Fr 4 Dec 2015
Mr Speaker, these are frightening times. Everywhere I go, I see ordinary people going about their lives gripped by a profound sense of insecurity, even foreboding. As Members of this House, it is our duty, indeed our honour to do something about that. I’d go so far as to say that the desire to improve people’s lives is why we went into politics in the first place. I know that’s why I did.
All my life, both before and since I came to Parliament, I have been guided by my belief that there are no trivial problems. No problem is trivial for those who suffer it. All people want and deserve solutions to the problems that plague their lives, no matter how small those problems may seem to those of us who can claim tens of thousands of pounds in expenses every month.
And just as there is no such thing as a trivial problem, I believe there is no such thing as a drastic solution. Solutions either solve the problem, or they are no solutions at all. All anyone wants, and all anyone can ask for, is a solution that does what it says on the tin.
That is why I, as a member of the opposition, am proud to stand in solidarity with our Government in their bold and innovative proposals to deal with the problem of young criminals nicking things out of shops. Trivial, you say? Then you must not be a shopkeeper.
I have disagreed with the Government on many things, and I am sure I will disagree with them on many more in the future, but when someone gets something right, it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge that. The Government recognise that the only way to deal with this problem is to strike at the root. The Government seek to cure the disease rather than just treating the symptoms by asking the obvious questions: Where do these criminals congregate? Where do they plan their attacks on our nation’s economy? Where do they find a safe haven when the deed is done?
I have in my hands the Government’s White Paper, which summarises the findings of their extraordinarily exhaustive review of the available evidence. I hope that everyone in this House, including those who disagree with the Government’s plan, has at least taken the time to read it, because it deserves to be read.
After months of investigation, the Government’s researchers came to the conclusion that these criminals hide and conspire in the very symbol of innocence itself: Our nation’s playgrounds. It is from these cradles of our children’s dreams that they launch their daily attacks on our economy and on the brave men and women on duty every day at our nation’s off-licences. Greater cynicism than this is hard to imagine.
I have yet to hear any opponent of the Government’s proposal deny any of what I have just said, and so I believe I am entirely justified in taking it as common ground. We are all in agreement that there is a problem. We are in agreement about what it is. We are all in agreement that it is serious and that something must be done. Am I mistaken?
I would like it noted in Hansard that not even the left wing of our party disagrees with the Government’s and my analysis of the issue.
Ah. I’ve just been informed that he’s popped out to the lav. Well, we can’t deny him that, can we?
So all of us – supporters and opponents of the Government’s plan alike – agree about the nature of the problem, with one possible exception. One cannot help but notice, however, the gulf between the well-reasoned, thoroughly researched proposals offered by the Government and the simplistic response offered by the opponents of the plan.
Do they offer any alternatives? No, at least they offer no alternatives that are worthy of the name. All they say is that it’s ‘wrong’ to put landmines in children’s playgrounds. They question whether it’s ‘moral’. They claim it goes against their ‘principles’.
‘Principled objections’ are what separates the pontificating moralist from the statesman. We should always be suspicious of these appeals to principle, because they eliminate options. Moralists may have no problem eliminating potential solutions from consideration based on their ‘principles’, but statesmen have no such luxury.
Imagine where we would be if statesmen were guided by a politics of principles rather than one of pragmatism and possibility. It hardly bears thinking about, for it is a world where the Spanish royal family might even today be denied their rightful place on the throne, a world where the arts would forever be impoverished because Picasso would never have been inspired to paint his masterpiece Guernica, Shostakovich might never have composed his Leningrad symphony, and Churchill might never have had the good fortune to be Prime Minister in what might never have had the chance to be Britain’s finest hour.
Where moralists can see nothing but maimed bodies and ruined lives, statesmen see the enrichment of history.
And whilst there are no trivial problems, there are always trivial obstacles, and statesmen do not allow trivial obstacles to deter them from great solutions. Great solutions like the Government’s Safe Playgrounds Initiative.
I do not wish to seem heartless here. The opponents of the Safe Playgrounds Initiative do not hold a monopoly on humanity. I, too, feel strongly that innocent lives must be protected, and I would not support the Initiative if the Government had not gone to such great lengths to craft safeguards in order to do just that.
Because I trust that everyone here has read the proposal, I note merely for the record the scientifically tested fail-safe mechanism that is built in to the proposal. According to the proposal’s safeguards, the mines will be used according to a strict formula, and will be laid in playgrounds in direct proportion to their proximity to council estates and comprehensive schools. But it does not stop there. The proposal further provides that not a single mine will be laid in playgrounds belonging to estates in a council tax band higher than F.
This is how statesmen show humanity, not by closing doors, but by opening the window to opportunity.
The opponents of the Safe Playgrounds Initiative, or, to put the matter more bluntly, the proponents of inaction in the face of the plight of our great British shopkeepers, seek to terrify us with spectres of limbs and lives lost, and have even soared to heights of alliterative wizardry to deem the Safe Playgrounds Initiative the ‘charnel house of childhood’. This pathetically pornographic, petty pusillanimity, Mr Speaker, is synonymous with siding with those who are sullying the sanctity of our stores. They have decided to take up the cause of our enemies. Shame on all of them.
It is time that we all came together and did our bit to make Britain once again safe for shopkeepers, and that, Mr Speaker, is why I urge this House to support the Government’s motion and implement the Safe Playgrounds Initiative.
Di 1 Sep 2015
If you want to know how credible official determinations on asylum claims are, it’s worth looking at the factors the relevant UK statute itself (s 8 Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004) gives as ‘specified types of behaviour’ supporting a finding that a refugee’s account is not to be believed:
‘► failure without reasonable explanation to produce a passport on request;’
If you think you’d be in danger if returned to your country of origin, would you give the authorities – whom you have no reason to trust and every reason to suspect – a document that makes it easy to send you back?
‘► production of a document that is not a valid passport as if it were. Note: there is no “reasonable explanation defence” in this instance;’
See above. Plus, falsified papers may be the only way for some people to be able to leave their country safely (or at all). It’s also not exactly unheard of for a state to deny passports, exit visas, etc. to people it’s persecuting in order to prevent them evading persecution. There are so many reasonable explanations for this in the context of running for one’s life that one can’t help but suspect that that is the whole reason a ‘reasonable explanation defence’ is not permitted in this case.
‘► destruction, alteration or disposal of a passport, ticket or other travel document without reasonable explanation;’
See above. And, of course, with all these ‘reasonable explanation’ exceptions, it’s worth remembering that the reasonableness of one’s explanation will be assessed by people who have never even seriously contemplated how they’d go about fleeing the country if they were facing persecution. The courts have said that caseworkers shouldn’t base these determinations on what someone ‘genuinely fleeing for their life’ (etc) would do, but decision-makers faced with situations so radically outside their experience can hardly do anything BUT rely on prejudice.
‘► failure without reasonable explanation to answer a question asked by a deciding authority;’
This is so broad that it could be used to stitch up refugees by asking them unreasonable questions (humiliating, based on false premises, so vague as to be incomprehensible, irrelevant, invasion of privacy, etc etc etc) and then rubbishing their claims based on their supposed failure to answer the question to the caseworker’s satisfaction.
‘► failure to take advantage of a reasonable opportunity to make an asylum or human rights claim while in a safe country;’
‘Safe country’ does not mean that the country is necessarily safe. It simply means it’s been declared safe by governments looking to limit the number of successful asylum claims. Plus:
1. If you’re desperate to avoid being sent home because you have reason to believe you or your family will come to harm, and you’ve heard that country A will use any excuse to reject an asylum claim, but country B is more likely to give refugees a fair go, are you going to make your claim in country A merely because it happens to be on a list of ‘safe countries’ that you’ve never seen? Even though you have a much greater chance of being sent back to death or torture?
2. Running for your life isn’t the same thing as moving house to take a new job. You aren’t necessarily going to have a lot of time to prepare and make sure you’ve got the money and contacts you need in order to make a go of it. You probably don’t even speak the language (how many people would be conversant in every local language they’d encounter fleeing from Syria to, say, Britain by the overland route?).
You have to consider how you’ll live wherever you end up settling. If you know that one country has an established community of people who come from the same country as you and share your language and culture, that is an essential lifeline. It’s the difference between arriving penniless in a strange place and having to navigate the legal system and everything else with no assistance and no local knowledge, and having people who speak your language who will be able to give you a hand in making sense of it all.
‘► failure to make an asylum or human rights claim until notified of an immigration decision, unless the claim relies wholly on matters arising after the notification;’
Again, if you’re fleeing for your life, you’re going to want to stay away from the place you’re fleeing from for as long as possible. If you can do that without having a punt with authorities you know nothing about and have no reason to trust (and thus risking deportation), chances are you’ll at least consider it. Once again, we have an arbitrary bullshit factor that makes perfect sense to bureaucrats, but has nothing to do with the reality of running for one’s life.
‘► failure to make an asylum or human rights claim before being arrested under an immigration provision, unless there was no reasonable opportunity to claim before the arrest or the claim relies wholly on matters arising after the arrest. ‘
These are the sorts of factors that can lead to people being sent back to countries they’ve taken considerable risks to get away from. Keep that in mind the next time your hear about asylum claims that are denied for lack of credibility.
Di 21 Jul 2015
If elected, well, you know I’m gonna be,
I’m gonna be the one who’s got no time for you.
As an MP, well, you know I’m gonna be,
I’m gonna be the one whose vote’s too good for you.
If you’re renting, you should know I’m probably,
I’m probably the one who’s getting rent from you.
You voted Labour, and you should know you’re gonna be
You’re gonna be the ones who get completely screwed.
Di 21 Jul 2015
Since the publication of CounterPunch or Suckerpunch?, my Twitter feed has been bombarded with attacks from people who take issue with some aspect or other of my critique of fascist and white-supremacist ideology and ideologues. Many of those who have been offended by the article take me to task for things that really merit no detailed refutation, such as the claim that I equate opposition to US-Israeli crimes with white supremacism. No examples of statements by me that would support such charges are forthcoming, because none exist.
However, much has been made of my use of the concept of conspiracism, and that, I think, does merit some response in order to differentiate between how I am accused of using the term (despite defining it quite explicitly) and how I actually define it. Although those who have attacked my use of the concept have made it clear that they do not do so in the best of faith, some might well be confused by their distortions. As such, I will endeavour below to set out my working definition of conspiracism even more explicitly.
It seems worthwhile to start with what conspiracism is not. Conspiracism is not, first of all, any interpretation or explanation of events that conflicts with an official narrative, even if that interpretation or explanation should ultimately prove false. Nor does the concept of conspiracism extend to all investigation and examination of actual or suspected conspiracies. Conspiracies certainly exist; listing examples is trivial (Watergate, the overthrow of Allende in Chile, COINTELPRO, or the conspiracy of the US consulate and embassy in Santiago to kill Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, recently demonstrated following a lengthy judicial inquiry in Chile).
In short, then, a hypothesis does not constitute conspiracism merely because it posits the existence of a conspiracy, nor does it become conspiracism simply because it ultimately proves false. These are empirical questions that can only be resolved on a case-by-case basis.
Nor does the concept require a person to believe in every conspiracy ‘theory’ that’s going. Indeed, to require that would be patently absurd, since such ‘theories’ are often mutually exclusive. A person who believes the Nazi myth about the power of the Rothschild family is no less a conspiracist because she does not buy into controlled demolition. To say otherwise would be akin to calling the pope an atheist because he believes in Catholicism, but not Hinduism.
Rather, conspiracism is a habit of thought, or analytical mode, as I have described it elsewhere. It is a profoundly Manichaean view that sees the plotting of shadowy elites as the motor of human history. It is characterised not so much by specific ‘theories’ (for conspiracists are a deeply sectarian lot and jealously defend their own beliefs against the proponents of alternate versions), as by a specific style of argument and a highly particular brand of ‘activism’. From my own observations of, and interactions with, these circles, I have found the following characteristics to be consistent features of the conspiracist worldview:
- The preference of an individualistic, moralising view of power over any form of class analysis. Conspiracists see the evil of a handful of individuals behind the injustices of capitalism rather than a set of material social relations giving rise to specific classes with specific interests and a specific array of forces between them. This is an essentially conservative worldview where the problem is the venality of the court, rather than monarchy itself. As such, it lends itself to conservative solutions, e.g., replacing those in power rather than abolishing the system that allows them to wield power.
- Non-falsifiability: There is no evidence that is capable of refuting a conspiracist’s pet narrative. Indeed, the lack of supporting evidence – or the existence of contrary evidence – serves only to prove the awesome power and foresight of the conspirators. An example of this thinking can be seen in the Pentagon Papers, the classified internal record of the US occupation of Indochina. One pet project of US intelligence was to prove that the indigenous peasant resistance in Vietnam was armed, funded, and controlled by Moscow, ‘Peiping’, or both. After years of evidence gathered in the field showed that the National Liberation Front were only using weapons they had captured from the French and US occupation forces, or had improvised themselves, the intelligence analysts concluded that this proved that Moscow and/or ‘Peiping’ had such total control that there was no need to issue orders or send weapons.
- Strict binarism: Either one buys into the particular narrative a conspiracist espouses, or one bust support the ‘official story’. The possibility that someone might reject both is excluded a priori. This gives conspiracists a perceived monopoly on dissent.
- No good-faith, informed scepticism: Conspiracism leaves no room for the possibility that someone might consider the available evidence and reach a different conclusion. The conspiracist’s preferred version is a Self-Evident Truth, and anyone who does not see that is either a dupe (‘sheeple’) or – if their counterargument is good – actively working for the enemy. This creates a cult-like solidarity (in the face of an exponentially growing conspiracy) combined with immense in-group pressure not to express any dissent. If you dissent, you must be One Of Them.
- The absence of concrete proposals: Conspiracists rarely have much in the way of concrete solutions to offer. Mostly, they believe that things will sort themselves out if only the ‘sheeple’ learn ‘the truth’. Beyond platitudes like ‘WAKE UP’ or the call to ‘take back America’ (often paired with the invocation of a past age of goodness and legitimate government), conspiracism offers no real programme of action. Because conspiracism is, however, never short on convenient scapegoats, it provides a fertile ground for fascism and other reactionary ideologies that seek to pre-empt any revolutionary social change, as well as ‘good-faith distraction material’ (to quote a leaked Booz Allen Hamilton memo on declassification policy) to keep people busy who might otherwise organise in a fashion more threatening to power.
So 19 Jul 2015
How ‘America’s Best Political Newsletter’ Mainstreams the Far Right
CounterPunch, which bills itself as ‘America’s best political newsletter’, offering ‘independent investigative journalism’, tends to figure quite prominently in the reading lists of left-leaning activists, who doubtlessly appreciate its consistent antiwar stance, its critical analysis on US economic and foreign policy and US-sponsored Israeli apartheid, and the regular contributions from such leading Left writers as John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Paul Street, Jeremy Scahill, and Tariq Ali. Indeed, CounterPunch generally tends to be thought of as a Left media outlet. However, in writing for, and sharing articles published on, CP, Leftists are unwittingly helping to promote the agenda of the far right. (more…)
Mo 18 May 2015
I still see claims that ‘austerity’ isn’t working. This is problematic in two respects: For one thing, the term ‘austerity’ itself is an utter lie. This isn’t about everyone having to tighten their belts in a time of generalised scarcity – it’s about robbing workers (employed and unemployed) of basic necessities in a time of highly concentrated opulence. ‘Austerity is a dangerous euphemism because it conceals what is actually going on.
‘Not working’ is no better, because it accepts the official narrative that the purpose of these murderous cuts was to bring about an economic recovery and all good things. That’s nonsense. You don’t bring about an economic recovery by putting more and more people out of work, forcing millions of unemployed people and people with disabilities to go without anything at all because they didn’t look hard enough for jobs that don’t exist, and then making those same unemployed people available as an unpaid forced labour pool for private industry. If the idea were to bring about some sort of genuine economic recovery, these policies would have been abandoned the minute it became unmistakably clear that that isn’t happening.
And yet the consensus of all the major parties is that the cuts must go on. If there’s such broad agreement amongst the ruling class that something must go on, obviously it’s having the desired effect. It’s just that they haven’t been honest about the desired effect, which wouldn’t exactly be the first time the ruling class ever told a porkie.
Plus, haven’t we been hearing that the economy is much better now, that catastrophe has been averted, etc. etc.? If these were measures put in place to deal with a current crisis – and not the logical continuation of policies going back three decades – surely the reaction to this news would be general celebration and an abandonment of policies that did what was needed, allowing us all to return to better times.
And yet that’s not happening. In fact, the reverse is the case, the Tories are proceeding to deepen the cuts, as the Labour Party had also promised to do. Clearly, then, the ruling class are well chuffed with the effects that ‘austerity’ is having, and want to continue.
This is not just an issue because ruling class propaganda happens to be false. This has created an utterly inaccurate framework of debate that often goes unquestioned by those fighting against the cuts. The kind of fightback that is needed will not be achieved by accepting a framework that implicitly assumes good faith and benevolent intent on the part of the ruling class, but only by framing the issue with language that makes it clear that working class suffering isn’t a byproduct of these policies, but the intended goal.
So 10 May 2015
The one thing about the pre-election predictions to come true – apart from the utter, and utterly well-deserved, collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland – is that the Tories are back in Downing Street. They did not, however, make it in by either of the two expected mechanisms, i.e., a Labour government continuing and deepening Tory policies, or Ed Miliband offering No. 10 to his Tory comrades in order to avoid dealing with the SNP. No, in the face of Electoral Calculus predictions that there would be a 90 % chance of a hung parliament, and with the votes of 20.8 % of the electorate, they managed an outright majority.
Because the Labour leadership and the dominant media are already imposing their preferred narrative, it is imperative that we work out what really happened, why, and what to do about it before that narrative is inducted into the Order of Received Truths.
Time and again, we find at times like these that Labour are capable of comprehending defeats in only one way: ‘We weren’t right-wing enough to be “electable”. In one recent article in the Guardian, we learn that Labour’s problem is that they didn’t embrace the legacy of Tony Blair (an odd claim, since the only part of the legacy they don’t embrace is the toxic figure of Tony Blair himself). Another version, which went on sale even before this dismal result, is that the Sun, Mail, Times, and Telegraph sabotaged Labour’s chances by making Ed Miliband look like an amalgam of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and Salvador Allende in disguise (the intended conclusion being that Labour should position themselves so far to the right that Murdoch and his cohorts endorse them as the only way to block the incipient communism of the Conservatives).
These narratives prove only that even the most obvious writing on the wall can be missed by someone who is paid to miss it.
Look at all one has to overlook in order for this version to rise beyond the level of a particularly overdone Frye & Laurie sketch: For one thing, we have to overlook the entire framework in which this campaign was contested – to the extent it can said to have been contested at all! – between Labour and the Tories. To borrow John Kerry’s phrase from his 2004 campaign in the US, this was not about two competing visions of how to run the country, but ‘who is in a position to execute’. This election did not see Labour actually oppose the policies whose devastating results their house organ, the Mirror, has regularly attacked. Yes, Labour belatedly expressed rhetorical support for the popular demand to abolish the bedroom tax (whilst their councillors pledged to continue evicting those who don’t pay it), but they also pledged to lower the benefit cap outside of London, which would result in families with three or more children losing their housing benefit altogether – effectively the end of social housing. And yes, they pledged to ban ‘exploitative’ zero-hour contracts, but only for people who manage to stay in the same job for three months (rendering the measure meaningless). Their perfunctory nod to the 80% of Britons who want to see the rail service renationalised was a wasteful tender process in which the public sector would compete with the spivs who have been enriching themselves off of public subsidies for years and provide one of the worst, and most expensive, rail services in Western Europe. On the overall cuts régime that is pervasively misnamed ‘austerity’, they pledged no cuts in a ‘protected area’ that did not include such essentials as housing benefit, unemployment benefit, social care, council housing, or tertiary education.
Labour actually echoed Tory positions on workfare, benefit sanctions, and the maintenance of the Trident WMD programme, and in portraying Scottish voters as pernicious interlopers in what supposedly is their own country. On immigration, they might as well have promised to hand the UKBA over to Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin.
Their response to one of the most hated governments in a generation was the political equivalent of a backward defensive.
Labour made no efforts to challenge the Big Lies of the past five years (and indeed of much of the 25 years preceding them). Their statements on unemployment were premised on the idea of unemployed workers as layabouts who just don’t want to take advantage of all the work available, even though there are over two unemployed people for every available job. Their immigration rhetoric was based on scapegoating immigrants for economic problems when the evidence is that immigration actually creates jobs and generates tax revenues.
No rebuke was forthcoming when Rachel ‘Tougher on Benefits than IDS’ Reeves declared that Labour was not interested in representing those most thoroughly screwed by thirty years of ‘austerity’ – the unemployed and those on benefit. Given the turnout, is it really implausible that poor people simply took her at her word?
If Eds Miliband and Balls were Pakistani cricketers, they’d have been done for match fixing.
Labour’s perennial journey to the right is conventionally justified by appeals to ‘electability’. This is a concept that requires unpacking. The most recent British Social Attitudes Report (BSAR), the most comprehensive study of its kind in the UK, provides a worthwhile background for this unpacking. The authors of the 2013 study, the most recent available, found it worth noting at the outset that three decades of short, sharp shock therapy (aka ‘austerity’) had not succeeded in fundamentally changing the political instincts of the majority. Depending on how the questions were phrased, between 60 and 80 % opposed benefit cuts. Over 80 % considered inequality one of the most pressing problems of the day and agreed that it was the responsibility of government to do something about it, including by direct intervention in the economy. Britain is one of many countries where the majority of the population is significantly to the left of the political class.
Even more notable are the answers of what we might call ‘knowledge questions’. From these answers, we learn that the vast majority actually believe the dominant – and patently false – stories that benefit fraud is a major problem and that there are jobs for everyone who needs one. This, in itself, is not surprising, since the dominant media have done nothing to correct these official lies, which are promoted not only by the government, but the Labour Party. What is interesting is that these figures mean that there is substantial overlap between people who believe the lies and people who oppose benefit cuts. In other words, they believe the mendacious public rationales for these policies, but oppose the policies these lies are meant to justify.
The Labour leadership are certainly aware of these results. All the major parties employ people whose entire job is to know these things. They know, in other words, that the best bet to win an election against a hated right-wing government is to come out against the signature policies of that government, breaking with their Thatcherite tradition. But they didn’t do that, in the name of ‘electability’, and now they are talking about becoming even more Tory than the Tories, in the name of ‘electability’.
‘Electability’, then, means standing for the exact opposite of what over 60 % of Britons want.
This may seem an odd strategy at first glance, but there are definite advantages that have led alleged ‘centre-left’ parties from Germany to Chile to adopt it. The underlying premise of this strategy is that voter abstention is beneficial and worth promoting. If there’s no viable alternative going, there’s no need to offer one. If the majority have no electoral home for their left-of-centre instincts, if there is no major party that promises to act in their economic interests, they will increasingly give the polls a miss, allowing the major parties to fight over affluent voters.
The official narrative of the recent general election concentrates on the unexpected Tory majority, and discourages any inquiry going beyond that superficial fact.
Because if we actually look beyond the gross election results that don’t take account of voter turnout, to look at the net results, unfiltered by first past the post and not distorted by the omission of the massive abstentionist contingent, we find that there has been no increase in support for the Tories. Their electoral support amounted to 20.8 %, which closely resembles the proportion of the population with a personal wealth upwards of £ 600,000 a year (17 % according to the Office of National Statistics) (1). We also find that the Greens, who stood on an anti-cuts manifesto, made significant gains that only did not equal seats in Westminster because of the FPTP system. We find that – as even the New York Times noticed – it was the leftmost candidates who made the biggest gains. We also have to ignore what happened in Scotland, where there is an alternative to the cuts regime that has demonstrated that it is serious and responsive to popular pressure. Labour’s biggest defeat was at the hands of a party that positioned itself to the left of them.
It should come as no surprise that we are not being invited to take a closer look at Scotland. We’re meant to blame them for spoiling Labour’s chances and to be offended at their ingratitude towards governments that ignore them until it’s time to collect Scotland’s subsidy to the City, or to patronise them for not supporting Jim Murphy’s Labour or Tommy Sheridan’s SSP.
It has been popular in the dominant narrative to use the word ‘nationalist’ to dismiss what is happening in Scotland, thus avoiding the danger that people in England and Wales might actually learn from it.
All of these efforts to dismiss the developments of recent years in Scotland merely confirm that Scotland is the political story of note in Britain. Scotland is the most dynamic part of the as-yet-United Kingdom. All forms of political participation, electoral and otherwise, are growing rapidly in Scotland whilst they stagnate and decline in England and Wales. It is the Scottish left that has made tangible gains and protected past ones whilst the left in England and Wales are fragmented and slow to mount a fightback.
It is popular in certain sectors of the English left to echo the disgraced former leader of One Nation Labour in declaring that the Scottish independence movement and the post-Vow explosion in support for the SNP is simply ‘nationalism’, because Scottish independence obviously involves the creation of a nation state. With the same intellectual rigour and depth of analysis, one could claim that a dentist who extracts an infected molar has jumped on the pro-tooth gap bandwagon.
Apart from being breathtakingly shallow and ahistorical, the illogic in this analysis lies in its conflation of the means with the end. Rather than ask who in Scotland is supporting independence, why they are dissatisfied with the current situation, and what sort of society they hope to build in an independent Scotland, we get independence = nationalism = bad.
For the sake of the future of the left in England and Wales (and elsewhere), one hopes we might do a bit better than that. Rather than lecturing the Scottish left – which overwhelmingly supported the Yes vote and favoured the SNP in this election on tactical grounds – we should be asking why the Scottish working class is so remarkably politically active whilst an atmosphere of resignation and cynicism prevails in so many of their English and Welsh counterparts.
Independence is not a live issue in Scotland because people there suddenly discovered a fervent love for thistles, haggis, and Saltires. When that was what independence was about – in the early days of the SNP- independence barely registered in Scottish politics because one didn’t need a separate state for those things, and the people for whom those were the most pressing concerns were and are, by and large, satisfied with things as they were. As Tartan Tories, the SNP were a niche vote that didn’t connect with popular interests and aspirations to form a real social movement.
The SNP – and the issue of independence – gained relevance as a shield against the worst depredations of successive Thatcherite governments, a way of ensuring that people in Scotland had at least some political representation in a UK where their votes did not – and do not – count. The increasing support for independence rather than limited autonomy grew from the realisation that only so much could be achieved at the Scottish level as long as the central government was dominated by right-wing votes from England.
In short, what is dismissed as mere ‘nationalism’ is in reality the realisation that, in the existing political configuration, the right-wing hold on politics is unbreakable, by design.
To my mind, the politicisation in Scotland is the result of what might be called a ‘gateway demand’, a simple demand, easily understood, within reach, that gave working-class people an occasion to deliberate seriously, individually and collectively, about what kind of society they wanted. Independence is merely the most readily available mechanism to make that political transformation feasible. Under other circumstances, it might have been federalism or union with France, but under the existing conditions, it ended up being independence.
And this is why – despite the odd asinine claim to the contrary – the British ruling class was and is terrified of the prospect of the breakup of the UK. Everyone from Labour and the Tories to the Civil Service, major banks, and the BBC, as well as virtually every mass-circulation newspaper in the country joined the scare campaign against independence. The spectre of ordinary people becoming politicised and trying to build a better society is something the ruling class have been trying to eradicate for over a generation (since Thatcher ended the era of co-option), and just as they thought they’d sorted it, it came back to life with a Scottish accent.
It is no coincidence that Scotland is the one place where popular disgust with Unpaid Labour did not help the Tories – it was the one place where there was an alternative that enjoyed mass confidence.
That the real difference between England and Scotland is not a fundamental difference on social and economic policy, but the availability of an alternative, can be seen from the reaction to the leaders’ debates. After years of being told that the SNP was made up of armour-plated, genetically modified blobs of deep-fried Mars bar capable only of exterminating the English, millions of English voters got their first unfiltered look at the SNP. The result? Nicola Sturgeon was widely hailed as the winner of the debate, and one of the top UK Google searches that night was ‘Can I vote SNP in England?’
The official narrative of the 2015 general election is a Little England fable about the fundamentally right-wing instincts of the great British public, explaining why the Labour Party must move even farther to the right in order to be ‘electable’. The moral is that we on the left are expecting too much of the Labour Party, and that our efforts to defend working-class interests against the neoliberal onslaught are not only doomed to fail, but not even wanted by the intended beneficiaries.
We are all meant to go home and resign ourselves to a life of shit jobs and consumerism, where our chief political activity is swearing at David Dimbleby on telly. We’re meant to learn from this exercise that the Scots are just mindless anti-English fanatics of the clan MacSkaro, and certainly not anyone to be taking lessons from on anything but curling.
If this election had, as predicted, resulted in a Labour government, we would be sold the same moral, packaged in a slightly different post-democratic fairy story in the name of ‘realism’ and ‘electability’.
Fascinating how ‘realism’ requires us to ignore so many facts and ‘electability’ is based on opposing the demands of the majority.
There is, however, another lesson to be learnt, if only we step out of the fantasy world of ‘realism’ and the rotten borough of ‘electability’. People throughout Britain don’t just want a left alternative to neoliberal orthodoxy – they are literally dying for it. Where one appears to be within reach, they flock to it. When they see one that is just out of reach (say, just north of Gretna or west of Offa’s Dyke), they envy it. More than thrice as many people opposed this ‘elected’ government as supported it. And outside the electoral realm, campaigns led by benefit claimants themselves against workfare, benefit sanctions, and (in Scotland) the bedroom tax have actually been able to force Iain Duncan Smith to dial back his attacks on workers, or neutralised them outright.
We might also learn that we may only be one well-posed ‘gateway demand’ away from seeing the same effervescence in England and Wales that we are seeing in Scotland.
Another worthwhile lesson would be the realisation, one and for all, that the Labour Party is, to borrow Glen Ford’s description of the US Democrats, ‘the more effective evil’. A strong Labour Party is one of the principal impediments – if not the principal impediment – to independent left politics, because Labour exist only to domesticate popular demands by scaremongering about the Tories. Their outright boycott of any party even slightly to their left (a tactic nicked off Germany’s SPD), is revealing: They know that their survival as an institution depends on being the only alternative to the Conservatives, and they are determined to prevent any alternative going beyond the level of a ‘protest vote’, Even at the cost of out-and-out throwing elections.
At the same time the likes of Owen Jones – who should know better, given that his parents were in Militant – come out of the woodwork to urge the left to change Labour from within. Why? Because as long as leftists are wasting time and energy trying to persuade a leadership who blithely ignore the conference resolutions of the rank-and-file membership of their party, the left can be contained and weakened. Inevitably, some involved in ‘Operation If We Love Him Enough He’ll Stop Beating Us’ will be bought out, and many others will be so exhausted by the vain effort that they no longer have any energy for political work of any kind at all. When in government, as Johnny Void pointed out recently, Labour go from standing ‘slack-jawed on the sidelines’ to being one more adversary for those struggling against the depredations of neoliberalism.
Labour’s defeat is not our defeat, and whilst the prospect of five more years of David Cameron is horrifying, we should take solace in the further weakening of the Labour Party. Every defeat they suffer is richly deserved, and reduces their ability to act as a bulwark against the left. There will be a lot of disillusionment with Labour after this defeat, and we need to speak to that disillusionment before the Labour Party are able to turn the page on it with whatever repulsive new leader they thaw out.
Five years of Labour in the nominal opposition is five years in which they have to pretend not to oppose the left, five years in which we’re fighting against people virtually no one is confused about. That, too, is a silver lining of sorts.
(1) In an earlier version, this piece erroneously stated that 20.8 % closely resembled the percentage of the population with an income upwards of £ 200,000 a year. The ONS figures represent the most recent available survey.
Mi 6 May 2015
With regard to Ed Miliband’s repeated declarations that he’d rather let the Tories back in than reach any kind of pro-worker accommodation with the SNP, there are essentially two possibilities: Either he’s serious about it, in which case it’s unconscionable, or he’s bluffing, in which case it’s not only unconscionably dishonest, but breathtakingly pathetic strategy.
Let’s think about this for a moment. What everyone who’s been paying attention knows is that the next parliament is going to be so well hung it will probably be used in those revolting knit cocksock adverts that keep showing up in my Facebook feed, and Labour and the Tories are going to be remarkably close (which isn’t surprising, since politically they’re remarkably close).
In other words, Labour are going to need to reach some kind of accommodation with other anti-Tory parties, principally the SNP, if they want to form a government and have it survive more than five minutes. Obviously, assuming that he’s bluffing, Miliband would like to go into those negotiations with the strongest hand possible, which means maximising the number of seats Labour hold on to in Scotland (stop laughing) and trying to gain some ground in England and Wales.
To this end, Miliband announces that he’d rather see David Cameron back in Downing Street than reach an accommodation with parties that happen to be somewhat to the left of his own. Now, what’s the likely outcome of this gambit? For one thing, he’s basically told Scottish voters to get knotted and confirmed all the worst things that people have come to believe about Labour in Scotland after all these years of malign neglect and active attacks on working-class living standards. That’s hardly going to endear people to a party they already have every reason to feel abandoned by, and, indeed, every time he starts speaking in this vein, yet another safe Labour seat turns out to be built on a sinkhole.
Meanwhile, in England and Wales, the only real reason most people vote Labour anymore is tactical, to keep the Tories out. However, that only works if the Labour leadership are in fact committed to keeping the Tories out. The minute Miliband announces that he’d rather see another Tory government than make a deal to keep the Tories out, the whole rationale for that tactical voting collapses, meaning that anyone who is considering voting Green or TUSC, but is afraid of letting the Tories back in, now has no reason not to simply vote for what they want rather than voting for a party who are openly announcing that they’re willing to let the Tories back in.
In other words, the only possible effect that these pronouncements can have is to weaken Labour’s hand in the eventual negotiations, both in terms of the number of seats Labour will need to make up through a deal with one of the parties to their left, and in terms of the level of humiliation that will be involved in admitting it was all a bluff. Neither of which outcomes I have any complaints about, personally, but I still have to wonder what the fuck Miliband & Co. were thinking.
So 26 Apr 2015
(Melody: Joe Hill)
Dreamed I saw Maggie Thatcher here,
Alive as you and me,
Says I, ‘Oh, bugger off, you’re dead’
Says she, ‘That’s news to me.’ (bis)
‘Your death brought joy around the world,
Your grave’s a public loo…’
‘And yet in this election, there’s
Not one of me, but two (bis)
‘When Ed and Dave make welfare cuts,
It’s called “austerity”,
‘cos none of them wants you to know
They’re plagiarising me. (bis)
When even Labour want to make
Scab jobs compulsory,
It’s clear to me that something’s died,
And I know it’s not me.’ (bis)
There’s no alternative, I said,
Indeed, how could there be,
When no matter how you vote,
You’re re-electing me? (bis)
Till City spivs have fled the land,
And the aristocracy
Have all been laid down at my side,
You’ll ne’er be rid of me.’ (bis)