Thursday, 30 June 2016

Duke Dumont - Ocean Drive

Don't say a word while we dance with the devil. Apt.

A Reflection on the Parliamentary Labour Party

A re-blog from the Artist formerly known as Splinty.

A thought:

For almost the whole of Labour's history, the party's Right has had a deathlock on the leadership, and dominated the PLP. But it didn't use to be totally dominant at the top, and we're now seeing some of the effects of that long-term dominance since 1994.

To take a very obvious recent example, the fact that 36% of Labour voters voted Leave is completely unsurprising; there's always been a stubborn third or so of Labour voters who were Eurosceptic, and at times it's been higher than that. Corbyn's "Reluctant Remain" position actually puts him much closer to the centre of gravity of Labour voters than, say, someone like Eddie Izzard who *loves* the EU and all its works.

(Actually, I suspect that in his heart Jeremy would have preferred to vote Leave, and if he'd taken that position it could have transformed the atmosphere. But his weak position in the PLP wouldn't allow him to.)

Anyway, my point is that there's a very large Eurosceptic chunk of Labour's constituency that is almost completely unrepresented in the PLP. You don't, any more, have leading figures like Tony Benn or Peter Shore in the Brexit camp. You've got some elderly leftists like Dennis Skinner, some backbench mavericks like Gisela Stuart and Frank Field, and that's it. My point being: the PLP is wildly unrepresentative of its voters on this issue.

That's a single issue, but something similar applies to the Left-Right division in the party. Okay, in the 1990s and 2000s the Labour Left was ageing and in serious long-term decline. I wouldn't have expected there to be a hundred MPs in the Campaign Group. The momentum and balance of opinion was clearly on the Blair/Brown side.

But the Blair/Brown duopoly - leaving aside all their feuds with each other - were extremely efficient and ruthless in monopolising parliamentary selections. A few mavericks slipped through the net in 1997, in seats Labour didn't expect to win, but the next three were very tightly controlled, and the only issue was whether it would be Blairites (via Progress) or Brownites (via union-based fixers like Watson) who would get nominated. You only start to see this change in 2015, when Ed Miliband's loosening of discipline again allowed some interesting people to slip through.

So we'd reached a point where, in Parliament at least, the Labour Left was reduced to a small number of mostly elderly MPs. The Right didn't need to fight them any more; they assumed they just had to wait for them to die out.

But at the grassroots things weren't quite so dead, even before the huge influx of new members in 2015. We saw some of this in 2010, when (from the PLP's point of view) the members elected the wrong Miliband brother. Now, Ed was never very far to the Left - at best he did a good impersonation of a social democrat - but still, they were stunningly disloyal to him. Poor, inoffensive Ed Miliband.

The situation now is that the disconnect has reached a real extreme. I have no idea what the PLP majority are going to do next. I don't actually think *they* know what to do next. Complicating things is the fact that, if they manage to get rid of Jeremy, they're split into factions that hate each other so much, they'll immediately be at each other's throats.

I mentioned the Major government, but in some ways it's a bit like the Tory parliamentary party under IDS. Except that there's no Michael Howard waiting in the wings - and if they think someone as notoriously sulphurous as Yvette Cooper can be a unity candidate, they really are bonkers.

Perhaps there's something more to it that the PLP being ideologically and sociologically disconnected from the base. I think a good part of the problem is that so many of them have followed the same career path from the National Union of Students via non-job sinecures in the third sector into Parliament, that they've very limited experience of the real world. Factional infighting is all they really know how to do.

That, really, is it. Corbyn's reheated 1980s Bennism may not be the answer. But I'm pretty sure that a Labour Party led by the 1994 NUS executive definitely isn't the answer. Put those guys in charge, and you may as well hand dozens of seats over to Nigel Farage, free of charge.

My $0.02, anyway.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

What I've Been Reading Recently

My brain needs a night off from the crisis, so let's have the quarterly list of books my eyes have nommed up. There's a lot.

The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer
Theorizing Patriarchy by Sylvia Walby
Either Side of Winter by Benjamin Markovits
How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden
Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts by Leigh Phillips
The Rules of Sociological Method by Emile Durkheim
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte
The Information Bomb by Paul Virilio
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Mailman by J Robert Lennon
Technology and the Future edited by Albert H Teich
Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
Visits from the Drowned Girl by Steven Sherrill
Digital Sociology by Deborah Lupton
Israel: A Colonial Settler State? by Maxime Rodinson
The Impact of Science on Society by Bertrand Russell
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott
Philosophy and Sociology of Science by Stewart Richards
The Rainbow by DH Lawrence
Towards a Surveillant Society by Thomas Mathiesen
The Death of Grass by John Christopher
Metro 2034 by by Dmitry Glukhovsky
Labour's Identity Crisis edited by Tristram Hunt
Surveillance Society by David Lyon
Wastelands edited by John Joseph Adams
The Purple Cloud by MP Shiel
Media, Risk and Science by Stuart Allan
Plan for Chaos by John Wyndham
Surveillance Studies by David Lyon
The Social Control of Technology by David Goodridge
Women in Love by DH Lawrence
The Complete Stories by Zora Neale Thurston
Questioning Technology by Andrew Feenberg

A few there I've been wanting to read for ages. What have you been reading?

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Scattered Thoughts on the Crisis

What with all that's going on, thoughts about this and that have been popping up all over the place, thoughts that do not belong to a coherent blog post. So instead, here there are in all their variegated incoherence.

1. It's that hoary old chestnut again: "Labour MPs have a greater mandate than Corbyn." They don't. Likewise Tory MPs don't have a greater mandate than Dave or whoever their new leader is going to be. In our delightful electoral system, each individual constituency elects a member to represent them in Parliament. On paper, the electorate are sovereign. But substantively, they're not: parties are. As has been the case ever since political parties emerged, the majority of members returned are successful candidates of a particular party. If a seat happens to be 'safe', which just so happens to comprise the majority of seats at Westminster, then the only way of removing an incumbent MP against their will is not by standing a candidate in election but removing them through an internal selection process. The majority of MPs might pretend they represent the constituency, but it's the organisation in that patch which is really sovereign, and this can be confirmed in two simple ways. First, how many MPs now sitting in the Commons would be there were it not for the party label. All of them? Half? A handful? And that applies pretty much across political divides. Second, if the party isn't really sovereign then why the abject horror whenever mandatory selection becomes a topic of debate? Yes, it might be a recipe for chaos and internal warfare as incumbents and challengers constantly scrap it out for the Westminster spoils, but that itself underlines the real repository of power in our electoral system. Woe betide any MP who really believes the waffle about personal mandates and so on.

2. What's going to happen with the trade unions? On Sunday I shared my concerns about this, that the leadership contest could end up destroying the Labour Party. It could, but it all depends on how the contest plays out. If there is skullduggery and Jeremy is kept off the ballot - remember, party rules are unclear on whether the incumbent leader automatically appears and the party has received conflicting legal advice - then there will be a split. Absolutely no question. But if there is a conventional contest without dirty tricks, then the destruction of the party might be avoided regardless of who wins. Of course, the relentless dissolution of Labour's foundations carries on and will carry on until MPs and constituency parties take the problem seriously (talking about points-based immigration systems and English flags ain't going to resolve it), but the immediate danger is over. There would be bloodletting if Jeremy loses as fair weather supporters decamp, and should he win who knows what may happen, but the party abides.

3. Unison Labour Link conference next week! If memory serves, they voted by a big margin last year to support Jeremy's candidacy. Now, anecdotally, there are some former Corbyn supporters coping with buyer's remorse. Will we see that reflected in who conference decides to support?

4. More broadly, there is a huge disconnection between MPs and the constituencies they represent. Naturally, as a Labour supporter how this poses a problem for our party is my chief concern. But the Tories have a very similar problem with their core support too. At a nearby constituency held by a Tory MP, residents barely see this member from one month to the next as they play Westminster footsie and spend practically all their time in the Big Smoke. This MP was re-elected in 2015 with an increased majority, as per most places in Staffordshire. Though a good proportion returned last year on the back of a Tory campaign scaremongering about immigration, among other things, the disconnect remains. The Tories are a party in decline, but what will happen to those voters? Project Fear-type tactics lose their efficacy over time, as we have seen.

5. Who watches Big Brother any more? I was glued to it for the first six seasons and now cannot bear to watch an episode. But the show's format strikes me as the perfect analogy for a sub-section of anti-politics voters who did turn out for the referendum. Like BB, or perhaps more appropriately, I'm a Celebrity, there is no connection whatsoever between voting public and the contestants, and depending on the public mood the audience votes in forfeits, punishments, or annoying housemates to make life hellish for the "stars". The EU referendum result is the ultimate soup of pig's bollocks, and some are getting vicarious pleasure from seeing the parties turn in on themselves and MPs dash about in panic. And yes, it would be such larks if it wasn't people at the sharp end set to pay the price for this bullshit.

Monday, 27 June 2016

An Election or a National Government?

Taking time off from the crisis in the Labour Party, let's turn our attention to the Tories and their position after Thursday's referendum. Emerging from his bolthole this morning, George Osborne tried to strike an assured, calming note in front of the world's TV cameras. The currency markets shortly after didn't find that performance all too convincing. Nevertheless, as we head into a summer period of more blue-on-blue do not at all be surprised if Osborne uses his office to become the de facto Prime Minister. By making decisions and being seen to be making decisions, he can offer himself to a Conservative Party as a stable pair of hands who steadied the ship as mainstream politics dissolved into system-wide crisis.

Then again, Osborne could be too damaged for the Tories. Johnson has to be the favourite, but there are some in the parliamentary Tory party who wouldn't go near him in lead overalls. And I'm not entirely convinced he'll do the business. There's mileage in the bizarre Stephen Crabb/Sajid Javid ticket, there's Theresa May, of course, whose now-you-see-me-now-you-don't intervention on the side of Remain would hardly have harmed her, and I'd throw in a wild card like Anna Soubry too. Though as someone who'd like to see the Tories dashed on the rocks at the bottom of a deep abyss, I'll be rooting for Osborne or, even better, the disgraced former minister Liam Fox. If MPs selected this hapless pair as the choice before the membership, it might cheer me up a bit.

However, there is an assumption doing the rounds that whoever becomes the new Tory leader will call a general election. Dave observed that this should be the case at the beginning of his long farewell to the House this afternoon. I'm not entirely convinced as there is a perfectly viable and Machiavellian alternative: a national government. There are three advantages accruing to a Tory PM going down this path rather than taking a risk while politics is in such a febrile state:

1. It allows them to pose as a unifying figure concerned with healing the nation. As we saw with the Coalition, and every joint operation the Tories have ever been in (with the notable exception of the war time government) they are rarely damaged from buddying up with other parties. By inviting the others into government, they can make the claim that all corners of the UK would have a presence at the Brexit negotiating table. There are no special interests, no backroom manoeuvres cutting deals for the City, the property speculators, and whatnot at the expense of the fisherman, road hauliers, and other constituencies that don't reap the benefit of the single market. It's also much easier to sell than the Tory/LibDem Coalition because there is an actual crisis now - the previous one having been cleaned up by the time they got a whiff of power.

2. The markets are already craving stability. Businesses want to know that a Britain on its way out of the EU is a safe place to do business and park cash. A national government, assuming its MPs command a very large majority in the Commons would absolutely signal that the period of political crisis is over. Or at least give that appearance. A calm politics and a steady state economy would serve the new Tory PM well as s/he leads the exit negotiations, and set them up a nice, fondly remembered legacy too.

3. It could destroy the opposition though, to be accurate, Labour are having a good go at that themselves right now. Nevertheless a national government would serve the Tories well. The question of who the Tories would form a national government wit h would be, well, bits of the Labour Party. Supposing, as is likely, that Jeremy survives, braves another leadership contest and is still in situ just as the new PM rocks up at Number 10. The offer of a national government would be too good for some Labour MPs to resist. From their point of view, Jeremy cannot win an election, they're screwed anyway, so why not take a chance on ministerial office? It would be better than sitting on the backbenches and chumming with the lobby hacks at the Portcullis House coffee shop. The party splits, but as far as they're concerned Labour's now a toxic label, so why not? There would be a rump PLP left in the House, and it would be unlikely they could seriously threaten the new Tory leader for a good time, suiting them down to the ground.

Is this likely? I can't see any reason why it's beyond the realms of possibility.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Against the Corbyn Coup

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. The United Kingdom stands on the precipice, politics is thrown into turmoil, and the inevitable coup against Jeremy Corbyn is under way. This is a mistake. A very grave mistake, and I'm going to explain why.

There are plenty of things to criticise Jeremy's leadership for, and as a left Corbyn sceptic who didn't vote for him, I've shared a few on this very blog. And I can understand the position of the coup plotters too. While most of them have never reconciled themselves to Jeremy's politics, they want a "credible" leader who can unite the party, offer a compelling vision, and scoop up enough swing voters to carry us into government. After all, winning elections and winning power is what Labour's about, right? That's the most important thing, the only thing, surely?

Actually, there is something more important than the leadership and winning a general election in the Autumn (which may never happen - a coalition/national government is another option, as will be fleshed out in a future post). And that is the continued existence of the Labour Party. I'm afraid to say, a contest - which is happening now - imperils it. Splitting and disintegration is now a very real possibility.

The first thing to point out is despite our membership being the largest since Tony Blair was at the peak of his powers and winning the largest political party in Britain trophy by a country mile, the party's roots are shallower than they once were. This isn't because it's gone middle class or some such nonsense. Partly it has to do with long-term economic and cultural changes that are eating away at the social groups that previously and unquestioningly lent their votes to Labour by the tonnage. Unfortunately, Labour under Blair and Brown pushed policies that broke up our party's constituency even further. It's worth noting you never see the Tories set about punishing their own people. As a result of this erosion, in constituency after constituency outside London the views of (pro-Remain) Labour MPs amounted to very little. There's little mileage in blaming them for not carrying their constituencies and/or mobilising the Labour vote in greater numbers, just as there is no justification in blaming Jeremy for not making inroads into the stubbornly eurosceptic one-third of our vote. Our voice, our authority counts for very little. On non-party political questions, far fewer look to the Labour Party for leadership than was once the case.

The second point is Labour are not going to be able to reconnect with a leader who is less radical than Jeremy, and is willing to pander to anti-immigrant and welfare scrounger sentiment. "I understand people's very real concerns about immigration" smacks of insincerity and a desperate attempt at fishing for votes, and is a line that won't be bitten as other parties can bash immigrants without the fluffy caveats a centre left party must festoon its position with. But not just because of this. As Liz Kendall demonstrated in her campaign last year, she and the majority of the PLP have no conception or understanding of the crisis afflicting our support and what can be done to turn it around. They think - ironically like the Trots they despise - that the correct leadership will short circuit all the problems and land us in a better place. It won't.

The third point is the trade unions. Too many in the PLP see them as a cash dispenser they'd rather do without. They prefer unions that stump up the readies come what may without any expectations or returns. Yet, and it's a good job I never tire of saying this, unions are organisations of working people. That's all they are. They're not perfect but they remain the largest, most democratic, and potentially the most powerful collectives in civil society. So if anyone in Labour, anyone has little or no time for trade unions, then effectively they have no time for the aspirations of our people. It's as simple as that. But we've gone beyond that now. 12 union general secretaries have signed a letter in support of Jeremy Corbyn, and this worries me. I'm worried because the removal of Jeremy puts into question their backing for the party. Think about it. A Labour leader with policies and values largely aligned to those favoured by most unions is ousted by a coterie of MPs who, when in power, at best ignored and at worst attacked workers; why should a union carry on giving money and logistical support to a party where such a thing can happen? The nightmare of a split forever locking the labour movement out of power thanks to the electoral system is a possibility. I won't walk if Jeremy goes, but I and the bulk of the Labour Party would if the unions decided to start again.

Of course, there is another possibility of a split and potential extinction, and that's what happens when the coup against Jeremy fails. Despite some conveniently leaked claims,  last I heard the party membership today are pretty much the same party membership of a week ago. As Jeremy's opponents haven't spent the last nine months recruiting "moderate" voters to counter the surge for Corbynism, how then do they expect to win a leadership contest? Some might have been disappointed by Jeremy during the EU campaign (though, it should be noted, a number of PLP folks urged him to take a backseat - people now criticising him for not leading from the front), but I would wager these numbers would be swamped by party members who weren't and aren't Jez fans disgusted at their attempt to turn over a democratic election after months of constant sniping and destabilisation. And deep down the coup plotters know this, which is why no one is rushing to identify themselves as the anti-Jeremy. So what happens when they lose and Jeremy is returned as leader? A retread to attacking him for every fart and grocer's apostrophe? Shut up and bide their time while facing a hostile membership and deselections? Or form a breakaway party?

And so, this is where we are. The annoying thing about all this is while there was little movement in the polls, the work the party needs to do to strengthen itself and rebuild our position among our support was starting to happen. The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliated. For the first time, the PCS are considering it. The British Medical Association has moved closer to the labour movement. There is some evidence that Labour were slowly but surely eating into UKIP's support in local by-elections. And considering the move from three to four-party politics since 2012, the party held its position. The process of recomposition was under way, and the response to Thursday's defeat should be reaching out to the remain voters and going out on the doorsteps to listen to what our people are saying. I plan on doing that regardless, but for the party's leading lights they have abandoned what needs to be done. It's down to the members who are more interested in facing outwards to take leadership and speak to our people than MPs threatening to rip the party apart and bury it.

The choice forced on us is this. We must choose between a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, warts and all, and disintegration under someone else. I know what I'm going to vote for.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

On Remain's Anger

Large numbers of people support a campaign scarred by racism, hate, and deliberate misinformation. Outraged opponents take to social media to make sweeping generalisations of those taken in. They're all thick. They're all bigoted. These people have fucked it up. I've heard it, you've heard it. Thing is, we've heard it all before.

In 2009, 900,000 people voted for the British National Party in the European elections. Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, now both ex of that crumbling ruin of a parish, packed themselves off to Brussels for all the EU money they could trough. As I said then:
Morality is basic to socialist politics. But moralism is no basis for socialist analysis. The reasons why people vote for the BNP are complex and multi-faceted. In this respect this piece of excellent research commissioned for Channel Four is a good way in. Among the points about BNP voters' attitudes to race and immigration (which, unsurprisingly are more negative than the national average), there are a large minority for whom such concerns are secondary. But these concerns are not new. They have been part of the British political landscape for a long time, predating even the significant influx of Afro-Caribbean and Asian workers after the war.

But when you couple this with the relative lack of security they feel and their relatively low socio-economic status, scandalous media coverage of race and immigration, and the (correct) belief Labour and the other mainstream parties have abandoned working class aspirations, it's small wonder people are prepared to vote for a party that appears to speak to these concerns - whether they have the Mark of Cain or not.
Apart from the stuff about Labour and working class aspirations, the outpouring of Remain complaints, be it the two million-strong petition for a re-run, David Lammy's ridiculous bid to use Parliament to block Brexit, the frantic retweeting of Leave voters suffering "Bregret", and, of course, the name-calling, it is the 2009 bigot blame game writ large.

Of course, you can understand why people are pissed off. I was in a black mood yesterday, and apart from the lone Brexiter it was like someone had died in the office. I spoke to comrades whose reaction ranged from the angry to the despairing. As the economy tipped into the trash can and anecdotal evidence of increased racist behaviour (as predicted) is doing the rounds, there are millions of people horrified at where the country's going. Their venom and bitterness is entirely understandable and, sad to say, for some the shock has proven so large they may never recover. But every crisis has within it seeds of opportunity. And the most immediate is the huge outpouring of anger from millions with the scurrilous campaign Leave waged. Once the disappointment and London independence nonsense has died down, there are signs a wider politicisation is happening. There is a massive opportunity here for the Labour party and the labour movement to articulate this anger and draw hundreds of thousands into politics. It is possible that despite Thursday's awful setback, the future could belong to us.

Friday, 24 June 2016

The Man Who Broke Britain

One man is responsible for today's fiasco, and that is the Prime Minister. Or, thankfully, the soon-to-be-ex-Prime Minister. Dave joins Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden - coincidentally Tories too - in the hall of notorious failures. For his political vanity, for narrow party advantage over a hard right insurgency that began petering out before he conceded them the EU referendum, Dave has inflicted incalculable damage on the British economy, on the politics of this country, and goes into retirement trailing a bitter legacy of division and hopelessness. Well done that man. Well fucking done.

There's a lot to be written about the referendum - the character of the people voting leave, what it means for mainstream politics, whether UKIP will do a SNP, and the looming no confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn. But here, while he's still relevant, I want to concentrate on Dave's miserable figure and the trajectory of his career. And there are a couple of things that stand out. As I've argued before, actually Dave is a proven weak leader but his sole discernible talent is to look the part. Hence when politics is aestheticised and image is everything, that is able to cover for his legion of faults. This brings us to his big problem. Dave, you see, is an addict. A gambling addict, and this frame can be usefully employed to think about his career.

Dave's brinkmanship started small. Upon his election in 2005, he put the party in the bath to hose down the muck of ages and the nasty, bigoted toxins the Tories had accumulated. A lot of members didn't like it, and off they went. At the end of it we had a shiny new entity. "Vote blue go green" was the slogan as our youthful PM-to-be preached compassionate conservatism and made out with huskies in the Arctic. It wasn't long before Dave faced his true test. Going up against a wounded and flailing Gordon Brown, he took a chance breaking with the Tory commitment to matching Labour spending and used the window opened by the financial crisis to oppose the measures necessary to save Britain's banking system. Economically, it was as bankrupt as Lehman's, but politically Dave skillfully - with some help from his media friends - turned a crisis of capitalism into a crisis of public spending. Matters were helped by Brown and Darling deciding that the route back to normality meant passing through a period of austerity. Dave gambled by staking out new political ground, and won by setting the terms of the debate.

The next big gamble came shortly after. His "big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Liberal Democrats to join him in a coalition government was a novelty, and commentators - including not a few Labour MPs - were bowled over by this new "cooperative" approach to politics. In practice, there was little qualitatively different between it and any other Conservative government. But Dave reasoned rightly that the LibDems were hungry for ministerial office, and would cling on for as long as they could knowing another chance may never come their way. A recipe for chaos it was not.

Dave's next big stake was the war of equal marriage. Trying to give the Tories a progressive gloss after implementing their first round of cuts, Dave more or less purged the party of its remaining bigots and homophobes. Tory associations folded and UKIP, then presenting itself as a libertarian party, promptly junked these principles and cleaved to the old school to hoover them up as recruits. A risky gamble because a declining Tory party could ill-afford to dispense with activists, and it gave UKIP the shot in the arm it needed.

His gambling appetite was now whetted. While it had simmered away for a while, Scottish independence wasn't a decisive issue then in Scotland. But with the SNP in power, he thought to lance the boil and go down in history as the British PM to see off Scottish nationalism. I don't believe he was far-sighted or Machiavellian enough to believe the referendum would destroy Scottish Labour, but this was the happy consequence as, somehow, the project fear approach of Better Together won the referendum at the price of immeasurably strengthening the SNP and Scottish nationalism in general. It doesn't matter, as what happened in Scotland allowed him to play the English identity card and scaremonger enough voters in swing seats to grant him a slim majority.

The problem with problem gamblers is, unfortunately, they don't know when to stop. Fresh out of the Scottish referendum, Dave sought to neutralise the UKIP vote in the marginals by offering the in/out EU referendum. Fully expecting it to be negotiated away in subsequent coalition talks that didn't happen, the majority landed him with a promise he'd be hard pressed to wriggle out of. What raised the stakes even higher is Dave went away to Europe with the promise to renegotiate the UK's relationship, and came back with thin gruel. He gambled this would be enough, along with a project fear-style 'it's the economy, stupid' campaign to win again and secure his place in the pantheon of all-time greats. His gamble failed. For the sake of a small number of votes from a minor party in decline, he was happy to risk everything. With the risks so high for a stake so small, why didn't someone make an intervention earlier? It's too late. He lost, and - ironically - it will disproportionately be those who voted against him who will pay the cost of exiting.

Dave's career is one gamble after another, gradually growing in risk and increasingly marked by personal vanity. I always knew Dave would get found out one day, and when that happened he'd be finished. He has, and a dislocated and dysfunctional country is what it took.

What to do After the Referendum

A re-blog from my comrade Lawrence Shaw. Sound advice.

Lawrence's Survival Guide for all in despair at the rise of English and Welsh fascism and the politics of hate and division.

1) Join the Labour Party.

But don't just join and pay your money. Get involved. Go to meetings. Campaign. Stand for election. Work for the greater good politically. Win people gradually to a positive set of ideas.

You don't have to 100% agree with Corbyn or Kendall or Blair or Brown or any particular Labour politician. Just that you support democratic socialist ideas for the greater good of all rather than the few. It's a good place to start. And Labour is the best hope we now have in England, at least.

2) Join a trade union

Do you have a job working for somebody else? Then join a trade union to protect your own interests and campaign for those of everyone else.

There's a wide selection and some workplaces have specific craft unions recognised to bargain collectively, but if you're bit unsure, there are a number of general unions including Unite and the GMB.

Even if you are not in employment, Unite offers community union membership.

3) Switch off the TV news

It's sensationalist, constantly trying to maintain your attention with more and more increasingly bad scare stories and the enemy want you to be scared. The reality is nothing much is going to happen that watching the telly is going to help you with.

4) Go out, see family, see friends, talk to people.

Take time to spend time with people you love and respect. Don't hide away. The enemy want us isolated and afraid. We beat them by being more together and more united. If you're going out to the pub, go out together in numbers to show them we are legion. It's how people historically have got through far worse times than now.

5) Use the Internet to connect and organise good things, not to whinge or get into pointless fights.

I am as guilty of keyboard wars as anyone else, but they are corrosive and pointless. I know I need to follow my own advice here. Those who know me are amused by my rants, but believe me when I say that in person I am nicer. Most people really are. Don't spend all day online - it's not real.

6) Take up a new hobby and become enthused.

Music, cinema, amateur radio, walking, whatever floats your boat. Don't just take it up, but get involved. Meet new people. Share love with new people for your interests.

Above all, remember that the world is still spinning on its axis, the flowers are out in bloom and the world will get over this like it's got over everything else before. The only thing that you can realistically control is your own attitude and your own mind.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Dear Undecided Voter

I'm a socialist who will be voting Remain this Thursday. But don't let that put you off. I'm not going to patronise you with a bucketload of stats, or insult your intelligence by saying this is right and that's wrong. Nor am I about to spring a persuasive piece on you to nudge you in Remain's direction. I'm interested in helping you make up your own mind by giving you things that, I think, are worth considering and thinking through.

In response to understandable confusion about the costs and benefits of Remaining vs Leaving (and vice versa) a lot of people have expressed a desire for "unbiased facts" provided by someone who hasn't got an agenda. I'm sorry to disappoint, but you'll be searching for that someone in vain. When it comes to political questions, invariably those "expert" on the issue will have an opinion on it and use their knowledge and standing to push that position. Yes, it's frustrating, but you're going to have to think about who you trust the most. And if there isn't anyone, think about why leading advocates for each side push the arguments they favour.

Consider the two key figures in the campaign, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. It's down to you to judge the merits of their respective positions, but also ask why. For the Prime Minister, the decision to include an EU referendum in his party's manifesto was to try and stem the electoral bleed to UKIP. For Boris Johnson, well, it's all about Boris Johnson. How about other leading politicians? Jeremy Corbyn's platform combines criticisms of the EU with a support for Remain. Why? Some has to do with party management (Labour is overwhelmingly pro-Remain while Jeremy is EU-critical), but there is also the view that the EU guarantees certain minimum protections the labour movement have fought for since its inception. Ditto Nicola Sturgeon. As First Minister, she believes Scotland is best served by the UK remaining in the EU. The "agenda"? Years of stability and quiet economic growth under the SNP's stewardship enhances their reputation as a responsible government, which down the road makes the jump to independence less of a risky proposition. And Nigel Farage? He has built his political career around leaving the EU. That, of course, is a perfectly principled position to take. But, again, why? It isn't because of an eccentricity on his part: it's the central component of a project to remake Britain in which the market is king, the welfare state is residual, the NHS is governed by an insurance system, and that certain values predominate over others. Whether you find that vision compelling is down to you.

Let's talk a bit about business. As a socialist, you'd expect me not to be big money's biggest fan. And you would be right. Though I will say this about business. Having to compete successfully in market economies requires a sharp awareness of what your interests are and what needs to be done to maintain them. Of course, these interests shouldn't be accepted without question. What's good for a business is not always good for the people who work there, though you might have a different opinion. Whatever the case, the majority of big business and leading business figures in this country are backing Remain. Whether it's growing or stagnating, being able to access a market comprising of 500 million people without the rigmarole of tariffs, custom searches, passports, and so on is something they value. In short, they want to remain because they can make more money. It's that simple. Yet not all business people are on board, the two most prominent calling for an exit is Anthony Bamford of JCB fame and James Dyson of, um, Dyson. The latter in recent days has said Britain can stand for itself without the EU, which is probably true - but that hasn't stopped him divesting here and moving a chunk of production to Malaysia. JCB's business lies primarily outside of the EU. Unsurprisingly there's more demand for construction machinery in developing economies. Yet JCB fell foul of trying to rig the European market for their machines and were fined £22m. Coincidence that its owner is an outer?

Or, like me, you might not give much a fig about what business thinks. Instead, allow me to direct you to the trade union movement. Pay no attention to the common sense view of what unions are about. All they are are organisations of working people that defend and prosecute the interests of working people. Their agenda - decent pay, good conditions, health and safety, protection of pensions and other benefits, fewer working hours and more leisure time - can hardly be described as a vested interest when the overwhelming bulk of the working population would benefit from all of those things. Their agenda, therefore, is your agenda. No hidden tricks. So when every union in the land bar one or two are saying Remain is better for working people, that isn't because general secretaries or full-time officials materially benefit from staying in, it's because life will be easier for working people. Significantly one trade union that hasn't signed up is the RMT of London Underground fame. It parts company with the rest of the labour movement because it sees the EU as a "bosses club" that foists programmes of cuts on reluctant governments across the continent - a position not a million miles away from Jeremy Corbyn's sceptical endorsement of Remain. Why the difference? Other trade unions represent workplaces that are more exposed to negative changes that may come following an exit. The RMT's strength lies in the solidarity between its members and the social power they can immediately exert by shutting down transport systems. For a variety of reasons, the kinds of cohesiveness that feeds their union's militancy is nowhere as present in the majority of workplaces. Effectively, they can look to their own industrial strength to protect what's theirs and it is probably the only union with the power to do so at the moment.

How about friends and family? I'm sure most you've spoken with by now have an opinion. Some will be strongly rigid in their views, a few more non-committal, and a good proportion who'll be happy when the whole thing is done with. But again, the same rules here apply. Why do they have the views they hold? Does the guy who shouts loudly about immigration concerned that his job could be under cut? Likewise, is the other fella who wants to stay in is similarly motivated by a worry over their livelihood? Or those voters talking about taking back control, does it feel to you that this referendum is a way of feeling they have a say, and voting against the status quo is about negating a sense of powerlessness? Are some making decisions purely out of spite, or have made a show about reading the material and making up their minds - and what arguments seem to matter to them?

And lastly, what about you. When you're thinking about your choice, are you voting for yourself? And/or are you thinking about the impacts a Leave or Remain could have on others you care about. For me, I'm not just thinking through the state of politics and our civic life, I'm thinking about what it could mean for my brother who works for a large multinational with substantial plant based here. I'm thinking about my parents and what change could mean for them as they get older. I'm concerned about my friends who work at other universities, my friends from overseas who are terrified by the stirring up of the passions - to put it in an understated way - and I'm worried about the not insubstantial pot of money my city has managed to access from the EU in lieu of government funding.

I'm voting Remain for political reasons and personal reasons. You might end up with an entirely different conclusion, but if you've followed through some of the questions raised in this letter you have thought your decision through. And in a time and a politics dominated by the knee-jerk reaction, a outbreak of more thinking certainly won't do any harm.


Sunday, 19 June 2016

EU Referendum: What Would Trotsky Do?

What would Leon Trotsky, architect of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Red Army, think about Britain's referendum on the European Union? You don't have to idle away in speculation. He wrote on this very topic. Well, sort of. In his article, The Programme of Peace from May 1917, Trotsky muses over the war aims of the contending great powers and is quite clear that one of its drivers was economic development, and how it is frustrated in Europe by border posts and tariffs. If Imperial Germany was to be the victor, it would see the imposition of a continent-wide customs union under its hegemony that would allow for greater development, and more profits for German industry. He elaborates on this point of view further in his better known The United States of Europe? from June 1923.

In both pieces, Trotsky is crystal: the slogan 'For a United States of Europe' is part and parcel of a programme for socialist revolution for the continent as a whole. No ifs, no buts. Needless to say his vision was far removed from the present European Union. But then, buried in an aside is this little gem that has - mysteriously - been passed over by nearly every group claiming fealty to Trotsky's approach. He writes:
If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to “autonomous” national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.
What we have in the EU is Trotsky's "imperialist trust". The member states have not yet merged into one, but the existence of the single market is gradually tying all the economies of the continent more tightly together, for good and for ill. Turning the clock back, as the left-wing excuse for exit would have it, is from Trotsky's standpoint a retrograde step. It would put a barrier up against the development of a Europe-wide proletarian politics and, it should really go without saying, politically strengthen racism, xenophobia, anti-immigration rhetoric, insularity, and nationalism.

Unfortunately, too many comrades laying claim to Marxism have long given up using it to try and make sense of the world. One of these is socialist hero and scourge of governments past, Arthur Scargill. At a recent Socialist Labour Party rally in front of a thimble full of supporters, Arthur tore into the EU as if it was responsible for the cuts programme gleefully implemented by the Conservatives, and underlined his opposition to the free movement of capital and labour. As something of a Stalin nostalgic, I'm not at all surprised his position hasn't moved on since the 1970s - nor the rhetoric, it seems. But it gets worse. According to someone who was there, Scargill went on to describe working with UKIP as a tactical necessity, much in the same manner as the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact. According to the Stalinist fantasy, this was a move so the USSR could re-arm and crush the fascists later, and so for Arthur his idiot allusion is that after UKIP and the Tory right win, they're actually paving the way for their own defeat. Incredible.

Of course, not all lexit people are as daft as Scargill. But anyone who thinks voting out is a vote against neoliberalism, or would split the Tories, or would objectively strengthen anti-austerity forces and working class politics are kidding themselves. Trotsky's view in 1917 was right then, and 99 years on it's right now. Remaining is preferable to leaving.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Culmination of Toxic Politics

I am heartbroken about Jo Cox. I feel for her kids and family, and share the deep sense of loss that has rocked many of our people to their cores. To have a comrade torn from us who was popular, smart, passionate, and driven to make the lives of our people better is just so wrenching, so shocking. In a world suffused with tragedy and sadness, nothing strikes as deeply when one of our own falls.

For this reason I'm angry. Very angry. Jo was singled out and attacked because she was a Labour person, for the politics she represented and the values she stood on. It was a political assassination during a politically charged referendum by a man who, apparently, shouted a political slogan as he pulled the trigger and is associated with the far right. This cannot be explained away by mental instability, as some are already doing. That's too convenient. It denies agency and scrubs out the political character of the crime. Let's not have any whitewashing: the attack on Jo was an act of political violence.

But you know what the really awful thing about this is? We should have seen it coming a mile off. In most of the advanced Western states, acts of political terror tend to be committed by two creeds of extremist. The Islamist, and the Neo-Nazi. The depths to which the debate around the referendum has plunged has seen Leave, and I'm singling out the Tory right and UKIP in particular, raid the BNP playbook and repeat their attack lines have contributed to a febrile atmosphere where migrants are terrified for their future, and a good many decent people share those fears too. But remember, it's definitely not racist to scaremonger about tens of millions of Turks coming here, about "rapist refugees", about people "with a different culture". This poisonous drivel is all about addressing "the very real concerns people have about immigration", not pandering to racism, whipping up hysteria and hate.

What happened to Jo is a violent culmination of a politics that has played out over decades. The finger should be pointed at every politician who has used immigration and race for their own selfish ends. Farage and Johnson are two well accustomed to the sewer, but all of the Leave campaign have been at it. They more than anyone are responsible for the present climate. But blaming them alone is too easy. The Conservative Party as a whole have played the immigration card repeatedly throughout its history, more recently the PM doing so by portraying Labour as the party of unmitigated immigration and open borders. And idiot Labour politicians calling for restrictions here and peddling stupid pledge mugs there have all done their bit in feeding the drip drip of toxicity. The media as well carry some of the can, especially those regular Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines that scream out as if ripped from Der Stürmer. Their ceaseless diet of Islamophobia and refugee-bashing pollute our politics and ensure its eyes are dragged to the gutter instead of being fixed on the horizon. The press are windows onto the political world for millions of people, and they what they see is tinted with purposive misrepresention and lies. They too are culpable for this mess.

Nor should we forget that women MPs, and Labour MPs in particular routinely receive abuse, rape threats, and death threats and nothing, nothing is done about it. How does that inculcate a sense of respect and mutual recognition? How can it not lead to the conclusion that they are fair game for every sad inadequate, every racist axe grinder and misogynist who wish to do them harm? This is of a wider pattern of generalised dehumanisation, and it's women first who are the main butts of it. Here the finger can be jabbed at venal politicians cavalier with promises and duplicitous with the truth, a media that pulls the seemingly impossible trick of not holding them to account and encouraging cynicism toward them, and at social media companies indifferent to how their platforms are used to stalk, harass, and threaten.

Ultimately, our politics have become so poisonous because it has alienated and excluded ordinary folk. From the brutal crushing of working class politics in the 1980s to last year's ejection of the poor from the electoral rolls for narrow Tory party advantage, we have seen growing distances between representative and represented. And as that gap has widened, so the political vacuum has sucked in the hate and the swill that should otherwise be abhorred. Changing political culture is more than a job of condemning its most egregious abusers, but the difficult job of reversing the trends that have brought us where we are.

What is sad, so unutterably awful is that it's taken the death of a fine public servant and labour movement advocate for these sorts of question to be taken up beyond a narrow audience. If the memory of Jo is to mean anything beyond her tragedy, let it be a legacy of cleaned-up politics.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Lexit Delusion

Dave and co were hoping a spot of economic determinism would see them through the EU referendum. Unfortunately for them, and all our people who stand to lose should Britain exit, this is proving not to be the case. Drawing deep from a poisoned well sunk by tabloid after politician after demagogue, Leave have doused the referendum campaign in xenophobic and anti-immigration toxicants. As my comrade Lawrence Shaw puts it:
EU referendum debate round-up of the last six months in case you missed it:

Immigration. Immigration. Immigration. Foreigners. Muslims. Immigration. Taking all "our" jobs. Immigration. Immigration. Two whole aisles of Polish food in Tesco's. Immigration. Country is too small. Immigration. Immigration. Foreigners. Immigration. Changing our culture. Immigration. Immigration. Immigrants. Asylum Seekers. They can do anything they want. Immigration. Immigration. Terrorists. Immigration.

And don't forget political correctness. I mean you're not even allowed to talk about immigration these days.
How has this come to pass? Unfortunately, it goes back to this blog's old warhorse: labour movement weakness. The reason why blue-on-blue dominates the airwaves and are hegemonic in their respective camps isn't because Jeremy Corbyn is rubbish at media, it's because - pound for pound - the social forces underpinning big business and finance are so much stronger, cohesive, and assertive. It's a political situation arrived at after the breaking of the labour movement in the 1980s, the promotion of economic and domestic policy designed to continually disperse the sorts of solidarities that underpin socialist politics, and the letting loose of free market fundamentalism across ever greater areas of social life have eroded relationships and replaced them with impersonal transactions. The election of Jeremy to the Labour leadership has shifted the terms of debate, arguably contributing to the government's litany of U-turns and defeats, but underneath the question remains whether a counter-movement to the further weakening of our constituency is occurring. Doubling the size of the party and getting another trade union aboard is but a baby step in the direction socialist politics must travel.

Because our movement is marginal, there was no chance of leading Remain or Leave on our terms. You just have to look at the grotesqueries of your John Manns and Kate Hoeys peddling unvarnished Farageisms, and the idiocy of Alistair Darling lining up with Osborne - again - promising to kneecap pensions and public services. Our people, at least nominally, doing the do on their terms. The question flowing from this is what would be best for our people and the rebuilding of our movement. Or, using the logic of lesser-evilism, what would be least worst.

Here, I think so-called "Lexit" comrades have been cavalier with the dangers pregnant in the situation. Okay, assuming Remain wins, little would change domestically. The Tory Party would carry on, albeit damaged and its government crippled for the foreseeable, and stagger along its path of collapsing membership. UKIP too, also on a downward spiral, would also carry on, albeit under reduced circumstances. The stock market and the pound rallies, and it's back to politics as normal in all its mendacity and beggar-thy-neighbouring. What an inspiring vision to rally around! Though it is worth noting one thing. A Remain vote in the minds of millions, whether they're for or against, is a climax of a culture war. The EU is not an internationalist utopia or anything approaching the sort, but nevertheless and no matter how mistaken they are it is perceived as a repository of hope, a modernity beyond Europe's tragic history of belligerent states, and is a symbol of cooperation across nationalities. It is also these same reasons that motivates opposition to the EU among kippers and the Tory hard right. To this technocratic futurity we find opposed Germanophobia, empire nostalgia, libertarian fantasy, insularity and, of course, the fear of Johnny Foreigner. We've recently peered down one wormhole, so lets go through another: Leave are pushing Britain toward a mini-America with gun controls.

Just think about it for a moment. If Leave wins, who wins? The most backward forces in British society do. The Europhobic Tory right, UKIP, and every two-bit racist outfit. The most socially useless, noncompetitive, and regressive elements of British capital. A strengthening of nationalism - and I'm not talking the fluffy civic kind pushed by the SNP - is likely. Increased hostility to migrant workers. More scapegoating. More blaming the EU for our failings because they presume to "punish" the UK for leaving. These are the self-same forces who cry foul about Osborne's kneecapping budget today, but will be the ones implementing it with relish tomorrow as they squeeze the cost of exiting out of the remaining social wage.

Some comrades of a more economistic bent think exit would destroy the Tories once and for all. We watched Amber Rudd smacking down Boris Johnson. We've seen Michael Gove rubbish his chancellor's claims about the economic dangers. The campaign has played out as an internal party feud with intervals staffed by the other mainstream parties. Yes, an exit would mean no more Dave and the thwarting of Osborne's ambitions, but would that necessarily mean the end of the Tories? Just because the Conservatives are the stupid party doesn't mean they're stupid. Remain Tory MPs are as likely to leave their party as Progress-types are Labour for as long as First-Past-the-Post rules the day. Yes, they might be pains in the arse for an incoming government headed by Johnson, Gove, IDS, and Farage, but the party is likely to limp on in much the same manner as it would after a Remain victory.

Oh, did I just mention Nigel Farage in the same breath? Yep. Because one lesser-spotted dynamic in play is what happens to UKIP in an exit scenario. With a Tory Party dominated by Leave and, in all likelihood, led by Johnson after a perfunctory leadership contest, there is a good proportion of UKIP members for whom the purple party is no longer required. How many would come back and how many voters would follow ex-Tories returning to the fold? I don't know, but far from weakening the Tories they could re-emerge from the chaos of the referendum campaign as a populist, self-consciously patriotic party. Stranger things have happened, and this is more likely than a Tory split fantasy.

And then there is a further, darker scenario. Everyone who pays attention to politics and the European Union know that whatever deal post-exit Britain is able to get, access to the single market will be contingent on accepting the free movement of labour. There is not one single member state that would countenance Britain having the rights of access without the responsibilities attending it. The promises Johnson et al make about immigration now are not worth the air drawn to utter them. Mass migration will continue, and then what? With the promises abandoned and politics seemingly unable to do anything about it, there opens a space for the kinds of forces who are presently marginal but have mass followings on the Continent. Leave the EU to become more like the EU?

The old politics are dying. The constituencies of the previous order are dissolving, but the same ugly politics are as pernicious as ever. Ultimately, this referendum is a choice between what we have now with its problems and opportunities, or a "crisis" trending toward the further empowerment of the hard right, of xenophobia, of nationalism and hate politics. There is no "left exit", only a step into the abyss.

It's All Just a Little Bit of History Repeating ...

A guest post by Caroyln Morell

Despite the date having been written the wrong way round, the Stephen King televised serial, 11.22.63 was enjoyable bingeworthy TV (and is available on NOW TV for those, like me, who signed up for Game of Thrones and now has found fewer and fewer reasons for engaging in a real social life ever since). For the uninitiated, it follows the character of Jake Epping (played by James Franco) who travels back in time to 1960 in an attempt to (eventually) thwart the assassination of JFK on the famous day America lost its innocence.

Much has been written about the long shadow the assassination cast over American history; President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline were young, handsome and vibrant, they mixed with celebrities and enjoyed a 60% approval rating among the general public - even when the country was increasingly divided over race. In fact, it’s amazing what a sprinkling of youthful, distracting stardust will do for any institution. Haven’t Kate, William and Harry done that for a monarchy that looked to be limping towards an inevitable demise as the century dawned?

Equally, much has been written about what would have happened if the murder had not taken place. Would the wholesale, innocent slaughter of young Americans and Vietnamese alike still have occurred? Would Martin Luther King have been dispatched in much the same way as Kennedy himself?

Of course, these questions are impossible to answer. Kennedy was an ardent Cold War warrior who sent "advisors" to Vietnam but who showed considerable political grit in helping bring America back from the brink of disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In most areas, he was a moderate who understood the power of public support for his policies - it’s hard to imagine him sending nearly sixty thousand young American men to their deaths. With regard to MLK, who knows? Courageous political leaders have always been bullet magnets but JFK’s assassination turned a confident, forward thinking country in to a pessimistic one, negative and unsure of its place in the world. In such an environment, murder always becomes a more established method of removal than the democratic process.

The TV show and the book on which it was based gives us a brief glimpse into a world where the fatal bullet(s) had not made their connection and Kennedy had survived. Perhaps as we would expect from the foremost popular horror writer of the twentieth century, it does not look good. After Jake saves the president in a dramatic confrontation which also sees the death of Lee Harvey Oswald (and his fiancée), Jake returns to 2015 and finds a nuclear wasteland. Scant details are given about how the disaster occurred but we discover that Kennedy was re-elected in 1964, to be followed by the crazed segregationist and persistent presidential nominee, George Wallace, who famously announced he would rather stand in the school house door than allow the integration of Alabama’s schools. We discover little more but Jake realises (perhaps like a far more famous literary character, Jay Gatsby), that trying to change the past will always have more serious unforeseen consequences that we can imagine.

It’s often said that history repeats itself and its here that we can easily make comparisons between Wallace’s unsuccessful, real campaign for President in 1968 and the current, (yes, it isn’t just a horrible dream) campaign by Donald Trump. Like Trump, Wallace excited the political interest of the white working class in a way that politicians rarely do. Like Trump he put forward policies that could never realistically be implemented (Bring on the wall!) and his campaign fundraisers were often accompanied by violent scenes. Wallace tirelessly described himself as the champion of the working man and woman despite never having lived amongst them and all the time serving the needs of the elite business circles he mixed in.

What will happen if Donald Trump (unlike George Wallace) actually gets elected? Very sadly, the events in San Bernardino and Orlando have made that more likely, with a frightened electorate unsure about when the next ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attack will occur. Maybe next time, the victims won’t be the members of a subculture offensive to some Muslims and some Republicans alike but ‘normal’ NRA members, or families visiting Disneyworld? Maybe a politician who will ban Muslims from entering the country is the one to plump for? Of course the problem that he has not addressed is that the Orlando shooter was born in the US, whilst others were radicalised via the Internet long after their arrival in the States as children. Will Trump begin by attempting to limit internet access for Muslim people "until we can be sure what's going on?" How long will it be before President Trump, unable to stop every ISIS dedicated terrorist attack establishes Islamic internment camps for both first and second generation immigrants, just as occurred with the Japanese after Pearl Harbour?

It’s entirely possible that such a divisive, polarising President as Trump could be assassinated but this time the trial would likely feature the possibility of a third, fourth, or fifth shooter alongside the one in the book depository - especially when it becomes evident that he is fundamentally unsuitable to run the world’s most influential country (for good or ill). But if this happens, I doubt that anyone in the future would want to slip through a wormhole to prevent it from happening. Whatever the future holds for American politics, it has to be better without Donald J Trump than one with him in it.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Omar Mateen and American Culture

Some sketchy thoughts about the murder of 50 clubbers at Pulse in Orlando.

1. It does not matter how tragic or bloody the event, there will always be people sick enough to try and score points off it. On this occasion, fast out of the gate was Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who thought it appropriate to gloat over the bullet riddled bodies of the victims. Remember, this man is supposed to be a Christian. Joining him in callous indifference and cynicism comes ex-diplomat Michael Oren. On Israel's Channel 10 this afternoon he suggested Donald Trump would be wise to exploit the murder on account of the gunman being Muslim. Lastly, it's not above the utter bams to make their own play. Each case involves total dehumanisation. Social media simultaneously bridges and enforces social distance. An appalling crime is just another item on the feed/news cycle and is to be annexed for crass position taking. The human dimension, the suffering, the grief for those left to mourn are secondary images inessential to the political meanings constructed around the act of violence.

2. The gunman Omar Mateen was a Muslim. He was not on any watch list, nor was there any indication he was a radical Islamist or, for that matter, particularly devout. Before Mateen went on his murderous rampage he apparently called emergency services and pledged allegiance to IS. With these circumstances, it's understandable the authorities are responding to it as an act of terror. Yet as Alishba points out, homophobia is a problem in Muslim communities - a point that's often impolitic for outsiders and to mention. According to Mateen's Dad, it was witnessing two men kiss that sent Mateen into a murderous fury. This is worth bearing in mind as this act is unpicked and made sense of. When these sorts of crimes are committed by Islamists, previous experiences in the West fall into the pattern of indiscriminate slaughter (London, Madrid, Paris, Brussels) or specifically targeted military personnel, such as the murder of Lee Rigby, or the 2009 killing of 13 people by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood. This attack is more suggestive of last year's massacre by husband and wife pair Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino which saw the killing of 14 of Farook's work colleagues, and the Syndey cafe siege: that is murders in which Islam is a flag of convenience for motives steeped in vengeance and narcissism. Or, in this case, plain old bigotry. We should find out in coming days.

3. Cue another round of American soul searching and hand-wringing about gun control. Obama will make his usual pleas, as he does every three to six months, and the GOP will blame the club goers for not taking their weapons with them. The right wingin', bitter clingin', proud clingers of their guns - as Sarah Palin likes to call this increasingly unhinged constituency - are happy to see the death of 50 gay clubbers here, a packed cinema there, and classrooms full of kids as so much collateral for their inalienable rights. The truth is that easy access to arms is only one part of the problem. There is something deeply sick with American society. No other advanced society suffers these sorts of shootings with anything approaching this level of regularity. It cannot be explained by the size of the population - per capita they're way above similarly developed countries. Nor do other states with large gun ownership, such as Canada where over a quarter of adults own one, have the same rates of violence. That leaves something exceptional about American culture. The constant reinforcement of individual gratification and sovereignty, even as the realities of free market fundamentalism trample all over it. The absence of mass, collectivist-inspired politics, the glorification of violence, the way American media and culture splits people into competing constituencies with little emphasis on integration. From afar it appears the nearest an advanced society is to a Randian nightmare, a dysfunctional dystopia where the war of all against all too often explodes into bloody outrages.

On 'Student Teaching'

At our University of Derby learning and teaching day on Thursday, I dropped into a session concerned with students as "co-producers". Yes, it does sound like the unholy offspring of hippyism-muesliism and managerial piffle and this kind of rhetoric is normally enough to turn off anyone in a teaching profession. One of the reasons is while, yes, of course any learning situation is the co-production of all its participants, but there are power relations embedded in any (semi-)traditional class room setting. No amount of fluffy fuzziness can disguise the fact the power is located in the instructor who, depending on the situation, has institutionalised power over the learners and, in some cases, their later life chances. This in mind, I found the session was (thankfully) far from a Brentish experience.

When it comes to innovation in the classroom, there have been no end of attempts at reworking, undermining, and subverting the teacher/student model. Most notably, Paulo Friere's pedagogy developed out of his experience with grassroots literacy programmes in Brazil eschewed the traditional "banking" model of teaching (in which knowledge comes from outside students' social experience and is banked with them as information-receiving receptacles) and empowered them through the process of learning. The problem with this from the perspective of Western (and Westernised) education institutions is that what works in politically charged situations might not be appropriate to classrooms and teachers disciplined and surveilled by learning outcomes, targets, and the tyranny of the student experience measured by dubious satisfaction metrics.

Taken by the Law department's Dave Hodgkinson (known universally as Hodgie), he talked about how he was increasingly frustrated with the traditional tutorial/seminar format on his modules, No matter what he tried, the familiar experience of not all students preparing for the session, the lecturer having to (heavily) moderate the sessions, and - invariably - spending the hour or so doing most of the talking was tiring. In other words, they were not working to meet their desired functions as forums for learning. Earlier this semester he experimented with something different. From his hundred-strong cohort he asked for volunteers who would be willing to be a 'student teacher'. Of the four who came forward, he emailed the questions and the topics that needed covering in the tutorial before the session and that was it. The student would rock up to class and assume the top position, and get on with the teaching. Except these seminars were much more different. While Hodgie was on hand for each one, he did not intervene. The onus was on the students themselves to keep focus.

What he found was after the first few sessions, the normal hierarchical teacher/student relation dissolved. Discussions were free-ranging and when they went off on tangents (as they inevitably do), focus was brought back by students referencing Hodgie's comments in previous lectures. He also found that, understandably, students taking on the volunteer roles ensured they were well-prepared for each tutorial. Yet, perhaps because of the peer pressure element involved, students who weren't teachers were also turning up better prepared and more willing to talk about the issues raised by the material. Is it the case that the students achieve what we as teachers ask them to do by abolishing our role? According to the feedback, it was clear that the volunteer student teachers and the rest got something different from it, but for both groups the close engagement with material and self-reliance meant for an unorthodox positive experience.

In terms of one set of metrics - satisfaction - it got a big tick. But what about the rest? At the time of the presentation Hodgie had not compared marks from this with previous years, but it stands to reason that the process of preparation and the more thorough seminar discussions would have had a positive impact. We'll soon see as Hodgie plans on writing up the results for an HE pedagogy journal.

Like all academics I've had enough blank faces and awkward silences to last a life time. And no doubt there are many others yet to come, but it seems to me that if this kind of format works for sessions about black letter law there's no reason it shouldn't for, say, a discussion of social theory. Something to chew over then.