Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Nostalgic Thoughts

Spending election week abroad, I woke on Friday morning and, looking at the results, was struck with a wave of nostalgia for it all seemed so much like the 1970s when I was a young political enthusiast with first the Communist then Labour parties. It all came back; two parties neck-and-neck swapping government and sharing 80-90% of the vote, slim majorities (in October, 1974, Labour got a majority of 3 with 39.2% of the vote), minority government (remember the Lib-Lab pact), ill-timed elections (Wilson went early in 1970), wrong opinion polls (they gave Labour a lead of over 12% in 1970 instead the Conservatives won by over 3%), EU referendums, election of a left-wing Labour leader (Michael Foot in 1980) and, perhaps best of all, vicious in-fighting inside Labour culminating in the electoral disaster of 1983. The last has perhaps the biggest resonance for today as it allowed Jeremy Corbyn to slip past two warring Social Democrats into what had been seen as a likely win the new Social Democrat Party. (I drove Jeremy around the constituency on that day).

There were actually two triumphs last Thursday. Obviously Labour's huge increase in its share of the vote, up 9.5% since 2015 but also, and much overlooked, a smaller but still significant Conservative triumph in increasing its share of the vote by 5.5%. Yes, I know this sounds the wrong note in this moment of triumph but read on.  Of course, they suffered huge and humiliating losses in constituencies like Canterbury and Reading but this was almost but not quite compensated by big inroads into what had previously been Labour heartlands. Check out Bishop Auckland (Tory vote share up 14.4%, Labour majority 502), Dudley North (up 15.6%, Labour majority 22), Ashfield (up 19.3%, Labour majority 441) and Walsall where they won with a vote share up 15.9% and a majority of 2,601. Even, and don't mention this when Dennis Skinner is in the room, in the rock-solid seat of Bolsover, the Tory vote-share went up by 16.1%. Bolsover still isn't marginal, of course but Dennis might bump into some Tories when he shops in the local Poundland.

The result of this is twofold. First, politics in England and also in Scotland and Northern Ireland has been reduced to a tight two-horse race with a large number of marginal seats in all parts of the country. An article in the Guardian, (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/11/labour-can-win-majority-if-it-pushes-for-new-general-election-within-two-years), shows that Labour could become the largest party on a swing to it of just 1.6% by winning a further clutch of seats in southern England and Scotland whilst the Tories could gain 19 seats in all parts of the country on a swing of just 1%. These kind of electoral swings are almost impossible to predict with the result that the next election is going to be chancy for both parties.

The second outcome of the election is that smaller parties have been hammered, some almost to oblivion with both major parties benefitting. Ukip is almost certainly finished but the results for the Green Party are almost as disastrous and the Liberal Democrats have barely hung on.

So is it back to the '70s. Well, not really because in that decade the two-party clash was heavily class-based whereas now the class base of politics has become become distorted even inverted. Robert Ford writing in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/11/new-electoral-map-for-britain-revenge-of-remainers-to-upending-class-politics) produced the best analysis I have seen. Part of it goes:

The 2017 surge in turnout, with particularly high engagement from the young, was something new. But other shifts in last week’s election reflect the continuation of well-established trends. One was the ever-growing education divide in politics. This grew sharply in 2015, when Labour under Ed Miliband did much better among graduates than school-leavers and was also very clear in the EU referendum. It looks likely to have grown again this year due to a shift at the other end of the scale, with May’s Conservatives gaining ground in areas where voters with few qualifications congregate, while falling completely flat in graduate-heavy seats. The education divide reflects major differences in identity, values and outlook between more socially conservative and nationalistic school-leavers and more liberal and cosmopolitan graduates. Similar deep divides were visible in recent elections in Austria, France, the Netherlands and the US. The clash between graduates and school-leavers looks set to be a central part of democratic political competition both here and elsewhere in the future.
While deepening education divides pull Labour-voting graduates and Conservative-voting school-leavers ever further apart, the traditional class divides that have structured politics in Britain for generations seem to have been inverted this year.
Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales. Even more remarkably, after years of austerity, the Conservatives’ advance on 2015 was largest in the seats where average incomes fell most over the past five years, while the party gained no ground at all in the seats where average incomes rose most.
Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017. Wealthy professionals in leafy suburbs have swung behind a Labour leader who pledges to sharply increase their taxes, while it was struggling blue-collar workers in deprived and declining seats who were most attracted by the party of austerity cuts to public services and welfare.

Ford's analysis is mirrored on a wider scale by David Goodheart in a recent book (The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics) in which he divides modern society into two groups; the Somewheres and the Anywheres. The Anywheres are the graduate employed comfortable living in a new metropolitan environment and broadly dismissive of conservative (with a small 'c') ideals of geographical community and what Goodheart terms the 'sacred' in a non-religious sense amongst which are notions relating to nationalism and national identity. They are also rather contemptuous  of the Somewheres who remain close to where they were born, have little education and who were in the British context the large majority of the Leavers. I have heard several Remainers including friends of mine refer to these Somewheres as the 'stupid people'.

The fact is that the election shows that England (I am not qualified to comment on other countries in the Union) is a deeply divided country and that we are entering the Brexit negotiations in a dangerously unstable social and political context. This is not something to celebrate.

Just a final note on my own party, the Greens. As noted above, we have been effectively almost wiped out in the election. It is no use trying to disguise this fact as Caroline Lucas attempts to do in trying to promote the success of progressive alliances. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/10/progressive-alliances-future-of-british-politics) All that happened was that some local Green Party's did not stand candidates. That's it. Alliances involve some kind of mutual agreement and that did not happen. Not anywhere. And why should it have. In our target seat of Sheffield Central, our vote-share halved to 8% whilst Labour shot ahead with an increase of 15.9%, pretty much there largest in the north. (It is worth noting that in the Labour gain from the Lib Dxems in neighbouring Sheffield Hallam, the Labour vote-share hardly increased whilst the Conservative share shot up by over 10%) In the other target, Bristol West it was the same story. Our vote-share crashed by 14% to just 12.9% whilst Labour shot up by 30.3%. The fact is that throughout the country, the electoral constituency which should have contained our biggest source of support, the young, educated, environmentally aware Remainers, surged to the polls to vote Labour.

Lucas' view that progressive alliances are the future of British politics is startlingly naive. We have a national vote-share of 1.6% just below UKIP which all agree is effectively destroyed. Why should a party with a share of 40% have any interest in a deal? It is understandable that the Lib Dems, whose share dropped to just 7.4% despite winning some seats, might be interested in acquiring a few more. But Labour, whose leader has never shown the slightest interest in electoral reform? Pull the other one, I am afraid, Caroline.

So what should we do? First, we need to have a reality check. We have failed and failed badly. Second, we need to try and establish just what went wrong. Yes, that main mean focus groups and all the paraphernalia of modern political research. Third, and probably most controversial, we need to draw very firmly away from suggestions of alliances with anyone. In particular we need to draw away from Labour and establish a clear political identity and not one just based on environmental concerns.  Certainly root-and-branch constitutional reform has to be part of this but we also have to agree a clear social platform together with taxation policies such as the land and wealth taxes which Labour so markedly steered away from.

It might work, it might not. But to return to my nostalgic vision of the '70s, we are in unstable and fast-moving times and what we need now is a clear head not one full of romantic nonsense. Perhaps I should end by quoting one last expert, the true prophet of the age and our very own Nobel Laureate:

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'
An the first one now
Will later be be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

After Brexit

The referendum vote in the U.K. to leave the European Union (EU) forms a coda to the rather pessimistic piece in the last issue of The Thinker. It was the worst possible result; close but decisive revealing deep underlying fissures in British society along several axes. Young against old; richer against poorer; London versus the North; educated against less-educated.  In each category, the first voted much more heavily to Remain than the 48% in the overall vote. In the north of England, Manchester, a multi-cultural city with a huge universities, voted to Remain whilst the surrounding battered once-cotton towns of Lancashire voted heavily to Leave. Scotland and London were the bastions of Remain, pretty much all the rest voted to Leave.

What happened? Perhaps the best explanation can be found by going back to the last referendum Britain had on the EU in 1975 when it was still called the European community. Labour, the party in power, was deeply split over the issue as was the right-wing of the Conservative Party. Even so, the country gave a 67% majority to stay in the EC. In his diary, Ken Tynan, a drama critic, noted:

     6 June: Roy Jenkins [then Home Secretary] interviewed on TV after the result was announced, made an unguarded remark that summed up the tacit elitism of the pro-Marketers. Asked to explain why the public had voted as it had… [he] smugly replied “They took the advice of the people they were used to following”

Last June, a majority of English (and Welsh) people stubbornly refused to accept the advice of just the same  people who had expected to be followed as usual. In a perceptive article in the London Review of Books, John Lanchester explores this refusal and, essentially, concludes that Britain is a country in which one large section, the white working class, feels that it has been abandoned. As he writes:

         To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat - a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy.

This group was once politically represented by the Labour Party, an alliance of liberal, metropolitan intellectuals and the working class, and now feels abandoned by it. Lanchester goes on:

              For now, what has happened amounts to a collapse of our political system…The deeper problem is that the referendum has exposed splits in our society which aren’t mapped by the political parties as they are currently constituted…Political parties are the mechanism through which divisions in society are argued over and competing interests are asserted.
             The trouble with where we are now is that the configuration of the parties doesn’t match the issues which need to be resolved.

So what now with regard to EU exit, something which is now the focus of the political problems outlined by Lanchester? There are essentially three options. 

First, the UK Parliament could simply immediately repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and its later amendments, the founding and, in most respects, the only legal basis for British membership at least so far as the British are concerned. Once this is done, then European law except that which has been transposed into British legislation would no longer be valid and the country would no longer be bound, legally if not morally, by any treaty obligations with the EU. It could then apply whatever border controls it saw fit and cease to provide funds to any institution of the EU.

This is not going to happen. Such immediate and unilateral action would fit the hopes of some extreme ‘exiters’ but would arouse great resentment amongst other EU members and institutions and, possibly, provoke retaliatory action. They demand exit based on the formula of the Treaty of Lisbon, Article 50, which requires:

1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

Broadly, this seems to mean that a member-state tells the EU that it wants to go, then, after a great deal of talking, it does whatever is necessary under its own constitutional framework to leave. It also may conclude an agreement with the European Council as to its future relationship though Article 50 remains unclear as to what happens if no agreement is reached after two years of talking  if a country has not withdrawn “in accordance with tis own constitutional requirements” but has also not concluded an agreement. (Health warning: do not try to read Article 218 of the Treaty in the hope of enlightenment if you wish to get to sleep). Presumably membership somehow just lapses like a member of a club who fails to pay their subscription. The fact is that no one is very clear just how a state leaves the EU as the possibility has never been seriously considered before.

The exit-option most often put about is that the UK should remain a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) which is essentially the EU-lite with free trade and some financial contribution but no involvement in environment, agriculture or fisheries policies. The problem with this is that one of the pillars of the EEA is the same free movement of labour as exists within the EU, whilst one of the key reasons for the exit majority was resentment over the volume of EU nationals immigrating into the UK.

The third option is that the UK Government will start talking with various bits of the EU setup, after it notifies it of its intentions under Article 50, and that these talks will drag on for so long that everyone will become tired of the issue and it can be quietly dropped on the pretext that popular opinion has now swung round to the ‘sensible’ side rather than the ill-informed and rather stupid rabble that, in the view of the metropolitan elite, voted to leave. Or a blatantly unacceptable deal will be ‘agreed’, put to another referendum, rejected and this will be taken as a symbol that opinion has shifted against exit.

The Government is publicly  inclined to the second option as it has put some hard-line ‘exiters’ in the front rank of the future negotiations. However, a sign that the third option is still up for grabs is that the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, will not trigger the Article 50 process by ‘notifying’ the EU until next year. Indeed such is the confusion over just what withdrawal means that no one seems very clear as to just what ‘notify’ actually involves. Perhaps a hand-written letter signed by the Queen or, on the other hand, simply public acceptance of the referendum result. Legal action is already being taken by devoted opponents to require a specific vote in Parliament on triggering Article 50 where there is, in principle, a majority against exit  and it seems likely that this case will be argued all the way to the Supreme Court. Article 50 refers to a country’s ‘own constitutional requirements’ and as the UK has no formal constitution it’s make-hay time for any lawyer who can claim constitutional law expertise. Currently, bookmakers are offering odds as low as 2/1 that Article 50 will not be triggered until after 2018 or even not at all. It might be worth a flutter even at these odds.

The confusion over the whole process mirrors the shambles of the current British political scene. The Conservative Party has managed, temporarily, to patch over its differences as parties in power tend to do by appointing prominent ‘exiters’ to negotiate the possibly impossible task of leaving. However, the centre-left party, Labour, is reducing itself to complete mockery in a leadership contest in which a clearly incompetent incumbent, Corbyn, who gained the support of only 20% of his MPs in a no-confidence vote, will probably defeat an unknown challenger of dubious background, having gained almost god-like status amongst a band of new arrivals to Labour, mostly based in London and, mostly, rather well-off. Genuine long-term leaders of Labour are standing aside hoping to become leader after the Corbyn-led electoral defeat which all assume will happen. However some doubt must exist as to whether Labour will survive at all as a major party after this debacle.

In many respects, the British political train-wreck brings it in line with the political scene throughout Europe. The previous article noted that the pattern of a centre-right/centre-left party structure is collapsing as people lose faith in the old parties. In eastern Europe, which has very little tradition of this kind, there is a disturbing rise of the neo-fascist parties which have, so far, achieved only marginal purchase in western Europe. However, in France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, is dancing with glee at the British vote as she believes it encourages her supporters to push their own dislike of the EU. She will probably not become French President in elections next year, just like Donald Trump surely cannot become US President. Surely not.  But the French President, Hollande, is currently committing suicide by forcing through measures deeply unpopular with his own Socialist party using extra-parliamentary powers in the name of the neoliberal austerity programme imposed by Brussels and the German government. Big fascist gains in the French Assembly seem inevitable. In the Netherlands, Dutch anti-immigration leader Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, is currently heading opinion polls on the basis of calling for a referendum on leaving the EU if he is elected in March, 2017. Italy and Greece are dying under EU-imposed policies whilst Spain seems unable to even form a government. With an Italian referendum on constitutional reforms due in the autumn, the latest vogue word in Euro-politics, replacing Brexit, is Quitaly, the possibility that Italy will vote to leave the EU. This might happen if the Five Star Movement, led by TV comedian Beppe Grillo, defeats the autumn referendum. Revealingly, the 5SM claims not to be a party but a social movement.

Just why have we reached this parlous state? Zygmunt Bauman, the venerable political scientist has the following answer:

        We could describe what is going on at the moment as a crisis of democracy, the collapse of trust: the belief that our leaders are not just corrupt or stupid, but inept. Action requires power, to be able to do things, and we need politics, which is the ability to decide what needs to be done. But that marriage between power and politics in the hands of the nation state has ended. Power has been globalized, but politics is as local as before. Politics has had its hands cut off. People no longer believe in the democratic system because it doesn’t keep its promises. We see this, for example, with the migration crisis: it’s a global phenomenon, but we still act parochially. Our democratic institutions were not designed for dealing with situations of interdependence. The current crisis of democracy is a crisis of democratic institutions.

Thus Europeans hear their national leaders say that they will resolve the refugee crisis, stop terrorism, provide more jobs, control the banks, increase economic growth… And then they don’t. As a consequence they turn to parties or social movements disguised as parties which at least hold out the promise of action even though, as with Syriza in Greece, they prove unable to do this. In America, Trump bases his campaign on exactly this self-proclaimed ability to get things done.

In the coming two or three years of wearisome negotiations between Britain and the EU, it is possible that they will become irrelevant as the whole EU structure falls apart. Another Euro crisis, perhaps triggered by the collapse of Italian banks, a blanket refusal by some states to implement even a half-baked refugee resettlement programme, a continuing use of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty against neo-fascist regimes, another anti-EU referendum in the Netherlands, Italy or France; any of these could make British exit a sideshow in the general chaos.

The overall result of the referendum in Britain, whatever happens in the rest of the EU, may well be  some variant of option 3. As Lanchester puts it, “the likeliest outcome, …is a betrayal of the white working class. They should be used to it by now.”  Used to it or not, such a betrayal may spark some far-reaching political consequences.

Yes, this continues to be a pessimistic assessment. We need more than brave Tess Asplund to offer opposition. To continue with news of my local choir, this month we are singing for the return of Joe Hill, the early-twentieth century Swedish-American trade unionist and songwriter framed on a murder charge and executed in 1915. Even that may not be enough.

The link is:

Only for the brave

Friday, 22 May 2015

Good night and good luck

And so it came to pass. Scotland lost and retreat to the regional strongholds of northern England and south Wales and even those looking a wobbly with UKIP biting at the Labour vote. Most of the leading chumps lost; goodbye Miliband, Balls, Alexander and, finally, Murphy. And now the second-tier chumps squabble over who can most appeal to the 'aspirational' voter. Even the hardest hearts might soften at the sight of Keir Hardie’s party reduced to this.

Must Labour die? Probably, at least in its current form, if any genuinely progressive movement is to emerge in this country. Should Labour die? Absolutely after such an incompetent campaign. Could Labour die? Well, it’s 50/50. If UKIP take a couple of by-elections and the Welsh show signs of following the Scots then probably. Otherwise, it’s ten years of the Tories.

Thank to those who followed this brief blog which will now close.

Good night and good luck.