Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Problem with Tories and Social Media

After Chris Grayling's trouble-free reign as Tory party chair - a first for him - new boy Brandon Lewis graced the Sunday papers and Andrew Marr with his message of hope. Hope, that is, if you're a Tory activist. Since it was recently revealed that numbers were far worse than any Labour activist rooted for, the pressure is on our hotel-bothering chair to stymie the decline and start matching the overwhelming human resources the Tories' opponents can bring to bear.

The first yank of the turn around wheel involves sorting out the social media strategy, so reports the Sunday Telegraph. Here Lewis enthuses about a toolkit that will deliver unto the Conservative faithful the flashy graphics, sharp videos, and trend-friendly gifs that Labour's team have down pat. It's about pumping up the thinning grassroots with Tory achievements, like the EU card charges ban the Tories have tried appropriating for their own, and building a groundswell of excitement for groundbreaking digital initiatives, such as "The Moggcast". Yes, it truly has come to this.

I'm old enough to remember when the Tories received plaudits for their social media strategy. As recently as 2015, while Labour piddled about on Twitter and was daft enough to spend cash money promoting itself on it, the Tories purchased targeted advertising on Facebook aimed at key demographics in the key marginals. Married to then genius and now laughing stock Jim Messina and his number crunching, the Tories were able to post the right messages through enough of the right doors to help them get their unexpected and thoroughly undeserved majority. However, as with most things their victory held the seeds of a coming collapse. None of this was organic; it was all driven from the centre and was top down like the rest of the campaign - the media grid, the message discipline, the reviled Road Trip 2015. That summer saw Labour's 2017 efforts come together in embryo in Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign - a directed campaign by social media savvy activists close to the future leader married to a spontaneous up welling across digital networks that conferred messages, enthusiasm, and generated not a few memes themselves. They fed each other, prefiguring what happened last June.

The problem the Tories have got is the same feat is not possible because, well, there aren't any Tories. Okay, as a veteran of an outfit that thought once having 8,000 members was something to boast about I am perhaps being a touch disingenuous when it comes to the 70,000 the Tories can muster. But here, when you glance on the lesser spotted beast that is Tory Twitter you can see some of the problems. Over the course of this Sunday, four tweets on the party's main feed were about policy-related issues and politics ding-dongs, and nine prattled on about Labour "abuse". Bear in mind we're not yet a week from Toby Young's resignation for, well, being Toby Young. Just as Stalin's acolytes had the annoying habit of emulating his turgid prose, so the Tories, the party of free thinking individualism, is equally slavish in its borg-like fidelity to the direction of CCHQ. The tendency for their MPs to groupthink aloud is well known, but for the ordinary members? Here we have Support Amber, a self-described grassroots account that, guess what, goes heavy on the same messaging with a few cheap points about Iran and Venezuela thrown in. There is also Joe Rich, a North Staffs Tory activist whose feed routinely zeroes in on the same kind of personalist "exposes" - even to the extent of retweeting himself two or three times. These are not exceptional. They are typical.

Way, way back in a previous political life, I noted how the purview of left wing commentary is much wider than the right's, and what was true a decade ago still applies. There are monomaniacs across all political traditions, but among the ecosystem of the social media left you will find critique, debate, and policy alongside testimony of what it's like to be at the sharp end of Tory Britain, as well as wider engagement with trends in science and popular culture, for instance. In sum the online left are closer to the people and more in tune with them (and, crucially, the the rising generation of working class people) than odd balls obsessing over Jared O'Mara, or putative remarks by John McDonnell about the blessed Thatcher that millions of people would happily endorse. The preponderance of this on Tory Twitter speaks to the party's increasing social estrangement, and is symptomatic of its dependence on a declining electoral alliance.

What the Tories need are politics that intersect with and speak to millions of under 50s for whom they are an anathema, and their fixation on personalities signals nothing other than this gaping, yawning lack. With no sign of change, of a detour toward the lives and aspirations of voters aggrieved under the set up they've presided over, the hopes the Tories have in their trumpeted social media strategy are doomed to be forlorn.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Our Snowflake Press

Ah diddums, the Daily Mail is no longer to be sold by Virgin Trains. Please note that sentence. Sold, not banned. Yet going from a range of right wing rent-a-quoters, you'd think Branson were forcibly pressing Mail readers into clearing up the storm damage to his Caribbean island. According to Nigel Farage, "Banning things because you don’t like them solves nothing." And right you are, Nige. So your party's call to ban the burka then, was that just "bantz"? Did you not really mean it? Or was that the pathetic opportunism and hypocrisy that comes as freely to you as breathing does to the rest of us?

I really don't see a problem here, so I'm short on sympathy for the Mail's "plight". In the market place of ideas, if someone is interested in the wares of a journal, paper, comic or whatever they can go seek them out. Virgin might not stock The Mail any longer, but there's a good chance the paper shop across the road from the station does. No, what this is really about isn't the loss of a handful of sales but something more precious: legitimacy.

As the welcome resignation of Toby Young from the government's preposterous Office for Students shows, something of a corner is being turned. The spread of social media and the rude intrusion of hundreds of thousands into mainstream comment means several things. That Twitter, for instance, has something of a levelling effect. If you're on social media, every columnist's attempt to stir up hate will have blow back. The ignorance one could once proudly parade without dissent leaking into the paper's pages is found out time and time again. And the association of these poltroons with nudge, nudge racism, and wink, wink sexism and homophobia doesn't look edgy or challenging in our increasingly socially liberal world. It looks outmoded, backward, bigoted, and the promulgation of these idiocies are now attracting significant social costs.

This is a problem for The Mail and the hard right press because their power derives from the influence they are perceived to command over their readers. Hence the recent bout of petty Brexit stunts. Meanwhile, as the circulation plummets their toxic reputation wards off future readers, and every time someone refuses to stock them, or a company withdraws their advertising so the aura of repulsion surrounding the paper strengthens. And no readers means no power, and that slope towards extinction by the right gets a little bit steeper that little bit quicker.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Last Days of the Conservative Party?

I love it when a Tory shambles comes together. Watching Theresa May's ridiculous cabinet reshuffle unfold on Twitter provided for some wry amusement in-between marking papers. Chris Grayling as party chair, and then 27 seconds later he was dumped for Brandon Lewis. The awful Jeremy Hunt, fresh from the NHS debacle, said no to a move to business and ended up coming out of it with social care added to his portfolio. Or, depending on who you believe, Greg Clark said no to his sacking at BIS, and that meant a fudge for Hunt. Just when the people of Staffordshire Moorlands thought they couldn't see their MP any less, Karen Bradley is moved from culture to Northern Ireland. Sajid Javid stays where he is, but gets a new name for his brief. And there is Justine Greening. May wanted to move her to the DWP and she said no and so quit, ostensibly strengthening the relatively sensible, centrist-bordering awkwards ensconced on the back benches.

To coin a phrase, nothing has changed, nothing has changed. At least in the grand scheme of things. The most odious and despicable of this government went untouched, and remains as much a miserable mess of dysfunction this evening as it was yesterday. The permanent instability on which the government is poised teeters a little, but not threateningly so. Of more interest, and more pertinent to the party's survival, comes the news the Tories have fewer than 70,000 members, at least according to the chair for the Campaign for Conservative Democracy. Putting that in context, that's half-a-million fewer than Labour, almost half the size of the SNP, smaller than the Liberal Democrats and about where the Greens were at the height of their pre-Corbyn surge.

Does this matter? Labour as the party of the 21st century working class needs numbers to represent. Its politics depend on collective mobilisation and the aggregation of the collective interests of millions of people. The Tories, as an elite party, do not. Labour needs big numbers to be able to spend big on campaigning. The Tories do not. With nearly 600,000 members Labour performed the sharpest turn around in political fortunes in modern times, and yet with a smaller, more decrepit operation the Tories managed to form the largest party. Do they even need a political organisation?

In one sense, they don't. It's much easier to be a politician on the right because your political messages and assumptions about the world are transmitted by your powerful media allies. It is, after all, less difficult to blame than explain. Yes, not having members can be a pain. But as long as people can still be found to stand in elections (the Tories fielded more by-election candidates last year than any other party), delivery people can be bought and campaigning outsourced to call centres. So if you were a Conservative, you might find the collapse of the party embarrassing but it doesn't mean curtains. And indeed, it doesn't. But it presents the Tories some severe difficulties that are going to harm their prospects in the long run.

The lack of bodies for instance. By-elections are one thing, but actual elections another. Regardless of membership, there will always be people prepared to vote Conservative. Just as capitalism creates its own gravediggers, it summons squads of cheerleaders too. The problem is if there aren't Tory candidates to vote for, where are those votes going to go? This isn't an abstract question. In Stoke the BNP was able to build its vote support base in wards the Tories couldn't find anyone to stand in. If the mainstream right collapses, so the hard right and far right might fill the gap. The BNP, UKIP, there might yet be a twilight of unlife flickering through their stiffening corpses, and with it the prospect - again - of a semi-viable alternative on the Conservatives' right. And we all know what drastic measures were taken to deal with them last time.

The second problem goes to the heart of their difficulties. Over the last five or so years, this blog has documented the decline of the Tories, and the relationship between this, their decadence, and a certain autonomy from the interests the Tories have traditionally represented, which contributes to their extreme short-termism. The member collapse hasn't affected the transmission belt of anonymous donations via their not-dodgy-at-all dining clubs for spectrum of ruling class riff raff - hedge fund managers, nondoms, "naturalised" oligarchs, ad nauseum - and privileged access for big business and the old media are still there. But two things are wrong. While a small section of British capital has always, for whatever reason, supported Labour, in the 90s and up to the crash New Labour were the go-to party. This cracked the permanent hegemony the Tories had over business, and so just as voters have tended to become more mercenary and choosy about who to support so a large section of formerly Conservative-loyal business has as well. In the grand scheme, it means whole sections of British capital are not regularly and directly feeding their interests into their party.

The second is the absence of a mass base. Parties are expressions of interests, their organisation aggregating the experiences of and articulating policies that speak to masses of voters. Labour's job is to encourage as many of them into active political participation as possible. The Tories are a-okay with them being passive observers and four-yearly ballot scratchers. Minus a mass base feeding in to the associations (even if they are disproportionately petit bourgeois-types, managers and self-styled socially mobile working class people), the party is cut off from and no longer knows how to talk to ordinary people who might be sympathetic to Conservative values. Indeed, as Tim Bale's recent party members' survey shows, Tory activists are out of step with the values motivating other parties, which tend to be more in line with the ever growing cultural trend to social liberalism. There is every danger of the party becoming a sect, and if it cannot represent the interests of capital effectively then capital will start looking elsewhere. Those lovely centrists, for instance, the touchy feely types who are all loved up as far as capital is concerned suddenly start looking like a more attractive proposition versus the growing animus toward the system itself. Ultimately, the utility of the Tories lies in their command of millions of votes, which is jeopardised by their increasing social isolation thanks to the fast diminishing membership.

Can the Tories sort themselves out? One would be foolish to bet against the most successful political party in the democratic world, but it is hard to see how they can turn the situation around and look like an attractive proposition now they're inextricably invested in a political deadlock that puts them fundamentally at odds with a rising generation of voters. Too much to hope I know, but it might just be that we're in the final days of the Conservative Party as we understand it.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Jay Hardway - Scio

Haven't got time for a post tonight because marking and Spiral's on in a bit. Here for your listening pleasure then is one of the fine slices of 2017 that made the cut of last year's top tunes list. Enjoy!

Friday, 5 January 2018

What is the Brexit Stamp Collection?

Oh there are plenty of other things you can call Boris Johnson, a repertoire that has now grown thanks to digging done by Adam Bienkov. But on this occasion this blog is not chiming to the melodious infamy of Johnson's self-importance, instead it's the substance of the miserable article (above) from your snoreaway currant bun: the Brexit stamp collection.

You can see for yourself. The Sun are "campaigning" for a commemorative edition of stamps to mark Britain's exit from the European Union. After all, if Game of Thrones can have a set, why can't Britain's emancipation from eurocrat tyranny command its own in celebration of our freedom? Margot James, postal minister and one of the few relatively sober Tory MPs has rejected the idea as "divisive". She should have gone the whole hog and called it idiotic.

There is, of course, absolutely no demand for this set of ridiculous stamps (even though a tasteful alternative design is available). Just as there was no demand for blue passport covers, which you will recall never existed, to replace the red one introduced by the Brussels-loving Margaret Thatcher. Yes I'm sure there are some Sun readers who'll lap it up. Here not only do we have a REMOANING minister who tried thwarting plucky, independent-minded Brits in the referendum, she is shamelessly carrying on her BETRAYAL OF THE PEOPLE by refusing to issue a pack of novelty stamps. An outrage I'm sure you agree, but one that taps into the Britain's-so-hard-done-to sentiment The Sun have proved adept at whipping up in the past.

Some red meat for its more deranged readers, then. Is that all? Not quite. We know newspapers are on a downward spiral, and few things please me more to see The Sun's readership collapse faster than an under-cooked souffle. As they pitch downward to deserved doom, editors of Tory litter tray liners find themselves scrabbling for continued relevance, to demonstrate to their organisation, their readers, and to the clubby world of the Westminster lobby how they still possess power, that they continue to count. The stupid blue passports campaign was one such Sun stunt, and lo Theresa May duly caved. It's The Sun wot won it, yawn. The stamps are in the same vein, and will probably acquire the PM's backing in due course. So now the Mail, Express, Star, and Telegraph bigwigs enter the world's shittest arms race to come up with something else - renaming the Eurostar? Bringing back pounds and ounces? Talk loud to a foreigner day?

What then is the Brexit stamp collection? A tawdry and cloyingly desperate stab at relevance, one fully symptomatic of a fastening madness before destruction offs The Sun and its ilk for good.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

How to Predict Politics: A Sociological Approach

After the year from politics (and celebrity) hell that was 2016, understandably I gave up the trying-to-predict-politics game. Then something weird started happening. The new year brought us some right shockers - the delights of the Stoke Central by-election and the surprise election (and its more surprising outcome) - but some forecasts I had made came true. I suppose you might say the collapse of UKIP following the by-election was obvious, but it's something this blog had argued for since the 2015 election. Likewise, Theresa May remaining in office - unchallenged - despite pledging not to do forecasts, was divined as the country reeled from the shock of the Grenfell fire. And what happened at the general election was pre-empted the previous summer. If only I'd heeded my own analysis instead of sending "we're fucked" texts to friends and comrades when the election was called.

Getting these right wasn't voodoo, lucky guesses or a matter of being uniquely insightful. The secret, and it really shouldn't be a secret, lies in sociological analysis. Or, rather, understanding the stuff of politics as social relationships. A banal revelation, surely? Well, it should be but it isn't. Consider some of the dogmatism we've seen in recent years: that Labour can only win from the centre ground, assuming the centre is an eternal truth of inviolate political positions and values; that the plethora of leave voting constituencies spelt obliteration for Labour is many of its core areas; that Paul Nuttall (remember him?) would walk Stoke Central because he's a northerner; that young people voted Labour because tuition fees; that Labour would walk an election if it set its face against Brexit; of treating what's happened in politics in total isolation from what else has happened - namely the crash, austerity, stagnation, and the changes at work. Voters, constituencies, parties, institutions, all are treated as discrete and internally coherent entities who episodically brush up and affect one another. The flipside of this approach is that beloved of journalists, which is typified in Tim Shipman's duology of well-received books on Brexit and its aftermath: tittle-tattle; the reduction of politics to the personal relationships of MPs, back benchers and other significant figures in and around Westminster. What we have is, respectively, an elevation of the institutional minus the people and the elevation of (some) people minus the institutional context. This is the official way to think and write about politics.

Here are some simple (but complex) rules to examining politics. The first, most obvious observation is, um, everything is relational. Individuals and collectives are constituted by relationships. Peel back the layers of a personality and it's relationships all the way down, a record of at times conscious, at times unconscious determinations and influences that condition our activities in all kinds of ways. Break open an institution and all you'll find are people, but people enmeshed in and travelling through social space by the routes plotted by networks and lines laid down by institutional spaces (which are themselves, of course, conditioned by and are results of social relationships). Second, social relationships arrange people into collectives. These cannot be seen, but observed only through their consequences. Organisations are the most obvious manifestation, but collectivities range from the highly formalised to the loose and open, from small to massive, to currents of common opinion formed from common experiences - hence why people from different social locations tend to cluster around similar beliefs and outlooks. As our bodies are socially marked by the physical characteristics and what we do with them, sex classification, ethnicities, sexualities, disabilities, age and so on, we tend to find experiences, outlooks and characters clustering around them.

There's also the small matter of capitalism. It is not an independent entity standing above and apart from society, but it appears that way and we act as if this mode of social organisation is a natural force, an endowment we all have to just deal with. Depending on where you're born and your trajectory through life, your entire social existence is stamped by it, your destiny being only partly shaped by your intentions and actions. Mostly it's down to the vagaries of the elemental markets - again, outcomes of myriad social actions but without control or conscious direction. It also happens that the collectives we're swept up into are stamped by capitalism in a number of ways. All organisations have a commercial life, even if that is not their raison d'etre (as per public services, voluntary associations, political parties), and if we have a role within them they mediate that relationship for us. But as individuals we experience capitalism in ways that are specific and separate from collectives. The overwhelming majority of us are compelled to sell our labour power in return for a wage or a salary, and that inculcates certain interests in terms of the security of any situation we take up, the amount of hours we sell, the price we command for it, our own freedom from work, and the unaccountable power over us we encounter in those relationships. Some are even conscious of the clash of interests these entail, and organise on that basis. As consumers we have a certain means at our disposal (be it savings, credit), and certain interests in the quality of the goods and services we buy, as well as the power differentials between being a consumer of modest means vs big spenders. And remember how our physical characteristics are socially marked? These are inseparable from how capitalism is maintained as an apparent social organism, imbuing existence with obstacles, oppression, and injustice that have to be negotiated and struggled against on top of everything else. These are social relations just as much as employee/employer relations, and they resist disentanglement.

A social relation then appears simple and common place, but understanding them requires unpacking them, of treating them as an assemblage of mutually conditioned and conditioning elements. But they are not without direction. Because of the people and situations they involve, the histories contained therein bearing on the present, the tensions, conflicts and resistances, and their myriad ties to larger and smaller scale assemblies of relations between people, between institutions, between interests and the ever-forming, ever-becoming manifestation of collective wills, we can discern direction and therefore make guesses about what might happen next. Social relations are complex and can spark off in all manner of directions, but not infinitely so. They are probabilistic and therefore, provided one has a more or less rounded understanding of a (political) situation, forecasting is possible on the basis of analysis, of an appreciation of the directional flows of relations co-present, becoming within and conditioning a particular situation. In other words, if you look at what is being done, can explain why/how it's being done, you might have a good stab at describing what's going to happen next.

For example, consider young people and their disproportionate aversion, as noted in poll after poll and the actual poll of the general election, to the Conservatives. Why is this? Saying the young are radical because they don't know anything about the world is an explanation of sorts, but an ideological explanation - it is supposition without attempting to grasp the situation facing young people. And it also serves to cover for the sharp end of class relationships younger people are clustered around. To approach anything like a scientific explanation requires looking at those relations, how they've changed over time, and how they're being positioned politically by a government that has zero interest in them for its own partisan reasons. Once you have a handle on this, you can start making suggestions about future political behaviour - such as the stunning news, for mainstream punditry, that they may not vote Conservative in large numbers because of what they are doing to youngsters' life chances. Similarly, if you undertake an analysis of the political composition of the Tory party, how its vote has changed over time, how key parts of its coalition were fractured by New Labour at its height, and the effective estrangement of the party from a mass base thanks to a dwindling membership, this is essential background to understanding its pursuit of counter-productive policies, its headline chasing, its attendance/indulgence of a declining vote coalition, and ultimately the chaos ruling the top of the party. Understanding these confluences of relations and how they produce the current situation provides options for forecasting what future situations these are likely to produce, and what latent potentials carried within the assemblage will come to fruition.

This, crudely, schematically and briefly put is what a sociology of politics should be about. That isn't to say there's no room for other kinds of analysis, either of the movers-and-shakers sort as per "Shippers" and the stenographers of Westminster gossip, the institutional analyses as per political science, and pollster-related jiggery-pokery, but a sociological approach alerts us to their limitations, particularly where forecasting and predictions are concerned. Especially now politics is in flux. It's messy, but it's understandable if, and only if, you approach politics as the social relationships they are.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The NHS Crisis and Stubborn Tory Voters

You know it, I know it, the government tacitly admits it. The NHS is in crisis. In fact, it's in permanent crisis thanks to funding not meeting demand. What we are witnessing are ebbs and flows in how acute the crisis is. Let's recap: all non-urgent operations (some 55,000!) and hospital appointments have been cancelled, and the targets which the (often private) providers who run A&Es have to meet are temporarily suspended. Meanwhile, ambulance stations have shut, 8,500 beds have been stripped out of the NHS, around one-in-six A&Es have got closed or downgraded, and ditto for 72 walk-in centres. In addition to the cuts ("but we're not cutting the NHS!", the Tories squeal), hospitals have increased their capacity to take private patients, hospitals are taking up the slack for the devastating cuts the Tories have made to adult social care budgets, poor health is rising and resistance to disease falling thanks to increasing poverty, mental ill-health is at epidemic levels thanks to a decade of dog-eat-dog social and employment policy, and on top of it all resources as a proportion of GDP is shrinking in relative terms. Matters, of course, aren't helped by the increased bureaucratic burdens foisted on the NHS thanks to Tory marketisation which, coincidentally, benefits companies who've donated some £20m to the party. Fancy that.

It's plain as day what the Tories are trying to do. Incompetence only goes so far as an explanation (something Jeremy Hunt has no shortage of). What we are seeing is the deliberate running down of the NHS. It is not privatised (yet), but under the Tories our health system has become a market place in which publicly owned medical and health care providers are competing with private entities for contracts. It's not unheard of private providers then winning the tender for a service, and subcontracting it back to a public body. And to think this parasitism is justified in terms of efficiency and value for money. By ensuring resource doesn't follow demand, and sitting idly by as huge amounts are squandered on marketisation and procurement, permanent crisis - it is hoped - will soften up the public enough for more reductions of "unnecessary" services, rationing, and the normalisation of charges. Which then stimulates the market for medical insurance ... you get the picture. Even the crisis solutions the Tories favour, i.e. bunging the NHS a billion here, a billion there to take the pressure off is calculated to give the impression of an all-consuming monster that is rapidly growing beyond the country's means.

And yet one question stubbornly remains. Despite the obvious crisis and Britons' professed love for their NHS, why is this not hurting the Tories more than it is? When you consider the voter coalition assembled behind the government and see it is disproportionately middle-aged to elderly and therefore more likely to use the NHS than any other age cohort, why do too many of them remain stubbornly welded to the authors of a crisis that is directly impacting their lives, if not life chances? It comes down to framing.

Consider this unrelated example from Stoke-on-Trent's recent political history. During the 00s halcyon days of the BNP as an electoral force, its support was drawn from council wards that were almost totally white. Why? Because people living in these areas were less likely to encounter Muslims or people who weren't white like themselves than those living in more mixed neighbourhoods. They were more likely to believe racist propaganda because their social life, their experiences did not contradict those claims. All the while, the media were ramping up antipathy to Muslims and refugees, and the then government pandered to these "real concerns" without challenging them. A case then of the world outside of direct experience presenting a view many found convincing and which the unlamented BNP capitalised on. Now consider the media habits of older people. The world outside of their direct experience tends to be mediated by traditional broadcasting and the mainstream press more so than younger cohorts, for whom social media is the place news is digested and discussed. It means the positions taken by the mainstream are likelier to be accepted as the story of what's happening. After all, as my mum was fond of telling me, it "wouldn't be allowed" if it was all lies.

What has this to do with the NHS crisis? Consider the key themes the press run with on NHS matters; doctors are paid too much, resources are wasted on people who can't be arsed to attend appointments, people are coming here overseas to get their operations done for free, and the old favourite, immigrants are swamping the NHS leaving fewer resources for everyone else. Already, by this third day of 2018 two of our fearless titles have led with these front of these pages. It's not that they're denying the NHS has serious problems, but they're trying to elbow out the way the real cause - a Conservative government and its intentional defunding and contracting out of the NHS - and supply secondary issues by way of an explanation. And because NHS structures and funding are complex and wonky, even as they deliver more tax money to the Tory party donatorate, being able to blame tangible scapegoats is more impactful than cataloging cash transactions. It follows that because NHS management and funding lies outside most people's direct experiences Tory voters who suffer in the system are more likely to find Tory scapegoating persuasive. Especially if they've shared a ward with people who aren't white and don't have a British accent.

Tory voters therefore aren't necessarily more selfish, or don't care about what's happening to the health service. It's that they find the arguments their media make more sensible than the alternative takes, which are actually the case. From this two things follow. First of all, persuading Tory voters (we're not talking the thinning ranks of activists and members here, but actual voters who don't live and breathe politics) doesn't mean egregiously insulting and belittling them, as satisfying as some would no doubt find it. We want to win them over, not least because they are (mostly unwittingly) contributing to the crisis. And second, we keep hammering home the message about Tory plans for the NHS, as well as amplifying the voices of everyone in the NHS, the nurses and doctors and managers, who are speaking out against the mess the government are deliberate cultivating. Only with persistence and patience can the old scapegoating narratives be worn down and with it an election of a government set on undoing their damage.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Toby Young and the Taming of Higher Education

It's good to see meritocracy alive and well. I mean these days you can get yourself appointed to an august body overseeing "value for money" in Britain's universities without any experience of the higher education sector at all. You can do so even after blagging your way into one of the country's top establishments and sneering at the working class students who, you know, actually had to work to get their places. Even trashing equalities legislation for the disabled is no barrier. Yes, blessed and special is the country where such things are possible.

I wasn't the only one who had their New Year's celebrations soiled by the news Toby Young, sometime journalist and well-connected mediocrity, has been appointed by the government to the universities regulator. This apparently after an ostensibly well-qualified candidate didn't even get an interview. Yes, it looks like jobs for the boys, and it is. Having had an insight into these sorts of things, these appointments would have been arrived at via a brainstorming session between universities minister Jo Johnson and his lackeys. Picture the scene in his office, coffees in hand and ties loosened, each clutching a list of names they'd Googled. Because blue sky thinking is the name of the game, Johnson wouldn't have wanted anyone associated with HE. Hence we have a worthy each from HSBC and Boots - not noted seats of higher learning - and Young just to set the cat among the pigeons. They knew it wouldn't be a popular choice, but it has helped put the Office for Students quango on the map.

Toby Young is egregiously awful and ill-suited for the role. But that doesn't mean everything would be hunky dory had a qualified specialist been put in place instead. The problem is structural and stems from the Tory party's distrust of higher education. As we have seen previously, the Tories know students and academic staff are not likely to vote for them. They can read YouGov surveys and see the correlation between the greater number of formal qualifications and a growing disinclination to support the Conservatives. Yet British capitalism demands an ever better educated work force because profits are increasingly dependent on immaterial labour - the production of knowledge, information, services and relationships.

Caught in this bind between political disadvantage and vectors of capital accumulation, their fudge follows successive governments' approach to managing public bodies: marketisation. While Thatcher gradually eroded students' standards of living, the real turbo boost to neoliberalising the academy came with Tony Blair's introduction of tuition fees and their steady increase since. The government stumps up the fees for each student who turns up, and they in turn pay it back down the line when they are earning over a certain threshold, which is due to be £25,000/year. But because the money follows the student, universities fall over each other in competition for undergraduates and retaining them. We have therefore seen the rise of a variety of performance indicators/league tables to differentiate universities and, supposedly, help guide applicants' decisions. These include the National Student Satisfaction survey, in which students are invited to rate their courses (and is subject to an ill-advertised boycott by the NUS), the Teaching Excellence Framework that (patronisingly) awards institutions a gold, silver or bronze medal according to a set of arbitrary indicators, and league tables put together by The Graun and The Times Higher that come up with their own permutations aggregating NSS, TEF, graduate employability and degree classifications - among other things (NB social science graduates do best). Universities aren't businesses, but they might as well be. Incorporated as charities, they are in reality no different than privately-owned capital competing in a market place. They have to so act to survive, and this means downward pressures on faculties to become sales people and customer service specialists over and above transmission belts of knowledge.

Marketisation has disciplinary consequences for students as well. The introduction of tuition fees was never about saving money but churning out workers of a particular type, of people who had internalised the market as the done way, the natural way of doing things. In the age of immaterial labour the production of value is closely intertwined with the stuff of social production, of producing relationships and identity locations (subject positions) of various kinds. The most effective means of social control under these circumstances is the colonisation of the mind, of using economics, as Thatcher put it, to remake the soul. The assumption was the transformation of students into paying customers would mean rising standards and a more serious attitude to academic work. The limiting of support for students also meant large numbers have to support themselves through university (whereas most students pre-fees would defer work to the Christmas and summer holidays) and, conveniently, less time for them to be involved in extra-curricular activities. Like politics, for instance. Meanwhile they are encouraged to see university as a transactional exercise, as a fantastical student experience secondary to actually learning stuff.

Once you understand the role of marketisation, the appointments of Young and the other business worthies make sense. They don't understand academia nor the culture of HE, and as far as the Tories are concerned they don't need to. Jo Johnson thinks they understand markets, and that's what matters. Never mind the fact British universities are world leading and have little to learn from a mediocre private sector that is somewhat less so. They can get the big stick out and hey presto, the mounting anger over unsustainable student debt and spiralling pay for senior management become arms' length problems. The question is how much more damage this new quango can do to a sector it is estranged from and knows nothing about. And the answer is, unfortunately, plenty.

Top 100 Independent Tweeting Bloggers 2017

Cue the Pearl & Dean music. Yes, another year has gone and the beginning of the next calendar coincides with a reflection on who's hot and who's not in the world of independent political blogging, at least as far as Twitter is concerned. In case you're a newbie, here are the rules. This is not a "best of". This is not a reflection of people I agree with, think write well, or another arbitrary classifying schema. It is, as per the list of tweeting political commentators, a simple rank ordering by the number of Twitter followers. But independent? How is that defined? It is a blogger who posts regularly on matters political to their corner of the web or, fuzzing it a bit, an outlet independent of the big media organisations and parties. So, for example, The Canary is an independent outfit and so gets on. LibDem Voice is semi-official, but is a voluntary operation and so gets on. I'm sure you get the picture. Likewise, there are a few big media stars on here but, again, make the list because they maintain their own outlets. Last of all, there is a six week rule applied here. If you haven't posted anything in that time you don't make it, simple as that.

Okay, without further ado ...

1. (1) Owen Jones (725k followers)
2, (RE) Paul Mason (574k followers)
3. (2) Alastair Campbell (425k followers)
4. (3) Guido Fawkes (242k followers)
5. (4) Britain Elects (164k followers)
6. (5) Iain Dale (107k followers)
7. (5) Left Foot Forward (65.5k followers)
8. (NE) The London Economic (58.8k followers)
9. (10) Open Democracy (58.6k followers)
10. (18) The Canary (53.9k followers)
11. (7) Wings Over Scotland (53.8k followers)
12. (8) Bella Caledonia (52k followers)
13. (15) Scott Nelson (51.2k followers)
14. (11) Political Scrapbook (47.9k followers)
15. (13) Richard Murphy (46.3k followers)
16. (12) The F-Word (45.3k followers)
17. (14) Mike Smithson (44k followers)
18. (9) Nick Tyrone (41.4k followers)
19. (16) Ann Petifor (39.8k followers)
20. (NE) Aaron Bastani (39.8k followers)
21. (17) Coppola Comment (35.5k followers)
22. (33) Novara Media (35.3k followers)
23. (26) Jon Worth (34.2k followers)
24. (19) Steve Topple (30.7k followers)
25. (27) Libcom (27.9k followers)
26. (32) Craig Murray (26.8k followers)
27. (20) Exposing UKIP (25.8k followers)
28. (24) Another Angry Woman (25.4k followers)
29. (25) Pride's Purge (25.4k followers)
30. (30) Neil Clark (25.3k followers)
31. (73) The SKWAWKBOX (25k followers)
32. (23) UK Media Watch (24.2k followers)
33. (RE) Kerry-Anne Mendoza (23.6k followers)
34. (28) LibDem Voice (22.4k followers)
35. (36) Richard Seymour (21.3k followers)
36. (38) Mainly Macro (21k followers)
37. (35) Angela Neptustar (20.3k followers)
38. (39) Paul Bernal (19.8k followers)
39. (NE) Shon Faye (19.5k followers)
40. (NE) Another Angry Voice (18.7k followers)
41. (31) Labour Uncut (18k followers)
42. (34) Archbishop Cranmer (17.9k followers)
43. (41) Sarah Ditum (16.9k followers)
44. (NE) Matt Turner (16.5k followers)
45. (72) SCOT goes POP! (16.2k followers)
46. (40) Lallands Peat Worrier (15.8k followers)
47. (46) Tim Bale (15.5k followers)
48. (49) Glen O'Hara (15.4k followers)
49. (NE) Evolve Politics (15k followers)
50. (47) Eric Joyce (14.8k followers)
51. (NE) Talk Politics (13.4k followers)
52. (45) Big Brother Watch (13.2k followers)
53. (RE) The Optimistic Patriot (13k followers)
54. (42) The Commentator (12.6k followers)
55. (66) Filibuster (12k followers)
56. (48) Mark Pack (11.9k followers)
57. (55) Chelley Ryan (11.5k followers)
58. (51) Zelo Street (10.8k followers)
59. (54) Kevin Hague (10.4k followers)
60. (RE) Karen Ingala Smith (10.3k followers)
61. (52) Left Futures (9,583 followers)
62. (NE) Lily of St Leonards (9,508 followers)
63. (57) 5 Pillars (9,474 followers)
64. (50) Kate Belgrave (9,353 followers)
65. (61) Chris Dillow (9,004 followers)
66. (53) David Hencke (8,866 followers)
67. (60) Flip Chart Fairy Tales (8,769 followers)
68. (62) A Dragon's Best Friend (7,513 followers)
69. (70) Emma Burnell (7,158 followers)
70. (NE) Katie S (6,951 followers)
71. (65) Vox Political (6,905 followers)
72. (64) All That's Left (6,660 followers)
73. (75) Who Owns England? (6,659 followers)
74. (69) All That Is Solid (6,561 followers)
75. (67) Bright Green (6,186 followers)
76. (NE) New Socialist (6,083 followers)
77. (76) A Room Of Our Own (5,964 followers)
78. (71) Tim Worstall (5,947 followers)
79. (NE) Tom Gann (5,768 followers)
80. (74) Liberal England (5,643 followers)
81. (80) Language: A Feminist Guide (5,268 followers)
82. (78) Rob Marchant (5,121 followers)
83. (81) Revolution Breeze (5,019 followers)
84. (82) Cllr Alice Perry (4,709 followers)
85. (87) Hatful of History (4,491 followers)
86. (86) Bob from Brockley (4,347 followers)
87. (83) Think Left (4,272 followers)
88. (RE) Neil Scott (4,115 followers)
89. (84) Sarah Brown (4,041 followers)
90. (NE) Ungagged! (4,017 followers)
91. (NE) The Prole Star (3,705 followers)
92. (91) The Thoughtful Campaigner (3,653 followers)
93. (90) Dick Puddlecote (3,574 followers)
94. (94) Wendy Errington (3,207 followers)
95. (98) The Nation Said No Thanks (3,098 followers)
96. (92) Liberal Burblings (3,010 followers)
97. (95) Labour Hame (2,774 followers)
98. (93) Sarah Ismail (2,772 followers
99. (100) John Gray (2,749 followers)
100. (99) Ambush Predator (2,428 followers)

Time for the science bit? Well, what's interesting is the return of five folks to the chart who'd previously stopped blogging. Obviously word had got round and thought it necessary to push something out in time for this tally. On top of them there's 13 new entries, which is far fewer than last year. Have we reached that point in the cycle where blogging is plateauing, and those still in the less glamorous game of writing for yourself is down to the hardcore? I haven't a clue but one thing's true, newer blogs are getting thinner on the ground.

Yes, this is a provisional list. So if there are others you can think of that haven't made this list and do meet the criteria set out in the opening paragraph, and have more followers than those on the bottom of the list do let me know and it shall be duly updated.