Category Archives: the Right

Not saying, just saying

I’ll get back to the poetry shortly. I just wanted to put down a memory that was stirred by the Anne Marie Morris furore. The evidence that the phrase is common currency in some circles – despite having been so thoroughly lost to the language more generally as to cause both offence and bafflement when Morris used it – is compelling and, frankly, odd. If people (some people) were using a word that’s now streng verboten in normal usage, but using it for the sake of a familiar and resonant idiom, that would be one thing. Using it for the sake of an idiom from the Old (American) South, and one that’s so unfamiliar that most people commenting aren’t entirely sure what it means or whether Moss was even using it correctly – well, it’s odd, and that’s the polite word for it.

A few people have taken to Twitter with memories of hearing an aged relative use the phrase forty years ago, to be met with pursed lips or worse from the speaker’s younger and more enlightened relations. I had a faint memory myself of hearing my mother use the phrase – or rather, quote someone else using it – in a context that made it quite clear that the point of using it was to say that word. But I couldn’t remember the details until just now, when the whole thing bubbled gloopily up to the surface. So here you go.

When my younger sister went to secondary school, my mother got a part-time job, working for the civil service. We lived near Croydon, so what that meant was working for the Home Office in Lunar House, where the immigration applications were processed. I was in Sixth Form at the time and was frequently at home when my mother came home in the early afternoon; I remember we used to have a cup of tea and share a Caramel bar. They had a huge backlog of applications at the time, and it seemed to be growing faster than they could bring it down. Still, they had a pretty good time of it, up there in Lunar House. One Christmas my mother let me come along to see the ‘cabaret’ they’d laid on for the staff party. One man dragged up as Tammy Wynette and led the room in a rousing chorus of “S B Y M” (sic; I never knew why he resorted to initials). Another dropped his trousers at one point to reveal Union Jack underpants. My mother said afterwards that he was the office racist – and an open member of the National Front – and the general thinking was that he probably wore them most days.

But if he was known as the office racist, that does suggest that he was the only one… well, maybe. I certainly remember my mother saying that the level of racism among the Immigration Officers who worked at ports and airports was much, much worse; predictably, Underpants Man was hoping to get transferred (promoted?) out of that office to an IO role. She herself genuinely couldn’t be doing with racism; it’d be silly to imagine that a middle-class White British woman of her generation “didn’t have a racist bone in her body”, as people like to say, but she’d certainly decided some time ago that racism was something she didn’t intend to indulge, in herself or others. This was when the NF were at their height, and when people were organising against them – RAR, the ANL; my mother was a member of Christians Against Racism And Fascism, who struck me as the nicest group of well-meaning Guardian-readers you could hope to meet. Their mailings always seemed to arrive torn and crumpled, all the same. Can’t be too careful, eh?

The other thing about my mother was that she tended to attract people who wanted someone to talk to. There was a rather posh young Black man in the office who confided in her quite regularly, although she was never quite sure how much he was confiding, or how much he knew he was confiding. He would often go for walks at night, just around and about, and sometimes he would meet another man and they’d have a nice chat; it was all very pleasant. One night he met a charming little man who bought him a drink and then gave him a watch. (He showed my mother the watch; it looked good.) We were convinced he was going to get beaten up or worse one of these nights, but happily he never did.

Then there was a very respectable but rather loud Black woman, who also latched on to my mother (perhaps the level of racism in the office was a bit higher than I thought) but who my mother didn’t take to. And this, in case you’ve been wondering, is where we get back to the point – for it was she who used the ‘woodpile’ phrase. As my mother told it, she dropped it – or dragged it – into conversation, quite deliberately and emphatically – “…that’s the N in the W!” (No mystery why I resorted to initials there.) It may even have been applied to herself, talking about some situation where she would stand out or where her presence would be a giveaway – “…and I’d be the N in the W!” Either way, she drove home the exclamation mark by giving her audience a hard stare – as if to say, “anyone offended? are you offended? I don’t know why, because I’m not offended!

It was alright in the 1970s, as they say. I remember this story because of my mother’s reaction when she retold it: disgust, for the most part, but tempered by a kind of grudging respect for the cost and complexity of the manoeuvre this woman had carried out. Not only was she pitching for acceptance by endorsing a prejudice that could – would – be turned against her; she was doing so by endorsing a collective denial that it existed or mattered, in the certain knowledge that the denial was a lie. That’s cold, and it’s low, and it’s desperate and sad – but you could also say it’s smart, and you could certainly say it’s self-denying. (Costly signalling, in short.)

Anyway: that was 1977 or 1978 – around 40 years ago, either way. And back then, in comfortable Tory-voting Croydon, the phrase “N in the W” had a distinct and easily-recognised function: it was what you said when you wanted to signal that you were a member of the group that agreed to deny that racism existed. That signal in turn served a definite purpose: it guaranteed that your racism wouldn’t be challenged and – more importantly – it let the rest of the group know that you wouldn’t challenge their racism.

So when Tories react to being caught using this phrase by denying outright that it’s in any way racist, or else by insisting that they didn’t mean to offend anyone, we shouldn’t really be surprised. That’s the point of using the phrase in the first place – to deny that racism is racism (look, it’s just a word!), or else to deny that it’s offensive (look, nobody’s upset!). Once one or both of those flags have been run up, we can relax; we know we’re among friends and we can speak freely. If you know what I mean.

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In another country

It’s now just over a year on from the assassination of Jo Cox. Since the election, the national mood seems utterly changed. For the first time since the murder, I’m beginning to lose the sense that it was a wake-up call to the worst and most carefully hidden corners of the English collective unconscious (look! somebody’s stood up to those people! somebody’s hit back!). At least, perhaps it wasn’t only that.

But the Pontyclun Van Hire attack reminds us that we’re not out of the woods yet. So, in a different way, do the horrors of Grenfell Tower – the superhuman efforts of unpaid volunteers, and of an underfunded, overstretched fire service; the local council endeavouring to limit its liabilities to the inconvenient proles, if necessary by shipping them out of town;  the borderline-illegal pennypinching decisions that made the fire possible, apparently made by an Arm’s Length Management Organisation [sic], operating without adequate regulatory oversight. Something I wrote just after Jo Cox’s assassination – and just before the EU Referendum – seems relevant again:

Think levers: if I hate the boss who ignored the union and cut my pay, or the people who got their guy elected to the committee, or the people who got their policy passed, or the party that got their candidate elected, the emotion I’m feeling is expressed within a framework of action and accountability. I hate people who have used political mechanisms to change things to my disadvantage, and I can do something about that: I can use those same mechanisms myself. Take those mechanisms away, though, and where have you got to put your hatred? Talk about hating the boss in a non-union shop and you get funny looks – people know there’s nowhere for that antagonism to go (or nowhere that doesn’t end badly for them) and they learn not to express or even feel it.

In a world with no available, usable, everyday politics, it’s hard – or pointless, which amounts to the same thing – to hate people who have direct power over you. What happens instead is that hatred gets channelled onto safe targets, which means targets that aren’t going to hit back: either because they’re unreachably distant (those faceless Brussels eurocrats!) or because they’re powerless. And that’s what migrants are – like asylum seekers, benefit claimants, convicted criminals, terror suspects, Travellers: they’re people you can kick down against when you’re angry, without any concern that they might kick back at you. You’re angry, you feel hatred, you kick down. Politics turns into a different kind of lever-pulling – the lever pressed by the laboratory rat that delivers a food pellet or a jolt of electric pleasure.

I can’t tell you how distraught and angry I was after Jo Cox was assassinated. … I thought, this is where we are now. This is the world we’re living in. And I thought, no quarter. No compromise. No useless leniency. It took me [three days] to calm down. Even now, I think there’s a lot of sense in what Ken wrote five years ago, after a greater – but horribly similar – crime:

“Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity. As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.”

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

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

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

“As for Fascists … their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.” I wrote that line without much reflection – it just felt right. Conceptually, that is; it didn’t immediately feel like an accurate description of the world, either then or when the referendum result came in. Now, though, I wonder – not whether the Right is weak, but how deep (and wide) the weakness of the Right runs.

To Do (For Everyone)

  1. Rise like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number
  2. Get involved
  3. Learn some committee procedure

There’s going to be a lot to do.

Come on kids

Something that’s always puzzled me about David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann – and about people like John Harris, whose writing shows less virulent signs of the same disease – is the question of what they think they’re doing. To put it another way, who do they think they’re talking to – and why?

1. My old man’s a diplomat, he wears a diplomat’s hat

If you’re a Marxist, these things are fairly straightforward. The telos, the good thing, is class consciousness, leading to the constitution of the working class as a class-for-itself; anything that hastens the development of class consciousness is to be welcomed and fostered, while anything that retards it is to be resisted and fought. Intellectuals have a job to do here, as class consciousness would involve the sustained recognition of lived realities which currently only become apparent patchily and intermittently; there’s a lot of They Live about this perspective, and more than a touch of The Thing Itself. Class consciousness would be a good thing because those realities are, well, real, and it’s always a step forward to recognise the real thing that ails you – particularly when the recognition is shared and you can act on it collectively (which is arguably what happens in strikes). Specifically, it’s a step forward into rational self-interest, out of myths and misunderstandings which misdirect our energies and keep us fighting among ourselves. As for the role of the intellectual, you can frame it (as Marx did) as the defection of parts of the ruling bourgeoisie to the rising class. Alternatively, you could just argue that workers are constantly engaging with the distorting perspectives of bourgeois ideology, and intellectual workers (like what I am) are in the privileged position of being able to do so consciously. Although at the moment the marking takes up most of the day, and at night I just like a cup of tea.

I dwell on all this awfully deep stuff because of a bizarre passage in DG’s recent FT column – the one about the ‘Somewheres’ and the ‘Anywheres’ – which suggests that he’s been thinking about the Marxist model too. DG went to Eton, and do you know, it’s been tough (in some unspecified way that doesn’t affect his ability to earn a living):

If you went to the most famous school in the land you are often regarded as a social freak, a tourist in your own country. But, as the patron saint of the Etonian awkward squad George Orwell knew, there is something to be said for being an insider-outsider. It helped to make me aware of the strangeness of some of the instincts of my north London liberal tribe in the 1980s and 1990s: the far greater concern for suffering in distant lands than just around the corner, the blank incomprehension of religious or national feeling and the disdain for the ordinary people we were meant to champion.

(Dickens was writing about Mrs Jellyby and the Borrioboola-Gha venture in 1852. Those liberals may be wrong-headed, but they’ve certainly got staying power.)

As Orwell also discovered, people don’t like it when you leave the tribe, and I have certainly lost a few friends as a result. At a recent public meeting, the writer David Aaronovitch told me that because I went to Eton I wasn’t able to side with Somewhere interests. This felt like crude class stereotyping but then it occurred to me that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am behaving as Marxist intellectuals are meant to, transcending bourgeois class interests to speak to the concerns of the masses — no longer “bread and land” but “recognition and rootedness”.

I don’t think he’s joking. It doesn’t work, of course – the whole point of the Marxist model is that the concerns of the masses (if you want to use that phrase) are material, are in fact determinants of the reality of their imperfectly-perceived condition. Which is why a phrase like “bread and land” does work; in a similar vein, the Italian workerists of the 1970s summed up their political programme in the phrase “more pay, less work” (whence, indirectly, this). You don’t have to be a sociologist to know that we have a hierarchy of needs, the lower levels needing to be met before we care too much about the higher ones; a sense of belonging and respect is a genuine need, but the necessities of life – bread and the money to buy it – sit considerably further down the hierarchy.

(Stray thought – perhaps the fact that DG has never been hard up, but still feels that life has been a bit of a struggle, is more significant than it looks. Perhaps, deep down, he thinks that’s what life’s like – he thinks non-material interests are the ones that matter, because they’re the only ones he’s ever had to care about. I’m not going anywhere with this – it’s entirely speculative and a bit ad hom – but it would explain a lot.)

Anyway: if DG, EK and their co-thinkers aren’t recalling the working class to the reality of its material interests – which they aren’t, pretty much by definition; and if they’re not neutral observers, which I think we can discount almost as quickly; then what are they up to?

2. Rain down on me

One answer is suggested by EK’s report, and indeed by those other ‘real concerns’ merchants I mentioned earlier. For a start, here’s John Harris before and after the Stoke-on-Trent result (no prizes for spotting which is which):

Stoke-on-Trent Central is precisely the kind of seat where Nuttall’s aspirations to “replace Labour” might conceivably take wing …  a case study in the working-class disaffection that is now causing Labour no end of disquiet … a long-dormant political relationship between party and people [has] reached the point of an indifference tinged with bitterness … We should keep one eye on the looming contest in the Cumbrian seat of Copeland, but Stoke’s byelection is an altogether bigger story. Late last year, Richmond Park offered a story of what 48:52 politics might mean in places that backed remain; now we’re about to get a very vivid sense of changed political realities on the other side of the Brexit divide

Yes, it was all happening in Stoke!

Copeland was 30th on the Tory target list. The swing to the Tories, said the academic John Curtice, was bigger than even the disastrous national polls are suggesting. The Tories are the first governing party to win a byelection since 1982.

Stoke was less a triumph than a lesson in dogged campaigning, which highlighted the fact that the Labour leadership still has far too little to say to its alleged core vote. In essence, we now find ourselves back where we were before both these contests started.

Oh well, better luck next time. More seriously, here’s Harris from last September:

The party has held on to its support in England’s big cities, which may now be its true heartland … [but] Labour has become estranged from its old industrial home turf … Trade union membership is at an all-time low; heavy industry barely exists; conventional class consciousness has been superseded by the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign. … Both Corbyn and Owen Smith [who he? Ed.] sound far too nostalgic: their shared language of full employment, seemingly unlimited spending and big-state interventions gives them away.

[the Left] will need more working-class voices; more people, too, who understand the attitudes and values of not only cities, but towns and villages. Most of all, it will somehow have to take back ideas of nationhood and belonging that have been so brazenly monopolised by the new populist right in response to people’s disaffection with globalisation. Here, the salient issue is England – which is the country of the Ukip-voting Fens and the north’s lost industrial backwaters, but also that of thriving cosmopolitan cities. Can the left tell a national story that speaks to both constituencies more convincingly than either the lofty promises of big-state socialism or the sink-or-swim message that defined New Labour’s embrace of globalisation? Can it retain its new metropolitan base and also calm the fears and furies of its core supporters?

What’s John Harris up to? The question shouldn’t need asking – surely it’s obvious that he simply wants what’s best for Labour. He’s sounding the alarm that Labour is losing ground in its “working-class heartlands” and losing touch with its “core supporters”, and that something else will be needed if the party’s ever to form a government. Which is fair enough, in itself, but I worry about what happens when this kind of logic is treated as fundamental. More support is generally better than less support, of course, but Labour can’t be all things to all people – we’ve got the Lib Dems for that. Apart from anything else, what you’re building support for needs to have some relation to what you do when you get into government, or you’re going to alienate the supporters you’ve just gained (and we’ve got the Lib Dems for that).

Let’s say, just as a working hypothesis, that the Labour Party has something to do with the interests of the working class. If class consciousness is high, all you need to do is keep up with it. (Labour hasn’t always passed that test, of course, but it’s not something we need to worry about now.) If class consciousness is low (as it currently is), is it Labour’s job to (a) build class consciousness or (b) gain support by appealing to whatever’s replaced it at the forefront of people’s minds? Harris unhesitatingly opts for (b), but this seems both dangerous and weirdly naive. Remember Lukes’s three faces of power – decision-making power, agenda-setting power and ideological power. If decision-making power created the bedroom tax, it was underpinned by the agenda-setting power that imposed the ‘austerity’ programme, which in turn was supported by the ideological power which had made so many people see benefit claimants as shiftless and unworthy. And if decision-making power created the low-wage, low-security economy in which full employment seems like a nostalgic dream, it was agenda-setting power that made seemingly unlimited spending politically impossible and ideological power that made big-state interventions a dirty word.

It’s exercises of power, in other words, that have reversed Labour policy, delegitimised Labour goals and discredited Labour doctrine. Rather than challenge them, Harris suggests we take all these exercises of power as read, and cast around for alternative ideals, goals and doctrines that might be more popular in the world they’ve created. We can’t go on with our nostalgic talk of public spending and full employment; we need to get with the programme and speak a language that resonates with popular prejudice, bigotry and fear. (If there’s another way of interpreting “the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign”, I’d love to hear it.)

England is key to the story Harris wants to tell, but it’s an odd vision of England. England, country of the Ukip-voting Fens and the north’s lost industrial backwaters! These are revealing phrases, when you look at them. As far as I can work out, you can find fenland in six parliamentary constituencies, five if you exclude the city of Peterborough: NE Cambridgeshire, NW Cambridgeshire, NW Norfolk, SW Norfolk and South Holland. In all five, the Conservatives took more than 50% of the vote in 2015. Admittedly, UKIP were in second place in all but one (NW Norfolk), but they were bad second places – as in ‘less than half the winner’s votes’. As for Labour needing to have a message that plays well in the UKIPTory-voting Fens, one question: why? Out of those five seats, only NW Norfolk has been held by Labour at any time in the last forty years, and that was only for one term (1997-2001). What this means, of course, is that the New Labour landslide passed the Fens by – and what that means is that there’s no conceivable Labour target list that includes Fenland constituencies, unless it’s a list headed Mega Parl Maj! Biggest Evs! LOL. Peterborough, to be fair, was Labour from 1974 to 1979 and then again from 1997 to 2005, so a decent Labour performance certainly ought to include getting it back – but Labour held a strong second place there in both 2010 and 2015, so it’s hard to see that a drastic change of message is required.

Then there are those lost industrial backwaters. At the local folk club a few years ago, I got talking to a guy I know – good guitar player, decent singer, knows his Dylan – about where he’d lived as a kid. He’d lived in a house with no mains electricity – it wasn’t just his house, the street hadn’t been connected when it was built. They had mains gas and cold running water, but that was it – and naturally the loo was in the yard. He told me about when his family bought a radio, and how they had to run it off a car battery. His father worked down the pit, as did most of the men in the houses around; they walked to the pithead in the morning and walked home at night. Late 1950s, this would have been; not quite in my lifetime, but not far off. It’s all gone now – the houses, the colliery and all. This was in Bradford – not the one in Yorkshire, the one in Manchester; the site of the pit is about a mile and a half from Piccadilly Station. You can walk it from there in half an hour or so, mostly along by a canal, or there’s a tram stop right outside – the City of Manchester Stadium is there now. It’s like looking at pictures of the same scene in different eras, although in this case you’d be hard pressed to find any landmarks that you could match up. Blink: 1970s, lost industrial backwater (the pit closed in 1968). Blink: 2000s, thriving cosmopolitan city (the stadium was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and taken over by MCFC the following year). Blink: old industrial home turf. Blink: new metropolitan base. Same place; same postcode. What a difference a generation makes, if the money can be found.

Bradford didn’t need ideas of nationhood and belonging, it needed inward investment and plenty of it; I’d recommend something similar for Stoke-on-Trent, or Clacton or Boston or whever Harris is filing from next week. And if you find yourself looking at the City of Manchester Stadium, and the velodrome alongside it and the big ASDA between them, and regretting the loss of the ‘dad jobs‘ that Bradford pit used to provide, I suggest you seek out a miner or the son of a miner and say that to his face. Class consciousness is one thing, fake nostalgia for hard, dirty, dangerous jobs is quite another. Besides, there’s no rule that new jobs have to be insecure or poorly paid – although they certainly will be for as long as the bosses can get away with it. But you’re never going to demand decent wages and job security – you’re never going to see those things as your right – if you think that class consciousness doesn’t apply any more, and that it’s been superseded (no less) by shared resentment of foreigners.

Appeals to class don’t work any more, Harris’s logic runs; Labour needs to appeal to something; nationalism and xenophobia are something, and moreover they’re something with potential appeal across the board, from the cosmopolitan cities to the deindustrialised backwaters to the Tory-voting towns and villages of rural England. But this doesn’t really work. In my own city, ten council wards had UKIP in second place to Labour at the last round of elections, but six wards had a Lib Dem runner-up and eight a Green – good luck flying your St George’s flag down those streets. (And all the UKIP (and Green) runners-up were very distant. The Lib Dems actually took a seat.) The Tory-voting rural towns would certainly go for a British nationalist narrative, but what does that matter to Labour? (If we didn’t need them in 1997, we certainly don’t need them now.) As for the mining towns (and steel towns, and cotton towns, and fishing towns), what do you do when people have good reason to be angry and to make demands, but some of them are getting angry at the wrong thing and making demands that will only end up hurting them? Do you validate the misdirected anger and the futile, destructive demands?

The answer – from Harris, from DG and EK, from many others – seems to be Yes. But why? Is it defeatism – the big boys laid down the rules and set the agenda long ago, there’s nothing we can do but work with what we’ve got? (It’s an argument in bad faith if so – the Tories and their media have a lot of agenda-setting power, but the merest, lowliest Guardian columnist has some. The merest blogger has some.) Is it cynical opportunism – no time to build class consciousness between now and 2020, let’s just gather voters where we may? Or is it something else?

3. Some of us are having a hard, hard time

Justin Gest, one of a handful of likeminded writers cited in EK’s report, believes that the “I’m not racist but” defence is not what it seems:

Racism is … a ‘mute button’ pressed on someone while they are still crying out about a sense of loss—from a position of historic privilege, frequently in terms they have difficulty articulating. Therefore, the preface ‘I’m not racist’ is not a disclaimer but an exhortation to listen and not dismiss the claims of a purportedly new minority.

In this mindset, accusations of racism are just the kind of thing that they chuck at people like us to shut us up – so “I’m not racist” simply means “don’t shut me up”. The corollary – as Gest, to be fair, has noted – is that “I’m not racist” doesn’t mean that the speaker isn’t racist, or even cares about not being racist; in fact, “I’m not racist” translates as “don’t talk to me about racism, just let me speak”.

But perhaps let them speak is what we should do. Perhaps, by shutting them up, we’re alienating people who (to quote Gest from an article published earlier this year) “must be part of the Labour party if it is to have any future”; people to whom we on the Left “must listen carefully if [we] are to ever understand [our] countrymen and earn their support again”. People are having a hard time out there, and Gest names the causes accurately enough – the decline of established industries, the erosion of patterns of life built up around them, the insecurity created by globalisation and the hardships inflicted by neo-liberalism. And maybe we should listen to the perspectives of the people going through it, even if they’re “overtly tainted by racism and xenophobia”. If we can just tune out the overt racism – or redefine it as ‘racial self-interest’ – maybe there are lessons for us all here.

Well, you be the judge. Here are a few of the things that ‘Nancy’, one of Gest’s East London interviewees, had to say; she’s the person who he specifically said “must be part of the Labour Party” if the party is to have any future.

It has always been diverse what with us living so near the river. But I remember when we went around the houses for a Christmas charity about 10 years ago, and I noticed all the black faces. Now it’s a million times worse.

I know the Muslims want a mosque here, but they haven’t contributed to society. They don’t want to be involved in our community, in our society. The Africans take over everything and turn them into happy clappy churches. They’re all keen to praise God, but then go back to their fiddles [benefit fraud] and push past you to board the bus. I think it’s in their make-up.

I think the anti-racists have made it worse. They look for trouble. They construe everything as racist—like my union flag. But it’s not racist; it’s our country’s flag and it’s up for the Jubilee anyway.

If I could just bring back Maggie Thatcher. She would never have let all this happen.

I got off the train in Barking one night and there were dozens of Romanian women with children, and it’s clear they had been on the nick. Vile people, Romanians. Then you walk outside, and it’s so loud with all the halal shops and rubbish in the streets. We look like a suburb of Nairobi.

I think our government is terrible. The whole country wants to have a referendum about the EU, and David Cameron won’t do it. We’re being dictated by an unelected group of people about our own country. Germany wants to rule the world. We beat them in the war, but they’re still coming.

I vote every time. Last time, I voted UKIP. Before that, BNP. Once BNP got in, I thought they’d work for the community, but they didn’t. They’re far too right wing.

England is a white nation, but it has a black dot in the middle of it, and it’s spreading outward. With a lot of the children being half-caste, there won’t be a purely white person left.

I thought the BNP would prove that they were a force, but a lot of them didn’t even turn up for the Council meetings. I voted for them because I was just fed up. You couldn’t see an end to the black faces coming in. I shouldn’t be a minority.

Exercise for the reader: how many racist statements does Nancy make here, directed against which groups? DG defines racism as “irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group”, while EK defines ‘racial self-interest (which is not racism)’ as “seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of [one’s own] group”. Repeat the exercise using these definitions. What do you notice?

Seriously, that’s the future of the Labour Party? Isn’t it possible that this is just a white working-class racist? And note that last line. “I shouldn’t be a minority” – the mindset of ethnic supremacists everywhere. There’s an old Serb nationalist slogan, “Samo sloga Srbina spasava” or “only unity saves the Serb”. There were Serb communities pretty much throughout the former Yugoslavia; the slogan said, not that they should return to Serbia, but that the territory where they lived should be united under Serb rule. They agreed with Nancy: Serbs shouldn’t be a minority, even where they were.

As for winning the likes of Nancy back to the Labour Party, I suggest that we use whatever ideological and agenda-setting power we have to focus on what even Gest acknowledges are the real issues – decline of secure employment, hardships of neo-liberalism etc – and stay well away from the unreal issues which fill Nancy’s unhappy days. If we can have a political conversation that’s about housing, jobs, health, education – the things that ultimately matter to people in their everyday lives, including people like Nancy – then we can win. And if we can shift that conversation so that it’s not conducted in terms of what the economy can bear but what ordinary people have a right to expect, we can not only win but actually make some changes.

Yes, I’m daydreaming of a return to the sunlit uplands of Butskellism – a mixed economy, a 33% basic rate of income tax, joint staff liaison committees, a fully public transport system and all. And even that seems an awful long way off at the moment. But it’s something worth dreaming of, if you’re on the Left. Nancy’s vision of England for the White English really isn’t. Nor is John Harris’s “nationhood and belonging”, if only because making a virtue of ‘belonging’ necessarily implies that there are some people who don’t belong (Harris doesn’t say much about them). And nor is DG’s “majority group rights” or EK’s “racial self-interest”. None of it works, none of it does anyone any good; its only potential is to mislead, divide and cause unnecessary hardship.

But if that’s the case, I’m driven back to my original question: what on earth is going on?

4. Love your neighbour, wherever they’re from

Jonathan Freedland’s Guardian review of DG’s book is an interesting specimen of this type of thinking, blockages and blind spots very much included.

faced with the chasm in attitudes DG charts, especially on immigration, liberals chose to put their fingers in their ears and sing la, la, la. The revulsion that greeted his own 2004 essay, and the ostracism that followed, were part of that reaction, born of a collective desire on the liberal left to hope that if they closed their eyes and branded the likes of [Gillian] Duffy as “bigoted”, the problem might just go away.

I don’t think anyone on the Left – even poor old Gordon Brown – has taken the view that racism and xenophobia should simply be ignored, or that silencing them is enough to make them go away. The point is to deny racism a hearing, but also to address the issues that actually affect people’s lives and create the discontent that sometimes takes racist expression. But apparently this is no go:

A more sophisticated form of ostrich-ism is the redefining of Somewhere anxiety about immigration as purely a material problem that might be solved economically: by, say, enforcing the minimum wage to prevent migrants from undercutting local pay, or by boosting the funds available for housing, health or education in areas that have taken in large numbers of newcomers. Such measures – championed by Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband before him – are good and necessary, of course. But they skirt around the discontent voiced by Goodhart’s Somewheres, which is as much cultural as economic: the non-material sense that their hometown has changed unnervingly fast.

It’s a fine word, ‘cultural’, but here we need to call its bluff. Talk to people like Nancy and they’ll say one of two things. They’ll say that demographic changes have caused them real, material disadvantage; if that’s the case we need real, material responses, in the form of investment in public services and controls on landlords and employers (both of which have been under systematic attack since 2010). Alternatively, they’ll say that demographic changes haven’t done them any material harm, but that they don’t like them anyway; if that’s the case, tough. DG’s use of words like ‘cultural’ is a bait and switch; what the people he champions want to preserve isn’t a culture or a way of life, but the brute fact of White British dominance.

Freedland’s decision to baulk at the final fence is reassuring, but throws a disconcerting light on the rest of his argument.

Where DG goes wrong above all is on Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities. … he frames them throughout as the cloud on the Somewheres’ horizon, the blot that has darkened the Somewheres’ previously sunny landscape. It is their arrival that has changed Britain beyond recognition, their presence that has to be dealt with.

Yes, I think that’s pretty much what Nancy was saying.

surely the task now is not to look back to the time when homogeneity made a cohesive society easy, but to ask how today’s heterogeneous society might be made more cohesive, despite the difficulties. DG is right that people are more inclined to share with those they regard as their fellows: so the challenge is to make all citizens, including the newer ones, appear to each other as fellows.

This won’t be easy:

The patriotic pride invested in and unleashed by the likes of Mo Farah may seem trivial, but it shows that people can indeed come to see a relative newcomer as one of their own. But it takes effort from every level of society. It requires immigrants to work at becoming integrated of course, but it also demands that everyone else welcome and embrace them as Britons. … Goodhart’s book does not offer much advice on how we might get there, but it is a powerful reminder that we have to try.

To recap, ignoring working-class racism won’t work, shutting it out won’t work and trying to address the economic factors underlying it won’t work, because it’s a genuine and authentic phenomenon but a purely cultural one. That said (Freedland adds) actually taking it seriously would be wrong, so we need to take what’s good about it – the belief in social cohesion, the desire to share with kith and kin – and transform it into a kind of racialised liberalism; instead of rejecting immigrants as different, people would be encouraged to recognise immigrants as being just as British as you and me. Well, some immigrants – the ones who are willing to work at becoming integrated. Which would rule out those Romanians, of course, and those Muslims – and as for those Africans, well… Mo Farah, he’s all right. If only they were all like him, eh?

What’s a smart liberal hack like Freedland doing, putting his name to an argument so simultaneously weak and dodgy? But then, why have DG and EK spent so much time and effort finding euphemisms for racism? Why has Harris been alternately hailing the Brexit vote as a working-class revolt and pronouncing on the need to have a message that wins safe Tory seats? Why have UKIP got a near-permanent seat on Question Time, and why have the BBC profiled Marine le Pen three times (on one occasion flatly denying that either she or her father is a racist) and Emmanuel Macron not at all? Why this and why now?

I think there’s a big clue in Freedland’s reference to Corbyn and Miliband’s “ostrich-ism”, contrasted with the validation of “non-material”, “cultural” anxieties. Which is to say, I think it’s a “god that failed” problem. Faced with the Coalition’s combination of class-war savagery and rampant ineptitude, or with the present government’s determination to elevate pig-headed stupidity to an art form, the Left and the liberal centre need something to call on: not just a party or an alternative leader, but a social constituency and a world view. We need to be able to say who we’re talking to and in the name of what, in other words.

Going back to the top of the post, class consciousness would fit the bill perfectly. But class consciousness is gone: it’s been superseded by the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign. (Bloke said. In the Guardian.) More to the point, I think, class consciousness as a frame of reference for Labour was thrown on the bonfire during the New Labour years; it became axiomatic that we weren’t orienting to the working class any more, let alone thinking in terms of fostering the development of class consciousness (like, strikes and things? why would you want to do that?) The trouble is, New Labour managerialism only really sings when it’s winning; it’s only available as a frame of reference for as long as it’s in power (hence its survival in mutant form in urban local authorities around the country). After seven years of disastrous Tory-led government, renewal – the emergence of a new force and a new vision of the world – is urgently needed, but where’s it going to come from? One thing’s for sure, it can’t be the old Left – everyone from the BBC to the New Statesman agrees that that’s dead and buried, has been for years. In passing, this assumption rather neatly explains both the defeatism between the lines of Harris’s (and others’) commentary on the Labour Party and the furious hostility of much of the centre-left towards Corbyn and his base – the old Left that refused to die. Both are illustrated by a plaintive tweet from the editor of the New Statesman in December 2015:

Labour in grip of London ultra-left liberals – Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott. What’s needed is a patriotic social democratic party #OldhamWest

That’s #OldhamWest as in the seat that Labour held with 65% of the vote (up from 55% at the general election). But the efforts to undermine Corbyn have come on in leaps and bounds since then, so presumably Jason Cowley feels a bit happier now.

Anyway, New Labour isn’t on the menu any more, the old Left is dead and buried – no, it is, it really is – so who does that leave? Who else has got answers, a coherent world-view and a ready-made constituency to call on? As Laurie Penny puts it, bigotry and xenophobia have been sucked into the philosophical void at the heart of political narrative.

And that’s the process that DG, EK, Justin Gest, John Harris and far too many other self-professed liberals are contributing to; and that’s why we need Labour to stand firm against racism and xenophobia, addressing their root causes (where there are any); and that’s why we need to build class consciousness. It really is that simple.

Coda: The folks on the hill

Owen Jones is one commentator who’s now dissociating himself from the “working-class revolt” model of Brexit. While maintaining that “much of the referendum result can be attributed to working-class disaffection with an unjust status quo”, Owen points out that the demographics of the vote don’t make it possible to go any further than that. If we divide the population six ways – ABC1/C2DE, 18-34, 35-64, 65+ – post-referendum polling suggests that there was something like a 2:1 split in favour of Leave among the two older C2DE groups. But those two groups between them only account for a third of the population, which is to say that they accounted for about 22% of the 52% Leave vote. Which in turn means that, if you were to pick a Brexit voter at random, three times out of five you’d find somebody who didn’t fit the ‘disgruntled older working-class’ template. Brexit might not have passed without the element of working-class disaffection, but it certainly wouldn’t have passed on that alone. The only way that two-thirds of 35+-year-old C2DEs are going to swing a national vote is by forming part of a coalition that extends far beyond that relatively narrow group – a coalition that included, in this case, nearly 60% of 65+ ABC1s and very nearly half of the 35-64 ABC1s (the single largest group). Focusing on the (White) working class makes sense if you want to use them to give credibility to your vision of a new wave of respectable racism, but if you actually want to explain what happened last June it won’t really do the job. Apart from anything else, it certainly can’t explain what happened in places like Fareham, the 55%-Leave town Owen visited for his article.

For the most part it’s a good article – and all credit to Owen for openly backtracking from his earlier position. Still, old habits die hard:

For the left, class politics is about who has wealth and power, and who doesn’t, and eliminating the great inequalities that define society. The populist right, on the other hand, denounces “identity politics”, while indulging in exactly that: transforming class into a cultural and political identity, weaponised in their struggle against progressive Britain. The left must be able to counter that approach with arguments that resonate in Doncaster and Thanet, and no less in towns like Fareham.

No real quarrel with the second sentence, although I think it’s actually a bit simpler than that: I think what’s going on, here as in America, is an attempt to annex the ‘working class’ identity and claim it for Whiteness. (Read some of DG’s handwringing about preserving ‘traditions’ and ‘ways of life’, then see how many actual White working-class customs and folkways he mentions. My counter’s still on zero.) But “arguments that resonate … in towns like Fareham”? Owen, mate. Fareham has been a parliamentary constituency, with occasional boundary changes and two name changes, since 1885. That’s 35 General Elections (no by-elections), every single one of which has returned a Conservative (or Unionist) candidate. Nothing’s dislodged the Tory hold on Fareham, ever – not the 1997 landslide, not even the 1945 landslide. (To be fair, in 1945 Labour did get 47% of the vote in Fareham, but unfortunately the Tory candidate got 53%.) “Arguments that resonate in Fareham” is an answer to the question “how can we get an even bigger majority than Attlee?”, and I don’t think that’s one we need to ask at the moment. Forget Fareham and forget the Fens – that’s a different story, and not one that the Left should try to tell. We’ve got our own.

Rats and children

More on David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann’s work on ‘racial self-interest’, focusing mainly on Goodhart this time.

To judge from DG’s FT article and the report by EK that it draws on and promotes, EK has a Big Idea that he wants us all to adopt – partly because it would make it easier for him to win arguments, partly because adopting it would mean conceding an argument to him. The idea is, of course, racial self-interest – more precisely, the social reality of racial self-interest, and/or the desirability of social settings which do not exclude the reality of racial self-interest. (Or: the desirability of not compelling racists to pretend to be tolerant for the sake of social acceptability.) It’s a thoroughly bad idea and I’ve dealt with it here.

One of the reasons why the logic of that article in the FT was so contorted is that DG, while an enthusiastic promoter of EK’s Big Idea, has a separate and distinct Big Idea of his own. We’re talking now about population sub-groups within a multicultural society rather than races, and rights rather than interests. DG’s Big Idea is… well, something about group rights. On closer inspection, it turns out that it goes like this:

something something minority rights something majority rights, aha! something something answer me that if you can!

All facetiousness aside, it really is hard to get a coherent position on the subject out of DG’s writing. In his recent navel-gazing column for the FT, he reminisces about “tentatively dissent[ing] from the liberal consensus on immigration and multiculturalism” back in 2004, by advancing “what I thought was the uncontroversial assumption that people are readier to share with people with whom they have something in common”; in the response that this essay received, he “met the intolerance of the modern left for the first time”. There he was, tentatively advancing an uncontroversial opinion, but the Left wouldn’t have it – they showed their true, intolerant colours! There’s a book to be written about victim mentality on the Right, and in particular this kind of ‘epiphany of leftist intolerance’ narrative (all I said was…). This is from a poster on Stormfront:

I first viewed that damned film in the 70’s, and thought at the time the song to be remarkably refreshing and uplifting (and the only redeeming quality of the film); unfortunately I shared this thought in the company of a Jew, upon leaving the theatre. Big mistake. I was not able to calm that guy down until I pointed to the origins of those attributed to the song’s composition and lyrics. That was my first indoctrination of the ongoing Jewish hatred for “all” non-Jewish German people and their heritage.

All I said was that “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is the only good thing in Cabaret – these Jews are so intolerant!

Of course, DG’s ‘uncontroversial assumption’ is no such thing (at least, it makes freaks out of me, my family and most of my work colleagues – but more on that another time). And, of course, that was far from being the most controversial statement in that 2004 essay: it also suggested that the US’s low-tax, low-welfare, low-participation society was attributable to the size of the ethnic minority population and that Britain might be heading for an immigration-based ‘tipping point’, and proposed remedying this situation by instituting a British National Day, teaching schoolchildren about the British Empire and denying immigrants access to the welfare state until they “make the effort to become citizens”. (What was to become of Britain’s existing ethnic minorities – in this world where multiculturalism inexorably leads to resentment and alienation, electoral abstention and tax-dodging – was unclear; one would think that these proposals would leave them more alienated than ever. Perhaps the goal was for them all to become fully, culturally British – cricket test and all – and then there wouldn’t be any ethnic minorities any more. No man, no problem.) Far from ‘tentatively’ proposing that people are more friendly to people like them, DG’s 2004 essay proposed that British liberal democracy was doomed unless the government sharply limited immigration and strongly encouraged assimilation to a distinct British national culture – and that if such a culture didn’t already exist it should be created. On one hand, a mildly-worded observation about individual preferences; on the other, a demand for enforced ethno-cultural homogeneity.

I dwell on this because it’s very much how DG works: he puts forward political proposals that are deeply reactionary and often startlingly extreme, then backs them up with nothing more than vague conservative platitudes (all I said was that we’re all different… all I said was that family’s important…) This style of argument creates problems for DG’s opponents, but also for DG himself. The problem is that the platitudes alone will only take you so far. Thus in the FT, talking about his own intellectual evolution, DG says that he started out as a well-to-do, well-educated liberal, but came to identify with “more rooted, generally less well-educated people who … prioritise group attachments and security”; he knew how far he’d come (“one recent incident crystallized matters”) when “I was chatting to a group of friends in a bar, including a few people I didn’t know, and I said I could understand the discomfort that Nigel Farage had recently expressed about not hearing a single English-speaker on a train in London”. (Whereupon one of the people in the group walked out, and good for them.)

The question is, how do these things go together? The connection seems obvious to DG – too obvious to state, in fact – but what is it? Let’s say that you, a ‘rooted’ sort of person, are on a train – in England – and you find yourself surrounded by speakers of Polish, Spanish, Punjabi and Somali; does the fact that they’re not speaking English tell you that you’re among people who don’t “prioritise group attachments and security”? Of course not. (They may be tourists. They may have strong, sentimental attachments to the place they were born, and intend to go back there some day. They may feel rooted in the place they were born and the place where they live now. And, of course, the place they were born may actually be in England.) Looking at the question another way, what if the ‘group attachment’ that you prioritise actually includes people who don’t look or sound like you; what if the ‘home’ group where you feel you belong consists of Manchester City supporters, Joss Whedon fans, fellow Christians, the workers of the world? Farage’s discomfort might fit with the ‘group attachments’ model if he’d been complaining about a train carriage full of well-educated liberals demonstratively performing their rootlessness – talking loudly on their phones about doing breakfast in Zurich and moving their business to the Far East – but he clearly wasn’t. And all this is without even getting into the question of what conceivable harm it does you to share a train with people who think differently from you, if indeed they do.

So there’s at least one missing term here: on its own, “I have a valid attachment to my own group” won’t get you to “I have a valid objection to mixing with foreigners”. For a start, we need to go from (1) “I feel attached to people like me” to (2) “specifically, I feel attached to people with a similar ethnic and cultural background”; then to (3) “my life is structured by my ties to people with a similar ethnic and cultural background”; then (4) “it is valid, and not at all problematic, for my life to be structured by my ties to people with a similar ethnic and cultural background”. But the crucial steps are the last two: (5) “everyone’s life should be structured by ties to people of a similar ethnic and cultural background” and (6) “this structuration is not a distant ideal but an realisable policy outcome, to be imposed through a combination of force and persuasion”. To put it more bluntly, you need to go from (1) “I like people like me” to (2) “I like White people”; then (3) “I only ever mix with White people” and (4) “I don’t see that this is a problem”; then (5) “down with race-mixing” and (6) “Blacks out”.

Of course, DG doesn’t say anything as coarse as this, and I’m sure he’d express himself horrified to find that his words had been interpreted in this way. I mean, all he said was… that people tend to like to stick to their own kind (2), and that there are people out there who live in the same place they were born and like it that way (a vicarious (3)), and that their worldview is “legitimate, and decent” (4). Oh, and this:

Newcomers can be absorbed into [liberal] societies, and can retain some of their own traditions, but unless a critical mass of them embrace the broad common norms of the society, the idea of the nation as a group of people with significant shared interests – the idea of a people – will fracture. Thus moderate nationalism is a positively benign force reinforcing common interests (and welfare states) against the disintegrating effects of affluence, individualism and diversity

They can come here if they’re going to live like us true Brits, but if they aren’t going to live like us they’ll threaten our national survival. And what do we do with threats to our national survival? We don’t let them in, clearly, and if they’re already here we throw them out. DG proposes ethno-cultural purity both as an ideal and as a policy programme. It’s not at all clear, just in passing, how the “broad common norms” of a liberal society turned into “moderate nationalism”; as Harry Hill would say, that surely is the Least Logically Justifiable ‘Thus’ Clause Of The Week.

But there’s a much bigger problem here: the age-old problem of getting from an Is to an Ought. Even if we grant DG’s assertion that there are lots of people out there who feel locally rooted and don’t have much capacity to uproot themselves, and his secondary argument (never quite spelt out) that those people tend to hold conservative and illiberal views, there’s no logical bridge from there to his conclusion that those views are correct – indeed, that the country as a whole should be governed along conservative and illiberal lines, privileging a White British national identity over all others. You can’t get from (4) to (5) without importing additional assumptions; you can’t really get from (3) to (4), come to that.

DG could – and, let’s be honest, probably will – skate right past this whole argument as if it wasn’t there. If he cares about logical consistency, though, there are only a couple of options. One is to fall back on a blank Rortyan post-Pragmatism, saying that (a) there are people who recognise themselves as White British and value White British interests, (b) he finds that he is one of those people and therefore (c) solidarity demands he say Hurrah for the White Brits; I don’t think he’d want to make an argument that seemed so ungrounded, though, or so partisan. The other is to find a middle term to plug in between (3) and (5), between observing the existence of a group characterised by ethnic exclusivity and justifying the imposition of ethnic exclusivity on society more widely.

And this, returning to my original subject, is where ‘minority rights’ come in. Thus:

An emotionally mature liberalism must also accept that white majorities, not just minorities, in western societies have ethnic attachments too and an interest in a degree of demographic stability — and it is not shameful or racist for people to feel uncomfortable if their neighbourhood changes too rapidly, whether from gentrification or ethnic change.

Or, more bluntly, in the earlier piece:

Multiculturalism is premised on the rights of minorities to maintain certain traditions and ways of life. But liberals have usually been reluctant to extend such group rights to majorities.

And which rights might we be talking about here?

it is not always clear what distinguishes legitimate group interest from racism. … while few people from the white majority think in explicitly ethnic terms, many feel a discomfort about their group no longer setting the tone in the neighbourhood.

If minority rights, then majority rights – and if minority rights “to maintain certain traditions and ways of life”, then majority rights to continue “setting the tone in the neighbourhood” through numerical dominance. The White British majority, rather than being a numerical abstraction derived by counting how many people ticked a box on a form, is now a community, an entity with a way of life and the right to maintain that way of life – and being an overwhelming majority is a key part of that way of life. (Perhaps the only part; DG shows very little interest in what anyone’s “traditions and ways of life” actually involve. I’m not sure he even knows about Morris dancing.) As such, our narrow-minded locally-rooted people aren’t just speaking for themselves (or being ventriloquised, by DG and EK, for themselves) – they’re the voice of a kind of class consciousness (or community consciousness), demanding that the British government recognise the rights of the White British community, just as it recognises the rights of minority communities. Just as minority communities have the right not to face direct discrimination, the White British community – historically overwhelmingly dominant – has the right to damn well remain overwhelmingly dominant, which among other things would mean not being bothered by people speaking foreign languages on the train. (Perhaps they could bring in separate coaches. More coaches for the White British, obviously.)

It’s neat, you’ve got to give him that. It’s also nonsense: to say that minority groups have rights is either flat wrong or very imprecise shorthand. I discussed this point with DG on Twitter, briefly. (Image below; the original tweet is here. There are some excellent replies.)

Sikh m/bike helmets, by jingo. The Motor Cycle Crash Helmets Act – which enacted the exemption for Sikhs – dates back to 1976; I’m old enough to remember the National Front trying to make capital out of it. (According to our local paper, NF activists were planning to go out on motorbikes with towels wrapped round their heads in protest. Stay classy, lads.) DG’s older than me, and it seems to have lodged in his memory too.

Needless to say, it doesn’t work for him in the way that he seems to think it does. Individuals have the right to the protection of valuable interests, but it’s the individuals who have both the interests and the rights. Certainly, individuals who are members of faith communities have a valuable interest in religious observance which isn’t shared by secular and atheist individuals, just as members of minority faith communities have an interest in religious freedom which isn’t shared by adherents of the established church. But it would be absurd to conclude from this that atheists have fewer rights than Anglicans, or Anglicans than Sikhs; in each case, the second group simply has different interests from the first, and/or interests in more need of legal protection. In fact there’s only one item on his list that I’d class as anything other than a protected individual interest – the right of religious courts to make rulings that individuals agree to treat as binding – and even that is at most an institutional capacity, a ‘power’ in Hohfeldian terms.

It’s thin, is what it is; it’s almost as thin as the arguments for ‘racial self-interest’. It’s a thin and logically incoherent set of attempted justifications for… well, for racism. I can’t see any other way of looking at it.

Next: these racists, where are they all flocking from?

Standing in the shadows

More on Eric Kaufmann’s recent research into ‘racial self-interest’.

The concept of ‘racial self-interest’ runs through EK’s research report. In fact, it runs through the research like a barium meal: it goes in at one end and comes out unchanged at the other, after being visible all the way through. A few quotations to give you the idea:

Shadi Hamid … argues that it is important to distinguish racism and racial self-interest, and that Trump supporters, who voted in a racially self-interested way to limit immigration, should not be accused of racism. (Executive Summary)

is it the case that immigration skeptics are majority ethnic partisans who are acting in what Shadi Hamid terms their ‘racial self-interest’: seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of their group (Introduction)

Consider the question: ‘A white American who identifies with her group and its history supports a proposal to reduce immigration. Her motivation is to maintain her group’s share of America’s population. Is this person: 1) just acting in her racial self-interest, which is not racist; 2) being racist; 3) don’t know.’ … First, the words Asian, Black or Latino are swapped for White to see how responses change. Second, ‘decrease’ [sic] is changed to ‘increase’ immigration, and ‘maintain’ to ‘increase’ group share. Thus: ‘An Asian American who identifies with her group and its history supports a proposal to increase immigration from Asia. Her motivation is to increase her group’s share of America’s population.’  (Immigration and Racism: A Conjoint Analysis)

The questions were very explicit about specifying that the subject in each question wants particular policies in order to preserve or enhance her group’s demographic share. In this sense, the ‘correct’ answer is that people are ‘acting in their racial self-interest, which is not racist.’ It is possible – and consistent – for someone to consider all racially self-interested behaviour racist. But the variation in white liberal responses based on whether the question pertains to whites or minorities, belies this rational explanation.  (Immigration and Racism in Britain and America)

On the question of whether group-oriented immigration preferences are racist, white liberals are more biased than white conservatives … imputing white racist motivations to those trying to advance their racial self-interest. … it is important to draw a distinction between irrational racism and rational group self-interest. Wanting fewer people from other ethnic groups or higher numbers of co-ethnics to bolster one’s group share is not racist (Conclusion)

“Racial self-interest? How is that not racist by itself?” (Justify Your Answer: Examining qualitative evidence)

The last one is from a survey participant, not EK; I just thought we needed some fresh air.

The research starts from the assumption that ‘racial self-interest’ is distinct from racism, and that recognising this fact explains – and helps condone – some racially discriminatory behaviour. The survey then prompts participants with the information that ‘racial self-interest’ is in fact distinct from racism, and invites them to apply it to a hypothetical situation which is designed to exemplify racial self-interest. Finally, EK reads the data and concludes that ‘racial self-interest’ is distinct from racism, and that only irrational bias can account for left-wingers’ failure to acknowledge the fact.

This isn’t all that’s going on here, though. A clue is supplied by a passing reference to Kahneman and Thinking, fast and slow. The sucker-punch structure of EK’s question is very reminiscent of the question with which Tversky and Kahneman identified the ‘conjunction problem’:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller.

b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The great majority of people consistently get this wrong. The correct answer is – logically has to be – a); “A and also B” cannot be more probable than “A with or without B”, whatever A and B are. But we’re not hard-wired to be good at probability; we seem to read the question as an invitation to fill in the blank in the way that gives the most satisfying story, in this case option b). EK’s question is different, but it has a definite family resemblance; it’s as if we were asked

As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also joined the local Labour Party. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a Labour Party member, which is not the same as being a socialist.

b) Linda is a socialist.

In EK’s research, in other words, respondents were primed with the ‘right’ answer and duly repeated it back, in the same way that Tversky and Kahneman’s subjects were effectively primed with the ‘wrong’ answer. But this isn’t the point of the research; the point is that a minority of respondents gave the ‘wrong’ answer despite the priming – and it’s these subjects that EK is really interested in. His interest isn’t unmotivated – he clearly believes that the ‘racial self-interest’ model is in fact the right answer, as well as being the ‘right’ answer to the question as he formulated it. This, though, is something that the research as designed can’t confirm or deny; it’s assumed at the outset and assumed in the conclusion.

As, perhaps, it has to be: as the previous post demonstrate, it’s very difficult to separate ‘racial self-interest’ from racism other than by definitional fiat – and even that is liable to collapse if we look at ‘racial self-interest’ from the outside, in terms of its effects on those who are disadvantaged by it. (If I stop my daughter playing with your daughter because of the colour of your skin, do you think that (a) I’m motivated by racial hate; (b) my motives are unknowable and may be nothing more than racial self-interest, which would be perfectly fine; or (c) whatever my motives, my actions themselves are hateful?)

Nor is it clear what the advantage of adopting this concept would be, other than that some people with racist views would no longer be challenged on them. For EK, this in itself would be beneficial:

In one focus group run as part of my ESRC-Demos research, a lady complained of the Croydon (UK) tramlink that ‘I might have been the only English person on that tram… I didn’t like it… I could have been in a foreign country’ was challenged by another participant who asked, ‘Why should that affect you that there’s minorities on the [tram]?’ The woman swiftly changed her narrative to a more acceptable, economic, form of opposition to immigration: ‘It doesn’t affect me. It, um… I’ve got grandchildren and children… I don’t think things are going to get any better or easier for them, to get work.’ In other words, economic but not ethnocultural concerns about immigration are considered legitimate subjects for public debate. This produces dishonest debate rather than a frank and rational exchange between people of all backgrounds – realising they share similar ethnic motivations and must reach an accommodation that is fair to all.

But why would the detoxifying of ‘ethnocultural concerns’ be a good thing? How would the resulting ‘honest’, ‘frank and rational’ debate go?

– Why should that affect you that there’s minorities on the [tram]?
“Well, I’m White, aren’t I. Don’t like being outnumbered by foreigners – stands to reason. It’s against my racial self-interest.”
– Oh, racial self-interest, right. Don’t feel it so strongly myself, but if you do, well, fair enough.

There isn’t that much to debate, at the end of the day: a woman in Croydon didn’t like being – or feeling – outnumbered by foreign people on a tram, and that feeling is either (a) racist and therefore not legitimate or (b) not racist and therefore legitimate. It doesn’t matter how many people might frankly and honestly admit to racist sentiments, if encouraged to do so; if those sentiments are racist, they shouldn’t be publicly legitimated. Really, this is just “you can’t say that any more” in more sophisticated language.

The notion of racial self-interest also carries the unwelcome implication that there are such things as races which can have self-interest. EK has gestured towards the classic sociologist’s answer to this kind of question – that if people believe things are real and act accordingly, they are real in their consequences – but in this case it won’t really do. To believe in ethnic groups – even to believe in one’s own – is not necessarily to believe in ethnic group interests. If people believe that the Black British identity, the Muslim identity, the Welsh-speaking identity (etc) are real and act accordingly, no harm necessarily follows: everyone is free to maintain, develop and celebrate the identities which they feel to be theirs, and to seek out like-minded people to support them in doing so. No harm necessarily follows, up to the point where they start believing that identities like these have interests and are in competition. It’s this additional belief that leads people to act hatefully to people of the ‘wrong’ group, and it’s this belief that we generally call racism.

The one situation where ethnic group interests can become a reality, ironically, is when the ethnic group is under threat – which may be the end result of racism. Where a particular group is threatened with extinction, or its existence is denied, or its identity is treated with contempt, all members of that group have a genuine common interest in group preservation and self-assertion. But this interest is met by physical and cultural survival; there is no intrinsic interest in group expansion, except so far as necessary to assure bare survival. Moreover, the group interest is secondary; it is derivative of the fundamental individual rights which everyone has, to life and to self-actualization through culture. If those needs are met in ways that don’t perpetuate the group, the group has no independent interest in survival. There may be a thousand nominal Muggletonians in Britain, but if none of them feels that being a Muggletonian is an important part of their identity, the extinction of Muggletonianism is inevitable and is not to be regretted (except by historians).

The group extinction scenario clearly has no relevance to the position of Whites in Britain and the USA. EK invokes it nevertheless, noting that Zoroastrians frown on exogamy for just this reason. A similar logic presumably underlies an otherwise puzzling formulation, when EK argues that if someone objects to their child’s chosen partner on the grounds that the union would “defile their race’s purity”, this is racism, but that if the motive is “to preserve the vitality” of their ethnic group, this is “group-interested behaviour”. (Got that, everyone? Purity bad, vitality good.) EK seems to wish to help himself to the genuine issues faced by groups which are so small as to be in danger of extinction; he manages it by blurring the difference between genuinely preserving an ethnic group from extinction and preserving its “vitality”, or believing one is doing so. But the threat to the survival of Zoroastrianism is a reality, not merely something that becomes real by being acted on. If you act as if being English is ‘a thing’, you’re creating the social reality of being English. If you act as if the English are under threat of extinction, you’re creating social reality based on assumptions which you know to be false – in other words, you’re acting in bad faith.

At the end of the report we still have no clue as to why EK believes that ‘racial self-interest’ is a valid model, to the point that people who fail to believe in it can be labelled as biased and irrational. It’s clearly not because he believes that discrete human ‘races’ actually exist, in the sense that distinguishable noble gases or species of lizard exist. Certainly, many people believe in and identify with ethnic groups (defined in a variety of different ways). And certainly, a lot of people believe that ethnic groups have interests – at least, that their ethnic group does – and that the pursuit of these interests is entirely distinct from racism and should not be given such a pejorative label. But it’s not the role of the social scientist to give scientific credibility to widely-held errors – least of all errors as dangerous as this one is.

Next: but what about multiculturalism, eh?

You’ve got ventriloquists

My previous post is now approaching 3,000 reads; it’s now the best-read post in this blog’s history, passing the previous record-holder – which was (bizarrely) my annotated “There There, My Dear”.

I’m pleased with the impact the post has had and very pleased with its reception (I’ll write about some critical responses in another post), but since I wrote it I’ve felt that more was needed. The post was a line-by-line fisking of David Goodhart’s column, following the twists, feints and occasional leaps of the argument, so it wasn’t a very systematic presentation of my disagreement with his and Eric Kaufmann’s ideas. I hadn’t read the whole of EK’s report when I wrote it; I’ve now made good that omission, which in turn has prompted further reflections. Also, DG complained about the post’s facetiousness, which is fair enough; I was trying to raise a smile quite a lot of the time, if only to keep the anger at bay.

So this and the next couple of posts will be devoted to my considered, and reasonably straight-faced, thoughts on this whole ‘racial self-interest’ thing. First, let’s talk about the vexed issue of racism and how to define it. Here’s the OED definition, one more time:

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

Needless to say, this isn’t the definition DG and EK prefer; on Twitter, DG ridiculed my reliance on ‘dictionary definitions’ – which is fairly rich coming from somebody who’d relied on a definition plucked out of the air. For DG the ‘normal definition’ of racism is “irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group”. EK, in the project report, quotes DG (it’s a small world) hypothesising “someone who identifies loosely with their own ethnic group … [and] wishes to live in an area where the group is predominant”; this person, however, “holds no negative views of other groups”, and as such we are invited to consider him or her not to be racist. EK for his part notes that different people do in fact define racism differently – although “most agree that someone who does not want to live next to a person of a different race is racist” – and offers to resolve the problem by coming up with a narrower, core definition on which we can all agree. In his words,

the central question concerns motivation. Do [people who want to reduce immigration] fear, hate or look down upon those of other ethnic backgrounds? If the answer is yes, they are racist by any definition of the term. Or is it the case that immigration skeptics are majority ethnic partisans who are … seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of their group[?]

And in this case, again, we are invited to consider that these people are not racists.

Now, you’ll have noted the absence from the OED definition of any reference to fear, hatred or contempt, so central to both EK’s and DG’s version of the term (DG’s formulation in fact specifies irrational hatred, etc, implying that in some situations he might not even consider those negative emotions to rise to the level of racism). So how can this definition be valid? Let’s suppose that you are one of our putative non-racists, feeling no animus towards any other group but identifying with your own group, wishing to maximise its demographic advantage and preferring to live in an area where the group is predominant. Let’s suppose you live in a street with nineteen houses, ten of them (your own included) occupied by people who identify with the same ethnic group as you – White British, Bosnian Serb, Loyalist, Hutu, whatever it might be. Now suppose that one of those ten families moves out suddenly – trading up to the outer suburbs, relocating for a job in another town, whatever – and the house is bought by a family from the other group. They’re perfectly nice people – you’ve got nothing against them as individuals; the thought of hating or fearing them personally has never crossed your mind – but they’re not from your group, and that matters to you; you want to maximise your group’s demographic advantage, and to live in an area where your group predominates, and while their group has the majority in your street that isn’t possible. You hear on the grapevine that the location is really convenient for them, the house is the house of their dreams and they got a really good deal on it; you’re happy for them, really you are, but still.

Now suppose that your street is a gated community, and buying a house there isn’t just a matter of putting the money down: the residents’ committee have to agree on any newcomer. Or suppose that they’ve got the house fair and square, but you hear rumours that they’re not really happy there and they’re thinking of moving out – they hadn’t expected their new neighbours to throw so many loud parties. Decision time: if you’re going to act on your preference for a community numerically dominated by your group, your course of action is clear. You regretfully vote against the newcomers in the residents’ committee; you find the first excuse to throw the loudest and longest party you can manage. Let’s face it, the new family was never going to fit in – it’s a kindness, really, to let them find out sooner rather than later…

I respectfully put it to DG, EK and their co-thinkers that, from the point of view of the newcomers, it doesn’t make much difference whether you consciously hate them or not. There is very little difference between being coerced into giving up something valuable by people who genuinely hate you, and being coerced into giving up something valuable by people who just don’t want you around. In any case, hatred is as hatred does: if somebody denied you the house of your dreams just because they didn’t like the look of you, I think you could be excused for feeling that they did in fact hate and/or look down on you. In point of fact, if the history of ghettoisation and ethnic cleansing tells us anything, it’s that terrible things can be done by people who don’t consciously hate or fear anyone, but just think it’d be better all round if those people were somewhere out of sight.

It could be argued, conversely, that this is all a dreadful misrepresentation – when we talk about wanting to maximise demographic advantage we’re not actually talking about people who would do nasty things like veto new residents on racial grounds. But if we’re not talking about that, what on earth are we talking about? I may have a deep-seated yearning to surround myself with fans of Cannon and Ball (no ironists or timewasters please), but if I never act on it in any way it’s not of any interest to anyone. We’re surely talking about beliefs that people are prepared to act on – or that they genuinely want politicians to act on on their behalf. That being the case, the difference between being an ‘ethnic partisan’ and ‘irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group’ is vanishingly small.

DG believes this is all a terrible mistake, tactically as well as normatively: “To describe as racist what many ordinary citizens regard as reasonable anxieties about rapid change is simply wrong, and a cause of great resentment”. EK: “Real racism exists and is dangerous. All the more reason to refine the term, using it precisely rather than permitting it to be stretched by political entrepreneurs”. Both seem to be backed up by a former Labour voter, quoted by US academic Justin Gest: “I think the anti-racists have made it worse. They look for trouble. They construe everything as racist.” Labelling people’s views as racist both alienates those people and makes them less sensitive to the actual danger of racism; instead, we should keep our definitional powder dry, abandoning the OED definition for the higher ground of a hatred-based definition. DG again: “The point is precisely to cordon off racism as far as possible into a place where everyone can recognise it and reject it, and then place linguistic and intellectual barriers between it and other forms of thought and behaviour that may involve race but are not racist”. Or rather, to relocate the linguistic and intellectual barriers which make racism taboo, putting some of the forms of thought and behaviour currently regarded as racism outside them.

There are two arguments here, both of them fairly confused. Whether ordinary citizens regard their views as ‘reasonable anxieties’ has no bearing on whether or not those views are in fact racist. (And let’s face it, most people have always regarded their own views as reasonable.) Calling their views racist may cause great resentment, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it (although it may call for a degree of tact). It certainly doesn’t mean that we should redefine racism so as not to offend anyone(!). DG argues both that racism has no intrinsic meaning (but that we should redefine it to exclude anything that ‘many ordinary citizens’ currently think), and that it has an intrinsic meaning which is much narrower than its current usage. EK for his part argues that the current definition has been deliberately stretched out of shape, apparently for partisan advantage, and that this over-extended definition tends to discredit the whole concept (although in that case it’s not clear where the partisan advantage is coming from).

But the whole argument’s moot, given that – as we’ve seen – there is no significant distinction between the broad and narrow definitions. To stop somebody getting what they want, not because it directly benefits you but because of who they are, is to treat that person hatefully and contemptuously. Whether you’re cackling evilly while you do it, or mentally reassuring yourself that you’re acting for the greater good, is not the deciding factor; in fact it’s a very trivial factor, of little interest to anyone but you.

As for the “anti-racists make it worse” argument, I think we should call its bluff – particularly bearing in mind that the “former Labour voter” quoted had subsequently transferred her loyalties to the BNP and then to UKIP, and that Gest also recorded her making comments such as

there were dozens of Romanian women with children, and it’s clear they had been on the nick. Vile people, Romanians. Then you walk outside, and it’s so loud with all the halal shops and rubbish in the streets. We look like a suburb of Nairobi.

Are people really being alienated by anti-racists insisting on labelling harmless traditional preferences and turns of phrase as ‘racist’? Or is it just a case of people expressing racist views, being told that those views are racist and being – or acting – mortally offended?

Next: ‘racial self-interest’ and how to ask a silly question.

Slipped on a little white lie

A recent piece in the broadsheet press has received quite a lot of attention – attention which I think it fully deserves, in much the same way that an infectious disease notification or a hurricane warning deserves attention. My initial impression was that it was extraordinarily bad in every respect, but on closer inspection it does some things very well indeed. All told, it’s an odd combination of superb rhetoric, tenuous logic and moral foulness.

The dividing line between liberals and conservatives in the US and the UK increasingly hinges on different definitions of racism.

The author takes it as axiomatic that racism is a bad thing: whatever it is that we call racism, that thing is bad, OK? So when he talks about ‘different definitions of racism’, what he’s actually referring to is different ways to draw the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’. Just as treason doth never prosper, racism is never acceptable – because if we see anything that looks a bit racist but want to say it’s acceptable, we redefine it as not being racism.

What do you mean, “what do you mean, ‘we’?”? We do it; we label some things as acceptable that other people might call racism – it’s something everyone does. In fact two assumptions are being made here: (1) it’s possible to draw the line between acceptable-but-a-bit-racist-in-the-wrong-light and unacceptable-and-just-plain-racist in different ways, and (2) not only is it possible, but everybody does it – liberals do it just as much as conservatives, they just draw their line in a different place. (The British political scene is a bit more complicated than “liberals vs conservatives”, of course, but the author prefers to stick with a cast of two. Presumably this is because it’s a lot easier to say “you’re no better than them” if you’ve decided in advance exactly who ‘you’ and ‘they’ are.)

Anyway, that’s what you’ve absorbed – or what’s been smuggled past you – by the end of the first sentence. Let’s crack on.

Liberals attack President Trump’s proposal to erect a wall along the US border with Mexico, and his ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, as racist. Many on the right defend them as necessary protections.

The border wall and the travel ban: racist or necessary protections? Ooh, complicated. Or not. Simple question: when Donald Trump proposed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, and when he said of Mexican immigrants “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”, was this the language of (a) racism or (b) necessary protections? Second question: why in the world would we imagine that those two things are mutually exclusive? (You see what I mean about good rhetoric and bad logic.) Surely the measures are racist whether they’re taken to be necessary protections or not. If you’ve identified a nationality or a faith group as the source of problems and declared that the solution is to bar those people from the country en masse, it doesn’t really matter whether what you’re trying to achieve is the necessary protection of the people, the preservation of the national culture or the purity of our precious bodily fluids – your analysis of the problem, and the measures you’ve taken to tackle it, are themselves racist. So this really doesn’t work; it’s another example of the author’s apparent determination to unmoor our understanding of the term ‘racism’, and send it floating off who knows where.

A recent study by a London college and Policy Exchange found that 72 per cent of Clinton voters in November’s presidential election consider Trump’s proposed wall to be racist compared with just 4 per cent of Donald Trump voters. But when the views of white and non-white Americans are contrasted, the gap shrinks. So political partisanship, not race, determines whether the wall is seen as racist.

This article refers to a project involving two sets of studies. The second set, which we’ll come to later, was conducted by YouGov and had reasonably chunky sample sizes; more to the point, YouGov’s involvement suggests that some effort was made to make those samples representative (size isn’t everything). The 72% and 4% figures come from what the project report refers to as a ‘pilot’ study conducted via Amazon Mechanical Turk: a quick-and-dirty convenience sample – or a series of them – with multiple quoted sample sizes, ranging from 117 up to 192. There’s no word on sub-groups within those samples other than a note that “MTurk’s sample is skewed toward secular white liberals”. Now, the gap between (professed) White and Black respondents on this question wasn’t just smaller than the Republican/Democrat gap, it was a lot smaller; 45%/55% Y/N (White) plays 55%/45% (Black), as opposed to 4%/96% (Rep) vs 72%/28% (Dem). On its face this certainly seems to suggest that political partisanship, not race, is doing the heavy lifting.

UPDATE 5/3 It has been pointed out to me that the following section is based on a misinterpretation of the figures, which in turn made me treat them as being less reliable than they are. Apologies.

The trouble is, the lack of weighting for representativeness makes it impossible to make this kind of comparison between different cross-breaks – and this particular contrast is so extreme that it’s hard to see how those two breaks could both be divisions of the same sample, just as a matter of arithmetic. Moreover, if those two splits aren’t divisions of the same sample, we’ve got no way to know which of the two samples we can trust – and we’ve certainly got no good reason to trust both of them, which obviously we need if we’re going to compare one with the other.

Let’s not beat about the bush, the Mechanical Turk stats presented here are little better than junk; that London college should be concerned about having its name attached to them.

What I should have written was something more along the lines of

The contrast between the two is so extreme that it’s hard to see how those two breaks could both be divisions of the same sample, which calls into question the comparison between the two. That said, even from different samples, they could both be valid – however skewed your sample may be (and however small it is, to a point), if the cross-breaks are far enough from being evenly distributed you can be sure that something‘s going on. But that’s what we have p-values for – and, although most of the ‘political’ cross-breaks are statistically significant (the 4/96 vs 72/28 split is significant at p<0.001), almost all the ‘race’ cross-breaks fail to reach statistical significance, this one included. So the Mechanical Turk data does support the first sentence quoted above, but it’s not strong enough to support the second and third. The researcher has suggested that the absence of a significant ‘race’ effect in the sample in itself supports the hypothesis that the real effect is small or non-existent, but I don’t find this convincing; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, surely. But I’m not a quants person and will defer to the judgment of any third party who is.

There’s also a broader question about data and methodology. Throughout the project report – including the sections that rely on YouGov-sanctioned sampling – there are charts with multiple ‘n’ values, with no explanation of which applies to what, or of why it’s appropriate to plot those apples and these pears on the same Y-axis. The exclusive presentation of the results in chart form also rings alarm bells. Methodologically-sound projects can generate nonsense, and projects that keep their methods and raw data to themselves may produce good data, but that’s not the way to bet. I could say something similar about think tanks that are open and informative about their funders as compared to those that aren’t; Policy Exchange scored zero in Transparify‘s 2016 report (“Highly opaque; no relevant or up-to-date information”).

There’s another, more fundamental point here, which the third sentence casually gives away: according to this article (and, indeed, the project) there is such a thing as ‘race’, and it can in principle ‘determine’ our point of view with regard to racism. (If it didn’t exist or couldn’t affect our point of view, there wouldn’t be any point contrasting it with political partisanship; it wouldn’t take a study to establish that your political loyalties are more important than your shoe size or the colour of your aura.) For contemporary sociologists it’s axiomatic that ethnic divisions are socially constructed, the distinctive markers of ethnic division varying from time to time and society to society – skin colour, facial features, language, script, religion, dress, cultural practice – and having no correspondence to any identifiable physical or genetic reality. There are no races, plural; the only reality of ‘race’ is racism, the social practice of dividing Czech from Roma, English from Welsh, Sephardim from Mizrahim, Tutsi from Hutu and so on. UPDATE 6/3 For the avoidance of doubt, self-identification with a group is also a social practice which we experience subjectively as reality; someone may wake up in Streatham and feel entirely confident that he is Black, African, Nigerian, Ibo, Black British, British, English, a Londoner, a south Londoner, a Christian, a Pentecostalist or some combination of the above, just as in the 1980s somebody might wake up in Sarajevo confident in her identity as a Slav, a Yugoslavian, a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Bosniak, a Muslim, a Sunni, a Communist, a speaker of Serbo-Croat or some combination of those. But I stand by the statement that the only reality of ‘race’ is racism: identities like these are plural, fluid and basically liberating rather than coercive, up to the point where one identity is set against another. At that point they become a lot less benign, and also – not coincidentally – a lot less plural and fluid: only a few years later our 1980s Sarajka would have been calling herself a Bosniak, a Bosnian Muslim, a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a speaker of Bosnian and that’s it. ‘Race’ in this sense – an exhaustive and discrete set of categories in which everyone has their place – is the end-product of racism.

By contrast, the formulation used here suggests (if only in passing) that it is racism that is a floating signifier, tacked down in different places by different people, while the reality of race is – or may be – one of the reasons for those differing perspectives. We’re through the looking glass, and I don’t much like where we’re headed.

The argument is not just about physical or economic protection, but cultural protection too. Modern liberals tend to believe that preference for your own ethnic group or even your own nation is a form of racism. Conservatives regard it as common sense and resent being labelled as racist.

As we’ve already seen, physical or economic protection is a red herring: implementing apartheid and saying it’s your way to save the ozone layer doesn’t get you onto the environmentalists’ table. There’s no further discussion of what cultural protection might actually mean, so I think we can discard that too. No, what we’re talking about is the same thing we’ve been talking about all along: racism. And here we get to the meat of the article: some people regard preference for one’s own ethnic group as racism; other people, who regard it as common sense, don’t like being called racists. (That little grace-note or even your own nation is another red herring, incidentally; there’s no reference to nationality in the rest of the article.)

You’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to get to the facts of the matter here – or, if not facts, strong and uncontroversial probabilities. You feel most comfortable with your partner and members of your family, all of whom are of the same ethnic group as you? Almost certainly not racist. You’d take your Mum’s shepherd’s pie over a lamb dupiaza any day? Probably not racist (although it may depend how often and how loudly you tell people about it). You wouldn’t want to have anyone regularly making lamb dupiaza in the house next door? Probably racist, unless you’ve got an onion allergy or something. You wouldn’t be happy if you saw an Asian couple looking at the house for sale down the road? Almost certainly racist. And finally: you don’t like seeing Asians moving in, but you regard it as common sense and resent being labelled as racist? Tough titty. Cuiusque stercum sibi bene olet; everyone regards their own prejudices as common sense, and nobody likes having their prejudices labelled as prejudices.

But that’s not the way this article is going. Rather, we’re being sold the proposition that, maybe, those conservatives are actually right; maybe, preference for your own ethnic group isn’t a form of racism. Huge if true.

The challenge here is to distinguish between white racism and white identity politics, or what Muslim-American writer Shadi Hamid terms white “racial self-interest”. The latter may be clannish and insular, but it is not the same as irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group — the normal definition of racism.

Ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show: white racial self-interest. Sadly, the author neglects to cite a fuller definition of this crucial concept – the well-known fourteen-word definition formulated by David Lane, perhaps? In all seriousness, the overlap with the vocabulary of white supremacism is striking. To speak of interest, after all, requires that there is some entity that has interests: if we speak of white racial self-interest, in other words, we presuppose the existence of a white race. (Including, or excluding, Arabs? Sicilians? Roma? Jews? Slavs? Hours of fun.) The report on which this article is based doesn’t help greatly, defining ‘racial self-interest’ as ‘seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of [one’s] group’. Which, again, presupposes that each of us has a ‘racial’ group, and that maximising the advantage of that group as against others is rational in some way. Why would it be, though? If the argument is that increasing the size and power of my racial group is a good thing for the group as an entity, and that it’s rational for me to recognise this, then the argument is simply and straightforwardly racist. But if the argument is that bulking up my ‘racial’ group will benefit me individually, by making it easier for me to employ, marry and generally surround myself with people of my own ‘race’ – well, once again, why would that be a benefit? All roads lead back to racism.

The author suggests that we should only speak of racism where irrational hatred, fear or contempt are in evidence. This is a familiar move but a vacuous one. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as our contemporary understanding of racism started to develop, there was a brief rearguard action involving a distinction between ‘racialism’ and ‘racism’. ‘Racists’ were violent bigots motivated by irrational hatred, fear or contempt; ‘racialists’ (usually including the person speaking) didn’t bear non-Whites any ill will, they just didn’t want to have to live near them. It was self-deceiving, self-exculpating nonsense then and – under the name of ‘racial self-interest’ – it still is now. To see why, let’s look at some normal definitions. We’ll take clannish and insular first – those venial sins which may occasionally mar the otherwise rational face of ‘racial self-interest’, but which don’t have anything to do with irrational hatred, fear or contempt. The OED defines ‘clannish’ as ‘having the sympathies, prejudices, etc. of a clan’ and ‘insular’ as ‘narrow or prejudiced in feelings, ideas, or manners’. So the author is saying that ‘racial self-interest’ may dispose a person to prejudice but not to irrational hatred. Let’s see how the OED defines ‘prejudice’:

unreasoned dislike, hostility, or antagonism towards, or discrimination against, a race, sex, or other class of people

In short, racism involves irrational hatred, fear or contempt, whereas ‘racial self-interest’ involves unreasoned dislike, hostility, or antagonism. Much better. The only way of differentiating ‘racial self-interest’ from ‘racism’, even on the author’s own definition, would be to change course and maintain that the rational pursuit of racial self-interest never involves clannishness, insularity and prejudice in general – which would be interesting to watch, if nothing else.

But that’s only the author’s definition of ‘racism’. What does the OED say?

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

That’s the normal definition of racism, that’s the Oxford way, and that’s how you beat Capone. Well, maybe not. But it’s radiantly clear that ‘racism’, per the OED, includes ‘white racial self-interest’ in every last detail – including the implicit belief that there is such a thing as a white race, with identifiable characteristics, in the first place.

(Note to anyone who thinks this is overkill. Look, this isn’t rocket science; as I write I’ve got the OED open in another tab, and I’ve only gone to those lengths because I couldn’t get the browser widget to work. I’m not even using my academic credentials to log in. Got a public library card? You’ve got the OED. Want the normal definition of racism? It’ll take you two minutes, tops. Want to come up with an alternative definition that’s more convenient for your argument and call that ‘normal’ instead? Go ahead, but don’t think nobody will notice.)

(Note to anyone who appreciates that but still thinks it’s taking rather a long time to get through this column. You may have a point. I’ll try and speed up.)

The next bit is tricky, so watch closely.

The question of legitimate ethnic interest is complex. Multiculturalism is premised on the rights of minorities to maintain certain traditions and ways of life. But liberals have usually been reluctant to extend such group rights to majorities.

They have justified this reluctance on two grounds. First, the white majority in the US and Europe is itself so diverse it makes little sense to talk of a culturally homogenous majority (though the same might be said for most minorities too).

Second, majorities have been so numerically dominant that their ways of life have felt threatened only in a few small pockets. The latter is clearly no longer the case, especially in the US where the non-Hispanic white population is now only a little over 60 per cent. In several UK cities, the white British are now a minority too.

As so often in bad syllogistic reasoning, the first premise is the one to watch. Multiculturalism certainly involves the belief that it’s generally a good thing for members of minorities to maintain certain traditions and ways of life (if they want to), but whether it’s premised on the right to do so is more debatable. (Would such rights be absolute? Who would they be asserted by?) I see multiculturalism more in terms of a recognition that individuals who are members of a minority group have a strong and legitimate interest in maintaining the traditions (etc) of that group. In which case, those individual interests are being confused here with a right held by a group collectively. This point is important because of the next step: the proposal to extend such group rights to majorities.

The argument then proceeds with a perverted dexterity that would do any propagandist proud. Why don’t we (liberals) recognise the rights of the majority, or (more broadly) attend to the safeguarding of the majority’s traditions and ways of life? It’s actually not a hard question; the answer is “because it’s the majority and doesn’t need it”. Whatever you may have heard about unaccountable elites, we’re not in Norman England – the ruling class comes from the majority group, speaks its language and shares its culture (give or take). A maj-ority and a min-ority are not just two different kinds of ority, they have fundamentally different positions, needs, vulnerabilities – a superior and more powerful position in the case of the majority, and fewer needs and vulnerabilities.

The author is obviously aware of this objection and tries two routes around it. The first is to throw out another red herring: perhaps our real problem is that the White majority is too diverse to have a single body of traditions ways of life ect ect. (I don’t know who’s supposed to have said this.) If this were the case, though, it would only make White people more like members of ethnic minorities; not one majority but multiple minorities (and we know how much those liberals like minorities). The second approach takes on the argument that majorities don’t need protection more directly, pointing out that in the USA the White population is little more than one and a half times the size of all the other population groups put together, as long as you don’t count Hispanics as White. And if that’s not scary enough, remember that White British people are a minority in “several UK cities”. Again, we are being asked to bring the White majority within the ambit of our sympathy for ethnic minorities, by considering them as a minority.

(You may be surprised to hear that Whites are an ethnic minority in “several UK cities” – and so you should be. Part of the trick is using the phrase “White British”; the White British population is defined considerably more tightly than the non-Hispanic White population of the US, as it excludes people of Eastern European and Irish origin, among others. The other part of the trick is a creative interpretation of the words “several” and “cities”. Although the statement in question is backed with a link to a blog post, the post only lists one city (Leicester), two towns (Luton and Slough) and five London boroughs in which White British people account for less than half of the population. In Leicester, Luton and Slough the White British population accounts for 45%, 45% and 35% of the total respectively – a minority, although by far the largest single population group in all three cases. (It would also be true to say that the Conservatives received a minority of votes cast in 2015, and that more than half of the MPs elected received a minority of votes cast in their constituency.) In short, it would be true to say that White British people are a minority in a handful of UK towns, although it would be grossly misleading. Saying that they’re a minority in “several UK cities” is straightforwardly false.)

So here’s the argument: liberals believe in giving ethnic minorities the right to maintain their traditions, etc; the White majority is an ethnic minority, sort of, a bit, if you look at it a certain way; so surely liberals should support their rights. The syllogism is even more flawed than I realised – the major and minor premises are both dodgy – so the conclusion hasn’t really earned the right to be taken seriously. That said, at this point we only appear to be speculating about recognising the right (if it is a right) of the White majority (if there is such a thing) to maintain its own traditions and ways of life – the Sunday roast, Christmas trees, Preston Guild. And none of those things is under any kind of threat, so the whole argument seems to be academic. No harm done, or not yet.

When YouGov, Policy Exchange and a London college asked 2,600 Americans whether it is racist or “just racial self-interest, which is not racist” for a white person to want less immigration to “maintain his or her group’s share of the population”, 73 per cent of Hillary Clinton voters but just 11 per cent of Donald Trump voters called this racist. In a companion survey of 1,600 Britons, 46 per cent of Remainers in last June’s EU referendum but only 3 per cent of Leavers agreed this was racist. When respondents were asked whether a Hispanic who wants more immigration to increase his or her group’s share was being racist or racially self-interested, only 18 per cent of Hillary Clinton voters called this racist. By contrast, 39 per cent of Donald Trump voters now saw this as racist.

Hey! A minute ago we were talking about preserving cultural traditions and ways of life and so forth – where’s that gone? All of a sudden the rights – or interests – we’re talking about aren’t to do with maintaining certain traditions and ways of life; they’re about numbers, and maintaining one’s own group’s share of the population. Is it racist (associated with irrational hatred and fear) to want one’s own group to have a larger share of the population? Or is it only racial self-interest, which ex hypothesi is not racist (although it is associated with unreasoned hostility and antagonism, but never mind that)? And what if the group in question is itself a minority – what then, eh?

This is truly dreadful stuff. The results of the survey are based on a distinction which makes no difference; moreover, it’s not a distinction which was surfaced by the participants, but one which the survey specifically and overtly prompted. There is no difference between ‘racism’ and ‘nice racism’, a.k.a. ‘racial self-interest’; to believe that there was a difference, one would have to believe that ‘racial self-interest’ was a valid concept, and that belief is in itself racist. This being the case, asking whether behaviour X is (a) ‘racism’ or (b) ‘racial self-interest’ is a bit like asking a rape defendant whether he (a) committed rape or (b) made a woman have sex with him against her will, although it was OK and it definitely wasn’t rape. ‘Racial self-interest’ is what you call racism if you approve of it; the author more or less said so at the top of the article. All we’re measuring is a differential propensity to euphemistic labelling.

The survey did measure that, though – and the results don’t point the way the article suggests they do. If we want to explain Clinton voters’ seeming reluctance to apply the label of racism to a hypothetical Hispanic’s desire for a larger population share, we can easily do so by evoking sympathy with the conditions that go along with being a member of an ethnic minority – conditions of powerlessness and discrimination. The idea that there is some sort of symmetry between this and Trump voters’ reluctance to call White majority racism by its name – and that having named this symmetry one can simply say “hey, political partisanship!” and walk away – is an insult to the intelligence. Both of these things may be temporising with racism, but one of these things is not like the other. The full report, to be fair, acknowledges the argument that Clinton voters may have good reasons – grounded in considerations of social justice and inclusion – for not wanting to label that hypothetical Hispanic as racist. It then ignores this argument and concludes that they’re just biased.

When Trump and Clinton voters were made to explain their reasoning, the gap on whether whites and Hispanics were being racist or racially self-interested closed markedly in the direction of racial self-interest. This points to a possible “third way” on immigration between whites and minorities, liberals and conservatives. As a new Policy Exchange paper argues, accepting that all groups, including whites, have legitimate cultural interests is the first step toward mutual understanding.

(Just to be clear (since this article isn’t), the recent study by a London college and Policy Exchange, the survey in which YouGov, Policy Exchange and a London college asked 2,600 Americans to waste their time making meaningless distinctions and the new Policy Exchange paper referred to just now are one and the same project. Also, our author works at Policy Exchange. Small world.)

When nudged in the direction of applying euphemistic labelling more broadly, then, both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ were willing to do so. The full report, in fact, argues that it’s liberals rather than conservatives who have work to do here: ‘liberals’ are supposedly more biased than ‘conservatives’, because they’re more likely to be selective in condemning racism. The way to reduce bias, then, is for liberals as well as conservatives to hop aboard the ‘racial self-interest’ train. Brave new world! All we need to do is agree that it’s good and appropriate to think of oneself as the member of a race, and to believe that each race has the right to preserve itself by maintaining or expanding its population share. Then the members of different races can come together in mutual understanding – or else agree to stay apart in mutual understanding. That’s always worked before, right?

This, incidentally, is where the jaws of the traditions and ways of life trap start to close. We’ve conceded – haven’t we? – that minority groups have rights, in a happy fun multicultural stylee? And we’ve agreed that the White majority is, well, kind of a minority, sort of, in its own way, when you think about it? Well, what more fundamental right could a group have than the right to preserve itself – the right to assure its own existence and a future for its, you’re ahead of me.

Majority rights are uncharted territory for liberal democracies and it is not always clear what distinguishes legitimate group interest from racism. Hardly anyone wants to abolish anti-discrimination laws that ban majorities from favouring “their own”. But while few people from the white majority think in explicitly ethnic terms, many feel a discomfort about their group no longer setting the tone in the neighbourhood. Labelling that feeling racist risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, driving white resentment.

You get the feeling the author feels he’s made his point now; he can afford to sit back and concede a few minor points. Yeah, sure, sometimes it actually is racism. Outright discrimination? No, no, nobody wants that – well, hardly anybody. Who’s going around thinking in explicitly ethnic terms? Nobody! Hardly anybody. Just a few people. Still, you know…

many feel a discomfort about their group no longer setting the tone in the neighbourhood

Sweet suffering Jesus on a pogo-stick, what in the name of Mosley is this? People feel a discomfort about no longer setting the tone? This stuff makes me weirdly nostalgic for the respectable racists of old – can you imagine what Michael Wharton or John Junor would have made of the prissy whiffling evasiveness of that sentence? Wharton could have got an entire column out of it. (He’d have ended up advocating something much worse, admittedly.)

But I shouldn’t mock; this column wasn’t just slung together, and we need to keep our wits about us. I said, a couple of paragraphs back, that the jaws of the “it’s just like multiculturalism!” trap were closing; this is where they slam shut – and where we get the payoff to all that equivocation about min-orities and maj-orities. We’ve conceded that minority groups have rights; we’ve conceded that the majority group also has rights – including the right to self-preservation. (This was never about culture, ways of life, traditions. It’s about people; it’s about numbers.) Well now: how can our majority group preserve itself, and preserve its identity as a majority group, if not by remaining the majority and continuing to do what a majority does? Our rhetorical conveyor belt is complete: you go in at one end believing it’s a good idea for Muslims to have time off for Eid, then you discover that this means you believe in group rights, which in turn means that you believe in racial self-interest and the right to pursue it, which means believing in rights for the White majority. Before you know what’s happening, you’ve come out at the other end unable to object to Whites maintaining their dominance and their ability to set the tone in the neighbourhood (a nice pale tone, presumably).

This is bad, bad stuff. Fortunately there’s not much more of it.

Minorities often have real grievances requiring group-specific policy solutions. White grievances are more subtle. For instance, lower-income whites sometimes lack the mutual support that minority communities often enjoy – this can translate into a sense of loss and insecurity. This, too, should be recognised and factored into the policy calculus.

“We’ve lost a lot, haven’t we, over the years? Think of the community spirit we used to have. Immigrant communities seem to have kept much more of a sense of community – they’re more fortunate than us in many ways. Really, they’re quite privileged, aren’t they, compared to poorer White communities in particular…”

Faugh.

The liberal reflex to tar legitimate majority grievances with the brush of racism risks deepening western societies’ cultural divides.

Of course – couldn’t go a whole column without using some form of the phrase legitimate grievance. The blackmail logic underlying the “legitimate concerns” routine is showing through more clearly than usual: either we legitimise these grievances by taking them seriously, calling them rational, making out that they’re not really racism, or… well, cultural divides, innit. Could get nasty, know what I’m saying? Nice racially integrated society you’ve got here, shame if something were to happen to it.

And let’s not forget just what we’re being asked to legitimise. Bring me my OED of burning gold! (Or the one in a browser tab, if that’s more convenient.)

racism, n.

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

The belief that groups defined on racial or ethnic lines “represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being” – and hence that it’s appropriate to maximise one’s own group’s demographic advantageis racism. There’s literally nothing here to argue about. The entire tendency of this very well-written, very ingeniously argued column – and of the rather less impressive report on which it’s based – is to legitimise racism, normalise racism, promote racism. (Specifically, the argument advanced here most closely resembles the ‘ethno-pluralism’ of the French New Right; that said, the ‘racial self-interest’ that it celebrates is hard to tell apart from the fourteen-word catechism of white supremacism.)

This racist work has no place in academic or policy debate; it calls not for discussion but for denunciation.

Trust I can rely on

I stayed up for the result last Thursday night and toasted Gareth Snell with a year-old bottle of Orval. I still had some beer when the Copeland result came in, but if I knocked it back it was only so that I could get it over with and get to bed. It wasn’t surprising – both results were what the bookies had effectively been predicting – but the Copeland result was very disappointing.

But then, the Stoke-on-Trent result wasn’t that great. On the plus side, we sent Paul Nuttall homeward to think again (not that he’ll be welcome there); if the result has revealed the irrelevance of UKIP to a wider public, that will be something to celebrate. But Labour’s share of the vote went down – again. And, although the Lib Dems came back, and although the Kippers profited from the Lib Dem collapse in 2015, the Lib Dem revival seems to have been largely at the expense of Labour: the UKIP vote share actually increased. The fact is that we held on thanks to a divided opposition; if the Tories had done a Copeland and appropriated most of the UKIP vote, they could even have won.

So what’s going on here? Let’s look at some pictures. Continue reading

Spitfires

As you can see, I’ve changed the title of this blog (although not the URL). I’ve got a bad habit of picking titles and catchphrases which are resonant but gloomy – the title of my book is a classic example. “The gaping silence never starts to amaze” is a nice line (it’s from a fairly obscure song by the Nightingales) but I thought we could all do with something a bit more upbeat. “In a few words, explain what this site is about.” says the WordPress rubric; I think the new title and strapline are a bit more informative, too.

The reference is to a song which a friend reminded me of (inadvertently as it turned out). I first heard it at a local folk club about a year ago, and it’s grown on me since then. It seems like a good song for where we are now; where we’ve been since the 16th of June last, really.

Spitfires (Chris Wood)
Sometimes in our Kentish summer
We still see Spitfires in the sky
It’s the sound.

We run outside to catch a glimpse
As they go growling by
It’s the sound…

There goes another England:
Sacrifice and derring do
And a victory roll or two.

From the drawing board to the hand of the factory girl
Upon the lathe
It’s the sound…

It’s ordinary men and women
With an ordinary part to play.

Theirs was a gritty England:
“Workers’ Playtime” got them through
And an oily rag or two.

But sometimes I hear the story told
In a voice that’s not my own
It’s the sound…

It’s a Land of Hope and Glory voice
An Anglo klaxon overblown
It’s the sound…

Theirs is another England:
It hides behind the red white and blue.
Rule Britannia? No thankyou.

Because when I hear them Merlin engines
In the white days of July
It’s the sound…

They sing the song of how they hung a little Fascist out to dry.

Ouster!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statues dressed in stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mmmyeahbut…

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, are we still talking about Fidel Castro?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our country (4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript: War is war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our country (3)

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

So: how did we get here?

Part 3: A question of levers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our country (1)

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

Part 1: Why oh why? Seriously, why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working-class people in the UK can see a possibility that something might change for them if they vote to leave the EU. The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. The referendum has become a way in which they can have their say … Shouting “racist” and “ignorant” at them louder and louder will not work – they have stopped listening. For them, talking about immigration and being afraid of immigration is about the precarity of being working class, when people’s basic needs are no longer secure and they want change.

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

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

They like her, a well-respected, diligent MP, but they weren’t listening. She demolished the £350m myth, but they clung to it. She told them housing shortages were due to Tory sell-offs and failure to build but a young man protested that he was falling further down the waiting list, with immigrants put first. Barking’s long-time residents come first, she said, but she was not believed. …  Roused by anti-migrant leavers, will they ever revert to Labour? Their neighbourhoods have changed beyond recognition, without them being asked. Children emerging from the primary school next door, almost all from ethnic minorities, are just a visible reminder for anyone seeking easy answers to genuine grievance. As high-status Ford jobs are swapped for low-paid warehouse work, indignation is diverted daily against migrants by the Mail, Sun, Sunday Times and the rest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

TCM 3 – When the government falls

Andrew Rawnsley in Sunday’s Obs, pushing the line that Labour is not one party but two:

Those with a vote in the contest who are still unsure which Labour party they should be backing have been provided with a clarifying test by Dave Ward, the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. Announcing the CWU’s endorsement of the MP for Islington North, Mr Ward declared that the union’s executive had acted on medical advice: “There is a virus within the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn is the antidote.” “The virus” being the Blairites.

Incidentally, this was not an off-the-cuff remark in an interview. It is the language used in the formal declaration made by the union so we must assume that the CWU weighed its words before deciding to compare the former Labour prime minister to a disease. If you think New Labour was the political equivalent of Ebola, then you probably belong in the Corbyn Labour party. If you think that three election victories and 13 years in power had something to commend them, you should probably be in the non-Corbyn Labour party.

This isn’t the Scottish post – I’m putting that off for a second time. This one is sparked by that reference to “three election victories and 13 years in power”. I thought it would be worth having a systematic look at the figures in the first post and drawing some conclusions about what actually happened at all those elections. For each election that led to a change of government, I’ll highlight what seem to have been the main causal factors; I’ll also flag up any elections where the government has fallen despite the government vote not having dropped, the opposition vote not having risen, or both.

At the 1950 election Labour hung on to power, but it was a close thing; relative to 1945 the Labour vote grew by 10% but the Tory vote grew by nearer 30%, helped by a substantial rise in turnout. The Tories were still some way short of an overall majority, though. The 1951 election saw another increase in the vote for the Conservative Party, this time by 12%, giving them 13.6 million votes compared to 12.1 million in 1950 (and 8.6 million in 1945); however, the vote for the governing Labour Party also rose, from 13.3 to 13.9 million votes. So what happened?

A conventional explanation is that the Labour Party didn’t win votes in the right places, “piling up majorities in safe seats” while those wily Tories targeted their efforts at winning winnable seats. However, there’s a much simpler explanation, which is that the Liberal Party was broke. The Liberals had had a dreadful election in 1950, losing 300 deposits; another general election a year later was the last thing they wanted. In 1951 the Tories made a net gain of 20 seats, based almost exclusively on 21 seats that went directly from Labour to the Tories. Almost all of these were two-way fights – and in almost all of those there had been a Liberal candidate at the previous election. While there was a small rise in abstentions, the Liberal vote broke disproportionately towards the Tories; the main effect of the absence of a Liberal candidate was to bolster the Tory vote. So there’s our first data-point:

1951 Change of government due to MINOR-PARTY COLLAPSE; government vote UP

The Tories, bless their black hearts, hung on to power until 1964. In 1955 and 1959 the Tory vote gradually increased; the Liberal vote collapsed and then rebounded under the forward-looking leadership of Jo Grimond; and the Labour vote steadily declined. If we compare the election at which the Tories finally lost power with the previous one, however, the Labour vote was all but unchanged; in fact it had continued to fall, if only by 10,000. The big difference is a slump in the Conservative vote, offset by a rise in the Liberal vote; the two parties’ votes together dropped by 300,000 between the two elections, but the Tories’ vote alone fell by 1.7 million. The long period of Conservative domination had created the conditions for the Liberals to undermine a complacent government and differentiate themselves from an ineffectual opposition; Eric Lubbock’s 1962 by-election victory in Orpington, in particular, put wind in the Liberals’ sails. The result, ironically, was victory for a party whose vote had declined at every election since its defeat in 1951, and was now 1.7 million lower.

1964 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE and MINOR-PARTY RESURGENCE; opposition vote DOWN

In 1966 Labour consolidated its position in government with an early election, in which it took votes from both the Conservatives and the Liberals. In 1970, however, the Conservatives won an election called tactically a year early, to the great surprise of the government and the opinion polls. The electorate had recently expanded with the enfranchisement of 18- to 20-year-olds; however, this does not appear to have affected the result, other than in a sudden increase in the number of non-voters. The government lost, the Opposition won; for once there isn’t a lot more to say.

1970 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE and OPPOSITION STRENGTH

In February 1974, the governing Conservatives failed to achieve an overall majority owing to a combination of effects: a slight decline in the Conservative vote; an increase in the number of Labour MPs (despite a drop in the Labour vote); a near-tripling of the Liberal vote, eroding the votes of the two main parties and draining the pool of non-voters; and, not least, the decision of the Ulster Unionists not to take the Conservative whip (this alone would have stopped the Conservatives being the largest single party). The process whereby this combination of circumstances led to a minority Labour government was complex; what can be said, though, was that it had very little to do with voters preferring the Labour Party to the Tories. (In fact the Tories took more votes than Labour – and, compared to the previous election, both parties’ votes had declined.)

1974 Change of government due to MINOR-PARTY RESURGENCE and MINOR-PARTY REALIGNMENT; opposition vote DOWN

As 1966 had followed 1964, the minority government of February 1974 was followed by a fresh election in October; this was marked by a slump in turnout which hit the Tories and Liberals harder than the governing Labour party. 1979 is an interesting one, partly because (in retrospect) it was the end of British politics as we knew it, but mainly because the Tories’ victory had nothing to do with any change in the Labour vote. Compared to (October) 1974 Labour’s vote actually went up – Winter of Discontent, “crisis? what crisis?” and all. The figures suggest that Thatcher won by poaching votes from the Liberals and the SNP (1.5 million votes) and by mobilising non-voters and new voters (1.9 million votes). This isn’t too surprising when you think about it: Thatcher was a classic populist opposition leader – the politician who said things the others wouldn’t dare, who was going to teach the others a lesson, shake up the system, etc. In other words, she was the politician who people disillusioned with politics would vote for. And they did.

1979 Change of government due to OPPOSITION STRENGTH and MOBILISATION OF NON-VOTERS; government vote STATIC

In 1983 both main parties were affected by the advent of the SDP – Labour, for obvious reasons, more than the Tories. The SDP campaigned on ‘centrist’ policies: a series of posters portrayed the party as splitting the difference between Labour and Tory, or simply promising to maintain what was then the status quo instead of moving to the Right or Left. (One poster associated Labour with nationalisation and the Conservatives with privatisation; the SDP, by implication, would pursue neither. Taken literally, this would have meant keeping British Gas, British Telecommunications, British Coal and British Steel in the public sector, among much else.) There were some shibboleth issues, mainly in foreign and defence policy – maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent (pending multilateral nuclear disarmament) and ending any thought of withdrawing from the EEC or NATO – but in retrospect the SDP seems much less of a break with Labour’s past than New Labour would be. The new party’s positioning demanded sustained denunciations of Labour as excessively left-wing; whether there was enough of an ideological gulf between the two parties to justify this approach now looks rather dubious.

In any case, the new party’s 3.5 million votes coincide with a drop of 700,000 in the Tory vote and 3 million in the Labour vote. Blame for the low Labour vote is generally assigned to Michael Foot’s leadership and to the party’s left-wing manifesto. I think there’s some blame to spare for four former Cabinet ministers – including the best Home Secretary Labour ever had – who used extensive social and media connections to advertise their own rectitude and denounce the party which had enabled them to achieve anything, but that may just be me. It’s certainly hard to imagine that three million voters would have been sufficiently revolted by the state of the Labour Party to vote Liberal or abstain if the Gang of Four hadn’t left the party. (As it was, abstentions rose by 1.5 million; the euphoria of the SDP moment wasn’t for everyone.)

Over the next two elections some normality returned; the centre vote and the pool of non-voters were squeezed as both Labour and Tory votes rose. The Tory vote didn’t start falling until 1997, when John Major’s first full term limped to an end and another era began. How did Labour win? Like Thatcher, they squeezed some votes out of the Liberal (Democrat) area, but there the similarity ends. Unlike 1979, the governing party’s vote collapsed; also unlike 1979, the number of non-voters rose sharply. (Labour vote: up 1.9 million. Tory vote: down 4.5 million. Non-voters: up 3.3 million.) Yes, New Labour made the news and set the agenda – as the SDP did before – but in large parts of the country it looks as if what they really succeeded in doing was (in the immortal words of Willie Whitelaw) “stirring up apathy”.

1997 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE, OPPOSITION STRENGTH and DEMOBILISATION OF VOTERS

2001 and 2005 were 1987 and 1992 in reverse: the Labour vote declined steadily (to levels below those of 1992 and 1987 respectively), but Labour won both elections handsomely. In 2005 I myself was one of those arguing that left-wingers shouldn’t vote Labour. Labour had been alienating its historic working-class base since 1997; the Left was more tenacious, but after Iraq a lot of us followed suit. That said, for me at least the advice not to vote Labour was explicitly on the basis that Labour wasn’t going to lose, whatever we did; the after-effects of the landslide of 1997 meant that the Tories still had a mountain to climb, even in 2005. But 1997 was a wasting asset. Like the Conservatives, Labour had a decade under the charismatic leader who had spearheaded their original victory, followed by a partial term under that leader’s successor; unlike the Conservatives, these were years of steadily diminishing electoral returns, culminating when Gordon Brown departed from John Major’s example by failing to win an election as leader in his own right.

2010 was in some ways an unremarkable election, repeating trends from the last election or two. Labour’s vote had been dropping; it dropped further. Abstentions had fallen in 2005; they fell again (although the level of non-voting was still extremely high). Votes for the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP had grown; all three grew again. The difference was that Labour no longer had enough of a cushion of votes to withstand these trends; the party duly lost its overall majority, ushering in a new age of coalition politics (we wish). In 2015, of course, things got complicated – and the government didn’t change – but that’s another story.

2010 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE, OPPOSITION STRENGTH and MINOR-PARTY REALIGNMENT

Seven election defeats isn’t much of a dataset, but let’s see if anything jumps out. The simple, seesaw pattern of vote change – more votes for the opposition party, fewer for the government – is involved in only three defeats, two of them of a Labour government (the third was the 1997 Labour victory). The Tory victory in 1979 rested on the strength of the opposition party, combined with voter mobilisation; Labour’s victory in 1964 rested on declining government support, even though the beneficiaries were the Liberals and not Labour. The other two changes of government – the Tories’ victory in 1951 and Labour’s in 1974 – rested mainly on minor-party effects.

Minor-party effects were involved in four results overall: a collapse benefiting the Tories; two resurgences, both benefiting Labour; and two realignments, one benefiting the Tories and one Labour. An increased opposition vote was a factor in three out of four Tory election victories, but only one out of the three Labour victories (1997). A declining government vote was a factor in four of the seven (two Tory, two Labour). There are some odd effects if we compare vote changes and election outcomes more broadly. Ten elections led to the Tories either taking or remaining in power; the Tory vote increased in all of these except 1983, when the Tory vote fell by 0.7 million. The other eight post-1945 elections led to Labour either taking or remaining in power; in as many of six of these, the Labour vote fell. Conversely, the Labour vote rose in five out of its ten defeats (1979 included); the Tories’ vote rose in only two of their eight defeats. Labour never seems to have won on the back of increased voter mobilisation, nor the Tories on the basis of demobilisation. The evidence generally suggests that the Tory vote is more solid than Labour’s and easier to mobilise; an uncomfortable number of those Labour wins look narrow or lucky. Moreover, despite the increase in the Labour vote between 1992 and 1997, this clearly isn’t a problem that New Labour fixed – or not without also driving down the Labour vote, with ultimately self-destructive consequences.

If Labour is going to win again, the party is going to have to repeat some of those tricks and learn some new ones. Specifically, I think they’ll need to learn to mobilise, if the next Labour victory isn’t going to be as chancy as 1964, as fragile as February 1974 or as unsustainable as 2005; that means having something to offer new voters and non-voters. Even if they don’t break with the low-mobilisation past – or rather, especially if they don’t – they’ll need three things: a strong centre, to chip away at the Tory base as in 1964 and 1974; a tired, discredited, and ineffectual government, as in 1964 and 1997, which means both making them look tired and discredited and making sure they are ineffectual; and strength in numbers, which means (among other things) Scotland.

Ah, Scotland…

The times they are hard

I sing Peter Bellamy’s “Us poor fellows” at singarounds occasionally; if you want, you can hear me singing it here. It usually goes down pretty well; it feels like a song for our times – which is a bit disconcerting when you consider that the character singing it was hanged for burglary shortly afterwards. On one occasion a friend commented that the song was unusually left-wing for Bellamy, which got me thinking: is it a left-wing song? (I’m pretty sure Bellamy didn’t think it was.) Could it be sung by a right-winger? If not, what would a right-wing song sound like?

Here are the lyrics of the song, if you don’t know it. If you do, you may as well skip to the post immediately below. Continue reading

and the wages are poor

In many ways this doesn’t look like a particularly left-wing song. Look at the second verse:

If we could find labour we ne’er would complain
We’d work well for a master his favour to gain
We’d be honest and faithful with never a stain

It’s not exactly “Solidarity Forever”, is it? Right Argument 1: Workers Want to Serve. (Or else “workers should want to serve” – or possibly “workers want to serve, deep down“.) Then:

a man with a family, his hands they are tied
He must look to their comfort or lose all his pride

And:

it breaks his poor heart for to see his wife cry
So, poor fellow, he’ll do what he can
… he’ll turn out and rob,
Poor fellow, to prove he’s a man.

Right Arguments 2a and 2b: A Man Needs His Pride and Men Are The Breadwinners. (These weren’t radical or unusual arguments in the 1780s, when the action of the song was set; they were still very much the common sense of the age. But they certainly aren’t left arguments.)

Then some thoughts about crime:

If a good man goes robbing, you know it’s a shame
He brings scorn and misfortune on his honest name

Right Arguments 3a and 3b: Respectability Is Valuable and Crime Is Shameful.

And the big finish:

let’s hope that these hard times will soon pass away
And unto our sweet Saviour we earnestly pray
That this dark cloudy morn brings a glorious day

Opening with a nod to the traditional song Hard Times of Old England, these lines preach religiously-justified passivity. Right Argument 4: The Lord Will Provide (Because We Can’t).

To be fair, there are a few lines in the song which seem to be making ‘left-wing’ arguments. On inspection there are two main arguments, each with two sub-claims. There’s an argument about unemployment:

So how can a good man keep the wolf from the door?
Poor fellows, we all will go down.
When work it is scarce, tell me, how can we eat?
How can we afford to buy shoes for our feet?

Sometimes people are out of work because there is no work, or not enough work. And we can’t assume the existence of some Darwinian struggle guaranteeing that the scarce jobs go to the best people: sometimes good people suffer, through no fault of their own, because the jobs aren’t there. So here’s Left Argument 1a: Unemployment is Real. (Also, in the ‘shoes’ line, another nod to Hard Times of Old England.)

We could plough the good land, we could fish the salt sea
We could work in the woodland a-felling of trees

Anyone who’s ever been unemployed or under-employed – a group which included Peter Bellamy – can identify with this couplet: there’s stuff I could do! (“Gizza job. I could do that.”) Left Argument 1b: Unemployment has Social Costs.

Then there’s an argument about crime:

a man that is desperate and can’t find a job
He will not be contented to sit home and sob:
Be he never so honest, he’ll turn out and rob

Crime isn’t only committed by people dedicated to dishonesty: an honest man may be driven to it. So that’s Left Argument 2a: Crime has Social Causes.

The fourth claim ties the two arguments together:

If a good man goes robbing, you know it’s a shame
He brings scorn and misfortune on his honest name
But in pitiful straits, tell me, who is to blame?

Left Argument 2b: Poverty Reduces Blame.

In short, this is a left-wing song inasmuch as it argues that the economy sometimes denies people a job; that this has bad results for them and for society, including a rise in crime; and that, in the circumstances, some of those responsible for the rise in crime aren’t entirely to blame.

On the other hand, it’s a right-wing song inasmuch as it argues for subservience at work, patriarchal dominance at home, respectability and rejection of crime, and pious fatalism.

Three thoughts come to mind. Firstly, it seems to me that those right-wing values are a lot more fundamental than the supposedly left-wing ones. Whether crime may sometimes be promoted by economic conditions is very much a secondary question compared with the questions of whether workers should “work well for a master, his favour to gain”; whether a man should be seen (and see himself) as the head of the household; whether criminality is always shameful; and whether improvements to collective conditions can be left in the hands of the Almighty. This is not surprising: Peter Bellamy had a long-running disagreement with those folk singers who claimed to have excavated a radical tradition of working-class song, maintaining that the huge majority of traditional songs about work celebrate working conditions and wish the master well. This is, in part, his tribute to that tradition.

Secondly, I think it’s arguable that the left-wing arguments aren’t actually left-wing at all, in two senses. To say that a capitalist economy doesn’t guarantee full employment – and that it is indifferent to the personal worth of the people it periodically throws out of work – is not a left-wing argument, or any sort of argument; from my limited understanding of economics, it’s basically a statement of fact. To say that social conditions temper effective freedom of choice, again, isn’t so much a left-wing argument as common sense. On the other hand to say that, when freedom is reduced, blame for wrongdoing should also be reduced isn’t a left-wing argument but a compassionate one. What this song demonstrates, in other words, is that it’s possible to combine a highly conservative worldview – in which respectable working men serve their masters, provide for their families and have no aspirations to bring about social change – with economic realism and compassion. I think they used to call this combination ‘Toryism’.

But (thirdly) if that’s the case, what are we saying when we say that this sounds like a left-wing song? I think this tells us something about what ‘right-wing’ means these days. It suggests that ‘right-wing’ means looking at unemployment through a stigmatising mythology of the deserving and undeserving poor, instead of from the perspective of economic realism, and looking at law-breakers as criminal types who deserve only punishment, rather than trying to extend compassionate understanding to them. In short, it means allowing the pleasures of class warfare to take precedence over rationality and humanity, to say nothing of the effective reduction of crime and the management of the business cycle.

In conclusion, let’s hope that… well, these hard times are going to be with us for a while, particularly given that the present government plainly regards promoting economic growth as less important than assuring its own survival. But let’s hope that by the end of the year Labour, at least, has a leader who doesn’t believe in dealing with unemployment by attacking the unemployed, or dealing with crime by making convicted criminals suffer – and who, unlike the previous leader, believes in stating his or her beliefs clearly and without equivocation. It wouldn’t make Labour a left-wing party, and it probably wouldn’t take them any nearer to power – but it would represent an act of moral and intellectual hygiene which is long overdue.

PPS

I said all I had to say about the Liberal Democrats after the 2010 election; it wasn’t complimentary. But that was five long years ago; tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis, or at least political realities change with them. So I was hardly surprised to read that some people were canvassing a merger between the Liberal Democrats and Labour – the party the Lib Dems have spent the last five years denouncing, that is, as distinct from the party they worked with quite happily for four years and eleven months. Nor was I surprised to see Nick rejecting this idea as ridiculous, which indeed it is. What did surprise me was Nick’s seeming confidence that, rather than seek a merger, Lib Dems could work with Labour productively without a formal alliance – in very much the same way that they did circa 1997-2001 – and indeed that this was a viable strategy now. Nick’s post title sums it up nicely: “Merging Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be a bad idea, working together wouldn’t be”.

I left a long and rather angry comment, which on second reading turned out to be missing a bit of argumentative connective tissue: I knew what I was trying to say, but the combination of grumpiness and self-imposed brevity made the delivery a bit telegraphic. So here it is again, with some of the detail filled in. Quotes are from Nick’s post.

I’m not saying that any agreement could be accomplished easily or quickly, but ruling it out entirely only plays into the Tories’ hands … Yes, we’ll all have to sit through shouts of ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (whilst we shout ‘illegal war’ and ‘ID cards’ back, of course) but shouldn’t we at least see if something’s possible without ruling it out without even discussing it?

Personally I think you’ll have to sit through shouts of “after making five years of Tory government possible and laying the groundwork for another five, are you kidding?”. David Cameron’s first premiership, secure in its majority of 70, wouldn’t have happened if the Lib Dems hadn’t made it happen. While the Lib Dems may have reined the Tories in on some occasions, the inevitable effect of five years under a Tory Prime Minister was to detoxify the image of Conservatism and shift political common sense their way – look at the prevalence of deficit fetishism across the media, the BBC very much included. From a Labour supporter’s standpoint, the Lib Dems are carrying a great deal of baggage and have a lot of credibility to make up; they’re in the political wilderness now, and for the time being that’s just where they belong. Labour has a problematic relationship with its own past, for more or less any value of ‘past’; the Labour leadership contest is largely being fought out over the question of just how much of the past to repudiate and how emphatically. That’s pretty unattractive, but next to the (putative) Lib Dem strategy of simply handwaving the past away it’s a model of responsibility.

assume a country with four parties (A,B,C, and D) that exist broadly as two blocs – A and B would usually work together in government, as would C and D, but a combination other than those two would be very unlikely. Now, imagine that A gets 30% of the vote, B 25%, C 40% and D 5%. In a proportional system, A and B can compete freely with each other and most likely would over the 5% of voters that would determine which of them is the largest party. However, their combined 55% of seats would put them into power. … In a system like ours, though, we instead have a situation where A and B competing only benefits C, unless large chunks of B voters can be persuaded to switch to A (or vice versa).

A and B competing didn’t benefit C six weeks ago, as I remember. A turned out to be shrewd, unscrupulous and powerful, and took nearly half of B’s seats. It was B colluding with A that nearly destroyed them. In June 2010 I described the Lib Dems as a “shabby, unprincipled, Tory-tailing rabble”; the Lib Dems in government occasionally did something to reverse that opinion, but they did much more to confirm and entrench it. Come 2015 Labour voters were never going to vote for them (again). As for Tory voters (and Lib Dem voters in Tory marginals), I suspect that many of them felt there was no reason to vote Lib Dem any more. As the government kept reminding us, things seemed to be working out OK with a Tory Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Maybe this was down to the Lib Dems exerting a moderating influence in the margins and behind the scenes, but then again, maybe the Tories weren’t as bad as all that; they certainly weren’t so bad that the Lib Dems couldn’t work with them.

Will a major party alliance – formal or informal – always act to destroy the Lib Dems’ identity as a party? Could it be different for the Lib Dems if they allied with Labour? It’s true that the 1997 and 2001 elections worked out rather well for the Lib Dems, but that was a lot more than a tactical alliance. There’s a case for seeing the alliance between Ashdown and Blair as the culmination of the entire history of the post-Lloyd George Liberal Party. Certainly from the time of the first Liberal leader I can remember (Jeremy Thorpe, hélas), the party’s position was always somewhere between ‘leftish-with-qualifications’ and ‘equidistant, whatever that means’. (The genius of Charles Kennedy’s leadership was to position the party on the left of New Labour, as ‘Labourish-with-left-qualifications’. No wonder the knives were out for him.)

By comparison, the Orange Book swerve – which led ultimately to the Coalition – has no roots to speak of: the book itself was only published in 2004. Of course, it could be argued that, in looking leftwards again, the party was resuming its historic direction of march after an unfortunate deviation from course, but politics doesn’t really work that way – not for those of us with a memory longer than a couple of months. To reverse ferret at this stage and say “you know what? it turns out we were equidistant from the two main parties after all!” wouldn’t exactly carry conviction. In any case, the success of the Ashdown strategy for the Lib Dems – and the extent to which the party stayed out of a decaying orbit around the Labour Party – can be overstated. While informal co-operation among Labour and Lib Dem voters in 1997 did work out well for the Lib Dems, it worked out really quite stupendously well for Labour – so much so that they felt they could pretty much ignore the Lib Dems from then on (exhibit A: the Jenkins Commission).

I can’t see any good outcome for the Lib Dems at the moment: staying with the Tories would be suicidal, but looking to Labour would evince heroic levels of chutzpah (and not in a good way). The third option – ‘equidistant’ independence – is a lonely, powerless and potentially self-destructive place: the question ‘what’s this party for?’ would be heard around the land. But maybe that question needs asking.

The moral is that history matters (perhaps especially on the Left). And that duopolies are hard to break – perhaps particularly hard from the centre. (Even the SNP – who really are a centre party – didn’t actually campaign from the centre.)

Cap in hand (3)

The story so far: in the last three parliaments there were 80, 92 and 85 MPs who were neither Tory nor Labour; there looks like being a similar number in the next parliament, albeit differently constituted (more SNP, fewer Lib Dems). In the absence of a landslide somebody is going to have to ally with someone. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems are claiming that the party forming the next government should be the largest single party, and that doing otherwise would somehow lack stability or legitimacy. There is no historical or constitutional justification for this, and it looks as if they’re just saying it in the hope of giving the Coalition another five years, even if a Labour-led government could have a bigger majority and (consequently) be more stable.

That’s where we were up to last weekend. Then things got worse, with the outgoing Home Secretary’s extraordinary intervention in the Mail on Sunday. Now, the political stance of the Mail newspapers has never been what you could call impartial; ‘nuanced’ is another word that doesn’t spring to mind. But over the last couple of weeks they really have thrown caution to the winds; you could be forgiven for thinking they were being guest-edited by Chris Morris. ‘Red Ed’ is proposing “Stalinist” policies; a new hospital – in evil socialist Scotland – is “Nicola’s Death Star”. (To be fair, the ‘death star’ nickname is being used locally, on the basis that the building’s sort of star-shaped (it actually looks more like a Space Invader). But “new hospital: bad thing” genuinely is what the story is saying; ‘Fury-new-1bn-super-hospital-Glasgow‘ says the URL.) Perhaps most bizarrely of all, the Daily Mail has put its name to the statement that immigration is “being totally ignored by the main parties”: “the subject that dare not speak its name … has been all but air-brushed from the election”. To the extent that this leader column says anything at all, it seems to be complaining that nobody is actually campaigning on a platform of sending the buggers back; Labour’s promise to clamp down on the exploitation of cheap migrant labour is dismissed as a sop to the party’s “union paymasters”, a comment which is headbangingly stupid, scarily authoritarian or both (don’t come in here with your pinko commie supply and demand, we want men in uniforms and we want ’em now).

So you don’t go to the Mail newspapers for a cool draught of disinterested rationality – not at the best of times, and certainly not now. But even by those standards Theresa May’s statement last Sunday was something else.

Mrs May told The Mail on Sunday: ‘If we saw a Labour Government propped up by SNP it could be the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication. It would mean Scottish MPs who have no responsibility for issues like health, education and policing in their own constituencies [as they are devolved to the Scottish Parliament] making decisions on those issues for England and Wales. Rightly, people in England would say, “hang on a minute, why are Scottish Nationalist MPs allowed to do that?”‘

Two separate claims are being confused here. I’m not sure if May would want to stand by both of them, or even if she was aware that they were separate claims. (Since ‘catgate‘ my opinion of our former Home Secretary hasn’t been high.) I’ll disentangle them anyway. First, the devolution question. So Mary Smith, MP for Moray, Forth and Orkney votes in Parliament to cut the police budget and spend more money on primary healthcare – or vice versa – despite not having any responsibility for those issues in her own constituency. Does this matter, and if so why? There is a genuine and longstanding question – the ‘West Lothian’ question – about the capacity of Scottish (and Welsh) MPs to vote, after devolution, on matters solely or mainly affecting England, but opinions differ as to how serious it is; May’s apparent belief that it is very serious indeed is not widely shared. The SNP isn’t an abstentionist party, and May isn’t suggesting that Smith wouldn’t turn up – quite the reverse. It seems reasonable to assume that when the voters of M, F and O elected Smith to the UK Parliament, they were voting for an MP who would represent their views for the UK as a whole and take part in Parliamentary discussions about the governance of the UK – including the governance of England.

In any case, if Smith was democratically elected, and if the MSPs for Moray, Forth and Orkney are also democratically elected, it would all come out in the wash: the same voters would vote for parties putting forward the same policies, whether they got to implement those policies within the constituency or not. If anything, of course, the Scottish Parliament is more democratically representative, being elected under PR. (The three main UK parties are currently projected to get 5 Scottish seats between them (out of 59), on 45% of the vote. Seats the three parties currently hold at Holyrood: 58 out of 129, or 45%.) This doesn’t affect the main point: there is no reason to imagine that the voters of Moray, Forth and Orkney would vote for positive, responsible policy agenda A when electing Mr Brown, MSP for Moray, Ms Wilson (Forth) and Mr Robertson (Orkney), and then vote for bad, dangerous policy agenda B when electing their Westminster MP (Ms Smith).

The only way this could possibly work would be if Smith, Brown, Wilson and Robertson were actually all advancing the same agenda – one that’s positive for Scotland but bad and dangerous for the UK. And, it turns out, this is actually what May is suggesting. The West Lothian question is a red herring; as the last sentence quoted above suggests, it’s only a problem if Scottish Nationalist MPs are voting in Westminster on matters affecting the rest of the UK. By implication, it would still be a problem in the absence of devolution: if serious ‘West Lothian’ issues are being raised by the stance of a political party – rather than the vagaries of individual MPs’ voting behaviour – then that party’s position must be bad for England as well as being good for Scotland. And if that’s the case, they’re going to be a bad influence at Westminster whether Scotland has a devolved assembly or not.

There’s an obvious problem here: once you’ve set up an electoral system, you’ve got to accept the results it gives you. If it’s possible and legal for the SNP to stand candidates, then it has to be possible for SNP MPs to be elected; if the people of Moray, Forth and Orkney have elected an SNP MP, they’re going to be represented by someone who votes in accordance with SNP policy. And this is not a problem: it’s how the system works, just as it worked – exactly as it worked – when the people of Maidenhead voted to elect a Tory. May doesn’t seem to accept this.

‘Miliband would be in government on the coat-tails of Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. They would be calling the tune – people who don’t want the UK to exist and want to destroy our country. There would be a very real feeling was this was something people did not want to see, had not voted for and would find very difficult to accept. It would raise difficult questions about legitimacy. A lot of English people would question that.’

A Labour/SNP alliance would be “something people did not want to see [and] had not voted for”. That’s something you could say about a lot of post-election alliances; you could certainly say it about the 2010 alliance between the Conservatives and the party that won 23% of the vote opposing economic austerity and tuition fees. But this is much worse, because it’s the SNP: “people who don’t want the UK to exist “. “A lot of English people” would question a Labour/SNP alliance; it would “raise difficult questions about legitimacy”.

Again with the L-word! This talk of legitimacy is alarming: it suggests that we could run an election according to the rules, form a government according to the Cabinet Manual (pdf), and still end up with a government that wasn’t valid in some undefined way – or rather, with a powerful and vocal lobby denouncing the government as invalid. It’s astonishingly arrogant – who gave May, or Cameron, or Clegg the right to pronounce on whether an elected government should be allowed to exist? – and frankly dangerous: it’s the kind of thing that gets people talking seriously about coups.

It’s also, frankly, stupid. Let’s say we pass a ruling that a party demanding independence from the UK can’t be a vital part of a government of the UK – can’t supply the MPs necessary for a second party to get a majority (this seems to be what May wants, or at least the result she wants to bring about). Then what? What about three-  or four-party coalitions – should we debar the secessionists from those as well? Better had – otherwise one of the other parties might defect and leave them holding the balance of power after all. Similarly, of course, nationalists should be debarred from any kind of opposition alliance or understanding between parties – you never know when the wheel might turn and put the opposition in power, and we’d be back where we started. What about hung parliaments and votes of confidence – should we bar the nationalists from taking part? Otherwise their vote might be crucial to the survival of the government, which is just what we wanted to avoid. But then there are all the other votes which help a government survive, or undermine it if they are lost – can we afford to put the survival of the government’s prestige and reputation in the hands of the nationalists? And so on. The only way May’s logic will work is if we bar the nationalists from voting at all, or else from standing for Parliament in the first place – or if we excluded their nation from Parliament altogether. Perhaps the word isn’t ‘stupid’ after all; perhaps it’s just dangerous.

In part 4: what on earth are the Labour Party doing?

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.

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