IT WAS HARRIET WOT WON IT

I have quite admired Harriet Harman in the past, insofar as, as a woman on the left of British politics, she’s had to put up with a lot of shit thrown her way and she’s coped with it with a certain amount of grace and occasional flashes of humour. However, I fear that when the history of this period of Labour politics is written her reputation is going to be tainted by her final, brief, but disastrous period as interim Labour leader.

When(if?) Jeremy Corbyn wins, he had better have a bunch of flowers ready for her, because Harman (and whoever has been advising her) has done more than anyone (certainly more than Corbyn himself) to ensure his victory. Continue reading

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WHAT THE LABOUR PARTY IS FOR: OR, WHERE YOU CAN SHOVE YOUR IDEOLOGICAL PURITY

One of the many weird things about the Labour leadership election has been, as a member for 20 years, getting lectured about Labour values by people who – to my certain knowledge – have never been members of the Labour Party, are not members of the Labour Party, have spent a great deal of time attacking the Labour Party, but who now feel that they have some god-given right to instruct me on my “duty” in this election.

At the start of the campaign most of this pontification was coming from the right and it was in support of Liz Kendall. As the campaign has gone on, increasing amounts of it has come from the left and is in support of Jeremy Corbyn. As the weeks have passed the debate on both sides has become foam-flecked and ranting. Anyone who dares to disagree is a “red tory”, a “crypto-communist” or a “traitor” – a selection of the more friendly epithets thrown at me lately by both sides.

I’ve never voted for the winner of a Labour leadership election. I didn’t vote for Smith or Blair – I could afford to be contrary in these elections, to be sure, since their victories were assured but in both cases my vote went to the candidates I thought represented Labour’s left-of-centre (Gould and Prescott). I didn’t vote for Ed Miliband as my first choice either. So I don’t suppose Kendall or Corbyn’s campaigns will be particularly fussed that I’m not voting for them. Continue reading

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MARK FERGUSON IS BEING WRONG ABOUT KEYNES AND BUDGET SURPLUSES

Mark Ferguson seemed like a decent, thoughtful bloke who did good work as editor of LabourList, so I was disappointed when he announced he was going to work for Liz Kendall’s campaign. I was even more disappointed today when he went out of his way to (i) misrepresent the work of Keynes and (ii) appear to set the stage for Kendall’s campaign to fall into a gaping hole dug for them by George Osborne.

He said this today on Twitter…

and then linked to this older blog piece. I’m assuming that this signals thinking within Kendall’s campaign that suggests that they are looking to find a way to “neutralise” Osborne’s latest trap by falling straight into it. Continue reading

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LABOUR AND THE LIMITS OF ASPIRATION

In his piece in The Guardian today, positioning himself as a contender for leadership of the Labour Party, Chuka Umunna wrote:

Our vision as a party must start with the aspirations of voters: to get on and up in the world, to see their children and grandchildren do better than they did, to get that better job, to move from renting to owning, to take the family on holiday, to move from that flat to that house with a garden.

It echoes what Tony Blair has said, demanding that Labour shift back to the “centre” of British politics (as if that was a fixed point hasn’t shifted dramatically rightward since he became leader) to be the party of ambition.

Labour has to be for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care. “Hard-working families” don’t just want us to celebrate their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that; we support it.

This sounds great but what does it mean?

Let’s start with the facts:

So what does it mean to offer people “aspirational” policies?

It seems to me that the policies that people like Blair, Umunna and Kendall have been objecting to today are the policies that sought to address inequality. Looking at Labour’s policy offer at the last election, that “anti-aspiration” agenda they appear to be criticising include policies like:

  • Making the rich (like non-doms) pay taxes they’ve avoided.
  • Introducing modest tax increases on the very wealthiest.
  • Taxing inherited wealth, which institutionalises inequality.
  • Making businesses carry some of the load that poorly paid jobs have placed on the state.

So we have a situation where, if you ignore the sub “American-dream” rhetoric, the opportunity for young people today to improve their life chances are as low today as they’ve been at any time since the Second World War. At the core of those declining opportunities has been increasing inequality. Therefore, failing to address inequality reduces notions of aspiration and ambition to, at best, empty phrases and, at worst, part of a lie that keeps people in their place.

The “aspiration” that Umunna and Blair are so keen on Labour embracing is, without the guts to tackle inequality, simply a shield to preserve the wealth of those who are already more than comfortable. The handful of lottery winners those who do improve their lot are held up to shame those who “just haven’t worked hard enough” to better themselves even though the system is fundamentally rigged against ambition.

Labour should be the party of aspiration. But aspiration isn’t enough. People have to have real opportunities to achieve the goals to which they aspire. And, if we’re serious about that kind of ambition, we have to be serious about tackling inequality.

 

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THE ELECTION: NOT KIDDING OURSELVES

There’s no shortage of people dissecting the election result but here are my initial thoughts.

  1. Labour did not lose because it wasn’t left wing enough for Scotland – even if Labour had taken every SNP seat in Scotland, it wouldn’t have won this election. In any case the policies Labour offered at this election were not the cause of the shift to the SNP – which started before Miliband developed his policy offer and developed a life of their own thereafter.
  2. Nor did Labour lose because it wasn’t left wing enough to appeal to voters in London – if the swing in London wasn’t huge, it was certainly big enough (if repeated across the rest of the country) to have delivered a non-Tory government.
  3. Labour’s failure to win was primarily because it didn’t breakthrough in the Midlands and South of England. It seems to me that the majority of votes Labour needed in these areas went (perhaps indirectly) to UKIP and, to a lesser extent, the Greens.
  4. In these areas there is no scope for squeezing traditional opponents like the Lib Dems (who’ve practically ceased to exist) or the Tories whose vote remained more or less unchanged since 2010 at a little above its core base vote.
  5. There is no progressive majority at the moment in the UK. UKIP and Tories combined took 50% of the vote. Add to that the rump Lib Dem vote (most of whom must have been content with their party’s behaviour in coalition) and almost 60% of the electorate voted for the continuation or deepening of regressive politics. Remove Scotland and this regressive majority accounts for about two thirds of the electorate.
  6. Labour task, therefore, over the next five years is to try and persuade those (mostly white, mostly working class) voters who voted UKIP to back a progressive party that actually has their interests highest on its priorities but that won’t pander to their prejudices.

Now you’re expecting me to offer you my solutions.

But honestly I have no idea and, the more I think about it, the less confident I am that there’s a strategy by which The Labour Party can reach those voters while still presenting a recognisably progressive agenda – as opposed to rehashed (or even watered down – without Brown’s moral purpose) Blairism.

I believe the populist nationalisms that are driving divisions in England, Scotland and (weirdly through UKIP) Wales are only likely to become increasingly forceful in the next few years. Deeper austerity, slowing (and perhaps catastrophically unstable) global economies, rows over Europe and devolution are likely to feed the distrusts and deepen the divides in Britain rather than make them easier to bridge.

Today I am pessimistic.

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REVIEW: GEMSIGNS AND BINARY BY STEPHANIE SAULTER

Gemsigns and Binary by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013 & 2014)
(Originally published in Vector 278)

I can cut a long story short in reviewing Stephanie Saulter’s first two novels, Gemsigns and Binary (collectively part of the slightly clumsily named (R)Evolution series), by saying that I recommend them highly. Like most early-career authors, there are slight roughnesses around the edges of Saulter’s work but there is more than enough evidence in these books to suggest that she has the ability to turn into a very accomplished novelist. However, these books do more than just suggest future potential, they do enough on their own to justify your reading time – they are both thoughtful and entertaining.

The basic set up of the Gemsigns world is familiar – perhaps overly so – from much young adult and modern dystopian science fiction: a specially formulated minority must struggle to overcome entrenched oppression. In this instance a technological plague has dramatically reduced the human population. In response to the crisis humanity has created a range of genetically modified (Gem) workers designed to do the menial and dangerous jobs necessary to shore up the foundations of civilisation. These Gems, marked out by brightly glowing hair of various shades depending on the corporation responsible for their creation, have for generations been considered sub-human.  As with other novels of this type, the metaphorical oppression rather simplifies the world, crowding out real and existing inequalities (of race or gender, for example) and there’s never any doubt where Saulter expects the sympathy of her readership to rest. Continue reading

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REVIEW: NOIR AND LA FEMME EDITED BY IAN WHATES

Noir and La Femme edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2014)
(originally published in Vector 277)

Ian Whates, through Newcon Press and the Solaris Rising series, has established himself as a key editor in UK short fiction and I, like a number of authors, have reason to be grateful for his generosity. But it is clear from his introduction that putting together these books was difficult. As Whates notes in Noir, these two volumes started as a single project “to publish a collection of stories each featuring a femme fatale” and, even when that restriction fell by the wayside, he struggled to produce” a volume that hung together with a definable identity.” I think the evidence of the struggle remains visible. There are good stories here, but neither book coheres into something more than the sum of its parts.

This was particularly obvious with Noir. My expectation, not unreasonably, I think, given the book’s title, was that these stories would relate to ideas of film noir. However, the majority of the book consists of more standard dark fantasy and horror fare. It took me some time to adjust my expectations. Continue reading

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REVIEW: PROXIMA BY STEPHEN BAXTER & ON A STEEL BREEZE BY AL REYNOLDS

So, I wrote this review a long time ago but I’ve never been happy with it and I tried to rework it and get it to say what I wanted but its never quite worked the way I saw it in my head. The tl:dr version is that while I broadly agree with the criticisms that are levelled at “core sf” I really enjoyed reading these books and I think they suggest that there’s still something in the heart of this genre that is worth preserving – but I don’t think this review explains what it is. And it’s possible there isn’t a theoretical defence, maybe I just like this sort of thing.

Anyway, I’m reading the follow up to Baxter’s book Ultima and Poseidon’s Wake — the final book in Reynold’s trilogy — arrived in the post today, so I thought I should finally put this on the blog. This is a substantially rewritten version of the original review but not necessarily a better one.

Proxima by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz, 2013)
On a Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2013)
(a shorter version of this review originally published in Vector 276)

If you travel in certain critical circles then you’ll be aware that “core science fiction” is a corrupted form choking on its own complacency, bereft of the means of addressing the real issues that matter today and, increasingly, not just irrelevant but offensively behind the times. In a recent review of Paul Di Fillipo’s Wikiworld in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Paul Graham Raven described the remnants of the genre as an increasingly reactionary residue left behind by the evaporation of its worthwhile elements into the wider culture. Previously, in the same publication, Paul Kincaid (based on the evidence in the 2012 ‘best of’ anthologies) had suggested that “the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion”. In a recent review of David Brin’s Existence (in Vector 273) I experienced my own moment of enraged frustration with the dark heart of sf and its conservative vision of who we are and where we are going. Continue reading

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ONLINE COMMUNITIES DO NOT EXIST

If you spend time on social media of any kind then the “flame war” (to use a fading phrase) is likely to become a way of life. Hate seems to be the first, and sometimes only, language of the internet.

Sometimes the divisions that prompt these furious engagements are obvious. “GamerGate” – whatever its origins – has come to pit Neanderthal sexism against the rights of women to express themselves freely. That the young men who scream abuse at, and threaten the life of, women dress themselves in the cloak of victimhood is perverse but it is also indicates something about the way in which online communications insulate people from reality and the consequences of their words.

The notion of belonging to certain “online communities” has come to be an important part  of how some people define themselves. But I have never found one. If fact, I believe that “online communities” do not exist. Continue reading

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WHAT DOES LABOUR DO? FIVE OBVIOUS STEPS TO WINNING

So, another set of elections, another ungood night for Labour. Admittedly it was a much worse one for the parties in government. Indeed it was so bad, that  if the swing against the Conservatives and Lib Dems was repeated at a general election, Labour could achieve a substantial parliamentary majority without adding a single vote to its disastrous showing in 2010… And that would demonstrate that the political system is fundamentally broken.

There are those who are hoping to sit back, stay cautious and let the electoral arithmetic edge Labour over the line, judging that a significant but limited recovery of the share of the vote (from 29% in 2010 to 35% in 2015) will be enough to nudge Labour over the line. They are probably right. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good strategy. Because the next Labour government needs more than a victory, it needs a mandate. It needs to convince people of its reason to lead the country.

Labour’s policy platform suggests they more-or-less get it. More taxes on the richest (albeit still quite modest), investment in people and infrastructure, standing up for the rights of workers and consumers, more emphasis on the “green shit” and the repeal or rejection of the worst of the coalition on things like the NHS Bill, Bedroom Tax and European Court.

Labour can’t and shouldn’t pander to the worst instincts of those who switch to UKIP. A race to the bottom on migration would be morally wrong, economically ruinous, strategically stupid and electorally useless.

Nor can Labour – as I still think many Blairites and Brownites believe – fight 2015 as if it was 1997. Labour’s problem today is not convincing “aspirational” voters (who eluded Neil Kinnock) that we aren’t the vanguard of a Bolshevik-style rampage. Labour’s problem is convincing the working class voters on whom the party was built that there’s still a reason to get out and vote.

So “What does Labour do?”

1. BEHAVE LIKE A BRITISH TOURIST ABROAD
The Labour Party needs to talk loudly and use simple words. I’m not saying we treat the electorate like idiots, but we should definitely find representatives who can turn up the volume and turn down the jargon.

2. KICK ED BALLS UP THE ARSE
I know a lot of people hate Ed Balls, I’m not one of them. But his caution and the fact that he is wedded to a political approach that was successful in the last century but is looking increasingly ropey in this one, makes him (and those who share his views) a significant drag on the party. Shape up or ship out.

3. REMEMBER WHY WE’RE HERE
There are people suffering terribly under this government. People who, I know, the overwhelming majority of us in the Labour Party want to support, protect and offer a better future. It wouldn’t do any harm to start communicating that. A little moral outrage and some practical help, shorn of the Blairite good poor/bad poor rhetoric, could go a very long way.

4. SHUT UP ABOUT THE DEFICIT!
Yes, yes, being economically trusted is very important and so is sorting out the debt problem (everyone knows, no one will admit, the answer to that is “a bit of inflation”+”time”). Now stop talking about it. Labour can’t win on austerity because, no matter how hard we try to convince people that we’re going to be tough on the causes of debt, no one really believes us.  But, what our traditional supporters hear is that we care more about “big money” than we do about their lives. Ed Miliband was right: forget about it, stop talking about it. Shut up!

5. ATTACK UKIP
No more pussyfooting around. UKIP are taking the votes of people who want a better NHS, fairer taxes, stronger social services, roads that aren’t full of potholes and a government that’s not operating in the interest of millionaires. If the media won’t make it clear that the party they are looking for isn’t UKIP it’s Labour, then we have to. Over and over and over and over again.

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