Friday, November 27, 2015

Unheard voices

So much talk about national security, loads of column inches given over to the latest cock up by the Labour Leadership, earnest discussions of diplomatic relations, Ken Livingstone being a tosser, all are in the headlines. In case we forget, this is about Syria. And where are the Syrians in the debate? Because if you listen to them, they are all saying the same thing. The problem is Assad. Here is one local example.
The only way to defeat ISIL is by stopping the Assad regime’s indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, including areas controlled by moderate rebel groups. Once this happens, Syrians will be freed up to drive out ISIL themselves, as they have proved themselves capable of doing.
And yet the talk trickles in of Assad 'having a role to play.' Surely we are not going to sell the people out again? We will if we fail to listen.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The 18th Brumaire of Jeremy Corbyn

Just who thought it was a good idea to quote Mao? Which demented spin doctor approved the waving of 'the little red book'? Who? Dear god, who?

I still think my comparison in the post below is valid, but it needs to be qualified with that old quote about history repeating itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Old Labour - a futile defence

In the dim distant past, Tony Blair made a self-pitying speech about having scars on his back from trying to change the public sector and complained about being held back by the "forces of conservatism." I guess he meant me. I remember life under New Labour as a constant struggle against stupid policies introduced with either macho posturing about tough choices or hand-wringing whining about how we must compete with China. The idea that my opposition was conservative rankled. Certainly in my field of adult education, I was a vociferous advocate of reform; it was the government's specific changes that I opposed.

Years passed, and, when I expressed alarm at the prospect of Corbyn leading the Labour Party, I was shocked when someone called me 'red Tory scum.' It wasn't so much the scum I objected to, but Tory? Now, anyone who is against Corbyn's leadership gets a far worse insult, the most objectionable name in the Corbynista demonology – 'Blairite.'

Reflecting on it all in a state of existential despair, I suddenly thought, 'that's odd, they're doing the same thing.' And it became clear that though doctrinally different, the Corbyn and Blair factions had something in common.

Blairites were convinced that they held the secret to electoral victory. It's a formula they had worked out and bottled that they think can be applied whatever the circumstances. As true meritocrats (in the original satirical sense of the term as coined by Michael Young) they see their election victories solely as a result of their superior efforts. They don't think of themselves as the beneficiaries of a specific time in history. The cards fell right for them as the Conservative Party self-destructed. They played their hand well, but it was a good one.

Their method was to say that they were not the Labour Party. They ran against themselves and became New Labour. The Blairites seemed to dislike their own party. They talked about 'big tent' politics, which meant including voters and parties to the right of Labour alone. Traditional voters could be safely ignored, as they had 'nowhere else to go'. (They did, as it turns out, they went home. Turnout crashed).

Three election victories, each more unconvincing than the last, gave them confidence. They clung to a post hoc rationalisation that the reason that they won so big in 1997 was because of the policies that they adopted after they won. They forgot that some of what they promised before the election was different. And this blinded them to their subsequent electoral decline that left them vulnerable to a Tory revival. They were lucky again. The Tory Party extended the franchise for their leadership contests to all members and elected a new leader with a whopping 60% of the vote. They chose Ian Duncan Smith. Which brings me round to Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn has nothing like as good a hand electorally, but that is not his priority anyway. He too has run against his party. He also doesn't like them. Instead of offering victory by compromising principles, he offers principles by compromising victory. But what are his principles? Are they Labour principles? Well, on foreign policy, certainly not. But again there is a parallel. Blair schmoozed to corporations and made friends with Rupert Murdoch. Corbyn cuddled up to any anti-Western regime, however grim, and allied with theocratic fascists. Both sided with Labour's natural enemies, though it has to be said that Putin and Hamas make Murdoch look like Father Christmas.

Ultimately, both Blairites and Corbynistas opposed 'actually existing' Labour and wanted to reform it in their own image. Both claimed novelty - New Labour or a 'new, kinder, gentler politics' (the practice seems somewhat different). Both saw themselves as the sole repository of political virtue. Both actively disliked the bulk of the party that they led. This had consequences. Blairite control freakery reduced the role of activists and it became a shell party, an organisation for sustaining the leadership. This opened up the possibility of change if a surge of new members could be recruited to support it, something Labour enabled through its new method of electing the leader. And that is why Corbyn won. His new activists, organised through groups like Momentum, are also trying to restructure the membership to make it the party of a different type of loyalist.

This self-loathing strikes me as odd. So what is it they dislike (apart from anyone having the temerity to disagree with them)?  I think that the answer lies in Labour's history. Labour was always a coalition. It was formed in 1900 as a coalition of trade unions with the three socialist parties. But even those parties were very different. The largest, the Independent Labour Party, was non-doctrinaire, The Social Democratic Federation was Marxist, while The Fabian Society was technocratic. There is no coherent ideology that is authentically Labour. We have seen Labour cabinets that have included Cripps and Bevan with Bevin and Dalton, and later, Foot and Benn with Jenkins and Healey. Coalition has always been the nature of the beast.

Coalitions are not nice, cosy arrangements that produce a sensible consensus. They are pits of rivalry, hatred, and mutual recrimination, punctuated by periods of power struggle. Policy emerges through dialectic rather than reasoned agreement. The Labour Party has never been an easy place and has always been fractious. Problems emerge when one faction is dominant to the complete exclusion of the others. Then party loyalty becomes factional loyalty. This isn't a straight right/left split. One of New Labour's most ferocious early critics was the former deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, a figure from the right. Within New Labour, the Brown/Blair split poisoned relations. Under Corbyn, around 90% of the Parliamentary Party are dissidents, including many on the left. This is factional politics.

New Labour was at least recognisable as part of the mainstream, the Corbyn faction is a tiny fringe group. Blair also had the advantage of being able to offer electoral success, Corbyn is facing almost certain electoral oblivion. Blair was more secure and could win support from those outside his immediate circle, though some of the centre left was uneasy. Corbyn's support lies mainly outside Parliament, but, given the change in voting rules, he looks to be unremovable in the short term.

There are differences between the two. An established faction is more secure than an insurgent one. As a result, it can be more tolerant of difference, more inclusive, and make for more congenial, if condescending, company in disagreement. While Blairites were established and experienced insiders, Corbynistas are part of an insurgency. They have a more conspiratorial mindset, are distrustful and hostile. Michael White's judgement that "Jeremy Corbyn is a very nice man, nice but naive. Some of those around him are neither," applies in spades to his supporters. I know some who are lovely people, good friends even, but others can be abusive brutes. It all reminds me of a section of Jonathan Rose's wonderful book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, where he discusses the Communist Party's failure to win working class support.
Put bluntly, the trouble with Marx was Marxists, whom British workers generally found to be dogmatic, selfish, and antiliterary. ... British working people judged Marxism by Marxists they knew, and concluded, with good reason, that such people were not going to make a better world.
They are making Labour another 'nasty party' and it will have the same result. The parallel with Ian Duncan Smith does not look far fetched. Neither were credible prime ministerial candidates. Both were symbols of membership revolt against 'the establishment.' Neither could win. IDS was removed, opening the way for Cameron and a slow Tory revival. Corbyn's fate, in the far more loyal Labour Party, is unclear.

So here I am, a Labour member, on-and-off, for decades who was disillusioned by Blair, but who is now homeless and unwelcome under Corbyn. So what's the solution?

Labour faces big problems. Scotland is gone, dominated by the SNP. The Blairite tactic of targeting swing voters in marginal constituencies, trying to win back supporters from the Tories is absolutely necessary. Power cannot be won without it, but is it enough? Corbyn's strategy of concentrating on the core vote, young voters and increasing the turnout amongst the working class electorate, even if it worked, could not win a general election on its own. It could only give Labour larger majorities in seats they already hold. Labour needs to be able to do both, and that suggests that the mainstream Labour coalition doesn't look such a bad idea after all. What Labour must not do under any circumstances is to confuse the views of the members with that of the voters. Many in the Corbyn camp think that the leader's popularity with party members reflects support in the electorate as a whole. They are wrong. The Tories are opening up a big lead in the polls. This is a mistake that the Blairites did not make, as they over-obsessed about focus groups and market testing.

My hope is that a revival of the old Labour coalition would be possible, making someone like me on the old left feel happy about paying my membership dues. And maybe, just maybe, the Labour Party will stop reacting to every defeat with factional power grabs. But to do this requires a change in the leadership as soon as is practicable and hope for the return of uneasy party unity and toleration of diversity. Some are beginning to advocate a formal split, abandoning Labour to the Corbynista faction and forming a new party. It strikes me as suicidal. The British electoral system punishes splits. New Labour may come to regret abandoning their flirtation with proportional representation before 1997. But then carrying on and making the best of it is equally suicidal. If there is no change and Labour blunders on, then the future looks bleak for a long time ahead.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Capability Corbyn

One of my reservations about Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party is not over policy, but competence. His reaction to the Paris atrocity has not put my mind at rest. The latest sense of alarm came from his answer to a question about a shoot-to-kill policing policy. He has good reason to oppose it as an automatic policy after Northern Ireland and the death of de Menezes in the aftermath of 7/7. But that wasn't what he was asked.

I have listened to the interviews and it couldn't have been clearer. In one, he had manoeuvred, not very convincingly, through some awkward questions on his attitude to ISIS. Then the interviewer gave him what Americans call a softball question, one that is easy to answer. He was asked if he would order the police or army to shoot dead a gunman who was killing innocent people. He waffled about being opposed to a shoot-to-kill policy in general. That wasn't the question. So the interviewer clarified it to make it clear she was referring to a single specific incident and not a general policy. He repeated the mantra, with his usual tone of irritation when questioned, and added something about not bringing war to the streets. The answer he should have given is simple. He should have said yes.

First of all, it would be perfectly legal as an act of self-defence. Secondly, he wouldn't have to order it anyway as it would fall under the normal rules of engagement. And if he was worried about the principle, here's Gandhi - yes, Gandhi - writing in 1926:
Even manslaughter may be necessary in certain cases. Suppose a man runs amuck and goes furiously about sword in hand, and killing any one that comes his way, and no one dares to capture him alive. Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded a benevolent man.
(Young India, 4-11-'26, pp. 384-85)
It was a straightforward opportunity to reassure the public and sound responsible in the wake of a shocking attack in France that showed that there is also a clear threat to the people of this country. Instead he equivocated. In effect, he was saying to the voters that if they were attacked he would rather they were killed than kill the gunman. I don't think that's a vote-winner.

Politicians say stupid things, but leadership is a team. So what were his media advisers doing? Rather than instantly clarifying his position and coaching him in what to say instead, they let him repeat it and then repeat it again to a hostile Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. What is more, it was a meeting that included one of his biggest critics whose niece had been caught up in the Paris massacre, thankfully without being harmed. He had a personal stake in this. The meeting did not go well. If this is anything like an accurate account, it sounds a disaster. This is the price of appointing a posh ex-Stalinist from the Guardian as your media adviser, rather than a tabloid-savvy fixer.

Everything has been pulled back today. Hilary Benn has restated a more credible policy and Corbyn's position has been duly refined, but the damage has already been done. 

It's ironic. I have talked to people about Corbyn who have been concerned by his foreign policy but thought that domestically a move to the left was necessary and welcome. They felt that domestic politics was far more important. Yet, the first major test of his leadership turns out to be a profoundly serious crisis in foreign affairs. I totally disagree with his views, but I would hope that at least he would be able to state his position at a time of crisis with a modicum of competence.  

I hate to say it, but this is horribly reminiscent of my years in education on the occasions we have made an unsuitable appointment as a principal. I have been to those meetings. I have helped in the Hilary Benn style rescue operations. Politics and political ideas are an area of dispute, but the ability to do the job should be a given. I hope he and his team learn, but I don't think this one is going away.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Aftermath

The atrocity in Paris was so awful and the stories so heartbreaking that you would have thought there might be a pause for thought, for some deeper reflection and for the evidence to emerge before embarking on the latest round of speculative bollocks. But no. First out of the blocks were the anti-Muslim fantasists and the anti-immigration right. They were followed rapidly by the self-hating left, beautifully satirised by Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar here:
“Nope. We created you. We installed a social and economic system that alienates and disenfranchises you, and that’s why you did this. We’re sorry.”

“What? Why are you apologizing? We just slaughtered you mercilessly in the streets. We targeted unwitting civilians – disenfranchisement doesn’t even enter into it!”

“Listen, it’s our fault. We don’t blame you for feeling unwelcome and lashing out.”

“Seriously, stop taking credit for this! We worked really hard to pull this off, and we’re not going to let you take it away from us.”

“No, we nourished your extremism. We accept full blame.”

“OMG, how many people do we have to kill around here to finally get our message across?”
But what I dislike most are the cynics. They sneer at people changing their Facebook profile pictures or posting statements expressing their sympathy. Yet this is all most people can do. It is a moral act; an act that is both individual and collective. It says, 'we are with you, the victims, and against the terrorists. The action was evil and we have to find some way of saying it.' It is a fine gesture, even if a small one, from people remote from the event and unable to influence it. And it is that same impulse that transforms others, who had the misfortune to be there, into heroes. If you want to understand more about humanity, look beyond the crime itself and what you will see is an ocean of kindness responding to a sea of barbarism. This survivor's account has gone viral and in it she too pays tribute to that human impulse.
But being a survivor of this horror lets me able to shed light on the heroes. To the man who reassured me and put his life on line to try and cover my brain whilst i whimpered, to the couple whose last words of love kept me believing the good in the world, to the police who succeded in rescuing hundreds of people, to the complete strangers who picked me up from the road and consoled me during the 45 minutes I truly believed the boy i loved was dead, to the injured man who i had mistaken for him and then on my recognition that he was not Amaury, held me and told me everything was going to be fine despite being all alone and scared himself, to the woman who opened her doors to the survivors, to the friend who offered me shelter and went out to buy new clothes so i wouldnt have to wear this blood stained top, to all of you who have sent caring messages of support - you make me believe this world has the potential to be better. to never let this happen again. but most of this is to the 80 people who were murdered inside that venue, who weren't as lucky, who didnt get to wake up today and to all the pain that their friends and families are going through. I am so sorry. There's nothing that will fix the pain.
So fuck your sneering, fuck your irony. This is not the time for cynicism.

One of the most irritating themes is the one that keeps mentioning how the same attention was not given to other outrages, such as the Beirut bomb. The posts usually start with some line that the 'mainstream media' (another sneer) won't tell you this. Of course this isn't true, the authors just haven't bothered to look at the multitude of reports everywhere. This happens a lot. However, they are right about one thing. It won't get as much coverage here as Paris will. But because of this, they insinuate that the grief is insincere, inauthentic, and implicitly racist. By mourning Paris and not Beirut you are a heartless imperialist. European lives are worth more to you. What this is designed to do is not to include the horror in Lebanon, but to invalidate the grief and anger over France. It is about neutralising the response. It's political, obviously, but it's also dishonest. Let me explain.

I live in Eccles. This is the home town of Alan Henning, the taxi driver and volunteer aid worker murdered by ISIS in Syria. Even today there are impeccably maintained memorials to him all over the town. Yellow ribbons are still tied to houses and railings, replaced regularly when spoiled by the rain, and each bearing a personal message. Does this mean that because Henning alone is commemorated Eccles is a town of heartless bastards who are uninterested in the appalling deaths of the other hostages? No. Henning was a neighbour, one of us, and so the mourning is more intense and personal, even amongst those who were not his among his friends and family. It is a universal phenomenon, what touches you most is what is close to you. How can it be otherwise? Everyone knows it. The people of Lebanon will be more concerned with their own victims than they will be about the dead in France. There is no harm in that.

George Szirtes summed it up perfectly in a Facebook post. I hope he will not mind me quoting him here.
Grief is not politics. One does not choose between griefs and cast one's vote for this grief over that. It is not competitive and it is low politics to compare griefs. Grief and shock are feelings that one may or may not feel. Grief is not a zero sum game. You cannot say to people: if you feel more grief for one thing than another you are not allowed to feel either.
The endless theorising without evidence, the shoehorning of a monstrous crime into a preordained ideological framework, the denigration of popular sentiment, all make me so angry. Part of the reason why I react so strongly is more personal. Much of my anger is aimed at my younger self, who, decades ago, would have fallen for some of this guff and repeated it earnestly. That was before I learnt to think and to have respect for a popular, if sentimental, morality that instinctively understands what is best in humanity.

À nous la liberté 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

France

It's fascism. Not foreign policy, or refugees, or any such stupidity. It's fascism. Solidarity with its opponents at all times and wherever.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Having a laugh

When I was a student I remember turning up to seminar wearing a badge saying, "Je suis Marxiste tendance Groucho."
My tutor looked at me and said, "Some Marxists would find that offensive."
I replied, "I can't be doing with anyone without a sense of humour."
He then launched into a mini-lecture on the importance of humour as a method of transcendence in existentialist philosophy. Serious stuff this comedy.

I was reminded of this when I read this piece by the novelist, Jonathan Coe. Though he hangs it on Martin Amis' snooty attack on Jeremy Corbyn, his essay has little to do with the Corbyn leadership. Instead it is a cautionary tale of where humourless politics can take us.
 … 2015 might well go down in history as the year in which humanity lost its sense of humour, and became more stupid as a result. It was the year that began with French humorists being gunned down for drawing cartoons, continued with the bizarre spectacle of distinguished American writers declining to express solidarity with the murdered cartoonists, and encompassed, along the way, the curious case of the Nobel-prizewinning scientist whose ill-advised joke cost him his academic post and his reputation. 
Coe's main observation is that most humour has "some sort of incongruity at ... heart." And that "it is this ability to recognise the juxtaposition of disparate concepts, and to draw meaning from the juxtaposition, that we seem to be losing." In other words political discourse is becoming horribly literal. Take away the ambiguity of humour and you feed a voracious appetite for offence. This isn't to defend someone like Bernard Manning. Humour can be offensive and when it is, it fails to be funny. Manning's humour was cruelty disguised.

No, humour does something else. Sometimes it can be "the only possible response to a situation," however bleak, "the last defence of humanity when it has had everything else stolen from it." At other times it is a marvellous way of engaging the intellect. I used humour throughout my teaching. My theory was: if they laugh, they learn. It is thoughtful and intelligent. But if the heart of humour is finding incongruity funny, it becomes a wonderful political tool for puncturing pomposity and pretence. Here are some favourite examples. Dr Strangelove made us laugh at a nuclear apocalypse. It did so by showing that even the most fool-proof system can still be undone by the limitless foolishness of individual human beings. Chaplin's The Great Dictator is a deliberate parody that transcended propaganda. But for me the most subversive take on power has to be the portrayal of Rufus T Firefly in the film Duck Soup. You see; I am still a Groucho Marxist at heart.

A Manichaean world-view that can admit no ambiguity is one that can be highly destructive, humour based on "laughing at the misfortunes of others" can be a source of persecution, but finding the world funny is different. Laughing at human fallibility and absurdity can be liberating. Black humour can takes us into darkness and barbarity in a way that is impossible to dismiss. It rescues humanity from horror. But most importantly, if, however vehement our opinions and righteous our anger, we can stop and laugh then we are capable of creating a humane politics in a way that the humourless cannot.