stalingrad was still a Soviet town
Then the turner flung his lathe light as a bird
And the gaucho spread his riot in the pampas
For this news of Stalingrad
The tom-tom beat wild madness
When the elders brought Palava these tidings out of Stalingrad
The English housewife stopped her housework
Held her child close and cried aloud
Now all men will be free!
And from Good Hope, black miners answered
This will help us to be free!
In the prison camps of Belsen
Sick men rounded from their guards
Now life was certain
Soon all men would be free
New light broke upon Africa
New strength for her peoples
New trength poured upon Asia
New hope for her peoples
America dreamed new dreams
From the strength of her peoples
New men arose in Europe
New force for her peoples
Once more they stand these men
At lathe and spindle
To recreate their hours and each new day
Bid houses rise once more in Soviet country
Men ring forests wide round arctic
Move rivers into deserts
And with high courage
Breed new generations
For still the land is theirs
Uzbeks, Tatars, Letts, Armenians
Caucasians, Muscovites, Crimeans
Still they speak peace to their neighbours at tilling
To all the wide world
And men come near to listen
Find by that day of Stalingrad
That this voice is theirs

Then Red Star spread your flame upon me
For in your flame is earnest of my freedom
Now may I rendezvous with the world
Now may I join man’s wide-flung diversity
For Stalingrad is still a Soviet town

Thanks to Shuggy for the reminder.

They work so hard

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

One’s a member of government, one’s a member of the opposition. To be more precise, one’s an independent-minded but powerless member of the government coalition; one’s a leading member of the parliamentary opposition, with nothing to lose by attacking as forcefully as possible. Also, one’s 30 years older than the other. See if you can tell which is which from these quotations:

“I am not against a private element in the NHS, which may bring innovatory ideas and good practice, provided it is within the framework of a public service … But why have they tried to get away from the NHS as a public service, among the most efficient, least expensive and fairest anywhere in the world? Why have they been bewitched by a flawed US system that is unable to provide a universal service and is very expensive indeed? The remarkable vision of the 1945 Attlee government, of a public service free at the point of need for all the people of England, should not be allowed to die.”

“As David Cameron’s government railroads the health bill through parliament, MPs are being denied their constitutional role to properly scrutinise his plans for the NHS. The prime minister has already done a political fix with Nick Clegg on the health bill, and now he’s trying to force it through with a procedural fix.”

You’ll note that the second politician says nothing about the substance of what’s being done, why it’s wrong, why it’s not even cost-effective in its own terms, how it betrays one of the greatest reforms of the last century, or for that matter what it is. Instead, this person focuses entirely on procedure and personality, reducing issues of huge importance and interest to playground gossip about rule-breaking and who said what to whom. Apart from anything else, whether or not the revised health bill is being forced through with a “procedural fix” really doesn’t matter, in the scheme of things – if it weren’t being “forced through”, would that make it OK?

Comedy break:

As for who’s who, the first quote came from the semi-detached member of government (Shirley Williams, 81); the second from John Healey (51), who is currently Shadow Health Secretary. Healey was at Cambridge from 1979 to 1982 (as I was myself); he was elected to Parliament 15 years later, having spent the entire intervening period as a political hack (starting with a role as “deputy editor of the internal magazine of the Palace of Westminster, The House Magazine for a year in 1983″). It’s depressing that Baroness Williams sounds so much more left-wing than Healey – what with him being in the Labour Party and so on – but what’s really striking is how much more political she sounds, in the good sense of the word: the sense of talking about how the country is run, in the knowledge that this is a huge and endlessly important subject, and with the awareness that the conversation itself is serious and has been going on for decades. Healey could be talking about backstairs intrigue at Borchester Land.

But perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. It was 1997 when Healey was first elected: his entire parliamentary career has been in New Labour. And New Labour has emphatically not been about principle or history or serious discussion of how the country is run, if only because all of those things were a bit, well, Old Labour. What Blair brought to Labour, as I wrote a while back, wasn’t mere opportunism or lack of principle but something more motivated and more destructive:

it’s more like a commitment to abandoning the party’s principles, repeatedly and demonstratively, so as to disorientate and marginalise the opposition, so as to make it impossible for the party not to be in power. The trouble is, this can’t possibly be a long-term strategy. Political principles aren’t a renewable resource; abandon them once and they’re gone.

And when they’ve all gone, what have you got?

To focus on the issues myself, you can read more about the Tories’ plans to privatise the NHS here. Thanks, Spinwatch.

Just another country

1. The obligatory Italian parallel

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

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

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

2. Three tweets about looting

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

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

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


3. Why Cynthia Jarrett is less relevant than the Martians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. A concluding unscientific postscript
Paul:

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

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

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

And Laurie:

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

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

Always been the same

Some thoughts on AV, mostly culled from the BBC’s Vote 2011 liveblog/twitterfeed/thing.

No to AV means PR is dead, say opponents of PR, who know how to make hay while the sun shines:

2050: No campaign director Matthew Elliott gets a massive cheer as he address supporters at the official count in London. He says the result is “emphatic” and will “settle the debate” on voting change for the “next generation”.

No to AV means PR is dead, say supporters of PR, who apparently don’t:

2130: New Statesman journalist George Eaton tweets: “Those who said “No to AV, Yes to PR” couldn’t look more foolish tonight. Electoral reform dead for a generation.”

1858: Labour’s Tessa Jowell, an AV supporter, says the issue is now closed and there should be no more talk of changing the voting system. The “chance has gone”, she tells Sky News.

You’re all thick, says Prof:

2115: Elections expert Prof John Curtice says the No campaign has apparently won the referendum by securing the support of older people, Conservatives and those who have not enjoyed a university education.

Steady on, say punters:

1920: David Pybus in Whitby writes: “I resent the implication that I’ve been swayed by a dirty No campaign or an inadequate Yes campaign. I haven’t listened to either of them as I had a view before the campaigns started – I voted No because I didn’t want a system introduced that allowed floating voters to have as many votes as there are candidates instead of casting one vote honestly for their preferred candidate”.

2036: Bashir Shah in Blackburn writes: “We were promised PR – we got sold down the river by Clegg and the Lib Dems with AV – a costly, unworkable system that would have caused more confusion and even less participation. The UK has answered in the only way it knew how and the only way it could – NO to AV and NO to the Lib Dems”

2136: Simon Reid in Slough, writes: “Dismayed at the condescending attitude of some Yes supporters. However the essence of democracy is the election of the most supported, not the least unsupported, and so I feel it was doomed to failure. PR would be a different matter, with a genuine alternative”

And it could all have been so different!

2112: It is scant consolation but Yes voters have prevailed in Oxford. There’s a certain irony here as their varsity rivals Cambridge were among only a handful of other areas to support change

Cambridge Yes vote: 54.3%. Oxford Yes vote: 54.1%. Seriously, there is no need to overthink this. Of the minority who bothered to vote, nearly 70% voted No. If seven people vote one way and three vote the other, it’s not generally the seven whose behaviour needs explaining – least of all by invoking their deficient education or creeping senility. The Yes camp scraped a majority in a handful of highly atypical urban districts (they don’t come much more atypical than Oxford and Cambridge), and even there the vote was hardly a thumping majority. (Manchester: 44.5% Yes. Even in Brighton the Yes vote got stuck below 50% – 49.9%, to be precise.)

All that’s just happened is that a big and unpredictable change was proposed, and it was rejected. It wasn’t an outstandingly good change (there were plenty of good arguments against it, and almost all of its main proponents had been in favour of something else a year ago); its effects weren’t explained very well; and the campaign in its favour was spectacularly bad. The entirely unsurprising result was that only 30% of the people bought it. (If we’re talking about campaigns, I have to admit that the No campaign was even worse, but they didn’t have to convince anyone; voting No just meant that you didn’t want the Yes campaign to win.)

A horrible Tory gloats horribly:

The idea that anyone would see Tony Robinson or Eddie Izzard as anything other than a paid-up member of the metropolitan elite was risible. The “Yes” campaign made no attempt to deploy any arguments, or any personnel, with appeal beyond a narrow slice of the soft Left – the one constituency whose support was guaranteed in any case.

The liberal Left was, with pleasing karma, undone by its own narcissism. “Yes” campaigners seemed genuinely not to understand that Caroline Lucas, Ed Miliband and Benjamin Zephaniah do not, among them, cover the entire political spectrum.

(Don’t tell me you didn’t just wince, hypocrite lecteur.)

Another Tory tells it like it is:

Most Liberal Democrats loathe being in coalition with the Conservatives – not least because they know they are now loathed in turn by the ex-Labour supporters who have been lending them their votes since the Iraq War. This is a divided and unhappy party which was never keen on AV in the first place and was neither inclined nor able to win over a sceptical public; any energy it had left was devoted to its traditional pursuits of bellyaching and character assassination. I’m sorry if I’m labouring the point, but there was a reason that the Yes to AV campaign turned so nasty, and that was because it was dominated by Liberal Democrats.

And the fat lady sings:

2015: Actor Stephen Fry tweets: “We AV yessers got our botties spanked. Hey ho. Such is democracy.”

A complicated game

Some thoughts on AV, mostly cut and pasted (it’s late) from comments on other people’s blogs.

First, the mechanics. AV is basically the Single Transferable Vote, but in a single-member constituency. STV gives a seat to every candidate who can muster a ‘quota’ of votes, where a quota is defined as (1/n+1)+1 vote, n being the number of seats in the constituency. In other words, in a three-member seat the three people who can each claim more than a 1/4 of the votes cast get elected (there can’t be more than 3, for obvious reasons.

Now, in AV there is by definition only one seat per constituency, so the quota is 1/2 of all votes cast plus one vote. So the maximum number of voters whose preferences can have no influence at all on the outcome is 50% minus one vote. This potentially leaves a lot of voters out in the cold.

Under the Simple Preference system we’ve got now, the ‘quota’ can only be guaranteed to be as high as 50% if there are only two candidates. In multi-party contests, the winning plurality may be arbitrarily small. Except, actually, not that arbitrarily small. In practice, approximately 10,000 MPs have been elected in the 17 General Elections held since 1945; out of those MPs, only 30 have had less than 33.3% of the vote (source: Wikipedia). Most of those were close to 1/3; the winning plurality has been below 30% 7 times – 1 SNP, 1 DUP, 2 Tory and 3 Lib Dem(!).

So the representation deficit that AV offers to put right is, at worst, the difference between an MP representing 33% of the voters and an MP representing 50% of the voters, with the gap generally being much smaller. And what’s the practical effect of assembling a 50% vote from first and lower preferences instead of going off first preferences? There are two possibilities, represented by these two scenarios.

Scenario 1:

33% vote Left, all with Centre as second preference (L1, C2)
18% vote C1, L2
13% vote Centre, with Right as second preference (C1, R2)
24% vote R1, C2
12% vote Neo-Nazi, with Right as second preference (N1, R2)

First round: N eliminated; 36% R, 33% L, 31% C
Second round: C eliminated: 49% R, 51% L. Left candidate duly elected.

In this scenario 51% of voters are happy – the 33% of the voters who put the L candidate first plus the 18% who put them second; therefore only 49% of the voters are unhappy. Result. But the outcome would have been exactly the same under SP, the only difference being that those 18% of voters have had to explicitly state that they preferred L to R instead of just thinking it to themselves.

Scenario 2:

33% vote L1, C2
16% vote C1, L2
15% vote C1, R2
24% vote R1, C2
12% vote N1, R2

First round: N eliminated; 36% R, 33% L, 31% C
Second round: C eliminated: 51% R, 49% L. Right candidate duly elected.

All that’s changed is the split within the Centre voters, and even that hasn’t changed by much (18/13 to 16/15 – the majority is still C/L rather than C/R). But because the split is slightly different, the happy (represented) 51% now consists of the 24% of the voters whose first preferences went to the Right party, together with the neo-Nazi voters and the minority of Centre voters who preferred Right to Left. It’s not at all clear to me that the fact that 27% of voters for smaller parties lean more to right than to left should be given enough weight to overturn the verdict expressed by first preferences. (According to this paper, in any case, the first scenario would apply most of the time: a full simulation based on survey data found that only 43 of 650 seats would have changed hands if the 2010 election had been held under AV.)

The problem with AV is the way that preferences are counted, and aren’t counted. Under STV, the surplus votes for any candidate who has met the quota are redistributed to second preference parties, in proportion to the overall split of second preferences. Under AV there are no surplus votes – elected is elected, and only one elected candidate is required – so second preferences are weighted differently according to what’s happened to the first preference vote. Some voters’ second preferences are decisive; others’ are never counted. And which party is in which category cannot be predicted. Another scenario:

35% vote Labour 1, Green 2
30% vote Tory 1, Lib Dem 2
14% vote Lib Dem 1, Tory 2
6% vote Lib Dem 1, Green 2
10% vote Green 1, Labour 2
5% vote BNP 1, Tory 2

BNP 1st prefs transfer to the Tories, Green 1st prefs transfer to Labour, some Lib Dem 1st prefs transfer to the Tories and others are wasted because the Green has already been eliminated.

Final score:
Labour 45% (35% 1st pref + 10% transfer from Green)
Tory 49% (30% 1st pref + 19% transfers from Lib Dem and BNP)
The Tory is therefore elected.

But look what happens if we add up the first and second preferences:

Labour: 35% (1) + 10% (2) = 45%
Tory: 30% (1) + 19% (2) = 49%
Lib Dem: 20% (1) + 30% (2) = 50%
Green: 10% (1) + 41% (2) = 51%
BNP: 5% (1) = 5%

On a simple addition of first and second preferences, the Green would actually come top. Even a weighted addition of preferences – what’s known as a Borda count – puts Labour ahead of the Tories, although the Lib Dems and Greens stay in third and fourth place. If those Labour second preferences shouldn’t be counted against their first preferences, why should the Lib Dems’? Big differences in the way votes are counted could rest on very small – and unforeseeable – differences in vote totals.

On the CT thread on AV, I have also argued that (a) AV favours, nay produces, bi-polar contests; (b) AV in Britain would chiefly benefit the third party, the Lib Dems; and (c) that I support PR, which would also benefit the Lib Dems. It looks as if at least one of these statements ought to be incorrect, but I think they’re all valid. The key is to focus on individual constituencies. Up and down the country, the Liberal Democrats consistently campaign on the position that “$X can’t win here”, X being the Tories in Labour seats and Labour in Tory seats. Their interest in three-party politics is strictly tactical; their ideal is to turn every constituency into a “two-horse race” (a phrase that appears in Lib Dem literature almost as often as those bar charts), one of them being the Lib Dems. AV is well suited to producing this result. More generally, AV’s preference-aggregating procedure, and the single-member constituencies which make it necessary, will tend to favour parties whose programmes are bland, opportunistic or both. A minority party with a consistent and distinctive programme will have less chance of getting an MP elected under AV than even under SP; AV structurally favours a smaller number of contenders aggregating a wider range of preferences. I am perhaps biased by my long-established tendency to vote for small left-wing parties: I tend to look at it from the standpoint of a minor party trying to get into the system, and it seems clear to me that the barriers to entry are higher under AV. Indeed, some advocates of AV number among its advantages the fact that it puts smaller parties in a position to exert pressure on larger parties without getting representation in their own right (the two contenders in Australia’s lower house each appear to have a slew of preference-trading satellites); others argue that AV would be a good thing because it would makes the major parties seek votes in the centre ground, making it less likely that they will be dominated by their extreme wings. (These things can’t both be true, but it’s interesting that neither of them has any role for smaller parties with independent representation.)

I also believe that getting AV would damage the movement for electoral reform worse than failing to get it: if AV passes, AV’s supporters and beneficiaries will be happy anyway, the supporters of FPTP will regroup to fight for single-member constituencies, and there’ll be no public appetite for messing around with the electoral system again. Anyone pushing for PR after AV had passed would be told, at best, that the system needed time to bed in before we thought about changing it again; at worst, we’d simply be told that we’d asked for electoral reform and we’d got electoral reform. In addition, I believe that the Coalition would be destabilised far more effectively by failing to get AV (and lighting a fuse under Nick Clegg) than by getting AV (and annoying Tory backwoodsmen, whose main role in life is to be sat on by their leadership); I also think that getting AV would be highly conducive to the perpetuation of a Lib Dem/Tory coalition after the next election. However, I accept that all these points are arguable.

So on balance, no, my position really isn’t one of “pretend that you have reasons other than ‘I hate Nick Clegg’ for your otherwise unjustifiable political position”. My position is one of supporting PR and opposing AV, because I think even our current system is preferable. That’s why I’ll be voting No, and I encourage anyone who thinks likewise to do the same.

The news, it doesn’t change

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

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

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

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

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

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

What this suggests is – one of two things. Either

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

or

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

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

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

Awkward, as they say.

You are the fairest creature

Listen, if you can (the audio may be taken down before long), to this. It’s one of those traditional tunes that seem to do everything that a tune can or should do, twining around the scale like ivy and resolving back where it started. It’s a particularly fine rendition by Jon Boden, with a harsh, keening fiddle accompaniment (played by Jon) which perfectly accentuates the darker notes of the song. I think it might be the best thing Jon’s done all year.

If it has been taken down, have a listen to this:

That is a beautiful song.

Now listen to this:
Scritti Politti, “Hegemony”
There’s no getting away from it – at some level that’s the same song. (And yes, Googling establishes that Green Gartside was a folkie in his youth, and specifically a huge Martin Carthy fan. There’s a small puzzle here, though, which is that Carthy didn’t record the song until 1980, after Scritti Politti had recorded “Hegemony”. He did sing it as part of the score of the theatrical version of “Lark Rise to Candleford”, which was staged at the National Theatre in 1978 and 1979; perhaps Green was in the audience. Either that, or he heard Peter Bellamy’s version, released in 1975.)

I’m slightly staggered by this. Picture a fan of cutting-edge contemporary art who turns his back on the edgy echo-chamber of conceptual this and reinterpreted that, and rediscovers craft – good stuff well made. And imagine that, a few years down the line, he’s appreciating a particularly well-made pot, when he realises that it’s a Grayson bloody Perry. That’s me that is. Here’s a song which does what folk songs do, and does it so well – a slow, deliberate melody; lyrics that say one or two simple things, but simple things that have stayed true; a spare, delicate arrangement. No anxiety, no uncertainty, no rough edges, no contemporary resonance that wasn’t equally resonant 200 years ago. And here’s a song which is pure punk (intellectual wing): it’s all uncertainty and rough edges, an urgent, gabbled bulletin from the front line of one man’s confrontation with the world that faces him. And it’s the same bloody song.

As it happens, although I was vaguely into folk in the 70s – and I did see “Lark Rise” – I never really heard that much of it: Steeleye, Pentangle and, er… By 1979 I had given up on it altogether, partly in reaction against Steeleye’s new direction but mainly because the cultural earthquake of punk had seemed to make it utterly irrelevant. So I never heard “Sweet Lemany” until after I’d got back into folk, 30 years later, in search of the well-made pots of the tradition. Even then I only heard it at singarounds; it was only when I heard Jon Boden’s version last week that I really listened to it. And suddenly I’m back with Green in 1979, agonising over the production of meaning and semantic instability in ‘beat’ music in that legendary Camden squat, and I’m in my room at Cambridge poring over the sleevenotes and feeling his sense of the utter necessity of intellectual work and his despair at the isolation it brings with it –

About the university the pages let you down
It helps you find your way around in any English town
About the university the pages are in French
It helps you find your way around in any English town

And then I’m not.

As I was a-walking one fine summer’s morning,
Oh he fields and the meadows they looked so green and gay;
And the birds were singing so pleasantly adorning,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

Hark, oh hark, how the nightingale is singing,
And the lark she is a-taking her flight all in the air.
On yonder green bower the turtle doves are building,
The sun is just a-glimmering, Arise my dear.

Arise, oh, arise and get your charming posies,
They are the fairest flowers that grow in yonder grove.
I will pluck off them all sweet lilies, pinks and rosies,
All for my Sweet Lemeney, the girl that I love.

Oh, Lemeney, oh, Lemeney, you are the fairest creature,
Yes, you are the fairest creature that ever my eyes did see.
And she played it all over all upon her pipes of ivory,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

How could my true love, how could she vanish from me
Oh, how could she go so I never shall see her more.
Well it was her cruel parents who looked so slightly on me,
And it’s all for the white robe that I once used to wear.

In retrospect there’s something nightmarish about the political life lived with the kind of intensity that Green appeared to advocate back then. Certainly there’s a nightmarish quality, rather than a hopeful or liberating one, about the idea that everything could and should be transformed, from the conventions of pop songwriting to the living conditions of the band – after all, what if you forgot something, or allowed your guard to slip, and the old world crept back in? (“And ‘common sense’ is things just as they are”.) But if you get to the point where everything is a problem, the problem that you need to deal with is all yours. Green has dismissed the recordings of this period as “some anti-produced labour of negativity, kind of structurally unsound and exposed, by design and default … evocative of extraordinary times and a bit winceworthy”. For all that he’s the artist, that seems more like a list of symptoms than a description of the condition. I think something like “Hegemony” is best seen as the product of an attempt to fuse three things – the music, the politics, the personal sense of urgency and wrongness – which didn’t really belong together and certainly didn’t fit together. It struck some extraordinary sparks – thirty years on I still know “Hegemony” word for word, which is saying something given that I’m not even sure what all the words are – but it couldn’t ever work. The trouble was, the fact that it didn’t work chimed with the personal sense of the world’s wrongness, which was validated by the politics, and round the process went again.

I remember reading an interview with Jackie Leven, in about 1980, in which he talked about having worked his way to a place where he’d regained his innocence – “waking up a virgin the morning after the gang-bang” was his image. Green recovered his psychic virginity by journeying into shiny manicured pop – a long way from the anxiously self-deconstructing racket of “Hegemony”, and a long way from “Sweet Lemoney” too. As for me, Scritti Politti’s first few releases meant a huge amount to me at the time, and an important time it was too – Green was a lasting intellectual influence on me, just before Raymond Williams and a couple of years ahead of Guy Debord. So it’s interesting – and somehow at once chastening and heartening – to think how much of the power of those songs came from the music; and how much of the music, in this case, came from a song that had nothing to do with the manufacture of consensus and a lot to do with love and flowers.

“Hegemony” is still strange, powerful and unsettling; some of the songs Green wrote a couple of years later, on the cusp of his rediscovery of pop, are amazing (“The ‘Sweetest Girl'”, “Lions after slumber”, “Jacques Derrida”). But I’m going to stick with Limandie, playing on her pipes of ivory at the break of day. For all the tradition-garbled pastoral imagery, that song’s still about something true – and it’s something much more livable-with than “Hegemony”‘s anguished protest at the impossibility of changing everything immediately. The old songs endure, with their strangely elaborate melodies, their stock of familiar images and their tiny repertoire of subjects – love, sex, babies, death. They’re songs to remember.

Cheers then mate

The second point I want to make about the debate over last Saturday’s violence (following on from the previous post) is about the representation of violence in the media.

There’s a widespread view that the black bloc’s approach was wrong because of how it looked – specifically, because of how it looked on TV. Thus Christopher Phelps on Sunday:

Here is what the story for yesterday’s demonstration should have been: half a million marchers, in the largest show of labour union strength in decades, turn out to oppose the government’s draconian cuts.

Here is what the story became: a few hundred anarchists, many dressed in black, trashed businesses and clashed with police on Oxford Street and in Trafalgar Square.

The anarchists, calling themselves the black bloc, stole the headlines from the 500,000 other protesters who’d travelled from all over the UK to express the refusal of millions to accept austerity as the consequence of a crisis they did not create.

and commenter Andrew on CT:

Demonstrations matter only insofar as they impact public perception. You have x minutes on the news, y column inches, and z number of reported salient facts to make that impact.

It makes very little difference whether those actually at the demonstration saw a mostly peaceful gathering; what matters is x, y, and z – at least if you’re interested in effecting change.

A small group of anarchists can switch over any number of those z salient facts, x TV minutes, and y column inches to negative.

Call me an old pro-situ, but I get very twitchy when I see it argued that what matters about a demonstration is how it looks on TV. It reminds me of something Joe Strummer (and a few friends) said in 1977, in the middle of a rendering of “What’s My Name” that was being shown on Revolver. Sang, rather – he inserted an extra verse, which went like this:

JOE: Here we are on TV!
What does it mean to me?

[looks at crowd]
What does it mean to you?
JOE AND CROWD: F*** ALL!

I remember that feeling: what mattered was to do it yourself, and if you couldn’t do that what mattered was to be there. And if you couldn’t do that, well, you could read about it in the NME, and read the letters the following week saying the first writer got it all wrong, and try to get along next time. Punk could disrupt TV, but it couldn’t work within TV any more than it could work within the marketplace – what would be the point? (Punk didn’t last.)

Radical politics, same same. As a general thing I think we all pay far too much attention to rally-as-spectacle as distinct from rally-as-collective-event. I’ve been on marches and demos, and I can confirm what Simon and Edd say:

A great thing about protests is the transformations in political consciousness that take place: people no longer feel alone, they feel empowered and part of something big; they are prompted to think about the issues that moved them to protest; they form political friendships.

There are moments, on huge demonstrations, where you can see and feel the ocean of people surrounding you, the jokes being cracked, the songs being sung, the drums beating. You lose a friend in the crowd, swap an anecdote with a stranger, and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Even at a small demo of a couple of hundred people, the atmosphere changes; life feels different. Collective action seems like a reality, a possible way of living – in fact, for the duration of the demo collective action is a reality, and you’re living it. This change in the air is only temporary, and it has built-in limits. To continue the quote from Edd:

and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Then you walk past Parliament and Downing Street, and you remember that just marching never makes any difference.

But it’s a temporary experience that can be returned to and built on. Back to Simon:

Uplifting mass protests, though, come with a danger attached. Unless they become the beginning of something sustained, with the capacity to keep a large number of ordinary people engaged, they can serve to simply defuse anger at the expense of political change. … This must be the first mass demonstration against this government, but not the last. There have to be regional events, industrial action, and occupations.

If it becomes the beginning of that sort of process – or, more precisely, another step in the development of that process, which (future historians may judge) began last autumn with the university occupations – the march will have done its job. What it looked like on TV is neither here nor there.

I’ve been particularly bemused by Harry’s argument on CT, seconding Christopher Phelps’s piece and comparing the march with the (huge and inspiring) mobilisation in Wisconsin. Harry:

We’ve lost in the short term (but so have the Brits), and yes, now, the issue is reversing some of the damage (as in the UK case). But we were not, according to the opinion polls, smeared as extremists or as having done $m of damage. That is, the party in power attempted to smear us as such, but failed … People are upbeat and optimistic, which enables them to do the dreary footwork of going to meetings, taking petitions door to door, making the arguments to their recalcitrant neighbors and workmates … 150 anarchists (or whatever they are) would have had a good shot at making the smears successful.

I think CP’s original piece was a bit of a vent, partly probably because the Brits seem so inured (as lots of you do) to this kind of thing and its effects, accepting that it will happening and discounting the effects of good press, or of negative press that can’t actually get a grip on the public because there is nothing to back it up. He doesn’t have a solution, nor do I, but it sounds as if nobody here thinks these folks can be more marginalised than they already are. Maybe that’s right, but its hard to believe.

Here’s why I’m bemused:

good press

I remember being at a union meeting, about 25 years ago, discussing possible strike action (it was a bit easier in those days; the first time I went on strike the decision was taken at a mass meeting, would you believe). A senior manager who had come along spoke at some length about how striking just now couldn’t achieve anything, there was this going on and that just round the corner, so really it was the wrong time to strike. Someone asked – either very naively or not naively at all – whether, in that case, he would support us if we called a strike in three months’ time. The manager actually laughed at this – No, of course not! I’m management!

I feel very similar about the possibility of demonstrations ever getting ‘good press’ in this country – and about the related question of the policing of demonstrations ever getting a bad press. There is a narrative of the events of last Saturday which assumes that the overall outcome was negative and locates all the responsibility for this in the black bloc: something like

1. Mass peaceful demo
2. Violence by anarchists
3. Police are forced to attack anarchists to prevent violence
4. Media are bound to cover anarchist violence, because it’s more newsworthy than the peaceful demo
5. Demonstrators smeared as vandals and hooligans, lose popular support

(More radical commenters may substitute “are forced to” at 3. with “take the opportunity to”.) By contrast, in Wisconsin there was

1. Mass peaceful direct action
2. No violence by anarchists
3. Police not forced to take on anarchists
4. Media cover peaceful demo
5. Demonstrators not smeared as vandals and hooligans, retain popular support

Which sounds great, and I’m glad the mobilisation is going so well in Wisconsin. But I’m also slightly baffled, for three reasons. Firstly, I’ve never believed that the police reaction to a demonstration is something that can be controlled by the demonstrators – any demonstrators. The relationship between political activity, heavy policing and arrests for public order offences is very well established in this country; it goes back to Duncan v Jones 1936, in which the court effectively endorsed the right of a police officer to prevent a public meeting taking place if the officer anticipated that disorder would result. The police, the logic runs, are there to prevent disorder, which may involve restraints on political activity; if the form taken by these necessary restraints involves physical force (or the denial of freedom of movement), too bad. This way of thinking gives limitless discretion to the police in deciding when a forceful response is needed: it does nothing to prevent them from escalating the level of confrontation unnecessarily, or even from provoking a level of violence which will justify the use of superior force on their part. The first of these certainly happened in and around Trafalgar Square on Saturday, and from what I saw (on TV!) I wouldn’t rule out the second.

Secondly, I’ve never believed that demonstrators have any influence over the media coverage of the demonstration, either. Where there is violence – any violence – it will be focused on, and the narrative of the Violent Minority who Spoil Everything will get trotted out. (Interestingly enough, where there is mass violence, as at Millbank, the narrative of the Violent Minority will still get trotted out.) In the unlikely event that a demo passes off completely peacefully, they’ll find another stick to beat it with – I remember coming home from a huge Anti-Nazi League demo with my mother (who had gone along with the Christians Against Racism And Fascism contingent) and hearing the BBC newsreader explain that the size of the demo was all down to “the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party, which has been recruiting in schools”. I still watch the news – let’s not get all this out of proportion; I still call the police if I get burgled, too – but, when it comes to reporting protest, the media are not on our side and never have been. In the case of last Saturday, I don’t believe the day would ever have ended without a few breakages and some graffiti – or, for that matter, without the Met getting some kettling action; consequently I don’t believe the media coverage would ever have been positive or unbiased or balanced or respectful. Everything would always have been Spoilt.

Thirdly, and to end on a positive note: after all that, I don’t believe the anti-cuts movement has lost any popular support. Or rather, I don’t believe it’s lost any of the popular support that it had. Like Simon, I started the day following Twitter (#march26, #26march or #march26march?), and like him I was struck by the level of hostility displayed by a few people. And this was while the coaches were still on their way – people were denouncing the march before it had even set off, much less been ‘hijacked’ or ‘eclipsed’. Some people really hate trade unionists; some people really hate workers in the public sector generally. Some people are convinced (at least for as long as it takes to compose a one-line message) that real workers – good, honest, British workers – cross picket-lines, work Saturdays and don’t get a pension, and that the worst injustice being done to these hardy souls is the extraction of income tax from their pay. And, needless to say, some people hate the whole idea of collective action. We didn’t lose the support of any of those people, and it’s hard to see how we could have gained it. So who did we lose? Are there a lot of people out there who didn’t go on the march and don’t know anyone who might have gone, and who might have supported it but for the intervention of the violent anarchists? Even if there are, can we be sure that taking the anarchists out of the picture would have resulted in media coverage that was entirely supportive, or police reactions that were entirely proportionate and restrained?

I don’t think we should be too quick to heap blame on the violent minority: partly because they aren’t entirely to blame for the impression that’s been created around them, and partly because that impression may not have done all that much damage. But there’s also a third reason, which is that the demand to identify, isolate and denounce ‘violent extremists’ is a very old one, and one which rarely does the Left any good – or is meant to. I’ll get on to that in the next post.

An extremist scrape

Our Margit declares if hoo’d cloas to put on,
Hoo d go up to Lundun an’ see the young Queen,
An if things didn’t alter when hoo had been,
Hoo swears hoo would fight, blood up to th’een.
Hoo’s nought agen t’queen, but hoo likes a fair thing,
An’ hoo says hoo can tell when hoo’s hurt.
– “The Four Loom Weaver” (trad., 1830s)

Well, I didn’t go – partly influenced, I confess, by dystopian fantasies of mass kettling – and it went off brilliantly:

a wonderful, spirited, and conviction-driven multitude of ordinary people, representative of the British population in their diversity, marched in their hundreds of thousands.In doing so, they made it clear – we made it clear – that we simply will not accept the dismantling of our welfare state and public services

And I’m not going to qualify that. The march went off brilliantly. Half a million people, give or take, assembled in the middle of the capital to protest against the government’s attack on public services. Activists, burnt-out veterans and absolute beginners, they came from all over the country – from the post-industrial northwest to the Tory shires – and they marched together. It was a truly remarkable march and it went off brilliantly.

Shall we look at that picture again?

I was right the first time: that was what last Saturday looked like. Cheerful, united, determined and very, very large.

If you stop here you won’t miss much. Continue reading

Go! Goodbye!

“In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, citizens, during these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of president of the republic and has charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country. May God help everybody.”
– Omar Suleiman, 16:12 GMT, 11/2/2011

You can no longer depend on the land in which you were born.
You can no longer depend on any land in which you choose to place yourself.
You can no longer depend on the bed in which you lie by night, or the room in which you sit by day.
You can no longer depend on the pillow on which you lay your head.
You can no longer depend on your lover for anything.
You can no longer depend on the existence of silence in your mind when you close your eyes.
Go to England, baby-raper, false economist! Call yourself King Charles III.
Nobody will notice. Nobody will be alarmed. There is no constitution.
Go! Goodbye!
Goodbye.

They’ve done it; they’ve actually done it. It took eighteen days, but they’ve done it.

The significance of Mubarak stepping down as President today cannot be overstated. It marks the arrival onto the stage of history the Arab masses as an actor rather than the passive and infantilised observers they had been for generations. The stranglehold of dictatorship has been broken from below.

The Arab world shall never be the same. The remaining dictatorships and kleptocracies throughout the region have just moved closer to their end. In Washington, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv frantic efforts to adapt to a new reality will be taking place.
John Wight, Socialist Unity

You know something big has happened – or is starting to happen – when you get that sense that the power holders of the world are running to keep up. Something’s happening here, but they don’t know what it is…

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Of course, what comes next is anybody’s guess, and it certainly won’t be the triumph of a movement of generalised occupation and the establishment of workers’ councils (which some of us were hoping for). This is where the real struggle starts. But that’s precisely the victory that’s been won: after 30 years of imperialist-imposed stasis, the people of Egypt have won the right to fight their own battles. A clock that was stopped half a lifetime ago has started again. This, perhaps, is why the Eastern Bloc parallels seem so appropriate. Here’s another, from 1989.

Nagy Imre, 1896 – 1958

These are the hard times. Not the remembered days
Of tanks in the streets and firing in the square;
When today was torn off from yesterday, when
The light of the day was broken, swept aside,
Reduced to painful breaths in a doorway
As the achieved future rolls on past you;
Not hearing your ruler confess imaginary crimes,
Starved in tie and glasses; sentenced; shot;
Buried under earth and a number. Now,
Thirty-one, thirty-three years on – these are the hard times.

For their future is over, and you are still here.
All that we do is watch, but we have watched
While their history moved on, while the decades
Ground into place, slabs across our memories.
It wasn’t enough – thirty-one years, thirty-three –
And they are tired and their future is over,
And people whose children lie in the empty coffin
Are still here. The present begins again for you
As we still watch. And these are the hard times.

Husni Mubarak’s future is over – the future so many people wanted to prolong, from the government of Israel to Tony Blair. The people he oppressed are still here. These are the hard times, right enough – but now is a time for celebration.

Avert your eyes from his gaze

Michael Gove is an enduring mystery to me. (For some time I was convinced that he was the same Mike Gove who ran the UK branch of the OS/2 User Group in the 1990s – something which would make him quite interesting in a perverse corporate-rebellious sort of way, as well as conferring considerable geek cred – but apparently that was someone else.) How on earth has such a sanctimonious nullity risen so far? He seems to be trading on a reputation as an intellectual, validated by his experience as a broadsheet journalist. But that just raises the same question in a different form: however did someone with so little to say, and such an irritating way of saying it, achieve so much prominence in the media? (He even used to appear on the Review Show, of all things – although on reflection that’s not such a surprise: even at its best that programme was basically a blend of heavyweight contrarianism (Paulin, Greer) with lightweight ditto (Tony Parsons, Allison Pearson), and these days the heavyweight slot seems to get taken by Natalie Haynes or Bidisha.)

Perhaps part of what Gove has going for him, from the Right’s point of view, is that he’s a good hater. The other week on the News Quiz, Jeremy Hardy recalled how Gove, in opposition and writing for the Times, had outed him and Linda Smith as SWP moles, infiltrating the commanding heights of Radio 4 comedy programmes so as to, er… have to get back to you on that. I was curious, and didn’t entirely take the story at face value (he’s a comic, he tells good stories), so I did some googling. Initially I thought Jeremy Hardy was talking about Revolutionaries with RP accents, a lump of Goveage that appeared in the paper at the end of 2004. (Some bloke on Twitter seems to have come to the same conclusion.) But on inspection that story was attacking the BBC for putting on Hardy & Smith (and Mark Steel! he’s another one you know!):

Radio 4 operates, as so many British institutions do, on two levels. Its structures reflect the natural conservatism of the British people, but the world view of its guiding spirits is more naturally radical, leftish and Guardianista. From the Royal Opera House to the Foreign Office, the same combination of traditional outward forms legitimising bien-pensant attitudes is at work.

The most successful leftwingers in British life have been those, such as Clement Attlee, whose personal style has been most bourgeois. It was no coincidence that, during the 1980s, the greatest threat to moderation within the Labour Party came from one sect, Militant, which insisted on a certain douce respectability from its adherents, demanding that they appear suited and tied, while other Trotskyists wallowed in combat-jacketed irrelevance.

The leftish bias in Radio 4’s content manifests itself subtly, yet insistently. Voices from the far Left such as Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy are introduced on the News Quiz, or given their own shows, in a way which gives no clue to their political shading. The station treats them as though they were souls with no mission save laughter, like Humphrey Lyttleton or Nicholas Parsons, but the humour of Smith, Hardy and others such as Mark Steel is deployed for a particular polemical and political purpose.

Which is a bit different from accusing them of infiltrating; an unkind way of putting it would be to say that it’s a higher level of paranoia – “actually it turns out they don’t even need to infiltrate, because actually the people running Radio 4 want them there…” (In passing, I was also struck by the reference to “commentators from the Left, such as Jonathan Freedland or Andrew Rawnsley”. Perhaps they’re sleepers.)

Then I found this from the New Statesman:

The red menace, like the poor, is always with us. We must all be grateful to Michael Gove of the Times for taking a fresh look under the bed. In two articles, he reports that Trotskyist and communist organisations, all “dedicated to eventual revolution . . . and hostile to private property and profit”, have sunk old sectarian disputes to become the Socialist Alliance. Inevitably, he finds they are behind the recent rail strikes and are set to tighten their grip on “a major British institution” (he seems to mean South West Trains). Worse, they have “infiltrated” the legal profession. But most damning is their “skilful manipulation of the media”. Socialist Alliance stalwarts such as Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith, disguised as comedians, get themselves on Radio 4, notably The News Quiz, where they “make jokes about the Conservatives and the government”.

Date: 21st January 2002. This looks much more promising. Googling found a copy of the first of the two articles, which is dated 15th January and makes quite interesting reading. (Pardon the long quote – this is actually a fairly heavily edited excerpt from the original column.)

The biggest component in the Socialist Alliance is the old Socialist Workers Party (SWP) … As well as old Bennites and the SWP, the Alliance has fused together a bewildering array of hard-left parties. They include the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Socialist Group (not to be confused with the also allied International Socialist League), the Revolutionary Democratic Group, Socialist Solidarity Network, the Alliance for Workers Liberty, Workers International, Workers Power and Red Action. What unites these groups, apart from membership of the Alliance, is a commitment to Marxist thought and practice. Dedicated to eventual revolution, contemptuous of social democrats such as the Blair Government, and hostile to private property and profit, they remain dedicated followers of communism long after others in the Left have condemned it as the god that failed. None, perhaps, are as deeply dyed revolutionaries as Red Action.

Listed on the Socialist Alliance website as a fully participating organisation, Red Action has a record of violent protest that stretches from low-level street violence to the involvement of two of its members, Patrick Hayes and Jan Taylor, in an IRA bombing campaign. On Red Action’s website, its part in planting a bomb outside Harrods in 1993 and placing another on a train from Victoria to Ramsgate is recorded. The website also notes Red Action’s leadership role in the organisation Anti-Fascist Action and AFA’s involvement in deliberately triggering street brawls with the British National Party. … Under the Alliance’s umbrella constitution Red Action members have the same rights as the Pilgers and Pinters to help to select candidates and vote on policy. But the existence of an IRA-supporting, street violence-endorsing group among the Alliance coalition does not yet apparently attract the criticism of other activists such as Tariq Ali, Greg Tucker, Jeremy Hardy or Imran Khan, the campaigning lawyer.

The Stop the War Coalition is run by, and in the interests of, the Alliance, allowing it to proselytise and recruit. It is only one of several organisations run by Alliance activists. Others include the anti-globalisation movement Globalise Resistance and the race-campaigning National Civil Rights Movement run by Suresh Grover … More targeted, but no less important for the Alliance, has been the industrial action of the RMT. The timing of the strike on South West Trains has given Tucker and [Bob] Crow the perfect opportunity to secure attention as the workers’ defenders in advance of next month’s internal elections. The death of Jimmy Knapp left the position of general secretary vacant and Crow is determined to secure it, along with the funds, influence, and strike-calling power it yields. If Crow is successful, Tucker is in line to step into his shoes as the union’s number three.

Crow was a former member of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party before joining forces with the Alliance. The SLP is almost certainly Britain’s hardest-line left-wing party. It supported Slobodan Milosevic’s presidency, argued that the September 11 bombings were America’s own fault and had a “Stalin Society” in its ranks for that large proportion of its members who venerated the memory of the Russian dictator. Whether Crow left the SLP because its ideological position proved too much, or he thought its political prospects came to so little, has never been made clear. Tucker is a Trotskyist, a member of the International Socialist Group (ISG) that proudly proclaims its adherence to the Leon Trotsky-venerating Fourth International of revolutionary parties. The ISG believes that social democratic governments such as new Labour are continuing an “offensive against the working class” and argue that revolutionaries such as themselves should enter and take over “broad campaigns” to advance as part of a “United Front.” Tucker is secretary of the London Socialist Alliance and was granted leave by South West Trains to stand as an ISG candidate, under the Socialist Alliance umbrella, in Streatham during the last election. Tucker’s platform did not, however, attract many fellow travellers. He secured only 906 votes, barely denting the majority of the incumbent Labour MP, Keith Hill. It is expected, however, that Tucker can rely on many more votes in the forthcoming RMT election than he secured in Streatham.

The effective takeover of the RMT by Alliance supporters such as Crow and Tucker worries the TUC high command. In a private briefing note they have recorded that he has “been associated with around 30 strikes in his ten years in office” and he “believes strike action raises the class-consciousness of the rank and file.” The TUC fears that “if an extreme left team are elected the result will be more chaos on the railways.” Success for the Alliance in the RMT elections would, on the basis of its activists’ pronouncements, lead to more politically motivated disruption. It would also mark the raising of the hard Left’s flag over a major British institution. There is a red warning signal flashing on Britain’s rail network. And no ministerial hand is reaching for the brake.

Socialist Alliance, eh? Those were the days. But anyway… In some ways this is standard right-wing froth: note the entire paragraph about the relatively insignificant Red Action (you do realise they actually support the IRA?) and another about the totally insignificant SLP (Scargill, you know he really is a Communist?). What stands out is the level of detail, in those paragraphs and elsewhere. I mean, that’s some serious leftist trainspotting; I didn’t even know that about the ISL being affiliated to the SA. (The ISL is of course the British section of the Lambertist LIT, and – as Gove says – not to be confused with the ISG, which was the British section of the Fourth International.) Also note the tone: he knew who he hated, did Gove, and he hated every single one of them (or should I say ‘us’): he wanted there to be no doubt that he loathed the entire Left, from the Bennites leftwards. Which, ironically, rather undermines the effect of all that research (or all those briefings), once you start to put it all together: it’s not at all clear to me in what sense the harmless old Stalin Society was more “hard-line” than the anti-Leninist Red Action, for instance. But this infodump wasn’t really put on display for analytical purposes. We point, we jeer, we demand that Something is Done, without troubling too much about the detail (what exactly was a “ministerial hand” supposed to do about the menace of Stalino-Trotskyite railway chaos – arrest Bob Crow and put him on trial for subversion?). Then we turn the page, feeling worldly-wise and pleasantly outraged. Job done.

But, sadly, there’s nothing in there about the “skilful manipulation of the media”, or about the dastardly leftist comedy plot. So if anyone out there is in a position to leaf through the Times for the month of January 2002, hilarity awaits – along with insight into Michael Gove’s mental processes, although perhaps that’s less of an incentive.

In the mean time, consider this (paywalled) from Robert Hanks’s review in the current LRB of a new biography of Dennis Wheatley:

Wheatley suffered from a sickly adoration of the rich and well-born, and a contrasting suspicion of the masses and any political system that allowed them any influence. … In 1955, proposing the motion at the Oxford Union ‘that equality is in theory a pestilential heresy and in practice a pitiful illusion,’ Wheatley argued that extra votes should be given to those of ‘superior mentality’. He was sure that he would come under that heading.

[after marrying] he continued the life of conscious hedonism, dressing and dining beyond his means, chasing (at times his technique seems to have verged on stalking) women, at one point installing a mistress in a flat. He built up an expensive collection of books, mainly erotica and modern first editions

His first published work, The Forbidden Territory (1933), was an immediate hit … A thriller set in Soviet Russia, it introduced Wheatley’s ‘Four Musketeers’: the wealthy, worldly-wise Duke de Richleau, a monarchist exile from France, and his young friends Simon Aron, a brilliant Jewish banker, Rex Van Ryn, a brash, genial American multimillionaire, and the comparatively colourless Englishman Richard Eaton, supposedly a self-portrait. The plot (a hunt for tsarist treasure, a Bolshevik scheme for world domination – plus a bit of romance) is a helter-skelter mess … the action is, as one critic observed, ‘essentially Ruritanian’, and Wheatley’s prose, overwrought and under-punctuated, barely readable.

You get the general idea. Wheatley was a dreadful man – an arrogant, snobbish, libertine mediocrity – who turned out really dreadful books (“Duke de Richleau“? would an editor who could spell have been too much to ask for?) However, he was good at marketing (before he ran the family firm into the ground, apparently, he was “something of a pioneer of wine bullshit”). And, while he was a man of fixed and rather strange ideas, his prejudices were entirely compatible with the maintenance of the status quo, which never hurts. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that Wheatley still seems to have at least one fan:

one journalist wrote that Wheatley ‘of all people, deserves to come back from the dead and win a new following of thrill-starved souls in thrall to his dark magic’. That was Michael Gove; the idea that a man who admires Wheatley is now in charge of the nation’s schools is more genuinely terrifying than anything Wheatley ever wrote.

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