Monday, 19 February 2018

Lies, Damned Lies, and Tory Politics

Once upon a time there was a man called Paul. He was something of a simple sort, but got lucky in life. He lacked all qualities, and was a failure in his chosen endeavour. This vocation was politics. And then fortune smiled. From plugging the Conservative Party on Merseyside he got into bed with our friends the United Kingdom Independence Party. This gave him a certain prominence and a job carrying bags in Brussels. His run of luck continued when he was elected to the European Parliament in 2009 on a hefty salary and given a seat on the Nigel Farage bandwagon. But the luck ran out and the stories he told about having a PhD, having close friends at Hillsborough, playing football professionally and being a member of NSYNC were revealed to be fantasies. Exposed and utterly discredited, Paul more or less disappeared into private life after resigning as UKIP's leader in June 2017. He still draws his MEP salary.

What has this got to do with the absurd claims Jeremy Corbyn was a contact of the Czechoslovak secret service in the 1980s? Quite a bit. The former agent making these claims, one Jan Sarkocy, has a record of fibs that would make UKIP's erstwhile leader blush. As Matt Zarb-Cousin points out, he claims Corbyn gave him highly detailed reports about what Margaret Thatcher would be eating and wearing the following day(!), and reckons his operation out of the embassy provided funds for Live Aid. Complete Walter Mitty nonsense. And yet (and yet!) the political situation is such that someone like Paul Nuttall is a discredited has been, whereas Sarkocy is a source credible enough for The Sun and the Daily Mail to spin a smear on.

While it would be tempting to let these execrable rags stew in their idiot juice, there are serious consequences. As Matt notes the Finsbury Park murderer Darren Osborne wanted to kill Jeremy Corbyn because he saw him as a traitor, and it's not long ago since Thomas Mair gave his name as "death to traitors, freedom for Britain" at his first court appearance for murdering Jo Cox. These views do not fall fully formed out of the sky. Killers are made, right wing terrorists are not born. Every bit of poison, every single lie that paints people opposed to the politics of divide and rule as "un-British", as traitors, as agents in the pay of foreign powers adds to the making of more terrorists, of more would-be killers fantasising about murdering groups of people because of their religion, their sexuality, their politics. This, as you might expect, is par the course for the hate factories of the gutter press, but something else for Tory MPs to jump on the bandwagon and repeat things they know aren't true. The calamitous Ben Bradley was forced to delete a defamatory tweet after solicitors got in touch, but he was only following the well trodden steps of Gavin Williamson. And there was Theresa May herself who refused to shut the story down by insinuating Corbyn has a case to answer, while announcing thee Tories' intent to degrade higher education further. To be absolutely clear, THERE IS NO CASE TO ANSWER.

Why do the Tories lie? They know this story is untrue. The Sun hacks who indulged Sarkocy - and undoubtedly gave him a few bob for his services - know he isn't credible, but ran it anyway. They know lies can frame perceptions. Throw enough shit and some of it sticks, goes the old saying. However their lies, their record of distorting opponents' positions, talking up non-existent achievements, playing fake politics, outright lying is not an aberration. The Conservative Party is an engine of privilege. Its parts are lubricated by the snake oil of entitlement, its combustion fired by the fuel of minority class interests, the vanishingly small number of people who own the press, profit from finance, grow fat on the labour of others, and participate - directly and indirectly - in the party. The Tory party exists to defend its class power and its class interests, all the rest is window dressing and flimflam. Lying then comes as easily to Tory politicians as the confetti of gongs shower upon its well heeled supporters.

Fundamentally, Toryism is a dishonest project. Socialism can come out and openly declare itself to be the movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority. Conservatism has no such luxury. To declare yourself a party explicitly concerned with protecting minority power and its right to the unearned wealth made by others is suicidal politics. Instead, we're treated to a politics that talks highly and haughtily of tradition, a politics of individuality and freedom - though the Tories block the substantive realisation of either - it is suspicious of anything smacking of collectivism, arguing conservative politics are the natural expression of the human condition, and zealously guards property rights as the well spring of liberty. Each of these ideas make for nice fairy tales, but only the deluded believe them and the cynical affect their profundity. They are but cloth gossamer-thin shrouds wrapping around class rule, hiding its ugly aspect but increasingly unable to do so.

The politics don't work because what the Tories claim and what millions of people, particularly the young, experience are fundamentally at odds. If that wasn't bad enough, the organs of the press the Tories have relied on for so much throughout the 20th century are collapsing, and voters are making their own way. They're connecting their own dots. When politics is failing and their media is failing, so the dishonest core of Toryism burns more visibly. The lies cease taking on fancy shapes in conservative political theory and, that most moronic of oxymorons, conservative values. Common sense is no longer a useful accelerant - all that is left is outright falsehood. Lies, lies and damned lies, the dishonesty of the Tory project come out into the open, like a black sun emerging from a cloud, and everywhere it throws shade and chases away clarity. Some welcome the darkness and worship it, but when millions are on the move they are finding their way in spite of the murk. The Tories know this too. The decibels struck by their lies grows shrill in proportion to their mounting terror, and a dawning realisation there may be no way out.

Friday, 16 February 2018

The Sociology of Mass Shootings

Britain hasn't had a school shooting for almost 22 years, and the last indiscriminate killing spree with guns was eight years ago. Apart from mass casualty terror attacks, this sort of thing happens once in a blue moon. So it is in pretty much every other European country. Even in Switzerland, which has liberal gun laws closer to the United States than its immediate neighbours, there is hardly what you would call an epidemic of crimes committed with firearms, let alone mass shootings. Therefore given their awful frequency, surely there has to be something exceptional about US culture. What's going on? What is responsible?

Compounding the sadness of Wednesday's shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida is the banality of it all. This sort of crime is now committed with such regularity that no one is surprised when it happens. Almost without knowing any specifics of the case the profile of the shooter can be surmised, and it is as regular as clockwork that the gun lobby and their paid for coterie of Capitol Hill legislators will wring their hands and say it is too early to talk about gun control. If social relations are probabilistic, how an American mass shooting unfolds is now the closest we have to an iron law.

Can sociology offer any further insights? Yes, but the scholarship is relatively slight. Some have looked at mitigation efforts, and conclude they have limited prospects in reducing the number of incidents. America being America, there are even academic efforts aimed at talking down gun control, going so far as to suggest school shootings make the worst possible case for curbing firearms. While it is true if people really want a gun there are ways and means of getting one, apparently gun control measures, i.e. reducing the supply would have little effect - quite why is never explained. There are investigations of contagion, i.e. the media trope that one attack increases the probability of further attacks immediately afterwards, and the argument there is a contagion effect when it comes to school shootings. And others looking at how the violence of a mass shooting is culturally deployed to designate the mentally ill as a violent threat. And, you might suggest, how labelling shooters this way handily pathologises mass murder and heads off serious reflection on the relations that makes mass murder depressingly regular.

On the regularity of US mass shootings (defined as three or more victims in a spree), according to Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober the frequency looks like this:


In their overview of their chapter in Focus on Social Problems, they suggest the problem is not a matter of drawing a simple line between toxic masculinities and guns. For one, the social conditions in 2015 (when this research was produced) were little different from five years earlier and yet the number of shootings rocketed. Nevertheless they are interested in exploring why it is nearly always men who commit these crimes, and why men elsewhere do not. On the one hand, what they call the social psychological explanation suggests men are likely to use violence if they are prevented from asserting their masculinity in other ways. Secondly, there is the national-specific culture of United States masculinity. This is a gender identity, at least in its hegemonic forms, that finds its privilege as the dominant mode of being a man under threat. Changing gender relations, increasing acceptance of alternative masculinities, the movement toward racial and sexual equality, the levelling of the competition for jobs, and so on all underpin a masculine anomie that can, under certain circumstances, feed into the violent explosions characteristic of the first explanation.

Yet we're no closer to the American specificity of the problem. True, the US is the home of redemptive violence. Shoot first, ask questions later sums its cultural logics up better than twee mom-and-apple-pie homilies. Yet this, like pretty much everything else, is exported. American masculinities are consumed and incorporated into masculine habits and styles all over the world without, at least in the West, anywhere near the same number of murderous outbursts. A different approach is adopted by Joel Cappellan in his PhD dissertation, submitted and examined in September 2016. This is the first properly full-length sociological study of the topic. As Cappellan notes, existing social science literature tends to look at individual risk factors instead of identifying it as a social problem that brings social forces into play. That isn't an invitation to crude sociological determinism, that shooters are helpless puppets of the forces animating them. The relation between context and agency is always complex, but never so rarefied that individual responsibility disappears. Nevertheless, there is social patterning, the shooters mostly share similar biographical characteristics and, yes, they tend to be men.

Cappellan advances two hypotheses: that low rates of social integration and social cohesion make populations more vulnerable to these sorts of attacks, and that media reportage boosts incidence and distribution of them. A review of cases 1970-2014 showed the hypotheses turned out not to be the case, in fact the opposite was true. Mass shootings are more likely in rural states with stable marriage rates and, interestingly, steady socio-economic status - profiles, Cappellan remarks, that bear more similarity to suicide rates than "normal" homicide.

This requires further work, of course. But really it shouldn't be that surprising. Marjory Stoneman Douglas is a middle American school. Sandy Hook is a middle American school. Columbine is a middle American school. What they appear to have in common is their situation in communities where social cohesion wasn't particularly frayed. Rather, the shooters were effectively outcasts within their communities. Nicholas Cruz, the latest name added to the roll call of infamy, was the stereotypical loner excluded from school. Adam Lanza hadn't left the house for three months prior to his attack, for which he planned methodically for. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were well known in their school for being weird, and were shunned and occasionally bullied. It seems the relationship between cohesion and exclusion is worth exploring in more depth, that from their standpoint the appearance of comfortable normalcy within sight but not within reach is a social tension that may (or may not) be a significant contribution to the making of a mass shooter.

And yet there is still the one thing missing: exceptionalism. As these relationships and tensions can be found in other Western societies, and given the export of American masculinities and its celebration of militarism and violence, the question remains unanswered and an explanation of why America missing. Gun control has to be a central component of any strategy that wants to stamp these massacres out. It follows that making them harder to get hold of makes a school shooting more difficult to do, but a lot more work has to be done to tease out the specifically American dimensions of the problem. Doing so is no idle exercise - it is research that, in the long run, can save hundreds of lives and spare further agonies.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Boris Johnson's Cameroon Brexit

Boris Johnson's politics are, in my opinion, stupid. But when it comes to where it really counts - self-promotion - he undoubtedly has a flair for that, even if his bumbling, mumbling and public disassembling is contrived to cultivate a clownish character. It certainly worked for a while, securing him two stints as part-time Mayor of London and the epithet of most popular politician in the country. Now? Not so much. He is in contention for future Tory leader, certainly, but the referendum campaign exposed him as a serial liar, and the subsequent contest to be Dave's successor left him diminished. In a number of ways, by giving him the Foreign Office at the height of her pomp, Theresa May indulged in a rare act of mercy and allowed him a way to come back in the future. As she now thinks he and his coterie of hard right allies hold the whip hand, one wonders if she regrets this political kindness.

Still, to come back properly and getting his shot at the top Johnson has to present himself as something more than a schemer, which is what his double intervention over Brexit was about today. He got his place in The Sun and later on a much trailed speech in a room not much bigger than a phone box. Turning to the article first, Johnson - forever grasping toward a Churchillian moment - seeks to paint Brexit as a national endeavour, or as he calls it "the great project of our age". With challenges like mitigating climate change, artificial intelligence and automation, cheap renewable energy, persistent poverty and inequality, there is an infinity of much greater projects to choose from than placing trade barriers between Britain and the world's largest economy. But you can see what he's doing, he's trying to tap into the patriotism of The Sun's ageing and dwindling readership. He goes on to talk about the "grief and alienation" of many who voted to remain in the EU, and how Leavers like him shouldn't rub salt in the wound but "reach out to those who still have anxieties". That's fair enough, but the paper somewhat spoils the sentiment by running 'Pro-Brexit artists form union to stop luvvie Remoaners denying them work' directly underneath.

Johnson presses on by talking up the benefits of Brexit. One is that current security cooperation with EU member states isn't going to change - hardly a concern die hard remainers bang on about. On insularity, Johnson assures us that's not the case. Trips overseas are up, and loads of Britons live abroad, noting more live in Australia than the entirety of the EU. The source of these figures isn't given, though it's likely a Johnson bag carrier totted up the numbers (via the Daily Mail) of this UN migration report from 2014. I haven't got alternative numbers to show Johnson up, but there's certainly more, as the report suggests, than 720 Britons living in France. As he notes himself, while mayor he was proud 400k French citizens lived in London while we had exported just 19,000 to Paris. Hmmm. However, it's all very well prattling on about a global Britain when the Westminster consensus, and most existing serious research into the Leave vote locates its directed rebellion against establishment politics in the reaction against globalisation, with immigration and the EU stand-ins for inchoate anxiety and a felt normlessness - particularly among older voters. Johnson touches on the need to "exercise control" and floats again the fantasy of the Brexit dividend, but overall this liberal Brexit, which is how it was tipped, is hardly congruent with the paper's readership. Not least because The Sun have aggressively attacked liberalism in anything but economics for nigh on 40 years.

What about the speech? It's the same fare as the widely-trailed advance. Brexit wasn't and isn't a V sign from Dover's white cliffs (news to swathes of the leave camp), but a just desire for self-government. Indeed, it strikes an even more liberal tone by talking up ease of travel, of holding Europe close and seizing a global identity for Britain. But again, it's the discussion of economics that is most risible. The NHS is going to get more cash as per the infamous legend plastered on the side of that bus, and, Johnson argues, we must remember there are plenty of non-EU countries that have enjoyed faster growth in trade with the EU than the UK. Something, I might suggest, that has something to do with Britain's long-standing weaknesses, lopsided development, a virtual capital strike, and the studied absence of an economic strategy from Downing Street beyond cutting taxes for the wealthy and hoping for the best. And on and on it goes, adroitly and at times expertly wrapping candy floss rhetoric around the wrecking ball Johnson, May and the rest of their gang are going to drive through the living standards and livelihoods of millions. It might sound nice and look good, but the risk falls on our people, not the mob Johnson hangs out with.

As he says in his speech, not many people will change their mind on the basis of what he has to say but he feels duty bound to try and at least address remain concerns. What's the game here? Again, it's a matter of positioning, of our jolly old friend triangulation. Johnson's Brexit is qualitatively no different from the rest of the Tory hard right. He, Michael Gove, and Jacob Rees-Mogg are not just on the same page, they want the same thing. Unlike his Mogglodyte comrades, however, Johnson knows a hard Brexit, with all the bonfire of workers' rights and naked class rule they dream of cannot be baldly stated. And so he's learned a trick or two off his vanquished rival. Dave's liberal makeover of the Tories while he was in opposition was skin deep and only touched social issues (though ultimately his battle for equal marriage made UKIP a going concern, and therefore did for him), but his slick delivery, Blair-smooth patter, and ability to look the part - provided you didn't peer too closely - was enough to assuage the concerns of enough nice middle class people in the nice middle class marginals to vote for him in 2010, and stick with him in 2015. Johnson knows he has to keep the Brexiteers on board and pitch, again, to the same voters that turned to Dave. If you like, what the Sun article and the speech was is his trial run for a Cameroon Brexit, a rebadged socially liberal Toryism aimed at grabbing just enough votes.

Johnson's problem, however, is this is not 2010 nor 2015. Brexit happened and the general election condensed long-term inequalities and contradictions the Tories were almost entirely ignorant of until the strong performance of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour confronted them with the reality of their actions. With a Tory party dependent on an old and declining vote, their policies continue to lock younger people out of decent jobs and housing, and threaten at any moment to pull the rug from under the generation now in the middle of their working lives and are thinking seriously about their meagre future pensions. Tory short-termism has stiffed these generations and continues to do so. Johnson's foray into Brexit would have been good optics any time before 2015, but that belongs to another age. Now it just looks like a sad, trite and entirely cynical exercise of trying to remind the British public of who he is.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

All Out War by Tim Shipman

I do love a good scrap, especially if it features the most awful people in British politics having a pop at one another. If you do as well, Tim Shipman's All Out War, his celebrated history of 2016's EU referendum campaign comes highly recommended. It's extremely readable, has the knack of turning the obscure stakes politics throws up into moments of high drama, and captures well the febrile desperation of the moment. I look forward to reading his sequel chronicling the subsequent meltdown of British establishment politics, and the Conservative Party in particular.

Just a few quick points about All Out War. As "Shippers" points out himself, this is not a work of political science or sociology. Only at a distant remove does he discuss the forces the referendum stirred up, and even then it's the odd oblique reference or quick observation. For example, when Nigel Farage was touring northern English constituencies he was astonished to find how traders at a market, despite quite a mix of ethnicities, were more or less 85% voting leave. "Class trumps race" Farage mused, though here both he and "Shippers" are thinking working class when, of course, we're dealing with small business people. While this could be construed as a weakness (Alex Nunns' The Candidate does a better job of marrying the narratological with the sociological), what "Shippers" does is he lays bare the uncountable threads tying the Tories and the class of which they are an organic part: business. Often times we have quick glimpses of who's married to/related to/went to school or Oxbridge with, who's bezzy mates and dining partners, and so on. This is a world in which big names are thrown about with abandon and are always amenable to phone calls, chats over coffee, dinner. No professional sociologist would ever be allowed access to these groups of people to study them, not that it entirely matters here. The picture we get of a more or less cohesive and interchangeable group sits atop politics, business, the media, and the state consciously pursuing their interests is accurate enough.

Also quite telling is how thick with each other this gang is. Take, for example, the fun that was had when Michael Gove well and truly shafted Boris Johnson and, consequently, himself during the Tory leader contest that never was. By the end of the book, which finishes about three weeks into Theresa May's premiership, Johnson and Gove had started talking to each other again. And just 18 months later, not only are they firm allies once more, they've teamed up to put the sweats on May. Time and time again, "Shippers" shows how shared interests trump all else. Amber Rudd, who gave Johnson a good pummeling in the EU debates was unseemly quick about pitching her tent in his leadership camp. As was Tory "centrist" Justine Greening who recently said she would not be in a Tory party under the control of the hard Brexit right. We'll see about that. Of course, having to get on with someone you can't stand at work or in any field of life is common enough, but what we see here is something deeper than mere rubbing along. A case of hanging together as opposed to hanging separately, perhaps.

The second drawback, which I suppose can't be really put on the author too much, is the establishment slant. Yes, of course, "Shippers" is an establishment journo with senior politicians on speed dial. And it was these politicians who were the main movers and shakers on both sides of the referendum. But his lack of reach in the Labour Party really does show. The coverage of what Will Straw and Alan Johnson were doing and thought is comprehensive, as is the background work Peter Mandelson put in. As you might expect the party's ancien regime is well represented, but there is nothing new on or from Jeremy Corbyn and the people around him. Instead it's outside-looking-in, and we're treated to pretty standard summations of what the leader did and didn't do, speculation about motive (i.e. Corbyn reluctantly went along with remain because he was a secret Brexiteer), and the suggestion he was being held hostage by John McDonnell, Seumas Milne and Andrew Fisher, with the backing of a half million-strong party of brainwashed crazies. The Labour right's critique of Corbyn to that point is repeated with a sense that he was defying the rules of politics, and "Shippers" proves to have a difficult time getting his head around it. Quite what he'll make of what happened next is going to be interesting.

One surprise, which shouldn't be a surprise really, is not that Dave thought he was going to win this reckless gamble pretty easily, nor that the EU referendum was conceived purely for party management purposes (Osborne, to his credit, thought this was stupid and tried dissuading his boss). No, it was that Dave never really fought to win. Sure, part of it was complacency but time and again Dave scuppered sharp elbowed attacks from Stronger In and even vetoed Labour attempts to take the fight to the Tory Brexiteers. Because, just like his successor, even when the chips were down and the collective interests of his class and, by default, what is accepted as the interests of the country hung in the balance, the need to hold the Tory party together trumped everything else (that, Liz Kendall, is how you put party before country). Perhaps fighting dirty would have made little difference, but none of the Leave campaigns loaded their guns and refused to fire lest they cause too much damage.

Lastly, for people who like to dream of what might have been there are a fair few clues here to what could have come next had Remain carried the referendum. While there is group solidarity among leading Tories, out on the fringes of the Parliamentary party things are a touch more vicious. In my view it is more than likely a remain win could only ever have been narrow, that Dave would have received brickbats more than plaudits, and a backbench stalking horse challenge followed by a leadership election not entirely different to the one we got would have played out. Ditto for Labour as well. The big change would have been UKIP. Farage was knackered and would have retired to his radio station to lick his wounds, and in his absence we'd have seen the same infighting, albeit with a not unsizeable chunk of people pissed off with the result entering politics in some way. The aftermath of a Remain vote would have been a mess, and perhaps even more unhinged and weird than the politics we have at the moment.

In all, All Out War is essential for understanding establishment politics, for its networks, its rivalries, its groupthink, its dynamics and its limits.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Theresa May's Looming Brexit Disaster

Could the government get any worse? The bar can never get too low, it seems. The latest in your Tory crisis briefing comes the not-at-all surprising news that Michel Barnier has said the transitional deal due to come into force next March after Britain formally leaves the EU is not a foregone conclusion, and that failing to establish a continuity relationship with the single market and customs union makes a hard border between the north and the Republic of Ireland an inevitability. To which David Davis, flustered and blustered, said Britain's position on a two-year transition was very clear. i.e. That we need one and so, um, we should get one. Please bear in mind that this is our chief Brexit negotiator and not some child blundering through their first haggle at the school tuck shop.

Let's have a think about the current impasse. This week Theresa May has been at pains to say Britain is leaving the single market and will not be in the customs union. At pains. Once again, because party management comes before all else for the leader of this accursed outfit, she is totally unnecessarily allowing the hard right zealots in her party to hold her hostage even though they haven't the numbers, the unity nor the nous to deliver the hard Brexit they want on their terms. May's position is weak, but not so weak that she can't tell the Johnsons and the Moggs to take a hike. This itself suggests two things. Either she's utterly incapable of reading the balance of her party, which if so means she's even less suited to her position than we thought, or she is committed to a hard Brexit herself and doesn't need any threats to force her to do the incompetent thing.

That's fair enough if that is what her position actually is, but we don't know for sure. The press has built up "crunch cabinet meetings" all week that were supposed to flesh out the government's Brexit position, but have decided to come to no solution and kick them into the long grass. Quite. After all, it's not like there's a clock ticking or anything. However, May has blundered into setting back the timetable. The problem is to get to the set of negotiations we're supposedly in now, which addresses the UK's future relationship with the EU and covers what disgraced minister Liam Fox calls the "easiest trade deal in history", May had to sign up to an understanding that sees us stay within the customs union in all but name. Yes, you'll remember the events of a couple of months back, the so-called regulatory alignment agreement to avoid customs posts in Ireland (unacceptable to the Republic) or a border in the Irish Sea (unacceptable to May's DUP friends). Every time May denies Britain is going to be in either the customs union or a customs union, Barnier and Ireland's Leo Varadkar look at the text May agreed to in early December and wonder if it's worth the paper it's written on.

Compounding the credibility gap are the demands the government are putting forward over the transitional period. They want the right to turf out any EU national who settles in Britain during the transitional phase, they want to continue having a say over EU rules during this period, and participate in the formulation of EU home affairs and justice policies. Truly we are governed by idiots. Having cake and eating it is one thing, but making yourselves the laughing stock of Europe is quite another.

Unfortunately, Tory incompetence is going to cost us. All across Whitehall, from the DWP to DEFRA, the civil service aren't even being given direction for their forward planning. It's as if there is a vacuum at the top of the state. And so what we're seeing, in department after department is Brexit planning for a worst case scenario, of us crashing out sans a deal and being subject to the full shock of tariff walls, price hikes and a sharp drop in trade. Just as Tory short-termism avoided the cliff edge with their pre-Christmas deal, so the very same is exerting its pull again and the edge is looking like an inviting prospect. The worst possible people are overseeing Britain's withdrawal from the EU, and they are sure to make us pay the worst possible price for their recklessness.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Spiral and the Thin Blue Line

And there endeth another season of Spiral, the smash French police procedural that, along with other near abroad cop shows, have been putting the noir into our dark Saturday nights. Like the acclaimed Scandi hits (The Killing, The Bridge, Arne Dahl), they pull of a depth of drama we just don't get in British detective shows, and certainly not in American offerings since the climax of The Wire all those years ago. Yet this quality of Spiral, the hook which a small but not insignificant UK audience chomps down on is flavoursome with some familiar and very old forms of ideology.

The superlative quality of Spiral is never in doubt. The French title, Engrenages in written English is redolent of anger, of 'enrage' and repeated in the daft accent British people put on while trying to read out French underlines this impression. The literal translation, however, is Gears, implying to its native audience complexity, depth, and mechanisms that just have to play out once set in motion - none of which its rendering as Spiral adequately encapsulates. Nevertheless, the main plot wasn't too deep in this, the sixth season. A cop is brutally murdered and local community champions feted by the municipal mayor are the chief suspects. It goes from there into stolen gold, bent coppers, fences, trafficking girls, it has the lot. The season's two side plots featuring Judge Roban and lawyer Jos├ęphine Karlsson sees both coming off the rails - Roban lies under oath to cover his own cover up of a colleague's indiscretion, and Karlsson attempts to murder her rapist and ends up getting charged for it.

Jolly old Louis Althusser in his well known essay on ideology made distinctions between institutions of two types: those whose primary effects were the articulation and dissemination of ruling class ideas which, given they were the outlooks of a very small, very privileged and very powerful minority meant they offered a distorted picture of how the social world looked from the standpoint of the immense majority. These Ideological State Apparatuses buttressed the legitimacy of the capitalist state, and were comprised of what you might expect - education systems, the media, religions, the family, and so on. Building on the classical Marxist view of the state, Althusser wanted to preserve the core insight that all states, from terroristic dictatorships to fluffy Scandinavian social democracy are dedicated to the preservation of private property and the rule of the ruling class, and will resort to violence if that is deemed necessary. These coercive apparatuses, or 'Repressive State Apparatus' comprise the branches of the armed forces, intelligence agencies, carceral capacities, and, of course, the police. As they exist to repress, and as no state can indefinitely last on coercion alone, the ideological apparatus works to confer them legitimacy. Simultaneously, each type of apparatus carries an element of the other. Education coerces with sanction, the family coerces with discipline and, at times, physical punishment, and so on. Similarly, like all organisations, those of the repressive type secrete their own ideologies, particularly around self-sacrifice, loyalty and duty. In Britain, for example, the shift to community policing in the 1990s to the present has enmeshed large sections of the police with social care, a move that came from within the police itself in response to its own problems of legitimation stemming from racism and the political policing of the 1980s.

I digress. One of the core ideologies secreted by the police is that of the thin blue line, that the police are the guarantors of social order per se rather than an order of a particular kind. These few are the ones that keep the chaos from our doors and the decent people safe in their beds. The most obvious manifestation of this is wave after wave after wave of cultural product dedicated to crime detection. That the bulk of crimes are banal, mundane, are easily solved, and represent no threat whatsoever to the social fabric is neither here nor there. The rare, spectacular crimes - the murders, the serial murders, the heists, the sophisticated con, organised crime - are easy pickings for entertainment. They have the casts of characters, conflicting motivations, the dialectic of evasion and capture, the posing of clues, the second guessing of motive, the brain work of cracking a puzzle, this is the stuff from which some of our best drama is made.

All of these staples are present in Spiral, but here it is the character types that interest. The core CID characters of Captain Laure Berthaud, Gilou and Tintin are all expertly played and come across as complex human beings. Laure is no-nonsense and is single-minded about the task to hand, though here in season six we are confronted with her existential terror of becoming a mother and her lapse into the anomic abandonment of her baby. Gilou, now in a discreet relationship with Laure, is a policeman's policeman, absolutely loyal to the force but not afraid to rough up suspects if it helps get the confession. And Tintin, the more by-the-book of the trio who is nevertheless hard bitten by the collapse of his marriage thanks to long hours work forces upon him. All three are broken in some way. They're gritty and grizzled, people who've lived and seen things. They're a million miles away from your Dixons of Dock Green and the woke Sam Tylers of Life on Mars. Yet, in each case, their character arcs spin (spiral?) ideological yarns found here too; particularly attention to duty. Laure is a mess because she is a copper above all else. Motherhood and its responsibilities throw her into an acute sense of anomie; when your sense of self is inseparable from the badge, what does that do to someone suddenly confronted by a new, overwhelming priority that will forever change the course of your life? Gilou, much like our own Gene Hunt, isn't brutal for the sake of being brutal. The abuse he dishes out has nothing to do with real life abuse of police power but is strictly instrumentalised, is geared toward the bad guys and is about getting results. And Tintin, like pretty much any fictional detective, has sacrificed his closest intimate relationships for, yet again, duty. Even the friction with Laure and Gilou arises from his disapproval of their methods, of their being against his sense of officer integrity.

The message is clear. These people are heroes because of what they give up to enforce the law and keep the public safe. It might come with harsh language, violence, sex, parleying with villains, sticking it to the bosses further up the chain. It drips with frustration, anger, sweat, and blood. It invites the viewers into a world of dog eat dog, of society at its very worse. By proxy, you too wallow in the morass. But the deepening plots and the satisfying pay offs - even if it leaves the protagonists strewn about as so much human wreckage - serves a very conservative, some might say twee permutation of thin blue line ideology.

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Grotesque Chaos of Claire Kober’s Haringey

Guest post from David Osland

The resignation of a council leader would normally be no biggie. I mean, I’m guessing entirely here, but presumably that happens in towns or cities across Britain several times a year, for one reason or another.

These things usually merit a run of front pages in the local press, and perhaps a short mention or two nationally. They are then swiftly forgotten, as just another ego-driven municipal hissy fit over a bypass or an over-budget leisure centre.

All of that makes the events surrounding Claire Kober’s departure in Haringey simply extraordinary.

On a charitable construal, perhaps her course of action was forced upon her, following the incursion of Labour’s National Executive Committee onto her home turf.

But now she’s gone, there’s little point in mincing words. Kober had lost the confidence of both the majority of local residents and the majority of local Labour activists and members, including both of Haringey’s not particularly leftist Labour MPs.

Her leadership was over anyway, and she knew it. Had she the party’s best interests at heart, she could have opted to go with dignity, a carriage clock, a lucrative consultancy job, and the promise of an eventual OBE.

Instead, she took the calculated decision to maximise the damage her resignation would inflict on Corbyn, timing the announcement to catch the lunchtime bulletins, while simultaneously launching a pop at Momentum on the front page of the Evening Standard.

Her deed was even reinforced by a round robin letter from 70 other Labour council chiefs, which a cynic would see as evidence of collusion rather than an entirely unaffected outpouring of love and affection for a fallen colleague.

Thanks a bunch, comrades. It must take brass nerve to accuse Momentum of ‘factionalism’ after pulling a stunt like that.

Meanwhile, the barrage continues, with broadsides from Kober in the Financial Times and New Statesman. Expect more to come, with accusations of bullying and sexism likely to provide the Tories with a gift that keeps on giving in the run-up to London’s election in May.

Sure, any substantiated accusations against named individuals on this score should be investigated, with suitable sanctions to follow if the complaints are upheld. But, entirely predictably, there have not been any.

What we do know is that one high-profile Haringey Blairite has a track record of harassing senior Labour staffers, to the point where she was asked to leave a conference hotel on account of aggressive behaviour. That, somehow, gets left out of most accounts of these matters.

It is perfectly true - as Kober and her defenders endlessly reiterate - that Haringey shares with the entirety of London a housing crisis that will require radicalism and imagination to challenge.

But handing over entire council estates to a property developer, with no guarantee of replacement social housing to the thousands displaced, and only a chimerical future offer of ‘affordable rent’ beyond the means of most of them, is at best a deeply flawed response. Not least, it would not have flown with the voters.

To accuse opponents of HDV of ideological motivation is beyond risible. As someone who was in the trenches during the last round of Labour local government wars, what I see before me is a photographic negative rerun of the early 1980s, this time with Blairite holdouts playing the role of the headbangers.

One might even venture that their doctrine has been pickled into rigid dogma, a code, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to real needs. It ends in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council - a Labour council - scuttling round a borough handing out eviction notices to its own tenants.

But quite rightly for a Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn refrains from attacking Labour councillors in such disgraceful sectarian terms.

In Haringey, the Labour Party’s own internal processes have done the job they are designed to do, replacing council candidates with those who refuse to listen to the electorate with those that will.

Hopefully this will be enough to avert major local level Lib Dem gains in the process. Watch for the result from Seven Sisters ward in Haringey on May 3. With any luck, it will be a Labour gain.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

The Brexit Dream Team Delusion

The Times is probably the most famous newspaper in the world and is regarded by the establishment as their paper of record. How sad it is then to see this pillar of the press become the politics equivalent of Hello magazine. Today's front page, "Brexiteers plot to installs 'dream team' at No 10", is gossipy copy typical of Tim Shipman. Theresa May is facing a coup "Tory MPs claim". A cabinet Brexiteer has "told MPs" Liam Fox will resign if a customs union with the EU is signed (might that cabinet member be the disgraced serving minister himself?) Also, "MPs called for" someone to keep an eye on our negotiating team in Brussels lest they flush away Brexit's gilded turd. And lastly a "leading Eurosceptic" says the Brexiteers will take over if the customs union plan goes ahead. Meanwhile, friends of May say the PM is planning an away day to finalise the government's negotiating position - which is a bit of a worry considering we're almost half way to leaving the EU. But here she is very definitely going to put her foot fown and tell recalcitrant ministers to shape up or ship out.

While I have no doubt we're being related stuff whispered to "Shippers" over the course of last week, the layout of this government-in-waiting is more fantasy football than a serious forecast of what's going to happen. Consider, Boris Johnson is set to be Prime Minister with Michael Gove as the deputy and Jacob Rees-Mogg in the Treasury. Senior positions are also planned for the permanently puddled Dominic Raab and the determinedly duplicitous Priti Patel.

Allow me pour creosote into the coffee. In the first place, he who wields the knife never wears the crown. They know this, everyone knows this, and so they're going to have to find someone dumb enough to be the stalking horse. The problem is these days political certainties have the awkward tendency of going the way of the flesh, so who can be sure the chump won't become the champ and unexpectedly get into Number 10? The second difficulty is a hard Brexit sweep of the government is impossible, because not all of the Parliamentary Conservative Party are signed up to the self-destructive vision of Johnson, Gove, Mogg et al. The Tory middle ground, if you like, is more or less where Theresa May (sans rhetoric) really is - leaving the EU, but desperately lurching from crisis to crisis to ensure their class doesn't pay too steep a price. Even assuming a no-confidence vote would go against the PM (which is unlikely, at the moment), a victorious Brexit ultra ticket would have a hard time keeping these MPs on side. It still has to ensure cabinet has a certain political balance for it to be accepted as legitimate by the parliamentary party. And as for the centrist-leaning Tories, in such a scenario perhaps the fantasy of the new centrist party would come to pass, robbing the government of its majority and the ability of Johnson and co to deliver their tax dodgers' Brexit. None of this is to say this bunch won't chance their arm, but ultimately they know the numbers do not stack up for a stable government under their leadership. Their watch would be no different than May's. It would be paralysed and crisis prone.

Neither should we forget what happened last time. Everything was in place for Johnson's assault on Number 10, Gove was at his back ... and then Gove plunged the knife in and filleted his best chance, perhaps his only chance to become leader. In the context of a successful stalking horse challenge, there is nothing to suggest the three Brexiteers could run a united leadership campaign, let alone reach out to the less blinkered still clinging to the PM.

Beset by crisis as she is, May is still in a stronger position than the ultras. Nevertheless, that she allows herself to get blown hither and tither by these knaves and fools illustrates her lack of acumen. There are no plaudits to be won pressing on with her present customs union plan, it remains a damaging course of action, but she can do so knowing a coup from the right would fall apart. The question is will she ever twig that this is the case?

Friday, 2 February 2018

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Labour Councils and Party Discipline

Some good political news for a change. Council Leader Claire Kober of Haringey has announced her decision to step down as leader and councillor this coming May to take on "new challenges". This, of course, has nothing to do with the rebellion of her own local party and trade unions, the opposition of the local Labour MPs and the unanimous NEC decision to issue advice and offer mediation between her and her opponents within the party. For her career has come to a juddering halt as the new mood sweeps the party, and the kind of housing stock regeneration she championed increasingly falls out of favour.

But things are never that simple. As we look upon the aftermath, Labour people can be found offering a defence of the outgoing councillor on two grounds: of the policy itself and the autonomy of party groups in the council chamber. After all, the Refounding Labour document championed by St Ed underlined the role Labour groups have in the formation of local policy.

Of the Haringey Development Vehicle itself, there's no need for me to recap the detailed critiques that can be found elsewhere. Though hopping into bed with a developer with Lendlease's record should have set the alarm bells ringing, engaging in a scheme amounting to social cleansing in the name of tackling a housing shortage is par the doublethink characteristic of Blairist policy making. Other Labour councils have managed to demonstrate, not least those nearby to Haringey, how it is possible to renew social housing stock without cutting the number of homes available - which is what the HDV would have done.

I am more interested in the NEC intervention itself. It unanimously voted to request Haringey council think again about the HDV, and offered to mediate between her and the local party, considering the widening gulf Claire was responsible for cranking open in pursuit of this self-evidently anti-working class project. Nevertheless, the move ruffled the right feathers and we've seen disingenuous moaning about sexism, bullying, and complaints the NEC overstepped the mark. Sarah Hayward's defence is typical of this, treating the running of Haringey and the NEC's intervention as matters of process rather than politics. Small wonder - the HDV was politically unsustainable from a Labourist position. Nevertheless, if you want to talk process you have to be consistent. For instance, if it is impermissible for the NEC to intervene in Haringey then it was out of order when it went after Militant on Merseyside, and when Blair came for Dave Church and his administration in Walsall in 1995. If those are different cases, then you're going to have to start talking politics.

Another egregious aspect of Sarah's process argument is her warmed over adaptation of constitutional cretinism, which is never a principle but always a handy rhetorical crutch when there are no political arguments left. She argues Haringey's Labour Council are responsible to the good electors of the borough, no one else. What she is implying here is being Labour is merely a convenient label to aid one's election, because after then representatives should behave as they please. Well, no. Political parties are voluntary organisations that afford members a number of obligations, one of which is not to act in such a way as to bring the party into disrepute. The NEC reserves the right, and it's there in the rule book, to take action against any party member or party unit it decides is behaving in this manner. And in this case they were entirely right to. When the Labour Party made a stunning electoral advance in defiance of expectations as an anti-austerity party, and its continued health demands it stays the course, any unit of the party that has gone beyond passing on cuts made to local government to actively cultivate dodgy privatisation/social cleansing schemes like Haringey need to be called to account. Their strategy was fundamentally at odds with what the party is trying to achieve, and was a hostage to electoral fortune: "how can Jeremy Corbyn call for more social housing when Labour Haringey is reducing the provision?" would go the Tory attack line. If Claire Kober and friends don't like the obligation they have as Labour representatives, they can either step down from their position, as she has done, or resign from the party and carry on - though we all know how that can turn out.

Naturally, Labour groups elsewhere are getting quite nervous the NEC could come for them next. And by coming for them, I mean making a gentle suggestion - there were no such niceties for the dissident groups of Liverpool and Walsall when the right were in charge. Take the idiocy currently taking place in Sheffield, for example, where the council are determined to fell roadside trees on the basis of entirely spurious arguments. No doubt councillors loyal to the line will feel a bit sweaty after this week's events. Should the council be allowed to carry on with impunity, while heaving council monies into the gaping maw of a contractor and making the community it represents a less attractive place to live? No, of course not.

To reiterate, what Haringey reminds us is no one is bigger than the party. Labour is not just a label nor a flag of convenience, but once again a party that is drawing together the interests of the people who make our society tick with those at its sharpest end against the designs of an increasingly divided and unhinged oligarchy. Those are its politics, and it has every right to expect its representatives to act in ways consistent with this approach.

Five Most Popular Posts in January


Five takes so hot you need oven gloves to handle them.

1. Toby Young and the Taming of Higher Education
2. The Conservative Party's Eugenics Problem
3. Labour NEC Fallout
4. What is the Brexit Stamp Collection?
5. Tony Blair and the Collapse of Centrist Politics

What were you doing to see the New Year in? Speaking personally, I was spitting feathers at the news Toby Young had been appointed to the farcical Office for Students, the latest tool the Tories have introduced to drive down standards and, perhaps, drive out not a few universities. Clearly there is some depth of feeling out there as this attack post clocked up almost 15,000 page views - which is good going for a wee blog like this one. Also getting people's goats was Toby Young, again, getting found out as a fan of eugenics. As the post above shows, he's in good (bad) company given the role eugenics plays in the Tory imagination. The utter rout of the Labour right in the NEC elections and the subsequent removal of Ann Black from the disputes committee brought in the views, and bringing up the rear is a quick meditation on the lack of commemorative stamps for Brexit, and our friend Tony advertising his bewilderment.

I cannot lie, this has been a tough month blogging and I've really had to force myself to write. Perhaps the colonisation of the old noggin by pressing and long-neglected research projects is exacting a toll, I don't know. I certainly do not plan on stopping writing, though don't be surprised if February's pace is no quicker.

Still, it would be remiss not to get in another round for a couple of January's lesser spotted posts. I commend to you How to Predict Politics: A Sociological Approach, and invite you to take a warm bath in The Last Days of the Conservative Party?. Posts, I hope, that will encourage some critical thinking about where politics is and the direction it's heading in.