Too few to mention

There’s been a flurry of articles in the last few days from commentators and political journalists who had dismissed Corbyn, asking themselves – with, I think it’s fair to say, varying degrees of rigour and sincerity – how and why they got it so wrong. Some conclude that they weren’t very wrong (Labour lost, didn’t they?) – or that if they were wrong, so was everyone else, so it doesn’t count (nobody expected that kind of vote!). Others – like the ‘Corbynsceptic’ MPs cited by Helen Lewis – “accept that they were wrong about Corbyn’s popular appeal“, but add a disclaimer: “Their concerns about his management style, ideology and past positions have not gone away.” They were actually right about Corbyn, in other words – they just didn’t realise that the voting public would get him wrong.

Others again plead a kind of Benefit of Columnists: you wanted an informed opinion, I gave you my informed opinion – and now you want to shut me down! Who would do such a thing but a Stalinist, a would-be censor, someone who wants to put good journalists out of a job… It’s a bit reminiscent of Lewis’s construction of Corbyn’s opponents’ response to post-election criticism, as MPs and grassroots activists who have put their lives on hold for seven weeks to campaign for Labour and who now don’t appreciate being treated like scabs. Never mind that the people doing the criticising have very often been campaigning themselves, or that nobody – by and large – is being called a scab. Criticism from the Left can’t be accepted as such, and it certainly can’t be heard; it has to be framed as an unpardonable breach of solidarity and rejected out of hand. The excess of these reactions seems to be part of the point – they seem designed to provoke outraged defensive pedantry (see above), thus diverting everyone’s attention from the original criticism and its object.

If we want to understand what’s gone on, though, clearly none of this gets us very far. I was a bit more impressed with this brief piece from Marie le Conte. Quote:

In hindsight, what has annoyed me the most over these past few months has been the lack of curiosity in political journalism. I have read many reports on the changing minds of the unlikely UKIP, Le Pen and Trump voters … What I wish I could have read more of is reporting on unlikely Corbyn voters; what makes them tick, what made them change, why they think that his political positions, which had mostly all but disappeared from the mainstream discourse, were the best the country has to offer.

It’s a good point, but in a way the question answers itself. Any one of us can assemble a mental image of the white working-class voter motivated by social conservatism and unavowed racism. It’s a social type we’ve become familiar with through all those endless UKIP/Le Pen road trips and exposés, but – more importantly – it’s a type that we already knew about; it goes back to Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death, and to the dockers marching for Enoch. But here’s the thing: we can just as easily assemble a mental image of the working-class voter demanding better pay and conditions, the young idealist getting fired up by radical ideas, the middle-class liberal getting involved in campaigning and moving leftwards… The question of why Corbyn would be attractive, to a certain kind of person, really isn’t all that difficult – any more than the question of why UKIP would be attractive (to a certain kind of person). And it’s not as if we didn’t have any idea about what might be a Corbyn-supporting kind of person. All those social types were right there in the collective consciousness; if John Harris wasn’t going to go out and find them, at least Owen Jones could have had a go. But nobody did; everyone assumed that those people weren’t out there any more, just like they assumed that the working people of Britain had had their heads turned by Farage and Brexit.

A lot of these writers who seemingly had the urge to get under the skin of people unexpectedly going right suddenly went silent when it came to people unexpectedly going left, presumably at least partly because Corbyn was simply written off as a future failure after each of his victories.

Some features did get written about the Corbynistas, but much of the response from mainstream media and political figures alike went from condescending shrugs to full-blown smirks.

Yes – and ‘shrug’ vs ‘smirk’ is a classic example of a distinction without a difference. But rewind a bit – Corbyn was written off as a future failure after each of his victories. This looks to have been written fairly quickly and without much reflection, which has allowed some interesting material to surface (if you’ll pardon my psych-speak). To put it another way, logically this makes no sense. How do you go from “he hasn’t got a hope, ha ha” to “OK, he won, but he hasn’t got a hope next time, ha ha”? What’s the mindset? Doesn’t the lizard-brain self-preservation instinct kick in at least? (Warning! Incoming data inconsistent with expectations!) What’s so important as to override those signals?

my political roots lie in student activism, and I knew in that summer of 2015 that in order to become the political reporter I wanted to be, and do my job as accurately as possible, I needed to get rid of my biases, and unfair assumptions on some corners of the political spectrum.

What my personal opinions were then and what they are now doesn’t matter; what does is that I firmly believe that my work, which I take very seriously, hasn’t been influenced by whatever it is that I happen to think or say in private.

This probably isn’t relevant to this post, but I do find this odd. I’m a Marxist; I’ve been a Marxist since I was 19, give or take. So I’m currently a Marxist university lecturer; before that, I was a Marxist journalist (employed for three years, freelancing for six); and before that I spent several years as a Marxist computer programmer and data analyst. I could also say I was a Freudian journalist and a Darwinian programmer, in the sense that I’ve always thought that some of their fundamental insights are valuable and reliable as a way of looking at the world – which is pretty much what I think about Marx. As a journalist I wrote about Druids, Bomber Command, decimalisation, the Queen’s nanny and a fair variety of other topics. At no point was my copy spiked or returned to me for being too ‘political’ – or too psychoanalytical or too evolutionist, for that matter. You can have bedrock beliefs without trying to bring them into every conversation, surely. (Anyway, doesn’t everyone have bedrock beliefs?)

In hindsight, I do however think that I may have been overzealous in compensating for what I saw as my political weaknesses, which pushed me to joined the sneering chorus chanting that Corbyn was about as likely to be successful as I am to become an astronaut then marry Rihanna.

It is, after all, hard to go against the grain when you’re the new kid at school and all the loudest voices are shouting the same thing, though this doesn’t excuse my own lack of political imagination.

Again, I find it hard to identify with this. Perhaps it goes back to being bullied at school, but I’ve always felt I know exactly what I think about important subjects, and never felt any need to conform to the views of the people around me. Or rather, I’ve never had any doubt that there was a way I thought about any given issue, and that I’d be willing to back it as at least provisionally correct, whatever anybody else thought. I am the gin in the gin-soaked boy, and I’m very happy about it. (So are you, of course.)

I regret patronisingly mocking my friends saying that if only Jezza was given a chance he could do wonders, and I regret not spending more time talking to the very people Corbyn appealed to, to understand a phenomenon I found slightly baffling.

This is another odd, unexpectedly revealing passage. We already know that Marie (like so many others) didn’t make the effort to imagine how Corbyn supporters might think and then go out on the road to find them, John Harris style. And fair enough – who can afford that amount of time out of the office? But it turns out that she didn’t make the effort to imagine how Corbyn supporters might think even when they were her friends. It’s one thing to say that an abstract mass of ‘voters’ are deluded or stupid or don’t exist; to maintain that level of denial with people you know is something else. Whatever’s driving this antipathy to Corbyn, it’s clearly strong stuff.

What I will add, though, is that this was not quite a victory for the left. Thursday’s results seemed unbelievable partly because the bar had been set so low by sceptic MPs and commentators.

Labour did not win the election, and any opposition party should have hoped to do at least this well in defeat while running against a campaign as clunky and dreary as May’s.

…and we’ve lost her. Shame – it was going well for a while there.

First point: sceptical MPs and commentators did not “set the bar low”. I’ll come back to this – it’s important in itself. But let’s imagine that they had done. Let’s imagine that you’d sat down a week before the election to bash out a column (I’ve done it, let’s not dress it up), and you’d said something like “Given the immediate political situation and the longer-term trends – which I take to be X, Y and Z – I think it’s highly unlikely that Labour will make more than one or two gains. This is [regrettable/just as well] in view of how [Jeremy Corbyn/the Labour Party/the state of political opposition in this country] relates to my assessment of what’s at stake at the moment (the key issues being A, B and C). Having said that, it’s always possible that Labour will outperform my expectations, so let’s [keep our fingers crossed/prepare for the worst].” That would have been setting the bar low. And how would you have reacted to the actual result? Not, I think, by saying “yeah, well, basically it only looks like a dramatic result because we all set the bar low”. Anyone who cares enough about politics to write about it – pure “Westminster soap opera” merchants apart – will have had a stake in the result; not a “yay Corbyn!” stake necessarily, but a “let’s not have a one-party state” stake, a “can we at least slow Brexit down” stake, or for that matter an “IRA sympathisers don’t belong in Downing St” stake.  And when you have low expectations of somebody, in an area you care about, and they exceed them, you react. So when people respond as if this was a ho-hum, unexceptional result that didn’t particularly bother them one way or the other – and that only looked striking because of the way people managed expectations – I’m afraid I don’t really believe them.

Coming back to the first point, nobody actually did set the bar low; setting the bar low would have been saying “the best Corbyn will do is make a few gains here and there” or “this will be a tough election, we’ll be lucky to break even”. When you set the bar low for somebody, you’re setting them up as winners – in a small way – or at least as honourable near misses. You’re judging what they’re about to do in terms of positive achievements, in other words. Those sceptical MPs and commentators – did they judge Labour’s impending General Election performance in terms of positive achievements? Of course not. They confidently anticipated a minimum of 30 losses and a maximum of, well, you name it – 100? 150? This would, of course, have been a disaster for Labour, and that’s exactly how they saw it. Blaming Corbyn for an impending historic catastrophe isn’t “setting the bar low” relative to future successes – it’s saying that Corbyn’s leadership is such a disaster that there aren’t going to be any future successes, with him in charge or quite possibly ever again. Labour didn’t out-perform those forecasts, they proved them wrong. Yes, those results seemed unbelievably good, and yes, that did have something to do with those forecasts. The connection is that, if you took those forecasts seriously, the results literally were impossible to believe. Now, those forecasts – and the contemptuous, dismissive mindset from which they came – have been comprehensively disproved. That in itself is a victory for the Left: we’re credible – even popular – in a way we’ve never been in my lifetime.

As for Marie’s second point: no, we didn’t win the election. I don’t think anyone ever thought we could – after four successive elections of losses, we started much too far back. What we have done is show just how much damage Labour can inflict on a Tory government without winning outright – and that story’s only just getting started. As for “any opposition party should have hoped to do at least this well”, really? Corbyn’s Labour gained 30 seats and increased its vote share by 9.7% relative to 2015. This was the 20th general election since World War II; in eleven of the twenty Labour lost seats, and only six of the other nine saw Labour gain 30 seats or more. (Neil Kinnock is the only other Labour Party leader to have seen his party gain 30+ seats without forming the next government; in 1992 Labour gained 42 seats on a rise of 3.8% of votes.) Only one other election saw Labour gain more than 9% in vote share, and that was Attlee’s historic victory in 1945. Labour gained 8.6% in 1997, but three of the four elections between then and 2017 saw Labour lose both seats and vote share – and in the fourth, in 2015, Labour gained 1.3% but still lost 26 seats.

So no, we really couldn’t have expected any opposition party to do just as well; a charitable observer, if there had been any, actually would have set the bar low for Labour. What we achieved, under Corbyn’s leadership and with a Corbyn-approved programme, really was remarkable.

But that’s not to say that nobody could have seen it coming: there are reasons why Labour appealed to the people it appealed to, and those reasons – and those people – were there to be identified the week before the election just as much as the week after. The fact that nobody did see it coming just tells us something about those political commentators: where they looked, where they wanted to look; who they took seriously, who they wanted to take seriously; what they thought was possible, what they wanted to think was possible.

Most of the Labour Party has now swung behind Corbyn, but I expect there will be holdouts – and I expect to see them as much on the ‘soft Left’ as on the Blairite Right. (The soft Left, unlike the hard Left, isn’t defined by policies or beliefs but by its position, which in turn is defined relative to the Right of the party.) The soft Left is also where most of our commentariat is located. Which makes me think – and what it makes me think of is the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always on my mind”. (Bear with me.) Neil Tennant’s remorselessly deadpan delivery of the song converts a mid-line caesura into a line break, making the nagging self-reproach of the lyrics even more relentless:

Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could have
Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as well as I should have…

and so on, and on, and on. Suddenly, midway through the fade, he leaves the line unfinished and lets it hang:

Maybe I didn’t love you…

I never hear that line without a weird sense of release – yes, that would explain it… And maybe that’s also the explanation for the commentariat’s inexplicable failure to see the positive qualities of Corbyn and Corbynism, qualities that are apparent to at least 40% of the British public and (apparently) a large majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Maybe you just weren’t looking; maybe you just didn’t want to see, or understand what you did see; maybe you were just never on our side.

Update What should appear, after I’d finished composing this post, but this from Jonathan Dean (h/t @Moonbootica for the Tweet). Quotes:

the problem we face is, I would suggest, more fundamental than that a few of us (myself included) made some dodgy predictions underestimating how Corbyn’s Labour Party would fare at the ballot box. More significant, I would suggest, is the fact that few in our profession were even interested in Corbynism. Corbynism was, for many, so self-evidently misguided that it barely merited any scholarly attention or analysis.

the myth of neutrality persists: rather than have an honest discussion about how our political analyses are shaped by our ideological commitments we just pretend, in public at least, that we don’t have any. And at times we have cynically hid behind the veneer of scholarly objectivity to actively pursue an anti-Corbyn agenda, enthusiastically confirming rather than interrogating kneejerk dismissals of Corbynism in print and broadcast media. If we were more honest with ourselves, we might concede that a lot of us think that the royal road to good, robust, ideologically neutral political science scholarship passes somewhere to the left of Tony Blair and to the right of Angela Eagle.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Advertisements

Get a grip

A quick thought-experiment for you. Imagine that you’re a citizen of a prosperous but divided and unhappy country, governed through institutions of representative democracy. Elections are held every five years, or four years, or when the Prime Minister feels like it – let’s not get bogged down in the details; basically, there are elections, they come round from time to time. One’s come round now, and you’ve got a fairly straightforward choice, inasmuch as there are only two parties that can possibly form a government. One of the two – the party currently in power – is exhibiting a weird and almost pathological combination of authoritarian instinct, vote-whoring volatility, populist pig-headedness and rampant ineptitude. The other… isn’t; in fact they’re doing quite nicely at the moment on the policy and presentational front, with some decent ideas and some competent people to front them. Also, they’re the party you’ve supported for most, or all, of your adult life. Oh, and you don’t like the current leader – never have – but in the circumstances that’s not going to be a deal-breaker, is it?

Is it? Really?

I know, rubbish thought-experiment. But I think it gets across what I find most baffling about the current situation on the Left – the fact that some people, while considering themselves Labour supporters and even leftists, hate Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership so much that they’d actually rather keep the Tories in power.

Too strong? But what other sense can we make of the defeatism of Atul Hatwal (“An addition to Labour’s sensible commentariat” – Conservative Home) and Jason Cowley? Cowley, bless him, chose the week before an election to announce that “the Labour Party is heading – and it gives me no pleasure to say this – for a shattering defeat”. As the bringers of bad news to Guardian readers so often do, he writes off whole swathes of England – the south, for a change: everything below “an imaginary line across the country from the Severn in the west to the Wash in the east”. Or rather, he writes off the south except for London, “where Labour is protected by the shield under which cosmopolitans shelter from the post-liberal turn that is transforming our national politics”. (These cosmopolitans – rooted at all, are they, or might they be lacking in the root department? Just wondering.) The ‘post-liberal turn’ seems to be a spray-job for the old “patriotic socialist” line that Cowley was running back in 2015; you might have thought the collapse of UKIP would have put paid to it by now, but I guess the dog knows his vomit.

Now, in the days before an election, this isn’t just wrong-headed; it’s pernicious. What’s its effect on the vote? You may go out leafletting or canvassing, but Hatwal and Cowley are here to let you know that it’s all a bit pointless – all those people out there, they aren’t going to vote Labour… And if you’re in London – or any other conurbation or university town – the message is doubly demoralising: oh, sure, these people vote Labour, but you’re not reaching all those people out there…

I can’t see how the effect of articles like these can be anything other than to drive the Labour vote down. And – God knows it shouldn’t be necessary to state this – driving the Labour vote down doesn’t benefit the Alternative Labour Party (Without Corbyn), because they’re not standing in this election; Tony Blair isn’t going to ride out from beneath Glastonbury Tor to save the New Statesman in its hour of need, either. If you drive the Labour vote down, you make a Tory victory more likely; you make it more likely that we end up with a stronger, more tenacious, more confident Tory government led by Theresa May.

How could anyone on the Left want that? Why would anyone on the Left work for that? Why would anyone on the Left even risk that?

I think there’s a deep, craven pessimism running through the British centre-left – a tendency to look at a house draped in St George’s flags, a focus group denouncing benefit claimants or a poll expressing distrust of Muslims and think, but who are we to tell them they’re wrong?…and maybe they’re actually right… It’s partly self-administered middle-class guilt-tripping, but also partly a deep-seated lack of trust in the project of the Left; the two work together, making it possible to pick off individual beliefs and label them as middle-class affectations rather than core beliefs. (I mean, yeah, in principle, everyone’s equal… but that’s easy for us to say…) The trouble with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t come with any particular sense of what the core beliefs are: potentially just about every tenet of the Left can be discarded as ‘liberal’, ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘middle-class’, from anti-racism to full employment. What will never be discarded are the core beliefs of the Right – nation, tradition, discipline, authority, Empire… Hence the periodic calls for Labour to get closer to ‘our people’, which on inspection always seems to mean those of ‘our people’ who see themselves in certain ways – our respectable hard-working people, our old-fashioned traditionalist people, our patriotic heritage-defending people… If Labour aren’t going to deliver – if Labour are going to give us a lot of namby-pamby nonsense about how you should talk to your enemies, be friendly with strangers, love your neighbours wherever they’re from – then Labour can’t win; Labour must be heading for a shattering defeat, the more shattering the better.

It amounts to another weird combination: a dogmatic insistence on the abandonment of Left principles, even at the cost of embracing defeat. Coming from people who criticised Corbyn supporters for not being serious about gaining power, this is disgusting. (Coming from anyone on the Left it’s pretty bad.) I hope Cowley and Hatwal, and everyone who thinks like them, find in a couple of days that their words have had no effect at all; I hope the results give them the chance to think again, and I hope they take it.

As for you, dear reader: I hope you do everything you can, in this last couple of days, to make a Labour victory more likely and a Tory victory less likely. I don’t care if you think Jeremy Corbyn is a card-carrying member of both the Communist Party of Britain and the Provisional IRA; he isn’t, of course, but as far as the choice before us is concerned it really wouldn’t matter if he was. A Labour-led government or a Tory-led government: that’s the contest; that’s what’s going on. Use your vote, and whatever influence you have, wisely.

Turn up

I saw this chart recently on Twitter. (Despite the attributions given, I haven’t been able to find a better copy or an accompanying article – if anyone knows more…)

As you can see, it shows changing levels of turnout at thirteen General Elections – 1964, 1966, 1970, 1974 (x2), 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015 – broken down by age group. There are a couple of things I don’t like about it. Firstly, under-21s didn’t get the vote until 1970; the first two data points on that salmon-pink line aren’t 18-24s at all but (presumably) 21-24s. For internal consistency, we need to start in 1970. Secondly, at the other end of the chart there’s an uptick – or, in the case of 18-24s, a downtick – apparently referring to an election in 2016. Obviously, there wasn’t one. The figures may refer to the EU referendum, but if so they aren’t really comparing like with like; in any case they don’t appear to be correct (36% turnout in the 18-24 age range?).

So, if it were up to me, I’d start the series no earlier than 1970 and end it in 2015. But there’s a bigger problem, caused by those lines. The decision to plot a line against a continuous time-based X-axis, rather than represent the different elections as discrete events, shows how turnout can change when there are two elections close together (as there were in 1974). Apart from that, it doesn’t really gain you anything – and it creates a false impression that we’re looking at continuous change over time, i.e. that the turnout figures for 2005 and 2010 allow us to read off what the turnout would have been in 2007. So I’d go for clustered columns. Also, we are interested in how different groups have changed over time – it’s just not continuous change over time. So, rather than plot the values themselves (most of which cluster together, making for a cluttered chart), I’d plot the change for each group. A bit like this:

What you’re seeing there is the change in turnout for each group – and for the whole population (pale blue bar) – relative to 1970. (Zeroes are invisible – see 1979 and 1983.) Straight away you can see that it’s a chart of two halves: turnout in almost all groups grows or holds steady from February 1974 to 1992. Then turnout falls for under-45s in 1997, and falls across the board in 2001. The next three elections see some of those losses clawed back, but with further losses among under-25s in 2005 and 2015. By 2015 over-65 turnout is back to its 1970 level and 55-64 turnout is slightly up, but overall turnout is still down 12%.

You can see the election-to-election trends more clearly on this second chart. Percentage changes here are against the previous election.

This shows just what a landmark election 1997 was – in a bad way: turnout was down nearly 10% overall, and 15% or more among under-35s. Then look at 2001: turnout is down over 10%, with >20% declines in the younger age groups, relative to 1997. Then, in 2010, we see a huge rally of the two youngest age groups – up by a third and a fifth respectively – followed by a slump for those groups in 2015. (And I’m sure Nick Clegg is very sorry.)

What all this tells us is that there’s nothing constant or ‘given’ about young people not turning out to vote; in all six of the elections from 1974 to 1992, the 25-34 turnout showed a bigger increase from its 1970 level than over-65s’ did from its, and the same was true of the 18-24s in four out of the six. It also seems to show that something happened to British politics in the mid-90s that made it a lot less interesting to people – what could that be, eh? And it suggests that, if people in general are disengaging from electoral politics, young people in particular will really disengage. (Interesting to see that the one group where turnout actually increased between 1992 and 1997 is 55-64s. New Labour: the triumph of Dad Rock?)

In short: if Labour were running a managerial, trust-me-I-know-what-I’m-doing, we’re-in-charge-now, let’s-not-be-hasty, listen-to-your-father type of campaign – which is to say, the type that won them three elections in a row – I would be really worried now, about turnout in general and about young people’s turnout in particular. Needless to say, that’s not the campaign they’re running – and on that basis I’m not sure that past trends tell us anything at all. Except, perhaps, that there are an awful lot of relatively young non-voters out there, and a lot of them have not voted in the past for good reasons. Let’s see if we can persuade them otherwise this time. I think it could really make a difference.

And I must agree

I’ve been thinking for a while – a phrase which here means “a couple of years” – about adding to my occasional series of book reviews. Something about why Light left me feeling simultaneously awestruck, existentially uprooted and in need of a wash; or how The Star Fraction brought me out in a mild case of conspiracy mania, but Descent didn’t do a thing; or how Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell only really works if you read it as a secret history of the actual England; or the roles of psychosis, neurosis and therapy in the Frieda Klein books; or the artist’s eye and the problem of genius in The Maker of Swans; or what was actually going on in The Thing Itself (although I might need to re-read it first).

But I’ll start with an easier one: what’s wrong with Paula Hawkins’ phenomenally successful novel The Girl on the Train?

1. The girl on the train

First problem: there is no girl on a train. The main character commutes into London and consequently spends a fair bit of time on trains, and she makes an observation which is central to the main plot (or seems to be) while looking out of a train window; but that’s about it. The plot mutates part of the way through, but in neither of its forms is it actually about her. In any case, she isn’t a girl. Admittedly, different people draw the age boundary between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ at different points – 16? 18? 21? – but it would be a very odd definition of ‘girl’ that included somebody who had (a) got a job (b) got married (c) bought a house (d) tried and failed to get pregnant (e) suffered from depression triggered by (d) (f) got divorced (g) moved out to live in a friend’s spare room (h) become an alcoholic (i) lost her job and (j) spent two years(!) concealing (h) and (i) from all around her. Not to mention that she describes herself as getting married seven years before the period of the novel and moving into her first house aged 26. Once I’d realised that I was reading Scenes observed by a woman on a train I started to wonder if an actual girl on a train was going to figure in the narrative later on (oh, that‘s what…), but no.

2. The narrative voice(s)

The book has three narrators, whose names are helpfully given at the start of each chapter. Saying that this sort of thing was done better by William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would be a bit beside the point – their audiences were very different from Hawkins’ – but I will say that John Wain did it a lot better, and nobody even remembers John Wain these days.

Here are our three narrators:

My phone beeps. There’s a message on it, received hours ago. It’s Tom again. I don’t what to hear what he has to say, but I have to, I can’t ignore him.

No one comes. The lights are on, but no one comes. Perhaps he has seen me outside, lurking, perhaps he’s upstairs, just hoping that if he ignores me I’ll go away. I won’t.

I’m upstairs, in the bedroom. Tom’s watching TV with Evie. We’re not talking. It’s my fault. He walked in the door and I just went for him.

As Kevin Rowland might say, their internal monologues are various (various, yeah, various) but they’ve all got one thing in common: they all sound the same. Hawkins’ idea of character differentiation seems to consist of having them talk about different things. So voice 1 (who’s an alcoholic) talks about how delicious her first (or second) cool (or warm) drink tastes; voice 2 (who’s wild and impetuous) talks about feeling frustrated and cooped-up in the hell that is suburbia; and voice 3 (happy young mum) says things like “treated myself to a very cute Max Mara mini dress (Tom will forgive me once he sees me in it)”. But they all talk the same way. Like this, in short sentences. Then longer sentences, ungrammatical (mimicking speech patterns), sometimes creating a sense of urgency by going on just a bit too long. Then short ones again – I mean, obviously.

All this might be bearable if the characters themselves were… well, bearable, or even if they were annoying in interesting ways. (Read Some Effing Dickens! Or listen to the Archers, for that matter.) Even to say that the three narrators talk about different things does Hawkins too much credit; they all spend most of their time talking about the same thing – themselves. Internal monologue is a wonderful thing in the right hands; in the wrong ones it just gets you endless sentences beginning with “I” and “My”.

3. The present tense

As the three extracts above suggest, the book’s written in a breathless present tense, as if spoken by the three narrators. Not only is each chapter headed with the name of its narrator; each chapter – or rather each section within a chapter – also has a date, giving the effect of a series of diary entries. The chapters belonging to one of the narrators take place over a different, longer time period than those of the other two; just to make sure we don’t miss this, the section headed Thursday, 11 July 2013 is followed by a chapter headed with a different name and the words: One year earlier: Wednesday, 16 May 2012. This system makes it very easy for readers to check what’s taking place before what, and lets us know when the earlier timestream starts to catch up with the other two; there’s no other justification for it, though, which is to say that there’s no justification for it at all within the characters’ own reality. For instance, there’s never any suggestion that any one of the narrators is particularly obsessive about dates – or that any of them actually is keeping a diary. It isn’t even suggested that the narrators are reconstructing events after the fact – a plausible framing device that Hawkins could easily have helped herself to, had she not used the ‘diary’ format for all three of the narrators.

Perhaps the thinking was that endless present-tense narration would be disorientating if readers didn’t get regular reminders that time was in fact passing. If so, it would have been much better to ditch the commitment to use the present tense, which Hawkins does in fact abandon whenever it starts to be too much trouble. And it is trouble, writing in the continuous present; that’s why it’s so effective when it’s done well. (Read some effing Silverberg – “Passengers” for a start, and “Sundance” after that; a day or so after, perhaps.) Here are our three narrators again:

‘Did you see this woman on Saturday night?’ he asked. I stared at it for a long time. It seemed so surreal having her presented to me like that, the perfect blonde I’d watched, whose image I’d constructed and deconstructed in my head.

I turned up to my session late, and walked straight into his office without a word to the receptionist. He was sitting at his desk, writing something. He glanced up at me when I walked in, didn’t smile, then looked back down at his papers.

Tom rang me back – he was between meetings, he couldn’t come home. He tried to placate me, he made all the right noises, he told me it was probably a load of rubbish anyway.

Present-tense narration, indeed. Our narrators talk to themselves at great length and in what’s basically the same voice, beginning each day’s ruminations with a quick timestamp for ease of reference. Then later – when the plot starts to pick up – they tell themselves the story of what’s been happening to them and what they’ve been doing, in the past tense. Some events are still narrated as taking place in the present, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this, other than to make the present-tense sections seem more gripping. As with the diary dates, it’s a completely spurious device.

4. Women and men

All this wouldn’t be so bad if it was fun to listen in on our narrators chatting to themselves. Unfortunately, it’s tough spending time with these people. The main cast is tiny – three women (the narrators), three men. The women aren’t women, they’re airheads: a drunken, neurotic airhead, a scatty, hippyish airhead and a smug young-married airhead. The men are drawn in less detail, but they’re all alike: they’re all strong, silent and secretive, and they’re all devastatingly attractive. One’s a nice guy – although he’s also a therapist, so it may just be the job talking – and the other two are jealous, possessive bullies and thugs; devastatingly attractive bullies and thugs, mind you. The two women who aren’t drunk are pretty hot stuff themselves – one of them comes close to seducing the therapist, which is of course at the top of page one on the Therapist’s Big Book Of Things You Must Absolutely Not Do. But I guess he’s too weak to resist her, what with being a nice guy and not a thug… ugh. It’s like a Mills and Boon with the masochism turned up to 11.

Each narrator goes in for a lot of flappy will-I-won’t-I-yes-I-will-damn-it equivocation, treading irresolute water for a while and eliciting our sympathy for her indecision, before deciding on a course of action and eliciting our sympathy all over again; it’s the kind of thing you used to see in short fiction in women’s magazines, like Bella‘s “Tales with a twist”. To be fair, when it’s done sparingly, and when you’ve invested in the character, getting inside her head in this way can work really effectively. When it’s done over and over again – over the length of a novel – it just seems mechanical and exploitative. It also uses up a lot more words than just getting on with it would do – which may also have been a factor in those Bella stories, of course. And how our narrators like using up words! Was a character thinking about work as he put on his shirt and tie? Yes, he probably was. More specifically, he was “probably running through his schedule for the day – meetings, appointments, who, what, where.” Oh, that kind of schedule.

People do go to work – or rather, the men do; not one of the women has a job. But for the most part work is something that people just disappear off to and come back from. Even outside work, nobody has any hinterland at all – nobody reads books, nobody watches films, nobody even watches TV as far as we can tell. They go shopping, they go to the gym; the alcoholic goes to the pub, the young mum goes for coffee with “the NCT girls”[sic]; and, er, that’s it. About two thirds of the way through somebody mentions a band she used to listen to, and it’s like opening a window in a stuffy room.

And then there’s

5. The plot

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. An awful man was rejected by the Army and trained to be a surveyor instead (he just did, all right), then conned lots of money out of his parents and got married to a woman who worked in PR (no, I don’t know what he spent it all on). She couldn’t get pregnant, got depressed and started drinking heavily, and he started an affair with a woman who worked in a gallery. He also started threatening his wife and beating her up, but only when she was too drunk to remember what happened the next morning. Then he divorced her and married Gallery Woman, had a child with her and started an affair with the (married) childminder, who promptly got fed up with being a childminder (but carried on with the affair). Meanwhile PR Woman had taken to getting horribly drunk and harassing, or stalking, Awful Man – although very often when she did this she was too drunk to remember what had happened the next morning. When less drunk, during the day, she caught the train into London – where she worked until she was sacked for being drunk – which she could afford to do because reasons. ♠She got into a habit of looking at her old house, and then looking at the house a few doors down where Former Childminder lived with her husband, who was in fact a Very Slightly Less Awful Man. One day she saw FC kissing another man. In fact, Former Childminder had been seeing a Nice Therapist about her traumatic (but unrelated) backstory, and had fallen for him horribly, as patients in therapy often do; it was innocent! In any case, she’d decided to break off the affair with Awful Man. She then told her husband about it; being awful himself, he attacked her violently. She escaped and met Awful Man, who took her away in his car and (being a lot more Awful than she, or indeed we, had realised) killed her. PR Woman, who was in the area at the time stalking Awful Man, saw them in the car, but she forgot all about it the next day, due to being drunk. She then read about FC’s disappearance, put the police on to Nice Therapist, got him arrested and ruined his life, went and introduced herself to VSLAM under false pretences, tried to put the police on to VSLAM instead, and generally got in everyone’s way. (You can’t help feeling there’s a decent black comedy in here somewhere.) Eventually she remembered what she’d really seen and tried to rescue Gallery Woman from Awful Man. He admitted everything, there was a confrontation, and the two of them killed him, in self defence, sort of, not really. At the end of the story PR Woman still hasn’t got a job, but she’s given up drinking and her mother’s given her a lot of money (“Mum was quite generous when she discovered everything I’d been through”), so it’s a kind of happy ending.

It’s pants. The plot is driven by two completely unbelievable characters, one of them the main villain: a failed squaddie turned surveyor(!), a con artist, rapist and murderer, who is described as irresistibly charming but consistently portrayed as a thug. It only works at all because it starts in medias res – at the point marked ♠ above – and fills in the backstory afterwards. The dice are loaded further by the interleaving of the victim’s story, told over a longer timeframe; this makes it possible to withhold the (crucial) information about her and the therapist for a long time, and postpone the murder itself for even longer. The interleaving and the timelag don’t seem to have any other justification, though; once again, a technical device is used for no other reason than to create suspense. Not too much suspense, though. If, for instance, the entire story had been told through the eyes of PR Woman, without the interleaved chapters from FC’s point of view, the truth about the murder would have been deferred even further, leaving us in some doubt right to the end of the story. Running a supposedly unreliable narrative alongside a perfectly truthful account of the same events lets readers feel a frisson of doubt without ever really losing the comfort of omniscience.

6. Boozing, bloody well boozing

And what about that unreliable narrative? Everyone says this book’s got an unreliable narrator. It hasn’t. An unreliable narrator is a voice that tells you what the character believes (s)he’s seeing – or wants to believe (s)he’s seeing – but also lets you know that that’s happening, and leaves you not quite knowing what you can believe. (Read “Sundance”. Read some Ruth Rendell, come to that.) What we’ve got here is a narrator who drinks till she blacks out and wakes up not remembering the night before. Sometimes the memory comes back later, and she tells us what it was. Sometimes another memory comes back and she decides the first one was wrong, and she tells us that too. We know we’re reading a narrator who doesn’t know the whole story – and by the end of the book we know we’ve just read a narrator who was sometimes mistaken – but at no point do we know that what we’re being told isn’t reliable. Once again – yet again – a technical device which can be used to do amazing things is being used, clumsily, for no other reason than to postpone a crucial revelation.

I referred to two completely unbelievable characters, and the main narrator is the second; she’s nothing like any alcoholic I’ve ever read about, or any drinker I’ve ever known. She doesn’t seem to have an addict’s craving for alcohol; the way that she describes her longing for a drink, it’s not something she needs to make her feel normal or get her through the day. It’s just… a drink; she just really, really likes a drink.

The pre-mixed gin and tonic fizzes up over the lip of the can as I bring it to my mouth and sip.

I open one of the little bottles of Chenin Blanc I purchased from the Whistlestop at Euston. It’s not cold, but it’ll do.

I finish the second can and make a start on the third. The blissful rush of alcohol hitting my bloodstream lasts only a few minutes and then I feel sick. I’m going too fast, even for me, I need to slow down

(Halfway through the third drink? Never mind an alcoholic, she isn’t even a seasoned drinker.)

The pleasure she takes in the drink – in every drink – seems all wrong, as does the variety: red wine, white wine, pre-mixed G&Ts, shots of Jack Daniels (none of your rubbish)… It’s like a non-drinker’s idea of what it would be like to have a drink problem: alcoholism as a really extreme form of self-indulgence.

But it doesn’t have to be realistic as long as it serves its purpose. The booze, like most other things in this novel, is only a means to an end: the blackout. She drinks, she gets drunk, she remembers nothing. In a suspense novel that derives most of its suspense from withholding information, this is mightily convenient.

7. Tales with a twist

I suppose I should conclude by saying something positive about the book, but – without recourse to lying, distortion or cheating – I’m not sure what it would be. I wanted to carry on reading until I’d finished it, I’ll say that much. But that’s not so much praise as testimony to the effectiveness of its narrative devices. Beyond that, I don’t think it has any value at all. The characters are paper-thin, the story’s ridiculous, the gender politics is truly awful, and everything else in the book is a manipulative and rather badly-executed contrivance with no internal justification – the multiple narrators, the multiple time frames, the ‘diary’ structure, the amnesia.

But I guess the success of the book does tell us something interesting. You’d think that, as between the proverbial “good story well told” and a rather poor story dolled up with literary tricks and twists – it’s being told backwards! she’s a boy! they’re all ghosts! – the latter would only work on the jaded palates of the literary fiction crowd. The success of The Woman Who Saw Something From A Train – a novel which is nothing but literary devices, to the point that it would fall apart without them – suggests that there’s a real appetite for writing that takes readers outside their narrative comfort zone, even if it only goes a little way outside and doesn’t end up anywhere interesting. That’s encouraging news, at least for lovers of literary technique.

Woke up sucking a lemon

Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

I’ve now written four follow-up posts to this post on David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann. I think by now I’ve said all I want to say on the subject. (I hope so, anyway – I’ve written 18,000 words already.) As a final postscript, these are some notes on reactions to the original post.

There was quite a lot of reaction to the post, and almost all positive; it was endorsed on Twitter by Frances Coppola, Declan Gaffney, Peter Jukes and Jonathan Portes, as well as being mentioned favourably on Stumbling and Mumbling and the Cedar Lounge. (Not a peep out of Wren-Lewis, though. Maybe another time.) I didn’t link to the column I was quoting, or name its author, the researcher he quotes or the latter’s institution (David Goodhart, Eric Kaufmann and Birkbeck respectively); I liked the idea of challenging (and hopefully demolishing) DG and EK’s arguments without actually giving them any publicity. Nevertheless, within 24 hours the post had come to both their attention, and I had my first critical readings – both from the authors and from their Twitter followers, although the latter didn’t say much about the post. (They were a charming bunch. One @-ed me in on a tweet telling DG I was a loon ranting into the void and advising him not to bother with me; he had an egg avatar and a timeline that seemed to consist mainly of insulting public figures and then complaining that they’d blocked him. I tweaked him a bit, asking who he was and how he was so sure I was a ranting loon. In reply he insulted me at some length, so I blocked him.)

The reactions from EK and DG were interesting. If you look at the original post you’ll see that I’ve retracted one point and expanded another quite substantially; each of these amendments was necessitated by a brief tweet from EK, and one which (in both cases) didn’t sink in until a couple of hours after I’d first read it. I still think his report’s dreadful, but on the detail level EK is clearly not someone to trifle with. DG’s response was interesting in a different way. When I accused EK of purveying unreliable stats, he reacted to the accusation by looking at my underlying argument, spotting the flaw in it and pointing it out to me; hence the retraction. When I accused DG of making a claim that’s straightforwardly false (In several UK cities, the white British are now a minority), he said nothing at all. He did respond to me, but not on that point, and not to very much effect. He challenged my point about the supposed rights of minorities, albeit rather feebly (as we saw earlier), but that was about it in terms of references to the post. Other than that, he accused me of facetiousness, pedantry and point-missing; he subtweeted me twice (that I know of), lamenting to his followers that he was having to argue with people who didn’t believe there was such a thing as ethnicity and/or believed that mentioning ethnicity was racist; and he repeatedly accused me of calling him a racist, and (for good measure) of calling “about 90% of Brits” racists. (This led to some short-form sermonising from one of DG’s followers about all these Lefties calling people racists all the time.) Needless to say, I hadn’t called anyone a racist. I tried to keep up the pressure – although most of the time it was more a matter of trying to keep him on topic – but it was a singularly unedifying series of exchanges. DG eventually cut it short, after replying to his egg-shaped follower and agreeing that I wasn’t worth bothering with.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning one other response – if it was a response; it may just be a curious coincidence. There’s a guy out there called Stuart Russell, who was formerly employed as press spokesman for the BNP; in that role, for reasons best known to himself, he went by the name of ‘Phil Edwards’. Russell seems to be rather proud of having a doctorate, as (unlike most PhDs I know) he uses his title routinely; his friends even seem to call him ‘the Doc’. I don’t know anything about this doctorate, and I’ve got no reason to believe it’s as fake as his pseudonym. I do know that if Russell was ever an academic it was a long time ago; company listings show him running a fireworks company in the early 90s, apparently alongside his father (search “Stuart Harling Russell” if you’re curious). Naturally the doctoral affectation carried over to his pseudonym, so Dr Stuart Russell became Dr Phil Edwards. Some years ago I tried to get the Guardian to refer to the man by his real name – instead of referring to him by my real name – but without much success. Anyway, Russell left his post (voluntarily or otherwise) when the BNP imploded in 2007 – and he was 64 then – so I hadn’t given him much thought for the last few years.

What should appear in my inbox, just as the DG/EK post was trending, but an email from “Dr Stuart Russell”, with some links to a purportedly libertarian site set up by Kevin Scott, formerly of the BNP (or “Kevin Scott BA Hons” as the site refers to him; they do like their credentialled intellectuals over there). A few hours later somebody else – a regular commenter on Chris Dillow and Simon Wren-Lewis’s blogs, whose name I’d last seen attached to a pro-DG comment on one of Chris’s posts – mailed me, claiming “Kev Scott asked me to send you the attached un-PC article in the Financial Times“. The attached article, of course, was the one by DG that started all of this. The question is whether my correspondent thought he was writing to Russell, a.k.a. ‘Phil Edwards’. (He clearly didn’t realise he was writing to me.) But if so, who did Russell think he was writing to? Has he retired and handed over to a new ‘Phil Edwards’, à la Dread Pirate Roberts? All very odd. What’s interesting, of course, that people in the ex-BNP area approve of DG’s column; if DG is sincere in wanting to hold the line against racism, it seems that racism is now so extreme that even fascists oppose it. Or rather, it seems that ‘racism’ defined as something distinct from ‘racial self-interest’ – which is the only form of racism that DG wants to oppose – is so extreme that even fascists are happy to oppose it.

In the mean time, someone identifying only as “Stu” (surely not?) has popped up in comments on the most recent post in the series, arguing strenuously and at some length against free movement in the name of workers’ rights. I may develop my own position on this one more fully another time; then again, I may not (there are other things to write about, after all). All I’ll say here is that one can champion the interests of the workers of one’s own country without being any more left-wing than Otto Strasser. When I see it asserted that “Socialism in a national framework is the only vehicle for positive progressive change“, I don’t think further debate is going to be particularly productive.

In another part of the nationalist field, Pat Kane put this interesting question to me:

As you’ll remember, my take on Harris’s calls for Labour to tell a “national story”, replacing nostalgic dreams of full employment with “ideas of nationhood and belonging”, wasn’t positive. In reply to Kane, I don’t see it as civic nationalism, because I don’t see that political forces in England are operating in a context where civic nationalism has any work to do. Civic nationalism, as distinct from ethnic ditto, comes into play when you’re building a new state and new institutions, and in that – necessarily short-lived – context it can be a powerful, transformative force. Once your state’s there, though – as the English state effectively already is – civic nationalism is a force for conservatism, for the preservation of the status quo. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily – it’s not a force for reaction, as ethnic nationalism so often is – but it’s not radical, progressive or creative. In fact, the danger with civic nationalism is that after a while it’s not anything, and its structures and tropes get taken over by the angrier and more energetic forces of ethnic nationalism (federal Yugoslavia and Serb nationalism, Britain and English nationalism). That’s not to say that ethnic nationalism is inherently a bad thing, either. It’s not a bad thing when it’s in the hands of powerless and/or minority groups, used to combat political exclusion and repression; as such it can be a force for justice, or at least for the disruption of injustice. But, by the same token, ethnic nationalism in the hands of the boss nationality is poison. Which is precisely why DG and EK’s legitimation of majority-group ethnic nationalism – White racism, in other words – is so dangerous.

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.

Oh, Mr Tony Blair

There were a couple of interesting tweetstorms today discussing the record of the New Labour governments, sparked off by Ken Loach’s article in defence of Jeremy Corbyn. Here’s one list of New Labour’s achievements, reassembled from Tweets by @iamhamesh :

introducing the national minimum wage and establishing the low pay commission, the human rights act, more than doubling the number of apprenticeships, tripled spending on our NHS, 4 new med schools, 42400 extra teachers, 212000 more support staff, scrapped section 28, introduced civil partnerships, doubled overseas aid budget, sure start, lifted 900000 pensioners out of poverty, good friday agreement, tax credits, equality and human rights commission, reduced the number of people waiting over six months for an operation from 284000 to almost zero by 2010, 44000 doctors, 89000 nurses, beating the kyoto target on greenhouse gases, stopped milosevic, winter fuel allowance, climate change act, decreased homelessness by 73%, free eye tests for over 60s, 16000 more police officers, extended the opening hours of over three quarters of GP practices, free prescriptions for cancer patients, removed the majority of hereditary peers, free part-time nursery place for every three-four yo, paid annual leave to 28 days per year, paternity leave, doubled education funding, increased the value of child benefit by over 26%, food standards agency, equality act, FOI act, increased university places, helped end the civil war in sierra leone, crossrail, paid annual leave to 28 days per year, paternity leave, doubled education funding, increased the value of child benefit by over 26%, food standards agency, equality act, FOI act, increased university places, helped end the civil war in sierra leone, crossrail, rural development programme, EMA, free bus passes for over 60s, devolution, banned cluster bombs, ban on grammar schools,£20bn in improvements to social housing conditions, longest period of sustained low inflation since the 1960s, heart disease deaths down by 150000, cancer deaths down by 50000, removed the minimum donations limit from gift aid, reduced the number of people on waiting lists by over 500000, waiting times fell to a maximum of 18 weeks (lowest ever levels), oversaw the rise in the number of school leavers with five good GCSEs from 45% to 76%, young person’s job guarantee, pension credit, cut long-term youth unemployment by 75%, doubled the number of registered childcare spaces, disability rights commission, free school milk & fruit, raised legal age of buying cigarettes to 18, banned tobacco advertising in magazines, newspapers and billboards, free entry to galleries and museums, 2009 autism act, new deal for communities programme (£2bn), electoral commission, halved the number of our nukes, free television licences for those aged 75+, EU social chapter, free breast cancer screening, record low A&E waiting times, reintroduced matrons, hunting act, banned testing of cosmetics on animals, department of international development, reduced class sizes, 93000 more 11-year-olds achieving in numeracy each year, London 2012,10 years of continuous economic growth, NHS direct, healthier school meals, access to life saving drugs for HIV and AIDS, points-based immigration system, equalised age of consent, smoking ban, public interest test, crime down 45% since 1995, and wrote off up to 100% of debt owed by poorest countries.

Well, that’s just hard to read. Let’s see if subheadings can make it any clearer.

Employment and welfare

introducing the national minimum wage and establishing the low pay commission, more than doubling the number of apprenticeships, sure start, lifted 900000 pensioners out of poverty, tax credits, winter fuel allowance, decreased homelessness by 73%, free part-time nursery place for every three-four yo, paid annual leave to 28 days per year, paternity leave, increased the value of child benefit by over 26%, young person’s job guarantee, pension credit, cut long-term youth unemployment by 75%, doubled the number of registered childcare spaces, disability rights commission, new deal for communities programme (£2bn), free television licences for those aged 75+, EU social chapter, rural development programme,  free bus passes for over 60s, £20bn in improvements to social housing conditions

Health

tripled spending on our NHS, 4 new med schools, reduced the number of people waiting over six months for an operation from 284000 to almost zero by 2010, 44000 doctors, 89000 nurses, free eye tests for over 60s, extended the opening hours of over three quarters of GP practices, free prescriptions for cancer patients, heart disease deaths down by 150000, cancer deaths down by 50000, reduced the number of people on waiting lists by over 500000, waiting times fell to a maximum of 18 weeks (lowest ever levels), free school milk & fruit, raised legal age of buying cigarettes to 18, banned tobacco advertising in magazines, newspapers and billboards, 2009 autism act, free breast cancer screening, record low A&E waiting times, reintroduced matrons, NHS direct, access to life saving drugs for HIV and AIDS, smoking ban

Education

>42400 extra teachers, 212000 more support staff, doubled education funding, increased university places, oversaw the rise in the number of school leavers with five good GCSEs from 45% to 76%, free entry to galleries and museums, reduced class sizes, 93000 more 11-year-olds achieving in numeracy each year, healthier school meals, EMA, ban on grammar schools

Law and justice

the human rights act, scrapped section 28, introduced civil partnerships, equality and human rights commission, 16000 more police officers, equality act, FOI act, equalised age of consent, public interest test, crime down 45% since 1995

Foreign policy and defence

doubled overseas aid budget, good friday agreement, stopped milosevic, helped end the civil war in sierra leone, department of international development, wrote off up to 100% of debt owed by poorest countries, banned cluster bombs,

Environment

beating the kyoto target on greenhouse gases, climate change act, food standards agency, hunting act, banned testing of cosmetics on animals

Other

removed the majority of hereditary peers, electoral commission, crossrail, removed the minimum donations limit from gift aid, London 2012, 10 years of continuous economic growth, points-based immigration system, devolution, longest period of sustained low inflation since the 1960s

It’s an odd mixture: the list includes some things that may or may not be the government’s doing (the drops in heart and cancer deaths); some that definitely would have happened whoever had been in power (the crime drop, London 2012); some that you’d expect from a government of any colour (free breast cancer screening); some that could easily be reversed by the next government (the ‘ban’ on grammar schools); some that never came to anything to begin with (the Electoral Commission); and some that weren’t necessarily good ideas anyway (Sierra Leone, points-based immigration, the smoking ban).

But it would be churlish to deny that there’s a lot of good stuff in there. New Labour In Genuine Improvements To People’s Lives Shock.

Exhibit B is a briefer tweetstorm from @natt:

for me, it was never just about Iraq, or tuition fees, it was the deliberate adoption of the rhetoric of the far right on immigration that gave us the proto-fascists of today, cutting benefits to single parents as their first major social policy when in office, an audience[sic] of corruption from Expressive[sic] through Mandelson and tennis partners and Blunkett’s having to resign in disgrace twice, anti-social behaviour laws that criminalised speech and rudeness and disproportionately affected poor people, the leading lights of New Labour, Blunkett & Reid, doing TV interviews to scupper any chance of a LD / Lab coalition in 2010, Control Orders used on people not found guilty of an offence, constant pushing for longer and longer detention without trial, the language of “Our schools are swamped,” “I’m afraid of women in the veil,” and “the immigration system isn’t fit for purpose”, Alan Milburn’s part-privatisation of the NHS, and the ‘reforms’ without which the 2012 HSCA wouldn’t have been possible, year after year of terrible PFI deals that have crippled our ability to invest for the future, the privatisation of air traffic control and the closure of post offices and the services post offices provided to rural communities, “British jobs for British people,” the managerialisation of politics that had led to large swathes of disaffected voters

Four main charges there: moralistic attacks on some of the poorest people in society; unbridled and rather self-satisfied authoritarianism on crime, terrorism and ASB; the tacit endorsement of ‘white working class’ racism; and complicity with, if not outright promotion of, the neo-liberal erosion of public services. Is it possible that a government that (at least after 2001) massively increased spending on health, education and welfare could also have opened the door to the private sector and run classic right-wing campaigns against yobs, benefit scroungers and unintegrated ethnic minorities? You’d better believe it.

Good or bad, all this is with several years’ hindsight, of course. So what did people think about New Labour at the time? Well, here’s what I thought in 1994:

It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). … What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds … Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails … Labour will probably just cease to exist.

And in 1997:

The party leadership’s refusal to give even token support to strikers; their determination to ingratiate the party with big business; their approval of punitive and divisive social policies; their frankly Stalinist approach to the party’s membership – all these [are] qualitatively new features of the party under Blair and Mandelson … Any commitment to … overriding the requirements of the economy in certain areas for the good of society had been beaten out of Labour by the time of the 1992 election, fought under the banner of ‘when resources allow’. What is new about Blair is that this loss of what had been a defining principle is now being happily embraced, flaunted as a sign of the very newness of New Labour. Labour will get things done not through government intervention or even public spending – pre-emptively frozen at Tory levels – but through co-operation with the private sector …

the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. … Any halfway competent right-wing government would have signed the Social Chapter, and several have. Similarly, the notion that the mere existence of a minimum wage is bad for business could only be taken seriously under Thatcherism. …

A few policies in Labour’s programme do hold out some hope for a genuine democratic renewal … The Scottish Parliament, the promised referendum on electoral reform, House of Lords reform, the Freedom of Information Act: all of these could herald major and beneficial changes in the way Britain is governed. However, extreme scepticism is still in order … openings in these areas may be created by Labour, but they will have to be exploited despite Labour. …

The community – ‘the decent society’, in Blair’s words – is a strong theme but a vague one. In its positive form it has little content which isn’t shared across the political spectrum … Only in its negative form do the contours of the decent society start to become clear. Parents should spend twenty minutes a night reading to their children (Blunkett); parents should bring their children up to respect the police (Straw). Single motherhood is not just a difficult lifestyle; it is wrong and should be discouraged (Blair). “YOUNG OFFENDERS WILL BE PUNISHED” (Labour campaign poster). Blunkett proposes to deal with training scheme refuseniks by cutting 40% of their benefit; Straw’s views on ravers and beggars are too well known to go into here. The rhetoric of ‘community’ announces a punitive, moralistic, openly divisive social policy, whose main function is to create and stigmatise outsiders: people who don’t play by the rules, people who don’t pull their weight; people who don’t fit in. …

Patriotism; alliances with big business; attacks on unconventional lifestyles. Closure of ‘failing’ schools by central diktat; compulsory childcare classes for irresponsible parents. Restrictions on the right to strike; restrictions on welfare payments; no tax rises for the middle classes; more money from the Lottery. Oh, and the party conference will be made ‘more like a rally’. It doesn’t look like a country I’ve ever wanted to live in – let alone a programme I could ever vote for.

And in 2001 (written a few days before the General Election):

Imagine a Tory government. This government does what Tories do: it privatises what it can, for instance, then invites private companies into the public sector, paying them with assets that belonged to schools and hospitals. The government cuts income tax and corporation tax; it passes a raft of illiberal social legislation; it makes it more expensive to go to university and harder to claim unemployment benefit. (It also extends licensing hours, but I suppose everyone’s got to have one good idea.)

Now imagine that, after nearly two decades, this government is replaced. Then imagine that the new government maintains and extends every one of the policies I’ve just described. Imagine that, after four years, it asks for a mandate to continue along the same lines, taking policies introduced by the Tories further than the Tories ever dreamed. Finally, imagine that millions of loyal Labour voters – people who stood by the Labour Party through the Thatcher years, who voted Labour under Smith and Kinnock and Foot – go out and vote for this government, giving it another four years in power.

Then stop imagining, because that’s what’s going to happen on Thursday.

It wasn’t just Iraq, in other words; it really wasn’t just Iraq. Although since you’ve mentioned it, here’s what I wrote about New Labour in 2005, shortly before that year’s General Election:

As far as I’m concerned, this is a single-issue election – and the issue is New Labour. Iraq matters – the government’s duplicity over Iraq matters hugely – but these things matter because they shine a light on what this government is really like. This government has pulled a whole range of foul and insane and alarming strokes in the last four years, but they’ve always been able to talk their way out of trouble (particularly when they were talking to people who weren’t directly affected). Iraq is the moment when this government ceases to have the benefit of the doubt; from this point on, there is nothing they can say that we will ever believe. The trouble is, they’re still there. They’re still occupying the centre ground of British politics, and reshaping it in their own unsavoury, authoritarian, crony-capitalist image; they’re still sustained by having the Left vote in an armlock. … They have to be shifted – and if they can’t be shifted, they have to be shaken up. … Don’t hold your nose: inhale the stink. If something smells bad, you don’t have to take it.

The people who took this country into Iraq aren’t just asking us to ignore what they did; they’re actually asking us to put our trust in them all over again. The fact that those people are New Labour makes it all the more blatant – New Labour’s all about trust. Or rather, it’s about trust, ruthlessly efficient machine politics, Economist-reading power-worship and motivational-poster managerialism – but the greatest of these is trust. You could sum up the basic proposition in one line: “It’s not Old Labour. It’ll work. Trust me.” The trouble with this is that if you lose trust, you’ve lost everything.

they’ve always been able to talk their way out of trouble (particularly when they were talking to people who weren’t directly affected). Hmm.

So, yes, there were some good people involved in those Labour governments, and yes, they did some genuinely good things. But the charge sheet is long: the crony capitalism, the abandonment of the unions, the embrace of Murdoch, the privatisation, the moralistic authoritarianism, the counter-terror laws, the ASB laws, the disregard for democracy, the attacks on unpopular minorities, the temporising with racism and bigotry, the complicity in illegal wars of aggression… And, at the end of it all, the inexorable decline of the Labour vote (and its complete collapse in Scotland). Loach:

It was their Labour party, not Corbyn’s, that lost Scotland, lost two elections and has seen Labour’s vote shrink inexorably. Yet they retain a sense of entitlement to lead. They have tolerated or endorsed the erosion of the welfare state, the dereliction of the old industrial areas, public services cut back and privatised, and the illegal war that caused a million or more deaths and terrorised and destabilised Iraq and its neighbours.

Accusing the government that brought us Sure Start, the EMA, tax credits and the rest of tolerating “the erosion of the welfare state” is harsh. But when you look at the extension of welfare conditionality during the New Labour years – and when you consider that the removal of tax credits was the hill on which Liz Kendall was prepared to let her leadership bid die – it’s not all that unfair. The other charges seem pretty straightforwardly accurate.

But Ken Loach wasn’t writing about the history of New Labour. What’s more important now is the damage that all those years of putting up with this weird parasitical pseudo-Left – even supporting it, for the sake of electing a government with a red rosette – did to the Labour movement’s moral and political compass. More than anything, we need renewal; we need to take our political bearings, as the left always has, from the needs of working people. September 2015 was a start, but only a start; we need to keep our nerve and push ahead.

One final quotation from 2005:

We’re living in a strange, muted, deadened political landscape, where many of the most important questions go unanswered or unasked. I don’t for a moment believe that this is our historical condition, that we’re beached in some Fukuyamaesque arrivals lounge at the end of History; I believe it’s the calm before the storm breaks. The question is how it will break.

I guess we know the answer to that one now.

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

Real slap in the face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 this song 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 2016, 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.

The only choice

I joined the Labour Party last year, having previously signed up as a £3 supporter in order to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. From that starting point, it’s probably not too surprising that I’ve voted for Corbyn again.

I’m aware that there are good reasons not to vote for Corbyn, and I can’t say I’m sanguine about the near future for Labour if he is re-elected. Corbyn isn’t a shmoozer or a fixer; he isn’t going to win over doubters with his warmth and strength of personality, or whip them into line with threats and inducements. He has his programme, he’d like people to get with it, and if they don’t, well, maybe they’ll be persuaded next time. The problem is, if he isn’t going to charm Labour MPs or threaten them, in a lot of cases he probably isn’t going to communicate with them at all – he’s not going to be talking their language. MPs are in the business of power, and they like the smell of it. So Corbyn needs – at the very least – to have someone beside him who can work the machine, a job which includes making MPs feel as if they matter. Last year I told anyone who’d listen that I was voting for Corbyn and Watson, for precisely this reason. The PLP and the party apparatus could have worked with Corbyn as a whipped party machine – a rather grudging whipped party machine with a few red-line issues, perhaps, but it could have been made to work. What did we get? Watson sitting on his hands for nine months and then supporting a leadership challenge, working hand in hand with Iain McNicol – and who was in the Whips’ office all this time but Conor McGinn, who’s so far Right that he counts Hugh Gaitskell as a political hero (i.e. somewhere to the right of Harold Wilson). In retrospect it looks less like a machine and more like an elaborate booby trap – how could it ever have worked? The problem is, if Corbyn is re-elected, work is what it will have to do.

There’s also the small matter of the divisions in the party. I agree with Simon on many things, but his position on the leadership challenge – that it’s purely a question of individual competence, so that electing Smith could give us all the benefits of Corbyn’s leadership without the drawbacks – strikes me as wishful thinking of the highest order. If it were simply a question of competence, would deposing Corbyn be quite so urgent? Would it necessitate quite so much of what an unsympathetic observer might class as vote-rigging? Wouldn’t it have been possible to present Corbyn’s supporters with an alternative candidate who embodied all of Corbyn’s merits without his personal failings – or to offer them guarantees which would ensure that the momentum of Corbyn’s campaign would not be lost? (SpinningHugo’s comment on that post is instructive.) Come to that, if competence were the key issue, wouldn’t it have been an awful lot simpler not to have a leadership contest at all – to leave Corbyn in place, but develop a more collegiate style of leadership, in which Corbyn does what he’s good at and other people handle the things he’s less good at? (And we’re back with Tom Watson.) Conversely, isn’t it a remarkable coincidence that, nine months after Yvette Cooper (among others) refuses to work with Corbyn and John McTernan (among others) calls for him to be deposed, he turns out to be so incompetent that completely different and unconnected people are refusing to work with him and calling for him to be deposed? The simplest explanation – also the pessimistic explanation, sadly – is that there are many people in the parliamentary party (far beyond the relatively restricted circles of Progress) who are bitterly opposed to Corbyn’s leadership, want it ended, and short of that want it to fail. Considering how far the centre of political gravity in the party has shifted in the last couple of decades, this isn’t surprising. But it would make it difficult for the party to be led by any MP as far to the Left as Owen Smith currently appears to be – let alone one as far to the Left as Corbyn genuinely is.

Personal competence isn’t a non-issue; on this I think Helen Lewis is correct – there were several Labour MPs who genuinely thought Corbyn should be given a chance, and he has pretty much lost them. But all those horror stories could have been avoided with better party management – which isn’t one person’s responsibility. It’s also interesting to imagine how similar stories of failure to communicate between leadership and Shadow Cabinet members would have been reported under Blair; I remember a falling-out between Blair and Clare Short, before the 1997 election, when the comments approvingly quoted on the BBC News came not from Short but from Peter Mandelson, speaking on behalf of Blair on God knows what authority. In one perspective all this is irrelevant – we have to work with the Parliamentary Labour Party, and indeed the news media, that we’ve got. But I dwell on all this because it relates to a point about Corbyn’s support that Lewis missed, or half-missed (the more important half). Two of her eleven “reasons for supporting Jeremy Corbyn” – derived from conversations with Corbyn supporters – are “The PLP undermined him from the start. He didn’t have a chance.” and “The media undermined him from the start. He didn’t have a chance.” But of course lots of people have been undermined by the media over the years, and a fair few have been undermined by the parliamentary Labour Party; if these were reasons to support the person under attack, you’d expect to see widespread popular support for Harvey Proctor and Piers Morgan, Gordon Brown and George Galloway. Rightly or wrongly, the great British public tends to take its steer from the media – and from the PLP – where all these people are concerned.

The fact that a person’s being attacked isn’t a reason to support them in and of itself; it is a reason if you already support the person, and in particular if you think that the attack is grossly unfair and shouldn’t be happening. I’ve talked a lot about bullying over the last couple of months, here and on Twitter; I think it’s something we’ve seen a lot of in the attacks on Corbyn. The core of bullying, I think, is a bad-faith offer of friendship, advanced with conditions which are designed to be impossible to meet. The bully would like to treat you with respect, he assures you, but really, how can he? He has standards! So he’ll only respect you if you’ll not do something you’ve already done (oh, what a shame!), or deny planning to do something you never actually did plan to do (but how can I be sure?), or deny believing something you do believe (I thought you had principles!) – or else, more straightforwardly, if you’ll do what he asks you to do, in exactly the way he wants you to do it (What are you doing? Not like that!). I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the media’s portrayal of Corbyn – from the New Statesman to the Sun – has been laced with bad faith over the past year, and I think something similar can be said of much of the PLP. They don’t actually want him to renounce nuclear disarmament (I thought you had principles!), any more than the Sun actually wanted him to bow any lower. (Think about that for a moment – “Bow! Bow down! Not like that – bow lower!” You couldn’t ask for a better example of bullying.) They don’t want him to do anything differently, they just want him gone. But while he’s still around, they aren’t going to engage with him in good faith – and he can’t make them, so there.

This is the missing second half of both those quoted statements – “The media and the PLP undermined him from the start, and this absolutely should not be happening.” Talking about Corbyn not having ‘earned’ MPs’ loyalty is nonsensical – he earned their loyalty as leader the moment he was elected as leader. (If you’re loyal to the leader, you’re loyal to the leader whoever he or she is. If you’re only loyal to leaders you agree with, that’s not loyalty at all – all you’re doing is going along with someone you agree with.) As for the media – well, we can all surely agree that mainstream media outlets are treating Corbyn with more hostility and (crucially) less respect than any Leader of the Opposition in living memory; there genuinely seems to be an assumption that he’s so far outside the normal range of political debate that the usual rules don’t apply.

And so, day after day, whenever we look at the news, Corbyn supporters are faced with a state of affairs that absolutely should not be happening; it’s like being a vegan living opposite a butcher’s shop. We’re angry, we’re outraged, we’re genuinely shocked (if my own experience is anything to go by), and a lot of the time we feel personally insulted. This happens every day, sometimes several times a day; it’s exhausting, apart from anything else. But it doesn’t make us sympathise with the people who are endorsing those attacks on Corbyn. If anything, it makes us think, This shouldn’t be happening. None of those people are going to stop it happening – they seem quite happy with it. That just leaves Corbyn.

To sum up: Corbyn hasn’t got a reliable team about him; the parliamentary party is divided, a word which here means “mostly a long way to the Right of Corbyn”; and the media in general, along with most of the PLP, responded to the democratic election of a new leader of the party by declaring open season on the funny old beardie man, a course they’ve maintained ever since. As we’ve seen, the third of these factors is really astonishingly counter-productive in terms of influencing Corbyn’s supporters, but all three of them make life very difficult for the man himself. If Corbyn’s re-elected, in spite of all that Iain McNicol can do, there’s good reason to think that it’ll be harder to depose Corbyn the next time – but there’s no reason to think that any of these problems will vanish.

So why prolong the agony by voting Corbyn again? I could have voted for a sneering, sanctimonious, cowardly bully from the best chapel traditions of self-righteous passive aggression… well, no, I couldn’t, but I could have abstained. In the end I voted for Corbyn, in the teeth of all the problems I know he’ll face, for very much the same four reasons that I voted for him in the first place:

  1. Because I really don’t like being told who I can and can’t vote for.
  2. Because Miliband-Harmanism had clearly run out of steam; if it’s not the right time to move Left after a defeat like that, facing a government like this, what would be?
  3. Because a movement of several hundred thousand people, pushing the political spectrum to the Left from the ground up, would be a wonderful thing to have.
  4. Because I believe in principle and rationality in left-wing politics, and Corbyn – unlike the alternative candidates on offer – displays both.

Picking up on this last point: as I said in last year’s post,

It seems to me that there are four very simple, fundamental steps to take when drawing up policy on an issue or reacting to a government initiative. First, check for ignorance and misrepresentation: however worried people are about immigrants from Belarus, if there are no immigrants from Belarus there is no need for measures to control Belarusian migration. … Second, if it’s a question of responding to what people want, check for other-directed preferences. In other words, check whether they want something because it’ll be good for them, or because it’ll be bad for other people and they like that idea. … Third, quantify. Benefit fraud is a real problem – of course it is: there are greedy people and liars in all walks of life … But how big a problem is it? In particular, how big a problem is it compared to other problems that we could tackle instead? Fourth, beware making matters worse. Will the cost of intervening outweigh the savings? Will more people suffer if you intervene than if you don’t? …

These are very basic principles. What’s been really heartening about the Corbyn campaign is that he’s stuck to them … he hasn’t stayed within the terms of debate set by the government and their friends in the media, or the rolling agenda set by whatever the papers say the polls say the people say they’re worried about; equally, he hasn’t wheeled out the old socialist verities in a comforting wuffly voice, or denounced the machinations of imperialism in tones of blood and thunder. He’s just talked sense – realistic, logically argued, morally decent sense – much more consistently and on a much wider range of issues than the other candidates.

A year on, I stand by all of that; in fact, I think the contrast with Owen Smith makes the case for Corbyn even more strongly than contrasting him with Cooper or Burnham.

I voted for Corbyn because I don’t believe this is about Corbyn as an individual. If Corbyn is defeated, the changes he’s brought about will be rolled back – quickly or slowly, but certainly in good time for 2020 – and we’ll be back to the initial post-election consensus that Ed Miliband lost because he was too left-wing. And where the Labour Party would go from there, or what it would end up standing for, goodness only knows. Ultimately it is about competence: the competence of the Labour Party to offer a genuine alternative and build towards a social-democratic government. The continuation of Corbyn’s leadership is going to pose challenges, but at the moment it’s our only realistic hope.

Update I’m not sure why, but this post seems to have struck a chord; the last time I checked it had had 830 views in seven hours, or about two-thirds of the number of views of (what’s now) my most-viewed post of all time. That post, in case you’re curious, was a comment on the riots of 2011. It included the following lines:

Over the last 30 years, work at every level has been steadily proletarianised: employment is nothing but a contract providing money in return for a working day, and a contract that is ever easier for the employer to revoke. Business values permeate all areas of society. The overriding goal, at all times, is to turn a profit: anything that contributes to that goal is good, anything that doesn’t is dispensable at best. The service ethic – the idea of taking pride in a job well done, at whatever level; the idea that the job you do is a way of contributing to a society where ‘we look after each other’ – is little more than a nostalgic fantasy. The institutions that used to nurture it, and whose daily workings made it into a lived reality, have been asset-stripped and hollowed out by ideologues with MBAs. Social life has been radically privatised, and deinstitutionalised in the process – party membership, union membership, local authority employment have dwindled away, without anything taking their place. One of the things that gets eroded in the process is deference to authority – because who are these authority figures anyway? Just ordinary people, just interchangeable employees doing an interchangeable job – even if the job involves chasing people with sticks. (And then they start talking about a Big Society!)

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

No comment is needed, except to say that this reminds me of one of the most bizarre and infuriating things about the people who are still trying to defend the Labour Party against the Corbynite invasion – they really seem to think it’s come out of nowhere.

Instructions for dancing (2)

There are a couple of reasons to be cheerful, from a Left perspective, about last week’s Appeal Court ruling. But first, let’s look at the NEC – the constituency section in particular. Left candidates took all six seats in the constituency section of Labour’s National Executive Committee last month. The Right is represented these days by a marriage of convenience between ‘neither Left nor Right’ists Labour First and the Blairites of Progress; their star has been on the wane for a while. They got two candidates elected in both 2012 and 2014, but one of the 2014 successes – Johanna Baxter – had been elected as a non-aligned candidate in 2012. The Left is represented by the Grassroots Alliance (est’d 1998 and supported by a variety of Left currents, now including Momentum); they got three candidates elected in 2012 and four in 2014. Apart from Baxter in 2012, no non-aligned candidate was elected in any of these elections; Eddie Izzard took 7.1% of the vote this time round, but this put him in eighth place overall.

Here’s the Left-Right balance of the constituency section of the NEC over time:

Left Right
1998  4  2
2000  3  3
2002  3  3
2004  3  3
2006  4  2
2008  4  2
2010  3  3
2012  3  2
2014  4  2
2016  6  0

The proportion of votes going to the Left actually fell slightly between 2014 and 2016 – from 55.2% to 54.5% – but we also saw much less variation in the votes for individual candidates. In 2012 and 2014 the Left had two candidates gaining over 10%; in 2012 the other four each took less than 8% of the vote, while in 2014 two were in the 8-10% range and two below 8%. In 2016 five candidates got between 8% and 10% of the vote, and one got 10.1%. This seems to be a sign of large-scale slate voting, without any one candidate having very much breakout or crossover appeal. (Mind you, when we remember that the single Left candidate with the widest appeal was Ken Livingstone, this may not be such a bad thing. Unhappy the land that needs personalities, as they say.) As for the Right slate, in both 2012 and 2014 only one of its candidates took more than 8% of the vote, and in 2016 they couldn’t even manage one. The figures look like this:

LEFT
Range Total Average
2012  5.2%-11.3%  47.3% 7.9%
2014  6.6%-12.2%  55.2% 9.2%
2016  8.2%-10.1%  54.5% 9.1%

Compare:

RIGHT
Range Total Average
2012  3.9%-8.3%  29.2%  5.8%
2014  5.5%-9.7%  40.9%  6.8%
2016  4.4%-7.2%  34.6%  5.8%

And, for completeness:

N-A
Range Total Average
2012  1.6%-7.2%  23.5%  2.9%
2014  3.9%  3.9%  3.9%
2016  1.5%-7.1%  10.8%  3.6%

That jump in the Right vote from 29.2% to 40.9%, between 2012 and 2014, is largely accounted for by Johanna Baxter adding 7.5% to their total in 2014. The ‘non-aligned’ field (excluding Baxter) collapsed from seven candidates in 2012 to one in 2014; both Left and Right vote shares rose accordingly, by 7.9% and 4.2% (Baxter excluded again) respectively. This year’s strong showing from Eddie Izzard took the total ‘non-aligned’ vote up to 10.8%; the Right’s vote share fell by 6.3%, the Left’s by 0.7%.

So the Right is slowly but steadily fading, while the Left has got its act together – and found a new audience. The vote count has risen dramatically since 2014 – from 323,000 votes cast to over a million – but the Left slate accounts for nearly 55% of the increase and the Right slate only 32%. Given the numbers involved, this is still a substantial increase for the Right; if the Left vote has tripled since 2014, the Right vote has more than doubled. Substantial numbers of new members have clearly voted for people like Ellie Reeves and Peter Wheeler – which is interesting, and gives the lie to any simple identification of the new recruits as fanatical Corbynites. But if the Right’s showing was good, the Left’s was better; as the tables above show, the lowest Left candidate’s vote share (8.2%) was higher than the best Right candidate’s share (7.2%).

So the Left/Right balance on the NEC has gone from 4-2 to 6-0; any close vote has just got a lot less close – anything up to four votes less close. (Yes, going from four Left members to six is an improvement of four votes: 4-2=2, whereas 6-0=6.) This in turn means – returning to our sheep – that there’s much less likelihood of a six-month freeze being imposed in any future leadership election. At last month’s marathon meeting Ann Black (Grassroots Alliance) moved that the freeze date be moved from January to June; this amendment would have passed with one more vote, but it tied 14-14 and consequently fell. In any case, a six-month freeze imposed in January 2017 would include all the people who have just been barred. Any anti-Corbyn candidate in future will start from significantly further back than Owen Smith now – and presumably there won’t be an anti-Corbyn candidate in future unless Smith fails this time round, which makes the whole question moot.

Put it all together, and for the anti-Corbyn camp it really is now or never; that’s not a political statement, it’s the arithmetic and the calendar talking. That thought alone is enough to make a Corbyn supporter cheer up; if we can win this one, they surely can’t hope to put us through it all again.

The other reason for optimism occurred to me when I was writing the previous post. It struck me that we’d seen remarkably little crowing, or even civilised and mildly-worded celebration, from the usual anti-Corbyn quarters. A retrospective trawl of Twitter confirms this impression. This is all I could find from Rentoul and Hodges, for instance:

Writing in the Independent the day before the ruling, Rentoul dismissed the whole thing – “Corbyn will probably win again next month. Friday’s Appeal Court judgment won’t make that much difference” – but reassured his readers that “[i]f Corbyn is still there, he will be challenged again next year … Eventually he will go.” (Well, we all go eventually.)

All in all, the ruling doesn’t seem to have gladdened the hearts of Corbyn’s enemies and their mascots (I hate the term ‘cheerleader’). I think it’s the look of the thing: it’s as if, at some point on Friday afternoon, it dawned on those concerned that the Labour Party had just gone to court to stop Labour Party members voting for the democratically-elected leader of the Labour Party. It’s not a good look. Bringing the appeal told the world, loud and clear, that the party is divided; that’s not a statement I’m happy about making, or hearing for that matter. I trust and hope that many people on the other side of the question feel equally queasy, and don’t want to make the situation any worse if they can help it. And, again, there’s a sense of ‘now or never’ – now, or pretty damn soon. The party can’t carry on indefinitely in a divided state; those who back the rebellious faction are going to have to make their faction prevail or else back down, and they’re going to have to do it quickly.

The other vote-limiting operation under way at the moment is the scrutiny of £25 ‘supporting’ voters – with party officials encouraging the checkers to reject as many as possible, according to one account. This, too, is a sign of the scandalous – and unsustainable – state the party is in. People are being denied a vote in the leadership contest if evidence can be found that they have previously been a member of, or advocated voting for, another party. What may not be immediately obvious is that we know for a certainty that this is unnecessary, to put it no more strongly than that; we know that there are people who have supported other parties in the past, and who are now loyal and hardworking members of the Labour Party. Look no further than James Schneider and Aaron Bastani of Momentum, both of whose past non-Labour loyalties have had a thorough airing. And if your reaction to that statement is that those are precisely the kind of people we should be excluding, congratulations – you’ve just discredited the entire exercise. A leadership election in which voters are pre-vetted and disqualified, in effect, if they’re more likely to vote for one candidate than the other? Worse still, a leadership challenge in which voters are disqualified if they’re likely to vote for the incumbent? A party apparatus that thought it can get away with that would have to be working on the assumption that they could get a quick win, after which the whole thing could be swept under the carpet. The coup is ended, but the coup mentality lingers on.

At a hustings event hosted by the BBC today, Smith stated his belief in retaining nuclear weapons, then incautiously said that IS should be invited to the negotiating table (he clarified later that the offer was only open to a possible future bizarro-IS which had renounced violent jihad). The debate took place in front of a handpicked audience divided into three equal parts – Corbyn, Smith and ‘undecided’. At the end, this happened:

I make that about three-quarters of the ‘undecided’ moving to Corbyn’s side of the room.

It’s now August the 18th: day 30 of the leadership contest – which is to say, day 54 of the coup that never was. A quick win? Good luck with that.

Instructions for dancing (1)

I don’t think the Appeal Court’s ruling last week – on whether Labour’s NEC had the power to set a retroactive ‘freeze date’ for eligibility to vote in the leadership election, disenfranchising some 130,000 people who are otherwise members in good standing – was wrong in law, as Jeremy Corbyn suggested. But, by the same token, I don’t think we can say it’s definitely wrong to say it was wrong in law. (Bear with me.) There is no law that can only ever be read one way, no case that could only ever have been decided one way. The fact that the Appeal Court reversed the previous week’s court ruling isn’t a demonstration of corruption or incompetence, but one example of a perfectly normal phenomenon in law: one reading of a legal question being superseded by another reading.

This isn’t to say that judges are free to decide cases, and interpret statute, any way that they please; on the contrary, legal rulings – particularly at Appeal Court level – need to be, and are, justified by closely-reasoned argument. When one court’s decision gets reversed by another, it’s very rarely a matter of Judge B announcing “Judge A was wrong, I’m right”. Rather, the higher court examines the argument in which the first judge’s ruling is embedded and puts forward a ruling grounded in a better argument – better in the sense of greater logical coherence or comprehensiveness, greater appropriateness to the situation at hand, better fit to statute and existing precedent, lesser probability of creating problems in future cases, and so on. Sometimes the greater appropriateness/coherence/etc of the higher court’s ruling is glaring and unarguable; sometimes it’s more debatable, and in these cases the original ruling may eventually be reinstated – either through appeal to a yet higher court or, in the longer term, by the precedent set by the appeal being distinguished (i.e. disregarded) so consistently that it falls into disuse.

The key point here is that the question “is this ruling correct?” both does and doesn’t have an answer. An Appeal Court ruling gives a definitive statement of how the law should be interpreted, together with supporting arguments; the Appeal Court ruling is the law (unless it’s reversed by the Supreme Court), and the answer to the question of whether it’s correct has to be Yes (unless the AC has really screwed up). At the same time, the arguments supporting the AC’s judgment give one particular reading of the body of materials which the court had to work with, together with reasons for adopting that reading. It’s possible for a reasonable person to hold that, although the AC has ruled that reading A applies and consequently the law is X, it would have been preferable for the AC to choose reading B, in which case the law would now have been Y. And, as I’ve noted, it’s even possible for the law-making power of that particular ruling to be, in effect, eroded over time, if the judgments of future Appeal Court hearings concur in preferring reading B and law Y.

All this is by way of saying that the Appeal Court judgment in the Labour Party case (Evangelou v McNicol) doesn’t (in my view) correct anything unproblematically identifiable as an error in the original ruling; what it does is propose a different reading of Labour Party rules and – more importantly – a different way of reading the rules. The key passages are in clause 4.II of the rules, headed Procedural rules for elections for national officers of the Party, and specifically sub-clauses 4.II.1.A and 4.II.2.C.vii (!), which respectively read as follows:

The following procedures provide a rules framework which, unless varied by the consent of the NEC, shall be followed when conducting elections for Party officers. The NEC will also issue procedural guidelines on nominations, timetable, codes of conduct for candidates and other matters relating to the conduct of these elections.

and

The precise eligibility criteria shall be defined by the National Executive Committee and set out in procedural guidelines and in each annual report to conference.

A submission from the NEC to the appeal drew attention to 4.II.1.A and the NEC’s power to ‘vary’ whatever is written down in the rules. The claimants objected on the grounds, roughly speaking, that this had not been brought forward before, and their case might have been different if it had. The AC agreed, but with one significant qualification:

In our view, the only relevance of Chapter 4, clause II(1) is an aid to the construction of other powers and requirements in the Rule Book, which has to be construed as a whole.

This brings us to the two different ways of reading the rules which were put forward in the earlier ruling and the AC ruling. The difference hinges on how much importance is given to what’s not in the text – shared assumptions, common knowledge, established practice and so on. One approach – what you might call a purposive approach – would start from common knowledge about what the rules are for and what kind of association the Labour Party is, and skate generously over lacunae in the text. So, we know that the party is a democratic organisation which elects its leaders, and we know that the party’s stated policy is to engage all members in activity and participation in the party’s structures; does it matter that the rules don’t explicitly say that all members get a vote in leadership elections? Similarly, we know that there needs to be a date beyond which new members can’t join the party and expect to get a vote – even if you give a vote to members who join on the day of the election, you need to specify that – and we know that it’s highly unusual, based on past practice, to set a ‘freeze date’ as much as six months in the past: does it matter that the rules don’t explicitly say that freeze dates shouldn’t be set six months in the past?

A purposive approach would say ‘no’ to both of these questions; interpreting the rules, on this approach, is partly a matter of filling in the blanks by referring to the purposes of the rules, the purpose of the organisation and the way things generally work in practice. This is, broadly speaking, the line taken by the original court ruling. It’s worth saying, incidentally, that although a purposive approach in this case favoured the claimants (and by extension Corbyn), there’s nothing inherently radical about taking an approach like this; it could equally well be argued that the purpose of marriage is to support procreation, or that the purpose of trade unions is to promote industrial harmony, leading potentially to highly conservative readings of the relevant laws.

The alternative approach forswears any of this assuming and skating-over; sticking with the letter of the text, it arrives – where the text allows – at results which are clear, definite and hard to challenge. The Appeal Court took a textualist approach in its ruling, albeit a modified, and arguably incoherent, textualist approach (I’ll come back to this). Where the freeze date is concerned, the textualist approach can close the case by asking and answering two questions: Yes, the rules do provide for the imposition of a freeze date; No, the rules don’t state that a freeze date cannot be six months in the past; The End. On the question of whether all members should presumptively get a vote, the AC is unyielding: the rules don’t say that anywhere, but they do say that the NEC has the responsibility of defining “precise eligibility criteria”. A purposive reading would lean heavily on that word ‘precise’ – doesn’t that imply that broad eligibility criteria already exist and are known, even if they aren’t necessarily written down? The textualist reading – and the AC – says that the use of an adjective to qualify X, when X is named, isn’t nearly enough evidence for inferring the existence of a broader, unnamed form of X; that would be like saying that a shop sign advertising ‘high class menswear’ tells you that you can get lower-grade clothing further down the road.

So is this an open and shut case? Not quite. Remember that legal arguments are justified in part on the basis of their potential for creating clear and appropriate precedents; also, remember that I argued that the AC took a modified textualist approach. The key point here is the use they made of that clause 4.II.1. Discussing the rule book at the time of the challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot, Carl Gardner drew attention to this clause, pointing out that it effectively frees the NEC from the restraints laid down by its own rules: “The NEC could vary the procedure however it liked, so long as it was reasonable.” This is the ‘power to vary’ which the NEC brought forward – rather late in the day – in this case. There is – potentially at least – an argument here about whether this power to vary the rules simply gives the NEC the power to decide whatever it wishes and ignore the rules, or whether it only empowers the NEC to vary the rules in an individual case having stated that it is doing so; the former reading would be so broad as to make the rules meaningless, but the latter wouldn’t cover anything the NEC has done in this case.

But the point is moot; as we’ve also seen, the AC ruled that this clause would not form part of its decision – except insofar as it was “an aid to the construction of other powers and requirements in the Rule Book”. Now, that’s quite a big ‘except’. What it says is that the entire Rule Book is read from the starting point that the party has both rules and a rule-making body, and the rule-making body can legitimately step in any time the rules need amending or seem to be giving the wrong result. The gaps in the rules as written – gaps which any textualist reading will inevitably find – are plugged by reading the explicit power to vary as conferring an implicit, general power to vary, as and when necessary. In effect, it’s a textualist approach within an overriding purposive approach, and as such arguably incoherent – after all, do the rules say that 4.II.1 is an aid to the construction of other powers and requirements, or is it just one sub-clause among others? A thorough-going textualist approach would surely choose the latter.

The result, in the words of Corbyn’s campaign, is as “a ‘make it up as you go along’ rule”; I wouldn’t go that far, but this reading would certainly make it very hard to win any case concerning the rules against the NEC. Some will welcome this ruling for precisely that reason – the courts shouldn’t be getting involved in the internal workings of political parties; the NEC is an internal party body, and anything that makes it less likely that members will take it into their heads to drag it through the courts is to be welcomed. But I think they should be careful what they wish for. If the NEC is the rule-making body, and if the rule-making body has the power to vary the rules, what limits are there on the power of the NEC? The AC’s ruling addresses this question in terms of the discretion of decision-making bodies and the limits to such discretion. In the words of a 2008 case (Socimer):

a decision-maker’s discretion will be limited, as a matter of necessary implication, by concepts of honesty, good faith, and genuineness, and the need for the absence of arbitrariness, capriciousness, perversity and irrationality

Wednesbury [un]reasonableness is also invoked, if anyone was worried it wouldn’t get a look-in.

Now, these are very broad limits. Restrictions on eligibility to vote are arbitrary if there’s no good reason for the line to be drawn in one place rather than another; they’re capricious if the line is drawn chaotically or at random; they’re perverse if their disadvantages outweigh their benefits; they’re irrational if they have no rational justification; and they’re Wednesbury unreasonable if they are so unreasonable that no reasonable person acting reasonably could have chosen them. But that still leaves plenty of scope. As we can see, a six-month retrospective freeze date doesn’t qualify under any of these headings; how about twelve months? Or how about defining eligibility to vote in terms of attendance at party meetings? contributions to party funds? membership of an approved party organisation (e.g. Momentum)?

I think it’s a very problematic ruling, in short, and one which – given a Left-dominated NEC – may well come back to bite the very people who are now celebrating it. If they are celebrating it.

Next: what was going to be parts 2 and 3 of this post. Let’s face it, this is quite long enough as it is.

%d bloggers like this: