Friday, 31 January 2014

Local Council By-Elections January 2014

Number of candidates
Total vote
+/- Seats
Plaid Cymru**


* There were two by-elections in Scotland.
** There were no by-elections in Wales.
*** There were independent clashes in one contest.
**** 'Other' this month consisted of the English Democrats (54 votes)

Overall, 15,143 votes were cast over nine individual local (tier one and tier two) authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison see December's results here.

Tories might breathe a sigh of relief to see their vote share recover this month, only to have the thunder stolen from no less than four lost seats. And when there's only nine contests to pick from on a fairly average geographical spread, that is bad news. UKIP may be the go to protest vote of choice, but Labour retains a steady lead. And that's the story. Throughout the round-ups the two main parties have had their vote share depressed by the large number of contenders but as a rule, the gap between them has been consistently around that reported by polling.

Speaking of protest votes, interestingly one of yesterday's contests took place in Heanor. As well as being where I learned to swim and went to college, the town's other claim to fame (or notoriety) is as a former BNP stronghold, and one that returned a couple of councillors to the borough council during the last decade. However, this time they didn't even contest the seat - another sign the BNP are finished as an electoral contender. How long will it be before they're moved into the 'other' bracket?

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Introducing Cynical Empiricism

We've done stupid empiricism. If you can't be arsed to read the post, it can be summarised thus. Stupid empiricism is to take an event or a phenomenon as proof of a general trend, even when associated evidence thoroughly discredits that line of thinking. Examples include snow in the winter = no climate change, or growth of food banks is because of the increased publicity about them. It is a mendacious, wilfully ignorant way of thinking; of knowing you're right because it underpins your politics/world view in some way, in spite of everything else pointing to the contrary. Culprits usually include 'kippers and Tories, but it can be found across political traditions and in all kinds of institutions. But I'd like to introduce a further term, which perhaps isn't as extreme but makes up for it by being mercenary. That would be 'cynical empiricism'. And to illustrate how it works, it's thank you - again - to Dan Hodges for providing the foil.

Couched in faux bonhomie, Dan's basic argument is that there has been a yawning gap between London and the rest of the economy for nearly 50 years, and that it is "natural" the capital should recover first. The Big Smoke is the motor that pulls the rest of Britain in its train, and that any growth of whatever character is better than no growth. The not so subtle sub-text is there's a regional divide, so what? As he himself concludes, "If someone can genuinely come up with a sensible proposal for ensuring the proceeds of recovery are more evenly distributed, great. But in the meantime, give London a break. If you don't like the type of recovery we're generating down here then by all means feel free to generate one of your own." That's the plebs outside the M25's ring of concrete told.

If only it was that easy. I don't know if Dan follows what goes on in the rest of the country. He wouldn't be the first Londoner not to. So it might well be news to him that local authorities of all persuasions are far from resting on their laurels. Regardless of how wealthy an area is, each and every council have been rolling out the red carpet for business. Every government grant, every pot of European money is chased by a blizzard of fund applications. Stoke City Council, for instance, is always firing off bids to improve infrastructure, clear up land, and, yes, build flood defences. Like every other local authority it works with business. It doles out grants, provides support and advice for start ups, and cuts all kinds of deals with potential inward investors. So it's not for want of trying. Industrial activism is alive and well in local government, even if Dan can't see it from his Lewisham redoubt.

Well, economic growth in the regions will happen eventually, so what's the problem? Economics cannot be divorced from social relations, and so there comes a moment when the by-products of London's growth passes over into the outright anti-social. That's why it's foolish to welcome all growth as if it's everywhere and always benign. To paraphrase Uncle Vince, London is a suction device vacuuming living labour and talent out of the rest of the country. The big problem, of course, is London's acute housing shortage. New home builds are nowhere near the level of demand. This is bad enough but the government and mayoralty have been happy to see London's housing market be used as a bank by foreign investors. Some three quarters of all new builds in the capital are so snapped up, making a difficult situation even worse and driving property values sky high. The point will come when rent is so high, never mind house prices, that "the talent" cannot move in. And as for people on more modest incomes? The prospect of people living together in cramped, insanitary conditions because that's all they can afford is not a potential hazard. It's happening already. None of this is sustainable economically and, more importantly, socially. The summer riots of 2011 are but a foretaste of what could lie in London's future. The capital will be lucky if all it gets away with is a spiralling housing benefit bill.

Okay, so the rest of the country are working hard for a geographically balanced recovery, and the over-concentration in London is a bad, dysfunctional thing. But what can be done? Dan's silly schemes - a scattering of London business to the UK's four corners liquidation-of-the-kulaks-stylee or moving government to Birmingham or elsewhere are daft outliers. You might say it's almost as if he wants to avoid a serious conversation about it. But there are plenty of things government can do, even in straightened times. First off, government have pledged cash for the Local Enterprise Partnerships to help kickstart local economies - so where is it? Government could offer inducements through the corporation tax structure to encourage private sector investment in the regions. Is it necessary, for example, for all corporate functions to be centralised in London in the age of broadband? And speaking of broadband, why not sink HS2 money into wiring up the country? And if you must insist on building this white elephant, why not work from Brum and Manchester toward London rather than the other way round? Lastly, does most of Whitehall have to be located in London? Ministers and their offices, sure. But the lower grades and the bulk of the bureaucracy? Does all of the Foreign Office and the MOD, for example?

This stuff is so well tread that the London-based commentariat should know their way round it blindfolded by now. That someone like Dan really knows better brings me back to this little idea of cynical empiricism. Whereas stupid empiricism is dogmatic misrecognition ultimately founded on a rigid but brittle view of the world, its dumb variant is an affectation. A wilful, knowing closing down or refusal to engage with argument for political convenience. Or because you're paid to churn out tunnel vision polemic. It seizes upon an observation and presents it as a simple fact of life, as a natural self-evident truth, of something we have to "deal with" but not change because it's impossible to change. It logically follows that to even ask questions wastes time. Cynical empiricism merely describes what apparently is, and that's it. Anything else and it's "nothing to see here!"

That's all very well. There's a market for cynical empiricism, and it's one crafted not to challenge the reader but mirror their prejudices and assumptions. Politics and political discourse, however, needs to do better than this.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Blue Pearl - Can You Feel the Passion

"What were you listening to 20 years ago, Phil?"

Top drawer shit like this:

Monday, 27 January 2014

Sex, Power Play, and Trotskyism

It's one that has had seasoned left watchers stumped in bemusement. Back in the day, it was so different. As a general rule, most people exiting revolutionary outfits either returned to private life, or continued being active inside the labour movement. A small minority of comrades, however, would stick with the far left. The ultra-correct posturing of ultra-left "fighting" propaganda groups like the Spartacists and Workers Power occasionally attracted a few by exposing the centrism or *gasp* reformism of the IS/SWP or Militant/SP. Or some waltzed off and formed their own outfit after their parent group adopted an opportunist stance/betrayed the heritage of October by supporting/not supporting the strike of Ruritanian basket weavers. No one seriously entertained the idea that Facebook spats would prise apart tiny revolutionary groupings. Could the split in the International Socialist Network, the ragtag and bobtail collective of ex-swuppies be a world first?

As Facebook is the medium, one might be tempted to sneer away (just like I've done). Yet there's more to it than that. Coming back from Saturday's Fabian conference, I was amazed to read the ISN was in turmoil. The weighty issue tearing the groupuscule asunder was a series of sex fantasies and role play known as ... race play. This kink, for that is what it is, is a master/slave relationship in which the subordinate partner is black. Yes, that's right. And no, I didn't know this was 'a thing' either. Okay, you don't need me to tell you that most people, never mind most lefties would be uncomfortable with sex play of this character. But so what? We're talking consenting adults here. While it is true there is a long and inglorious history of white nations colonising, enslaving, exploiting, and oppressing black people and that, sadly, that history still has some way to run both here in Britain and elsewhere, that doesn't mean someone from a black African or Afro-Caribbean background cannot decide for themselves whether 'race play' is for them. To suggest otherwise is just patronising, really. And I'm sure most people would agree.

Richard 'Lenin' Seymour, hitherto the public face of choice for the ISNetwork more or less has this position too. Rightly, he defended this and other forms of sexual behaviour some might find unpalatable as something that's up to the people involved. Reasonable, but too reasonable for many on the ISN's steering committee. Such behaviour is racist, perpetuates white privilege, demeans black people. disrespects the experience of slaves held in the colonies or transported/raised on American plantations. Well, no. For those involved, it doesn't. Sexual role play is about fantasy, about fun, having a laugh and, of course, getting off. In much the same way as the millions of couples who dress up as school boys and school girls do not alibi or condone child sex abuse, so race play does not trample on a troubled and deeply sad history. Ridiculously, the ISN's view effectively means sub/dom relationships are only open to couples of the same ethnicity. And how would the ISN ever enforce their brand of sexual political hygiene? By sending in the coitus commissars?

This is no one off. As you can see from Team Seymour's resignation note from the ISN below, this particular cohort of ex-SWP have serious issues when it comes to the public discussion of sex - particularly with regards to the comrade with a political interest in sex and sexuality. I suppose in one respect you can understand a certain reluctance among a group of activists who resigned from the SWP after allegations of serious sexual assault were seriously mishandled, and the young women involved were harassed for raising complaints. When the former national secretary's alleged behaviour was written off by members in the know as a "private matter", you might find here the germ of an explanation for the ISN's attitude to sexual practices that are simultaneously power plays. The difference, however, is that sub/dom and bdsm relationships are enacted fantasies based on consent and trust. The allegations at the centre of the SWP's scandal was that a powerful man used his position to force unwanted sexual attentions on junior women - one a party employee, one a young student. If a clapped out ex-Trot like me can discern that and the Marxist masterbrains of the ISN vanguard can't, what does that say about them?

Well, what it says about them, I'm afraid to say, is that politics has ceased being about progressive social change and more about the narcissistic cultivation of revolutionary identity. You can take some folk out of the SWP ...

Needless to say, I think Richard and his comrades are badly wrong on many things, not least their enthusiasm for Left Unity. But here he's made the right call. A habit I hope he develops with regard to the rest of his politics.

That's enough from me. Here's the resignation note:
With great regrets, we are resigning from the ISNetwork. Many of us were involved in the setting up of the network, and we are very sad that it has come to this. We remain in full solidarity with ISN comrades, and look forward to working with them on campaigns.

Despite the repeated characterisation of us as a 'right bloc', we do not represent any unified political position beyond our concerns about both the political direction and internal culture of the ISNetwork. It has been clear for some time that our critiques put us in a minority: contrary to a common smear, we have always been willing to argue from this position, and welcomed this political debate. However, there has been an increasing breakdown of trust between us and various leading members of the organisation. It is now clear that we are not welcome in the ISN.

One of us is a woman sex-worker and bdsm practitioner. After many years of self imposed isolation from politics, she believed she had finally found a space where even those comrades who disagreed with her positions would discuss controversial topics of sexuality and desire in respect and comradeship. Instead she has been browbeaten, patronised, marginalised and moralised against, and the topics she wishes to discuss with her comrades dismissed as, in the words of one SC member, self-evidently 'sordid.' She has been made to feel so unwelcome that she feels forced to leave the SC and ISN.

The SC has put out a statement strongly implying racism and claiming 'inappropriate' argumentative techniques against three of our members. We entirely reject these insinuations and urge anyone interested to examine the threads in question & and judge for themselves. That they are over a controversial and charged topic -and one on which the signatories to this letter do not necessarily agree- is not in doubt: however, if there is a single statement made by any comrade that can reasonably be judged 'inappropriate', let alone racist, we urge their accusers to state it.

It is claimed, on the basis of a leaked email thread of a private conversation, that we have been politically dishonest, and set out to split or even destroy the network. This is wholly untrue. As has been made clear in this week's bulletin, we had intended to launch a platform within the ISNetwork in order to argue for our position. However, recent events had given us an increasing sense that we might not be able to remain members, due both to legitimate political differences and to the personalised politics of vituperation at the brunt of which we have felt. Accordingly - as is explicitly allowed in the ISN constitution – we have been discussing among ourselves to work out how best to argue our position within the network, our chances, and our contingency strategies if we felt unable to continue.

At issue here is not just the conduct or content of recent discussions or even the political direction of the ISN, but the question of making a habitable culture of discussion on the Left. When some of us recently wrote an article criticising a politics of anathema within the ISN, we were derided by opponents who denied any such thing exists. Unfortunately, it does. One SC member has recently publicly insisted that 'no one is being targeted personally'. The very same SC member recently seconded a denouncement on Facebook, by another SC member, of several of us as 'arrogant fucks' and 'bad rubbish' to whom 'good riddance'. One leading member expressed a desire on Facebook to strangle one of us - referring to her as a 'nauseating tosser' - and not one of the SC members to whom she said this suggested it was an inappropriate comment to make. Several SC members openly expressed their agreement with a status referring to us as 'parasites'. Another SC member wrote 'they should count themselves lucky they haven't been expelled' – particularly galling to two of the 'Facebook Four' involved in our thread. There are further examples, but this culture is one in which we can no longer work: we also would like comrades to consider whether left organisations can hope to attract a new generation of members if they treat each other in this way.

We look forward to working in a left culture that has ended certain practices inherited from the SWP. These include moralistic browbeating; the implicit claim that various controversial topics are inappropriate for discussion; that certain comrades can not be argued with on them; and that dissenters from these nostrums deserve to be attacked in personalised terms. We know many ISN members look forward to this with similar enthusiasm.

Jamie A
Magpie C
Kieran C
A. M.
China M
Richard S
Len T
Rosie W

Sunday, 26 January 2014

For the 50p Tax Rate

Did Ed Balls announce the nationalisation of the top 100 monopolies or something at yesterday's Fabian conference? I was there, and he assuredly did not. To make sure the dangerous radicalism of putting 5p on the top rate of tax was boxed in, he even ruled out renationalising energy companies and the rail. And yet, according to Lord Myners in today's Telegraph restoring the 50p tax rate for earners in receipt of an income on excess of £150,000 is "old Labour" and the "politics of envy". As the good lord is on the boards of several successful firms, I think he has an interest to declare.

There are a few things here that are well tread, but need saying anyway. Firstly, when you earn piles of cash, more than the £150k mooted here, will you miss an extra 5 pence in the pound? Remember, everything you earn up to circa £34k is taxed at the basic rate. Any money earned after that is taxed at 40%, which goes up to 45% after £150k. From this year more people will fall into the 40% tax bracket as the threshold is reduced to £32,011 and next year (2014-15) £31,866. Rather than cost the rich, Osborne would much rather more top-end middle income people be brought into the higher rate. Who's the party of taxes now?

The second point is the "disincentive" of higher rate taxes. The best and brightest will go elsewhere, apparently. Really? Are there jobs enough in the rest of the EU for investment bankers and money alchemists? What evidence is this based on? The non-existent flight of top earners from UK shores during the three years the 50p rate was in operation? Why didn't high earners flock to Albania, a country enjoying a 10% flat tax rate?

"It will damage the economy!" No it won't. There comes a point where you do not spend all or most of your disposable income. If you're rich enough, there's only so many yachts, houses, holidays, cars one can buy. So the cash piles up in the bank. The situation we have with Osborne's tax cut for the rich is that this was paid by cuts to tax credits, by freezing social security payments, and holding down wages for public sector workers. That tax cut meant less spending by people who pay out greater proportions of their income, which in turn sucked demand out of the economy and depressed growth. Meanwhile the rich remain on investment strike. Productive money became unproductive money. Reversing and using that cut to give back what was taken would boost the economy far more than lower rates for the rich ever could.

We're also talking about income tax here, not corporation tax. I defy Myners and his city mates to provide any evidence that British rates of income tax deter small business people from striking out on their own. On inward investment, neither is there any evidence international companies are put off from doing business in Britain. Remember, if a firm locates here the 50p rate is not a tax on their profits, but on the income of their (presumably domiciled) employees. I'm sure people like Katja Hall, chief wonk at the CBI are aware of this even when they make such a stupid argument. Whether they are temporarily muddled or deliberately disingenuous is something you can judge for yourself from the regularity these points appear.

Lastly, the Telegraph notes "the level of tax avoidance as high-earners dodged the increased rate was so great that HM Revenue & Customs predicted that reducing the levy by 5p would only cost the Exchequer about £100 million." Arguably the shortfall of the tax rates targets had more to do with (temporary) falls in wealthy incomes as Britain slipped into a second, brief and entirely avoidable recession. But if not, so what? If more rich people are dodging taxes, that demands both a tightening up of existing regulations and criminalising more of their alchemical practices. Not cutting the number of tax inspectors and analysts at HMRC might be a good idea too.

In short, the nonsense about the 50 tax rate is just that. It is perverse that our "all in it together" government has hacked away at social security and the public sector while giving the very wealthiest a tax cut. Ed's announcement yesterday, which has been an open secret for ages anyway, is a welcome blow against the entitlement culture at the top of the corporate tree. It's popular too - even Daily Mail readers think so. And remember, who generates the wealth that gets siphoned into fatcat pockets anyway? It sure as hell doesn't come about from meetings clustered around PowerPoint presentations or shouting "sell!/buy!" down a phone. Given the inchoate anger and squeezed incomes out there in the real world, the likes of Myners ought to feel grateful people are content - for now - with seeing more of the rich's crumbs brushed into the public purse. But carry as they are and our captains of industry might find more demands for the bakery.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Maajid Nawaz on Jesus and Mo

I'm a bit late to the Maajid Nawaz Jesus and Mo controversy, but there are a couple of points I think have lost amid the hubbub.

First things first, I don't think religion-baiting is particularly smart politics. As Nawaz is a liberal I cannot speak for him, but as a socialist politics is, or should be, about getting as many people into the labour movement as possible. The sharing of common endeavours, of being part of a collective condensation of broadly similar interests as working people, our movement has and remains the most fertile grounds for socialist ideas. This is not an economistic argument either. The labour movement has through a process of struggle become the most consistently anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic mass social movement in British society. It's not perfect, but it is better than anything else. And that's because the reproduction of sexist, racist and homophobic relations, on the whole, are challenged more often and with more vigour in trade unions, the socialist societies and the Labour Party than anywhere else. Also, crucially, prejudice an bigotry is increasingly contradicted by the collective experiences of working people from all backgrounds. Intersectionality is the trendy word of the now, but the labour movement has been messily, haphazardly, doing it for decades. Therefore I take a dim view of any kind of politics that sets itself up as simon pure atheism, that seems to put a premium on appearing radical over and above encouraging people of faith to get involved in our collective political project. Persuasion is always more useful than denunciation.

Where Nawaz is concerned, there is probably a little bit of impishness at work. I've felt it enough times when I've written or done something my former self would have raged at.  As a former Hizb ut-Tahrir, he probably feels a bit naughty sharing a likeness of Muhammad with his social media following. It is taboo after all. Perhaps some Hampstead and Kilburn voters might get turned off the LibDems by these comments. There's plenty of other things going against the yellow party. But I imagine most Muslims - just like everyone else - wouldn't give a toss. It's his choice after all.

And that's the crucial point. In addition to there being traditions within Islam of depicting Muhammad, Nawaz can post cartoons and say what he likes about Islam and any other religion. Ophelia Benson is absolutely right. The image of Islam and the popular perception of Muslims are ill-served by idiotic comments, like Galloway's, that convey an impression that all Muslims are tetchy and intolerant. By the same token, fools have the right to say foolish things. They might be guided by what they see as the best of intentions, but it can lead to the worst of outcomes. The freedom of religion - a right I assume Galloway upholds - always includes the freedom to criticise religion. Always.