A recent article in Tribune claimed that: “Big swings to Labour are being reported in a number of council by-elections since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the party.” As far as it goes, it’s certainly true that some swings to Labour in local authority by-elections have been good, but the article then goes on to claim “Labour’s surge in membership at grassroots level is starting to pay off in getting councillors re-elected and in one case gaining a seat.” And that masks a somewhat more complex truth about the current electoral situation.

In the last month there have been 21 local authority by-elections. In three Labour didn’t stand: Hellingly (Wealden), Chatteris (Cambridgeshire) and Aird & Loch Ness (Highlands) and one, Bolsover South, was previously an uncontested Labour seat so change figures are meaningless.

That leaves seventeen contested local authority by-elections in the last month. In those by-elections Labour’s vote went up in nine and down in eight. Continue reading

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The Bees CoverWhy would an author write a story in which the main characters are bees? One reason might be simply that bees are interesting little creatures – fascinatingly social, successful, widespread and apocryphally busy – and we are intimately familiar with them. Their hives and lives offer the writer useful opportunities for allegory and metaphor. Or, perhaps, though we are familiar with bees their experiences are so entirely outside our own that they can also play the role of exotic aliens – seeing the same world as we do but in a radically different way. A third reason might be that as the bee struggles with environmental disruption – climate change, disease, pesticides – these little bugs offer the writer an opportunity to comment on humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with nature.

Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, uses bits of all three of these elements, and part of its weakness is trying to do too much without being convincing about any one point, but it’s worth starting by discussing what the book does rather well. In imagining the bee society – dominated by females and with a central character driven by a powerful maternal instinct – this book’s most interesting aspect is the prominence it gives to the female view. The peculiar institutions of the hive are driven by sisterhoods and the central character’s concerns are distinctively womanly. Some reviews compare the book to Margaret Atwoods’ The Handmaid’s Tale and, while it’s a comparison which doesn’t do this slighter novel many favours, some resonances are clear. Continue reading

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Untold riches and global celebrity? Whatever it was that possessed Oliver Langmead to write Dark Star, we must hope that it was neither of the above. Because who, in their right mind, writes a science fiction/noir detective story (and it is very noir, almost pitch black) in the form of an epic poem? And who, in their right mind, buys such a book?

Reader, I have no answers to any of these questions. Indeed Dark Star is a riddle I have totally failed to solve. In many respects it is a very conventional novel. Its science fictional part – a human pioneer society gradually devolving on a strange planet – is every bit as familiar as its detective elements – a burnt out cop caught in a web of corruption that’s far above his pay grade. The setting is pleasingly peculiar – the story take place on Vox, a city on a world that circles a star that emits no light. Darkness presses in on all sides and this has created a society where light has become a conspicuous sign of wealth and privilege. There is an underclass, condemned to perpetual darkness, who are desperate, vaguely threatening, but ultimately helpless. This weirdness, however, is undercut by familiarity – the streets our protagonists (Virgil and Dante – I know, right?) walk are not alien, they have been worn smooth by the shoe leather of ten thousand hard-boiled shamuses who passed this way before. This rubbing together of the strangeness of place and the conventional familiarity of the detectives’ milieu – corrupt colleagues, dodgy dealing city officials and unworldly scientists – results in a whole that is an uneasy and not always satisfying compromise. Continue reading

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So David Allen Green (@jackofkent) wrote a very good piece about the legal questions around yesterday’s  government announcement that it had used a drone to kill a British citizen fighting in Syria for ISIS. I’m not a lawyer, but his reasoning seems eminently sound.

There are also, I think, sound moral reasons why a government shouldn’t do things like this – even when the person they are targeting is a very bad man planning to do very bad things. I have no problem with people like ISIS getting a good hard smack around the head – they are murderous wretches whose threat isn’t to the West (they best they can hope to inflict on us are relative pinpricks) but to their neighbours – and the poorest and most vulnerable of their neighbours at that. At the same time, I think the decision by the government to take on the positions of judge, jury and executioner on a case like this opens a moral trapdoor that could swallow us all.

But another good reason for thinking that this action is wrong is political. Continue reading

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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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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 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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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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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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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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