The UK General Election in 7 myths.

Sun Tsu wrote “In the absence of strategy, an argument about tactics is the noise before defeat.” He might have gone on to note that after a defeat, there is a tendency for people to hunker down back into default tactics and console themselves with self soothing myths. These set a course for future defeats. Here are some of the most potent and popular.

Myth 1. Boris Johnson won an overwhelming mandate for a hard Brexit.

No he didn’t. Winning a majority of seats in parliament is not the same as having majority support in society. A majority of seats in parliament means a government can ram through whatever legislation it likes, but, without majority support in the country that cannot be done with impunity – or sparking resistance. Given this government and who its leading figures are, there aren’t enough fridges in the country for them to hide in when the going gets tough – as it is bound to do. Here are the figures.

  • The total votes in the UK cast for the Conservatives and Brexit Parties in favour of a hard Brexit was 47%.
  • The total votes cast for parties opposed to hard Brexit was 52%. Essentially, this is the 2016 referendum in reverse, but, as with the last US Presidential election, the side with the lower popular vote winning.

brexit election votes

However you look at this, the blue slice isn’t even a majority, let alone an overwhelming one.

This matters because the end of 2020 is crunch time to decide if the UK stays in regulatory alignment with the EU or not. Johnson is already signalling that it won’t. The EU will not agree to this. So we are looking again at no deal and the rapid implementation of deal with Trump that has been being negotiated quietly behind our backs – and remains mostly redacted – for the last couple of years while the charade in Brussels has played itself out and occupied everyone’s attention. Resisting this from day 1 and getting the truth out as it unfolds is an imperative. Whatever the theoretical merits of a “Left Exit” from the EU in the eyes of those who support it – the Brexit we’re going to get has nothing in common with that and should be resisted by the whole Labour movement.

Myth 2. “The British Lion Roars for Boris and Brexit” Daily Express Headline 13 December 2019.

Not in Scotland, Ireland or Wales it didn’t. For the Express and a lot of its readers, “Britain” is basically Greater Little England. Given the figures, perhaps it was the idea of “Britain” that was roaring. But if that was the case, that idea is revealed to be only alive and well in small town England.

  • In Scotland the combined Conservative, Brexit Party, UKIP vote in favour of a hard Brexit was 26.6%, while the combined vote of the SNP Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens – opposed to hard Brexit – was 74.4%. Pretty overwhelming. The Scottish Lion was roaring “no”. Election Scotland
  • In Wales they did better, but were still a minority. The combined Conservative, Brexit Party, UKIP vote in favour of a hard Brexit was 41.4%, while the combined vote of  Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid and Greens – opposed to hard Brexit – was 58.8%.Wales election
  • In the North of Ireland the combined DUP, Northern Ireland Conservative and UKIP vote favouring hard Brexit was 30.8% while the combined vote of Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance, UUP, Aontu, People Before Profit and the Greens was 68.5%. This overstates the support for Johnson’s deal, because the DUP, although in favour of a hard Brexit in principle, are opposed to this one and any other that would lead to a border between North and South or in the Irish sea – i.e. any deal that might actually exist in the real world.Election N Ireland

I was going to make a joke about Johnson being “a one nation Conservative” in that he only represents one of the nations in the UK; but he doesn’t even do that. Even in England, hard Brexit did not win a majority. A damned close run thing, but the combined vote for the Conservatives, Brexit Party and UKIP was 49.3% while the combined votes for Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens was 49.4%.

So, Johnson’s huge majority in Parliament represents a minority in every country in the UK.

This matters because the attempt to implement his Trump Brexit will exacerbate the national tensions within the country and accelerate centrifugal tendencies.

  • At the moment there is no majority for independence in Scotland – because separation from the rest of the UK would be even more of a wrench than separation of the UK from the EU – but support for IndyRef2 is likely to be one form of resistance as Johnson tries to drive his deal through: in the same way that support for devolution reached tipping point when the Conservatives used the Scots as the guinea pigs for the Poll Tax in the 1980’s. Depending on how much this grows and how stiff necked and effortlessly offensive Johnson is – and he is, after all, a man who can’t resist making provocative “jokes” to see how much he can get away with – we could be seeing a dynamic like the one in Catalonia and “the British Lion” might find itself biting its own tail off.
  • Similarly in the North of Ireland. The current deal would see a tax border of sorts in the Irish Sea – with an inevitable depressing effect on the Northern Irish economy and letting it remain in orbit around Brussels even as the rest of the UK disengages. The geo-political logic of this is obvious. Going out with no deal would reopen the issue of the border in Ireland and there would be stronger support for a border poll to unite the country. In this election, for the first time ever, there are more nationalist MPs (Sinn Fein and SDLP) than Unionist. Johnson might find himself having to take the St Patrick’s cross out of the Union Flag quicker than he thinks.

The break up of the country is a worst case scenario from the point of view of anyone who wants to keep it together, but it follows the logic of taking back control at smaller and smaller levels. Whatever happens, it means trouble, not a return to calm or “normality”.

Myth 3. Johnson’s majority means that he can “face down the ERG”.

This piece of wishful thinking appeared in a number of places in the immediate aftermath of the election, not least the Guardian. The fraction of the ruling class opposed to Brexit but more worried that the only viable vehicle to stop it was a left Labour government, and poured more money into the Liberal Democrats than they knew what to do with, churned out some articles, possibly to keep their own hope alive and console themselves for the damage that’s coming. The measures in the Queen’s speech should have put paid to these delusions. Here they are in case anyone was in any doubt about where Johnson is heading.

  • The pledge to keep workers entitlements and rights up to at least EU standards has been discarded.
  • All out strikes in public transport and other services are to be banned.
  • The pledge to raise the minimum wage was dropped.
  • Britain is to be given the power to strike down EU protection on working hours.
  • Britain is to be given the power to strike down EU protection on holiday entitlements.
  • British judges are to be given the power to strike down EU protection on sick leave.
  • British judges are to be given the power to strike down EU protection on working hours.
  • Ways are to be sought to limit the right of the courts to limit government actions.
  • Even Lord Dubs amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill to continue to give refugee children sanctuary post-Brexit has been dumped.

Clear enough I think. This matters because Brexit is not “done”. The UK will leave the political structures of the EU at the end of January but still be inside the economic arrangements until the end of the transition period. The damage that will be done by a no deal exit is real; so this argument will continue. The extent to which it spills out from behind closed doors will indicate the extent to which any fraction of the ruling class is prepared to make a stand on the question of regulatory alignment. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but these articles are a sign that they haven’t entirely given up the ghost.

Myth 4: This was an unprecedented defeat for Labour and this is all Corbyn’s fault.

If we look at the results for the six General elections we’ve had this century, the graph looks like this.

labour vote 2001-2019

Its quite clear from this that Corbyn led Labour to its best (2017) and third best (2019) result this century. More than Blair in 2005, Brown in 2010 and Miliband in 2015. In 2005 far fewer Labour votes led to a majority government.

This matters because Labour’s stance in the next five years will determine whether it has any chance of toppling Johnson in 2025 – or possibly before then if things get bad enough – which they might. Corbyn’s politics – against austerity and for significant state investment to regenerate the economy, create  an inclusive and more equal society, make the green transition we need and distance ourselves from wars of intervention – are all needed if we are to resist and organise against the impact of Johnson’s Brexit.

Myth 5: the defeat is entirely down to what Labour did or did not do.

This is not usually stated as such, but seems to be a premise for a lot of the soul searching that has gone on since Friday the 13th, which has tended to look inwards at the Party, its leadership, policies and campaign. This is missing the bigger part of the picture; which is not just about how Labour lost but how the Conservatives won. Its a bit like if Napoleon’s Marshals sat down for a post mortem on Waterloo and paid no attention to anything the Duke of Wellington or Marshal Blucher had done.

it is a truth universally acknowledged that Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign was a bit of a car crash. But this judgement needs nuance. May increased the Tory vote over Cameron’s 2015 score more than Johnson did over hers this year. See graph.

tory vote 2015-19

However, what May’s campaign failed to do was neutralise the threat from Labour – which put on a spectacular increase in support during the election campaign which destroyed her majority. In 2017 the Conservatives were over confident. They believed that their initial 20 point lead was unassailable. They thought that they could get away with saying some of the unpopular things they would actually do before they did them – like the punitive social care policy which blew up in their faces. They hadn’t quite reached their current state of shamelessness and had the decency to look awkward when they ducked debates. They also thought that Corbyn’s “old fashioned socialist” ideas were sufficiently discredited that all they had to do was give him enough rope. which just shows how wrong you can be,

This time, knowing that their own vote was not going to go up much beyond the hard leave tribe, they played a cannier game to hold back a Labour surge.

  • They adjusted spending policy just enough to be able to talk about what looks like significant sums of money going into areas that they have been running down to destruction for the last ten years – while claiming that the previous policy had nothing to do with them guv – even though they were in Parliament (and sometimes the cabinet) voting for it. That these sums of money would still leave these services underfunded (and in the case of the NHS are a pre-emptive move to cover the costs of the increased drug bills it will be paying as a result of their pending and half negotiated deal with the US) passed most people by. This had a significant impact on people who previously might have come out to vote Labour to get any increase in funding for the health service. or their children’s school. In 2017, the NUT (now the NEU) waged a huge school gate campaign – without endorsing any party – on the impact of school spending cuts, which is credited with shifting 700 000 votes in Labour’s direction. In 2019 a similar campaign was waged by the NEU – with even more people taking part – but had nothing like the same impact. The Tories did just enough to innoculate themselves against this issue.
  • They were vague and bland about what their plans are. Beyond the mantra of “get Brexit done”, there was little concrete in their manifesto and they sold themselves on a false prospectus.
  • They fully embraced “post truth”politics. Having had Labour run rings round them online in 2017, they bought up space on websites so that whenever anyone searched for a Labour related item they were directed first to Conservative supporting sites attacking them. They were controlling the gateways to any narrative anyone wanted to find online as well as in most of the established mass media. Its amazing what money can do. They have picked up lying rebuttal techniques from sites with fake ids characteristic of the US Republican Party. So, the story about the little boy waiting on the floor in hospital – which was completely substantiated and documented by the Yorkshire Post and Daily Mirror, was rubbished online by anonymous sites claiming to be or know a nurse in the hospital who said it wasn’t true and then put around as fact by Tory supporters, or dupes. Moreover, 88% of Conservative online advertising was found to be at least “misleading”. The comparable figure for Labour was 0%.
  • They ran a tag team operation with other Parties. Most obvious was the role of “the Brexit Party” which withdrew from Tory marginals after being effectively instructed to by Donald Trump on a phone in to Nigel Farages’s LBC show. Farage blustered about second order issues as a bit of face saving but followed his master’s voice and did the deed.
  • The role of the Liberal Democrats bears deeper examination and they were essential to the Conservative win. They were dragged kicking and screaming into the alliance to stop no deal because it was being led by Corbyn. They blocked a transitional Corbyn government to block no deal, renegotiate with the EU to stay in the customs union and single market then put that back to the people, because keeping Corbyn out of No 10 was more important to them than stopping Brexit. At a ppoint that Johnson’s deal was about to be subject to scrutiny that would tear it apart, they and the SNP went behind Labour’s back to give Johnson the election he wanted, on the issue he wanted at the time he wanted it. One interpretation is that, lush with cash and the hubris of their rapid revival during the EU election campaign, they actually believed that they could win up to 100 seats and be in a position to hold the balance on a hung parliament or even provide a coalition Prime Minister. Another is that they were playing the role the ruling class – even their fraction of it – needed them to play; which was to split the vote against no deal Brexit and damage Labour in remain leaning marginals. This was built up throughout the campaign by “tactical voting” sites that initially advised voting Lib Dem in seats in which they’d been a distant third in 2017. Candidates who stood down to try to stave off a Tory win in Labour Tory marginals were slapped down and replaced by Jo Swinson. On polling day in London, the Evening Standard was covered in a wrap round advert calling for “Remainers” to vote Lib Dem – even though by this stage they were a busted flush almost everywhere and the effect of a Lib Dem vote would let in a hard Brexit supporting Tory. This was also behind the split in the People’s Vote campaign between those who saw it as a vehicle to stop Brexit and those – like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell – who saw it as a vehicle to damage Corbyn. The logic of this was spelled out during the campaign by Lib Dem Deputy Leader Ed Davey, who said that in a choice between Corbyn and a hard Brexit, it would be a hard Brexit every time.

Myth 6. The leave vote is the voice of the working class.

Only if you believe

  • that there are no working class people in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, London or any other big city.

The leave vote is a vote from small town England. Ashcroft’s poll after the referendum concluded that a typical leave voter was an ageing middle class white man who lived in the South of England and voted Tory.

Myth 7: Labour lost because it pledged to allow a second referendum on any deal negotiated with the EU.

There are a number of problems with this argument.

  1. It only looks at the seats Labour lost; which were all in regions in which there was an overall shift in votes to leave, not at the whole picture – including the marginal seats that Labour would have to gain to win an election in every other region – in which the overall shift to remain parties was substantially greater than the shift to Brexit supporting parties.
  2. It discounts any shift in voting intentions between 2017 and 2019 to make the false assertion that the primary potential damage to Labour was by leaking leave votes to the Conservatives. This is to turn Maths on its head. The Labour vote in the referendum was 37 leave to 63 remain. The damage done by losing remain votes was always going to be greater. And so it came to pass at the time of the EU election. Up to that point Labour had been level pegging with the Conservatives in voting intention polls. At the election there was a colossal hemorrhage of votes to the Lib Dems and- to a lesser extent – the Greens. Labour polled 14% and went down in national voting intention to the low 20s and didn’t recover. polling tracker

This matters because a shift towards “winning back traditional voters” has led to the nostrums of “Blue Labour” rising like a zombie waving a “controls on immigration” mug. Maurice Glassman’s slogan of “family, faith and flag” has some horrifying echoes that we could do without and would destroy Labour as any kind of progressive force.

Of bogies, dopplegangers, Brexit punditry in the chemists and Muharram in Kingsbury.

Pootling down the hill, the pizza moped delivery driver is steering with one hand and assiduously picking his nose with the other.

At the bottom of the hill, the neighbour who looks like a very plump version of Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria- Hungary – all shiny bald head fringed with gigantic mutton chop whiskers blending into a walrus mustache – says good morning as he sits half out of his Mercedes trying to psyche himself up to walk to his front door.

Every time I go to the chemists – now I am a pensioner I qualify for a loyalty card – the head pharmacist – a man who sees his job as to get to know everyone, not just transact with them – always sees me looking up at the news, silently blurbing on from the TV above the counter, and asks me “what’s going on?” Brexit of course. He is very nervous about his supply of medicines, as my daughter’s employer at the bakery is concerned about his supply of flour – which comes via the EU because British flour isn’t of high enough quality. I go off about Johnson being boxed in by Parliament, his majority and Party in tatters but – with Parliament about to be prorogued – still in office and going for no deal with far less scrutiny. Other customers look on a bit bemused. If the worst predictions of Operation Yellowhammer come to pass, they will be angry.

On the way down to the shops on Saturday and there’s an unusual stall being set up with an air of bustling importance outside the Saaqi Mall – a collection of tiny cubicle emporiums carved out of a bankrupt shoe shop, selling sugar cane ground into juice through a mangle, the world’s smallest jewelers, a place that teaches Maths and English (one person at a time presumably, given the space) and has a side line in Visas, a tiny travel agents and a few sad vacant spaces. The three men on it are giving out cups of tea from an ornate looking samovar and distributing snacks.

Next door, outside the shop where you can wire money back to relatives who need it more, another guy is sitting peacefully in front of a huge black banner thick as a carpet emblazoned with enormous Arabic letters in bright scarlet; designed to look as though they are dripping blood.  This is quite alarming, so I go over and ask him what it is. He removes his camouflaged ear muffs –  the army surplus of a very considerate militia – smiles broadly and says “Hussein. Imam Hussein.” So, its Muharram.

Muharram is when the Shia become visible. Cars fly white flags with Arabic writing in red. The Sim Sim bakery and other shops shut and sellotape posters to their shutters.

 

Tales from the Riverbank part 4. Visiting the Wind in the Willows as a stoat.

20190813_183627 (2)Walking from Brentford to Hampton Court along the Thames Path is to move between worlds more peculiarly different than in a sci-fi time slip between parallel universes. The same river and the same country, but very different worlds.

Brentford – South of Acton

Brentford is a place most people pass over – swishing way above on the Chiswick flyover; only noticing the upper floors of newly shiny tall buildings. Down below, in the underworld, quiet, twee little houses cluster shyly along the noisy fringes of the North Circular Road. Cars pass above and below, to north and south, east and west. Not a place to stop.

A motorist is a convertible shoots past towards Heathrow, the tan head rests in his back seats looking as though he’s taking two Sontaran visitors out for a spin.

The point at which the River Brent spills into the Thames, Brentford became the river junction for the Grand Union Canal and an area of higgeldy piggeldy workshops, a collection of eyesores all squeezed together in an improvised scuzzy mess around the Thames lock. The lack of self respect for trade in an area surrounded by zones of affluent consumption. Almost as though it is rubbing their faces in it. A well ordered wood yard, impeccably clean and functional, stands out in the chaos; as though keeping its head when all those about it had lost theirs. A busy yard with forklift trucks moving restlessly sports a sign – “No entrance unless under the guidance of a Banksman”- that sounds like something out of Dungeons and Dragons.

A place where boats and buses come to die; London’s largest functioning boat yard sits in a canal dog leg, three large covered dry docks, one working from the sound of the hammering and whining of drills, two absolutely overflowing with junk. Rusty metal, parts of boats, parts of engines, broken pipes piled up and spilling out. More a knackers yard than a hospital. Nothing new and shiny and proud being built, just the old and clapped out being gutted for parts. In a flat bottom barge in the canal alongside, more discarded metal, a whole earth mover rusted through, useless scrap from gutted machines; all just sitting there in a floating skip with nowhere to go.

Along the bank the buddleia and, amongst them and across the water, the dragonflies winking like jewels, their abdomens swaying contentedly as they suck nectar.

Houseboats sit at rest along every available bank. Some are wrecked; a queue of them either waiting for the short trip to the breakers yard, or just gently decaying at their moorings. Some, further on, and still lived in, have a tired and worn out air about them. One has a Union flag on its mainmast and a Red Duster aft – both faded by sunlight and worn thin and ragged by winds, but still nailed to the mast as a memory of departed glories; and an obvious metaphor for the state of a nation in which too many are too wedded to the past to be able to imagine a future that might be different.

Cormorants flash by, or stand sentinel preening their wings. Wooded islands dream on in mid channel – some of them with disused boat yards or tumble down buildings.

At the Morrisons, to which we repair for energy bars to power our feeble legs, the headlines from planets Times and Telegraph are that polls show “the people” want Brexit “done” by 31 October, by riding roughshod over Parliament to do it if need be. With a country as divided as it is, how they think that such a course of action could be healing, or anything other than a prelude to an extended period of trouble and disturbance is beyond me. Referenda only settle an issue if the result is overwhelming. That one wasn’t. Neither side will be happy with the victory of the other and no one will be happy with a compromise. Perhaps no accident that they are recruiting more police and building more prisons.

Just beyond Morrisons is Brentford Bridge – where an English Civil War battle took place in 1642 during Charles I’s push to retake London. The advancing Royalist Infantry nudged back a Parliamentary Foot Regiment that had dug in behind a barricade they had built across the road; and from which they had initially held off a cavalry attack. Parliamentary barges carrying artillery upriver were then sunk or captured. Victory in this skirmish was short lived and Charles’s attempts to advance much further were held off. He was never strong enough to threaten London again and ended up in Whitehall without his head seven years later. The commemorative plaque for the battle notes that both sides ravaged the surrounding area for forage and that one person out of every twenty five died in the war. The death rate in World War 1 was half that. Civil wars are always peculiarly brutal.

The Houses in between

Long stretches of the Thames Path in this part of London should be renamed the Not Quite Thames Path or The Path that would be the Thames Path if we had access to the Riverbank. Beyond the industrial cloaca of Brentford the housing becomes more elegant and expensive – some of it Poundbury style mock Georgian – and a riverfront is part of the cachet; so the Thames Path has to follow the next roads in. These could be anywhere and, as views go, are reminiscent of the music hall song

“With a ladder and some glasses,

you could see to Hackney Marshes,

if it wasn’t for the houses in between.”

To pass the time, in the absence of visual stimulation, we have geeky conversations about who Edith Piaf was, Film Noir and the debt owed by spaghetti westerns to Kurosawa, whether bus numbers that start with a letter are somehow second class (and speculating on how many numbered routes there are in London; more than 700 it turns out) the tendency for sci-fi films to break the logic of their own “scientific laws”  – and why 2+2-2=20 works in Javascript.

And we wept when we remembered Syon

One of the biggest and oldest of the houses commanding its own river front is Syon Park. This has been the London seat of the Dukes of Northumberland for 400 years; built in the 1500s in huge deer park grounds in border castle style, austere, with corner castles and battlements; as though expecting a party of Scottish border reivers to come whooping over the horizon at any moment: or perhaps just to remind the owners of who they were and what they were supposed to be all about. As Shakespeare’s Prince Hal puts it of Harry Percy – his contemporary and rival –

“He who kills me some six or seven dozen Scots each morning before breakfast,

washes his hands and says to his wife,

fie upon this quiet life, I want work.”

To one side of it is a hugely domed greenhouse that looks like an outpost from Kew Gardens, just across the river, or something out of The Prisoner, with a Garden Centre and cafe doing a roaring trade beneath it. The clientele in the cafe are entirely middle and upper class – eating the fat, fluffy chips of prosperity from woven baskets and talking in entitled tones. Elderly women in big floppy hats that they might wear painting oils in a field. Chaps with specs on ribbons. Boys called Horace.

Isleworth

The elegance of the riverside housing in Isleworth, all slim wrought iron balconies, humanely scaled, organically and gracefully linked, studded with trees and looking like a place of rest; is horribly undermined by being on the flight path in to Heathrow. Every 30 seconds or so a huge airliner barrels in on its way to land – low enough to cast large shadows and make a permanent strain on ears and psyches. The impact on CO2 levels doesn’t bear thinking about. They want to expand to a third as much again.

Richmond

A little further on and the impact of the airport fades away. Everyone walking past now exudes wealth. Young men with headphones and insouciant looks walk well permed poodles or King Charles Spaniels. A man with the deep tan of the freshly holidayed walks past in a bright blue jacket that is as fresh as if he has never worn it, trousers that look like he dry cleans them every day and a pair of shoes that look as if they have been worn once. Wealthy people never look as though they sweat unless they want to. Looking up at the curve of Richmond Bridge, that looks as though it was built to be painted, its easy to see why this area swings politically between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Living round here, and thinking it normal, how could you not think that more or less all was ok with the world; or that those parts of it that were not ok could most easily be seen as a threat?

On the river, well worn houseboats along tow paths are giving way to neat little cruisers and yachts that are tied up at the end of private sloping gardens as routinely as cars in suburbia – neatly tarpaulined and clean. This becomes even more so as we get up to Teddington lock and the last of the saltwater river is left behind. Not far beyond the long pouring weirs and there are people swimming by the banks. Swim in the Thames much further east and you’d need stomach pumps, tetanus jabs and a gut full of antibiotics. Up here – despite the signs warning of deep water and strong currents – intrepid young people take a dip and a whole class of excited primary age kids in bright orange life jackets and safety helmets near Kingston take the plunge at once, while their friends haul in sail boards.

The mid channel islands are now entirely green and bucolic. The paths are busy with walkers and cyclists.

In the river are the first scullers, elegant brown racing boats swiftly pulled through the dappled water by teams of two, occasionally urged to greater effort by someone with a loud voice made harsh by loudhailer, following on in a motorboat and making up for their lack of physical effort by shouting more intensely.

By Kingston there is a long row of canal barges all lashed together with dour purpose, like Octavian’s triremes at Actium.

Twickenham

In the riverside Park there is the happiest war memorial I have ever seen. A World War 1 soldier is walking boldly forwards, holding his big heavy Enfield rifle behind him by the top of the muzzle and waving his soft peaked cap in an elated way,  beaming all over his face. His steel bowler is left at his heel, to show he is finally released from all that misery and suffering. It looks like he has just come home on leave – or that the war is over and he has survived and is showing all his pent up relief. It seems more a celebration of survival than a commemoration of loss. Goodbye to all that – one way or another.

Hampton Court

Another huge deer park with a long stone wall all around. An endless arc of stony river path over- arched with boughs that makes it feel like walking through an green cathedral for urban penitents. Fewer people. A young woman in a woven cloche hat stands motionless to one side; seemingly contemplating something deep and dark.

The house itself comes into view in a symphony of chimneys. I am impressed. Jamie is not. We cross the bridge and find ourselves in Surrey. Astonished to find that leaving London has not turned us into pumpkins, we hasten to the bus stop and head for the Kingsbury Nandos. Journeys end.

 

An open letter to Alastair Campbell

Dear Alastair,

As an intelligent man and seasoned journalist, as well as one who was as close to the centre of political power in the UK as anyone ever gets – and indeed as a specialist in the management of news – you will have weighed every word of your open letter to Jeremy Corbyn very carefully.

You end it with a plea for him to consider the message rather than dismiss it because of the identity of the messenger. This is a common theme of late, but you will know that the identity of messengers is a relevant aspect of responding to the message. Who are they, what is their overall view, and what axes do they tend to grind, whose interests are they representing, why are they choosing to send this particular message at this time and what effect is it likely to have, are just six questions that come to mind. So, the message and the messenger tend to be inextricably linked; as I’m sure you would concede, if you reflect on your own practice as a spin doctor for Tony Blair.

But, for the sake of utmost clarity, lets look at the message you sent. I will take your points in order.

“Britain is in a moment of peril” facing the prospect of a no deal Brexit, with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, but “I see no sign that you…have grasped the seriousness of what is happening, let alone devised a strategy to respond and defeat it.” This is very odd. Labour has always opposed no deal. It has voted against it in Parliament consistently. Jeremy Corbyn is currently on the stump around the country holding rallies opposing it. He says he opposes it in every TV interview. Labour stands for a people’s vote on no deal or any deal Johnson can get – though – with his current provocations on the Irish backstop – its obvious he isn’t trying to get one. Labour, uniquely, seeks to unite all those who oppose no deal, both those who favour remaining in the EU and those who favour leaving the political structures but retaining membership of the customs union and single market. The reason for this is that Labour’s position is based on defending the living standards of the majority of the UK population – not limited and polarising notions of “identity” . Labour is not just about the 48% versus the 50%, it is about the 99% vs the 1%. If the country is facing an “existential crisis” it is clearly in the interests of the 1% to try to define all politics in relation to the 48:52, however paralysing that turns out to be.*

Labour’s stance has the advantage of not lumping people who favour a soft Brexit in with the no dealers as an undifferentiated mass of “leavers”; which allows the latter to increasingly hoover them up as a tribal hinterland who just haven’t become full true believers yet. You seem to disregard this risk, which is helping the no dealers towards a majority. Most people in this country want to get on with their lives, do not live in a political bubble, do not write or read letters like this, and could live with any number of political variations as long as their lives are not thrown into chaos by adventurist politicians.

This position is quite clear to me. I can only conclude that you can’t see it because you either haven’t looked, or don’t want to see. It also strikes me as very odd indeed that your response to an existential crisis for the country caused because its government has been captured by a dangerous faction, is to launch an attack on the only political party that could possibly form an alternative government. It is, of course, par for the course for every institution that supports the status quo to drown out any policies that appeal to people on the basis of their class interest; thereby making the identity discourse the only show in town. Although I take you at your word that you have only discussed this issue with close family and friends, it is consistent with articles in the Guardian at the weekend by Jonathan Freedland and Jonathan Powell, arguing for Corbyn to go and Labour to join some sort of “centre” regroupment with no political definition other than remaining in the EU. This is essentially pickling the politics and economics of the 2010 – 15 coalition in aspic and presenting it as a solution; when it helped set up the “left behind” component of the leave vote in the first place.

You argue that if Johnson were to hold a recall referendum between No deal and Remain, Remain would win. Labour agrees and would campaign for Remain were that to happen – as you know. Remaining concerned about Labour’s position on this must take a real act of will.

You then say that Johnson is likely to opt for an early general election because he thinks he can win. If that is indeed your view, isn’t the logical thing to do to support and back up the only Party able to form an alternative government rather than attack it? Taking a fatalistic attitude that current opinion polls are the last word on possible results did not work out too well for Theresa May in 2017 did it?

As a journalist who learned his trade in the pre-digital era, you will be familiar with the phrase “today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper.” The same applies to conventional political wisdoms. Given how quickly the bad news is already piling up – bad receptions for Johnson in his tours of Wales and Scotland – described by the BBC as “bumpy” – a sharp drop, already, in the value of the pound, the CBI warning against no deal and commenting that preparations for it are as desperate as filling sandbags in a flood – you might save the bedroom but you’ll lose the kitchen – and even that Johnson’s poll bounce is entirely at the expense of the Brexit Party – its quite possible that one of the only things that might save the government and their hard Brexit project are these gratuitous attacks on the opposition from people who should be concentrating all their fire on the government.

It as if the existential crisis of the country takes a back seat to overthrowing the Labour leadership. Fatalistic phrases (“the country may have decided…” on any current analysis..”) – especially when used to obscure a preference – could be fatal here; not so much for Labour but for the prospect of actually stopping no deal.

You say that you have spent “several weeks trying without success to have explained to me the process under which I was expelled for voting Liberal Democrat in the European elections.” I think most of the readers of that sentence will be able to work that one out; and it wouldn’t take them several weeks to do so.

LBJ once remarked that he kept J Edgar Hoover on as Director of the FBI because he preferred to have him “in the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in.” Labour is a big tent, but I’m sure you recognise that being inside it pissing in is not a reasonable or acceptable position.

You say that the Party no longer represents your “values”. Quite a number of people will read that with a sigh of relief. The sort of values that allowed you to distort reality to sell participation the war in Iraq, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed, is not something that sits comfortably with Party members today. Praise be for that.  But you say you want a Party and leadership that stands up for the many not the few and for that to be clearly spelled out. These are Labour’s campaigning pledges. Which of these can you not accept? Which do not represent your “hopes for Britain”?

  1. Increased funding for the NHS with more nurses and doctors to give patients the care they need.
  2. A Real Living Wage of £10 an hour and no increase in Income Tax or National Insurance for 95% of people.
  3. A Green Industrial Revolution creating 400,000 jobs.
  4. Free school meals for all primary school children and reduced class sizes for all 5, 6 and 7 year olds.
  5. Keep the Winter Fuel Allowance, free TV licences and bus passes for pensioners.
  6. A public vote on any Brexit deal. Labour will campaign to Remain against No Deal or a bad Tory deal. 

We will be fighting Boris Johnson – and Nigel Farage – tooth and nail – in Parliament and out. We will put a motion of no confidence when we can win it, not play games with it like the Liberal Democrats. You say that you are unsure who you are going to vote for in the next General Election, but you know that the only practical governmental alternative to Boris Johnson is Labour. Choosing this moment to try to engender a split must be music to his ears.

*For a fuller exploration of this argument see Mike Wongsam – Brexit and the progress of Jeremy Corbyn in Transform 6.

 

 

 

Freeports – giving up control .

Fresh in his job as Conservative Party Chairman in the the new kamikazi Brexit government, James Cleverly announced on Radio 4 that they have plans for 6 “free ports” to get up and running once the UK is “freed” from the obligations of EU membership. By the end of the week Liz Truss had upped this to ten.

This makes clear what their intentions are and undermines any claims by Johnson that it will be possible to maintain good relations with “our friends in Europe” once these are in place.

Despite their rhetoric about “Brussels red tape”, they know that if they want to sell goods into the EU they have to meet EU standards. There’s no getting around that even if they wanted to go on a path of cutting costs and corners on quality to go for a cheap and nasty strategy; at least so far as selling into Europe is concerned. Companies that concentrate on the rest of the world could, however, find a niche for shoddy goods if their costs were low enough.  How far they have to go to make the workers of this country poor enough so their costs are low enough to compete with qualitatively poorer countries is an experiment they will no doubt be keen to try out.

Cleverly argued that setting up free ports would “bring money into the exchequer.” This is odd; because the whole point of them is that companies using them do not have to pay domestic taxes or customs duties; leading to a direct loss of revenue compared with now. The only logic would be that, faced with a UK outside the EU market, international capital will need some serious incentives to even consider investing here.

A “free port” is a classic third world development strategy for countries desperate to attract footloose capital, any capital, by slashing taxes and regulations to zero (or near as dammit) within them. They have also been adopted in the United States, as US capital seeks to withdraw itself from any financial obligations to the society that sustains it. A Free Port is a place in which the writ of the investor runs more than that of the elected government. They will have taken back control from the people. “Democracy” will kneel before them with its begging bowl out. It is a direct abdication of sovereignty. Far from “controlling our own laws” we would be giving them up to footloose multi nationals – who take from everywhere and have obligations nowhere.

The big claims being made for them should be taken with a shovel full of salt. The Centre for Cities Report* on Enterprise Zones – on which Freeports are modeled, points out the following issues.

  1. Over optimistic job creation predictions Estimates cited alongside Johnson’s announcement claim that Freeports will add £12 billion to the economy and create 150,000 jobs. Just as, in 2011, the Treasury claimed that enterprise zones would create 54,000 private jobs by 2015. They didn’t. In fact between 2012 and 2017 the zones had created just 13,500 sustainable private sector jobs.
  2. Hype about the type of jobs.  95 per cent of these 13,500 jobs were lower skilled, so the zones have not provided the answer for areas wanting to shift their economy from lower-skilled to higher-skilled economies.
  3. Displacement Of all the jobs in enterprise zones in 2017 that were not there in 2012, at least one third moved from elsewhere.

Full report here.  https://www.centreforcities.org/blog/why-free-ports-do-not-hold-the-answer-to-job-creation-in-a-post-brexit-world/

This displacement means that places without this special status are being set up to shrink and shrivel from a lack of investment, further reducing revenue to the exchequer. The consequence would be a creeping expansion of zero taxation regimes to as many manufacturing or trading areas trying to compete by offering further incentives.

EU regulations forbid Free Ports, so, as this is aimed at attracting investment from countries in the EU that expect companies to pay their fair share of tax, this would aggravate relations with them.

The domestic “benefits” of such ports accrue mostly to landowners within them. It remains to be seen how far regulations safeguarding workers rights will also be slashed in this desperate race to the bottom.

How low can we go? Quite a bit further if we let them get away with it.

 

 

 

Nigel Farage – Donald Trump’s useful idiot.

As the only person in my household to be white, male and over 65, I fit the demographic to get a personally addressed leaflet from the Brexit Party. This arrived at the same time as the postal vote. Good timing for them, as postal voters are mostly elderly people; Farage’s core vote.

These leaflets are designed to be scanned with as little conscious attention and thought as possible, so let’s examine it in detail and think about it.

On the first page is a logo in a soothing greeny blue (a colour considered psychologically positive and easeful, unlike the jarring rhubarb and custard of UKIP) – with a white arrow pointing symbolically from left to right, looking both like a road sign – and therefore an instruction for all careful drivers – and a house on its side – indicating both that the old order must be upended and remain in its traditional shape. The arrow points to a strap line that reads “changing politics for good” – implying better and forever -that sits neatly beneath the name and address of the voter; implying that voting for them is your chance to do just that.

Turn over and there is Farage’s head –  taking up a third of the page and trying to look like a man of destiny – no froggy gurning, no cigarette, no pint – a new dawn breaking behind him, the golden sunlight lighting up the back of his head with just a hint of halo, looking gravely from left to right like a man practicing for the day his head is on coins – and his eyes gazing ever onwards and upwards towards the promised land that he is at pains not to describe in the message to the right of his mug shot. This is probably just as well, given that his new convert, Anne Widdicombe, has described the sacrifices involved in a no deal Brexit as not as bad as World War 2. A selling point for any policy for a generation bitter and twisted enough about loss of status to actively embrace the idea of more blood sweat and tears to get it back.

Farage’s missive is light on specifics, with neither programme nor policies, no way forward at all; but big on emotive, tribal buzz words. He makes no attempt to win over anyone who does not already agree. He simply presses the buttons of those that do. People are angry. This party is a vehicle for that anger – and if it drives off a cliff – well – that’ll show ’em. That’s all that he needs for now. There are three basic claims.

  1. The 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU are “the people”and the embodiment of a democratic mandate. Those that did not are invisible. This is not an attempt to unite the nation as it is, just to impose the will of a minority fraction of it and remake it in their image. For nationalists, only other nationalists are a legitimate part of the nation.
  2. MPs – in not pressing straight ahead regardless of the consequences – are “betraying” “the people” and humiliating “our great nation”. This is playing on the sense of distrust at “politicians” that showed up in a recent poll in which 54% of respondents claimed to prefer “a strong leader” to politicians – because the latter find it difficult to come to simple conclusions that save “the people” from having to think that things might be a bit more complicated than they’d like. Rather than take the time or trouble to learn anything – the default position is to get angry and blame others. Why hasn’t this been “sorted”? Why can’t they “just get on with it”? The message here is – even if you don’t agree with us, vote for us to give these useless articles a kick. People who feel like that – and think they are being self righteously rebellious by voting for Farage – could be setting themselves up for a level of national humiliation that they can’t begin to imagine – when  an exit from the EU leaves the UK naked in the negotiating chamber for a trade deal with Trump’s America. As they used to say on Batman – “The worst is yet to come.”
  3. Farage’s party would be a new start for “British democracy” because its stands for “Trust, Honesty and Integrity.” Seriously? Just like UKIP did when Farage was leading it?  The business newspaper City AM notes that” Since 1999, two Ukip MEPs have been sent to prison. Ashley Mote was jailed for benefit fraud in 2007 and served nine months. The judge presiding over his trial described Mote as “a truly dishonest man”. Tom Wise, elected as a UKIP MEP in 2004, pleaded guilty to charges of expenses fraud and was sentenced to two years in prison.”  Farage himself – a man with all the gravitas of a barrow boy selling knocked off nylons from the back of a lorry – was done for expenses fraud after illegally channeling substantial European Parliamentary expenses towards running the Party. With trust, honesty and integrity like that, who could doubt the glorious renaissance that he has in mind?

Below the fold we have three smaller mug shots.

The useful idiot Claire Fox – formerly of the Revolutionary Communist Party (a very 1980s organisation that elevated being a contrarian smartarse into the first principle of political discourse) states that “left wing democrats should vote to deliver the referendum result” – somehow not noticing that she is standing for an alt right party that is a danger both to democracy itself and the left.

June Mummery from the Fishing Industry – a third of which is controlled by just five wealthy families – https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/10/11/fishing-quota-uk-defra-michael-gove/ – talks of taking “our waters” back, so we can fish it to extinction free of catch quotas – and to “restore our coastal communities.” When Farage stood on the pier in Clacton to launch his campaign, gestured towards the North Sea and said that it “belongs to us” he perhaps didn’t reflect (or know?) that without the international co-operation needed to hold back climate change – large parts of Clacton and towns like it will be under water by the end of the century and sea levels will keep rising. So, in some sense, perhaps the relationship is reversed and Clacton belongs to the North Sea.

Joel Chilaka – a token black medical student – who doesn’t seem to have noticed that he is surrounded by people who would be uncomfortable in a room with him – wants to “keep our democracy intact for future generations” – as though anyone else doesn’t.

On the reverse there are three statistics

  •  that most Labour MPs favour a second referendum. This must be a bad thing, because it is contrary to democracy to let people vote more than once, especially if there’s a risk some of them might have changed their minds – or vote on a deal that is actually on offer rather than the cake an eat it deal they thought they could get.
  •  that 92% or Brexit voters feel “betrayed”. That the easy deal, the financial bonus and the renewed prestige that Farage and co promised have not fallen into our laps and that that is the fault of the people who didn’t promise these things.
  • and 498 MPs voted to “honour” the result. The word “honour” makes this a moral imperative that cuts through the practical difficulties of trying to work out what “the result” might actually mean in practice – given that trying to unravel a forty year long economic integration is  like the sort of operation that surgeons have to carry out to separate Siamese twins – an operation in which the weaker twin often dies. 

Then four even smaller heads in more ways than one.

A grumpy looking CEO of a property company – and therefore obviously a man of the people – arguing that “taking no deal off the table” is “bonkers”; as if a country representing 2% of the world economy is capable of successfully playing chicken with a bloc representing 20% – ten times bigger. The same will apply even more to trying to do a deal with the United States – 24% of the world economy and 12 times bigger than the UK. This would – indeed – be very quick and easy because the way the USA does trade deals with qualitatively weaker countries is to tell them what the deal is; and they either sign or don’t. National humiliation anyone? Farage (and Liam Fox) are already in the queue for that one.

A “Chairman/entrepreneur” – clearly another man of the people – calling for “better leadership”. Wonderfully unspecific. Could mean anything.

Annunziata Rees-Mogg – how could you not be “anti-elitist”  with a name like that? – making the pitch for disgruntled Tories and – slightly more alarmingly – a “decorated Royal Marine” who “fought for our country” and is not prepared “to see it humiliated” –  without specifying if he thinks he’ll need to fight again to stop it happening- nor who he thinks he will have to fight against. This is an echo of the presence of veterans in blazers and berets on the front rank of UKIP marches and the parachute regiment using pictures of Jeremy Corbyn for target practice.

The digested read is: You are Angry. We are Angry. Vote for an Angry Party led by Mr Angry.

The paradox of all this emotive patriotic reflex whacking is that if it were to end in a no deal Brexit, it would be to serve the UK trussed up on a plate to Donald Trump. The hedge funds that financed the leave campaign want nothing less. That means being signed up not only to wholesale deregulation domestically and handing the NHS over to US insurance companies; but also to Trump’s trade war with China; which involves doubling down on the outmoded fossil fuel economy that is leading the world to disaster.

The attempted denial of the UK’s sinking standing by blustering out the old tunes one more time- symbolised by farcical figures such as Farage and Boris Johnson – will end up confirming it even if they win. The pathetic self subordination to an outmoded American way will only be highlighted by attempts at compensatory cocksure British swagger – which would be taken as seriously as Farage’s Union Jack shoes – because the gleam on the back of Farage’s head is not a new dawn, it is a fading glow from the embers of Empire.

Despite Farage’s strong position in current polling, a hopeful sign is that younger people don’t dance to these tunes any more. Only 19% of young people have a favourable view of him, compared with 69% who have an unfavourable view. 43% of younger voters are reported as saying they will vote Labour. The task is to get that vote out on May 23 and mobilise it between now and then to change the framework of the debate.

 

 

 

 

The time’s out of joint episode 3. We the people?

The real divisions in a society in crisis are often obscured by the form of the apparent political rift. When Polly Toynbee (Guardian 26/3/19) argues from opinion poll results that the divide between leavers and remainers is now more strongly felt than prior allegiance to political party she underlines a disjunct between a passing sense of identity and a longer term set of alliances based on material interests that are more fundamental.

These interests cross borders. A paradox of globalisation is that the ethno-nationalist reaction against it is being encouraged, assisted and funded by the policy of the Trump administration in the United States, and some of the right wing  media outfits associated with him. Some US businesses are doing this directly – looking forward to serious pickings as big polities are broken up into weaker fragments. They are working on the EU. They would like to do it to China.

The most fundamental  division in Britain is between those who have wealth and power and those who do not – however they voted in June 2016. It is in the interests of the former to coral as many of the latter as possible behind them and the most potent way to do so has always been “patriotism” – the assumption that being born in a place should put you at the front of the queue for whatever is going and – that your particular “identity” somehow makes you both better than other people and gives you a wider significance- as a compensation for your very real subordination and obscurity in everyday life. In countries that are no longer as powerful and influential as they were, this often becomes toxic.

A division within the wealthy – in which one faction breaks with the established way of doing things- leads to all sorts of weird developments in which all that is solid turns into air – old Etonians claim to be anti-elitist, a leadership contender for the Conservative Party says “Fuck business”, the Daily Express, Sun and Mail denounce the House of Lords and the judiciary; and hedge fund managers short sell UK stocks and bonds to cash in on the economic consequences of their “patriotic” campaign – in which the lower orders are urged to “believe in the country” – taking as their motto an inversion of JFK – “ask not what you can do for your country” – ask only what your country can do for you.” and go laughing all the way to the tax haven.  Because the country is set up for their benefit and only functions in order to do so, they wrap themselves in the Union flag while deftly stashing their assets in Dublin or Belize or Singapore, and preparing to burn “traitors” on bonfires made of red tape, as a distraction from the grand opening of

  • Free Trade Ports and Enterprise zones (in which they and their friends will be bribed and subsidised to invest, while paying no tax back)
  • the take over of the Health Service by US insurance firms (and probably Virgin) -so check the wallet before the pulse
  • and the spread of chlorinated fried chicken stands- finger lickin cheap and nasty.

disguising their venality in the name of “The People.”

So, who are “The People”?

When Michael Howard went on the radio on Sunday (24 March) to argue for the hardest available Brexit, he talked about honouring the wishes of the 17.4 million people who vote to leave in the referendum, without troubling himself to question whether his own preference was indeed what they were voting for. He had a point as far as it went. 17.4 million is a lot of people and their views have to be taken into account. But, beyond the 17.4 million, what about the rest of us?

In a country with over 66 million people, that’s just under 50 million who’s views – in Howard’s world – are simply to be excluded from having any say or influence in the future direction of the country.

One of his Conservative colleagues commented today that “the British people” had “voted overwhelmingly” to leave the EU. Thinking that a ratio of 52:48 of those voting is “overwhelming”is sufficiently odd to require some investigation as to who he thinks “the British people” are.

Of a population of 65.5 million in 2016:

17.4 million voted leave.

16 million voted remain.

13 million were under 18 and ineligible to vote.

3 million were EU citizens not entitled to vote despite working and contributing.

16 million didn’t vote at all.

As a graph, this looks like this.

imageunnamed

For this Conservative MP, the bloc represented in dark blue is an “overwhelming majority.” For Michael Howard these are “the people”, or at least the people that count – in whose image the nation must be recast. This is also about the control of the 17.4 million. Their views were and are far more diverse than they have been presented, but for people like Howard they are a useful statistic forever frozen in 2016 – the time of The One True Vote.

This sets us up for continuing crisis and polarisation. A political project that seeks to slash and burn regulations and protections for workers rights and the environment, that favours the replacement of the civil service with ad hoc committees of businessmen, that is prepared to see social security, farming and manufacturing go to the wall by slashing tariffs, and the re-ignition of the Irish troubles over a reimposed border, cannot afford to have a consensual approach. The sheep must be separated from the goats and the goats must be slaughtered. The cultural revolution style shrillness of the headlines – CRUSH THE SABOTEURS – ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE –  matches the disruptive scale of the project and also the impossibility of it being carried through without a breakdown in an agreed political framework in which differences can be resolved without violence. It is in this context that a reviving UKIP is seeking to build an effective  street fighting movement led by Tommy Robinson, pulling firms of football hooligans into some very large and aggressive mobilisations which have attacked trade unionists and the police.

If Brexit is averted the crisis will continue because everything that then goes wrong will be attributed to “the great betrayal” – in the same way that Germany was only defeated in World War 1 because the army was “stabbed in the back.” Untrue myths are often the most potent – because they cannot be tested. The scale of this remains to be seen, but anyone who thinks that just remaining in the EU as it currently is will solve all our problems has not noticed the economic stagnation of the euro zone, the impasse of Macron, the backsliding of Germany on its climate change commitments and the continent wide spread of US backed ethno-nationalist currents likely to make the next European parliament the most right wing in its history.

If Brexit is not averted – especially if we get a hard version – the grim realities are likely to turbo charge a hunt for further “saboteurs” and “enemies if the people”.

Although the weariness at all this is often expressed in the infantile injunction to “just get on with it” – as if “it” was something that you could “just get on with” – most people want to be able to get on with their lives without massive upheaval and disruption. Remaining, or the softest possible Brexit, like Labour’s deal or Norway plus, offers the best chance of relative stability in which “The People” can realign around more fundamental questions.