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2016 – Year of Complacency

[ 162 ] January 5, 2017 |

[Thanks so much to Erik for his kind intro and the rest of you for your welcome messages. For the record: anti-ketchup, all the way. Don’t get me started on mayonnaise.]

This we know: 2016 was awful. But now that the year has turned, it’s time to start figuring out what exactly made it so awful.

My first attempt at an explanation: 2016 was a year of complacency.

Just after the longest night of 2016, Steven Pinker tried to convince us that things actually weren’t as bad as they seemed. Some of what he said is worth considering (not just because he wrote before Carrie Fisher died, which clearly brought the year down considerably further):

Look at history and data, not headlines. The world continues to improve in just about every way. Extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality are at historic lows; vaccinations, basic education, including girls, and democracy are at all-time highs.

War deaths have risen since 2011 because of the Syrian civil war, but are a fraction of the levels of the 1950s through the early 1990s, when megadeath wars and genocides raged all over the world. Colombia’s peace deal marks the end of the last war in the Western Hemisphere, and the last remnant of the Cold War. Homicide rates in the world are falling, and the rate in United States is lower than at any time between 1966 and 2009. Outside of war zones, terrorist deaths are far lower than they were in the heyday of the Weathermen, IRA, and Red Brigades.

And therein lies the problem: peace and prosperity have made us complacent (“us” here being a Western and predominantly white elite). 2016 brought some resounding rejections of things whose importance we couldn’t be bothered to remember.

For someone who spends a lot of time thinking about Europe in the twentieth century, Brexit (and other anti-EU movements in Greece, France, etc.) was baffling. The European Union has its faults, to be sure. But no matter how annoyed you are about the disappearance of incandescent light bulbs (or real issues, like a flawed asylum system), you have to admit that none of those compare to the horrors of the Second World War.

The EU was brought into being because over thirty-two million people died in Europe in WWII. Thirty-two. Million. Sure, it’s great to travel from Paris to Brussels without showing a passport or changing money, but the real benefits of the EU should still be measured in human lives. We can—and should—change imperfect systems (slow and ugly as that process can be). But blithely trashing the thing that finally broke an entire continent’s regular cycle of bloodshed makes no sense—unless we recognize that the Brexiters had forgotten too much. Genocide, atrocity, and the deep deprivations of the home front are hard to remember—harder still after decades of domestic peace.

Similar arguments can be made about other 2016 decisions. Nationalist retrenchment and anti-trade-ism take root in the comfort of taking technology for granted—of forgetting the role that globalization played in creating the smart phone from which you launch your Twitter rants. Anti-migration policies and xenophobia thrive when we lose sight of how and why people traveled in the first place (we asked them to come—sometimes we forced them). Nuclear disarmament looks like weakness only as long as you’ve forgotten the visceral fear of mutually assured destruction.

We’ve spent a lot of time post-Brexit, post-Trump victory, talking about those who have been left behind—those who haven’t shared in the benefits of the past few decades. But there aren’t enough of the left-behinds to explain the national votes in the UK and the US. Without ignoring the real pain, fear, and anger that exist, we also have to recognize that there are swathes of folks who decided that better wasn’t good enough, that turning back the clocks was the easy answer, and that unmaking the past-half-century could come without cost.

So, let’s make 2017 a year of remembering. Let’s pause, look back, and try to recall just how bad things have been. Let’s learn from the struggles and the costs of social, economic, and political progress. Let’s refuse to be complacent and realize what got us here.

In that spirit: what exactly should we keep in mind? What are the moments (or movements) we should reflect on as we face the world in the new year? What do we need to remember?

Leave your suggestions (for topics, for sources, for analyses) below.

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Battling for the soul of my party

[ 173 ] July 16, 2016 |

So, in my inimitable way, I went out last night and got happily drunk.  Said drunk excursion commenced with chatting with several of my MA students. It turns out that one is a member of the Labour Party, and voted for Jeremy Corbyn last summer.  He’s not now. Nor am I, even though I voted for him with some questionable eloquence last summer.

Over the course of the evening, which involved a lot of music and alcohol, and a free ride home courtesy of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, I spoke to five members of the party, none of whom I knew were members before chatting with them (hence they’re not very active in said party). In this non scientific sample, they all will not vote for Jeremy. Their reasons vary. Two didn’t in the first place, yet three did.  Ultimately it came down to rationality.  As the (second, I was there for the shift change) bartender at my local said, “I joined the party so we could win and make a difference. We can’t win with this guy.”

Yesterday morning, the results of the council by-elections were filtering down, and the Corbyn faithful focussed on one result in particular:

yesterday

One of the comments read “There were other wonderful results too.”

To which I replied on social media
lananope
“Imagine if the result had gone the other way, the kind of analysis we would see” . . . well, the result overall *did* go the other way, pal, and it’s a bloody good thing this isn’t in the news. There were ten by-elections on Thursday. Of those, the Lib Dems gained four, and the Tories gained one (at our expense). Of the seven where there was a Labour candidate in the previous election, we lost share in five elections (-11.3, -7.4, -5.0, -4.4, -4.1) and only gained in two (+10.6, +8.9). The winners on the night were the Liberals by far. We didn’t do so well, outside of the election in Bradford and the one in Islington, and if we can’t win in those two we have much larger problems than a leadership struggle.
Anecdotally, and now, vaguely empirically, Jeremy is not the way forward.

Boris Johnson, Diplomat

[ 117 ] July 14, 2016 |

boris

I’ve been trying to make some sort of rational sense of this all morning. There are two rough theories which work together.  First, given the tone of her speech last night, it’s clear she’s trying to position domestic policy towards the currently unoccupied huge gaping hole in the center of British politics. This also squares with her sacking of George Osborne, which has been interpreted as an implicit rejection of austerity. Even Ed Miliband liked her speech last night:

edtweet

To move to the middle ground, she needs to have her right flank secure. The right of the Conservative party in post-Referendum Britain is the Leave camp. Hence, the new job of Secretary of State for Exiting the EU goes to Leaver David Davis, the new job of Secretary of State for International Trade to fellow Leaver Liam Fox(!), and then the Foreign Secretary goes to noted diplomat Boris Johnson. It makes some rational sense to give the Leavers these jobs, almost a win-win: Brexiters in the party and electorate are placated, and as there’s no good way through Brexit, when things go south they’re lined up to take the blame for the resulting failure:

brexitvenn

 

This is a high risk strategy, however, as ultimately it is May’s judgment to elevate these fall guys; she’s banking that the blame won’t rebound on her. If she pulls this all off, and the odds are on her side considering the level of attentiveness that the opposition is paying to the government at the moment, it’s easy to grow despondent about the near and mid-term chances of the Labour Party. Several events would need to occur for Labour to have a decent chance at winning an election by 2020. Labour will have to get its shit together, the economic fallout from Brexit will have to be significantly dire, and the sitting government will have to be perceived as responsible for the disaster. This is where all the Leavers at the wheel makes the May government vulnerable: the connection is easier to make. It’s also a bad plan, as all but the most cynical of us on the left sincerely hope that we somehow manage to get through the coming storm relatively unscathed in economic terms.

Back to the purported topic of the post: it does not make any sense to place Boris Johnson in that particular position. It’s something right out of the Onion. Furthermore, Gove was sacked outright. Perhaps it’s the one vaguely Brexit-related role where Boris can cause the least damage. Perhaps May’s staff were all on acid.

The State Department’s Press Secretary mostly keeps his cool, while Angela Eagle (note, right as she’s speaking about Boris) doesn’t (I have to admit to having watched that clip about six times this morning).  Following are several lists, none claiming to be comprehensive (which is likely an impossible goal), outlining the litany of countries and foreign politicians that Boris has insulted in his personal path-of-destruction: Slate, which includes this somewhat relevant gem:

During Hillary Clinton’s first run for the White House, in 2007, Johnson referred to her as “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital,” criticizing her for embodying “purse-lipped political correctness,” and reviving a long-discredited conspiracy theory that claims she and then-President Bill Clinton conspired to murder Vince Foster, a close friend and White House aide who committed suicide in 1993.

This, which opens with the truth:

At a time when America is in a full-blown national discussion over race, our closest ally, Great Britain, has appointed a new foreign secretary (aka secretary of state), Boris Johnson, with a troubling history of racism.

The Guardian, limiting itself to only eight examples from only the past decade, and BuzzFeed doing what BuzzFeed does. This is only a sampling of the links I’ve come across this morning.

I’m left with just this: just what the hell was Theresa May thinking?

 

 

 

 

An Organised Opposition, Ready to Govern

[ 172 ] July 13, 2016 |

JC

Hah.  Who am I kidding?

The Labour Party National Executive Committee, a relative obscure body to most until yesterday, voted 18-14 following a six hour meeting last night to allow Jeremy Corbyn to be listed on the leadership ballot without having to clear a threshold of nominations by MPs and MEPs (currently 51). Considering the politics involved, this was the correct decision. That said, the NEC had an out; while focusing solely on the relevant clause in the rule book makes a strong case for the incumbent’s automatic inclusion, the rules taken in their entirety grant the NEC the power to basically make shit up as they go:

I don’t think Labour’s existing rules framework can reasonably be read so as to exclude Jeremy Corbyn from the coming leadership ballot of members. I agree with Mark Henderson. There is a real danger that trying to do so based on the existing rules framework set out in Chapter 4 clause II could be successfully challenged in court.

But the rule book gives the NEC power to vary that rules framework, and it would in my view be reasonable for it to do so in this unforeseen, unprovided for and disputed situation. If it does vary the rules to require the no-confidence incumbent to reach the same nomination threshold as his challengers, I doubt the courts would intervene.

Ultimately, like SCOTUS, the NEC is a political body rendering a political decision, and in this case from a pure (perhaps short term) political perspective, they made the right call.  However, late in the meeting (some have argued that Corbyn dropped the ball; I had a link late last night but I’ve misplaced it) the NEC established different eligibility requirements for the upcoming leadership election. The £3 supporter is out, and a six-month freeze date is set for membership eligibility. While the BBC were reporting the cutoff date as 12 January last night, it’s still unclear (but it won’t be far off 12 January). New members of the party who joined after the freeze date are still eligible, but for a £25 surcharge (this being the Labour Party, clarity is a dangerous concept, so there are additional routes to the franchise discussed below). Some Corbyn supporters are, of course, outraged (!!!) at the eligibility requirements. For example (EDIT, to remove ambiguity, Peston is a journalist):

Peston

I don’t know exactly how it went down at the meeting, but however it did, it was a clever move to constrict the electorate. That said, the membership surge since Corbyn was named leader in September until Brexit was almost certainly motivated solely by Corbyn, but we don’t know how these 100,000 post-Brexit members would break in a leadership contest. Furthermore, this is not a new thing in the Labour Party. Eligibility to vote at the CLP and branch levels of the party (e.g. to vote on selection for parliamentary and council candidates) has long required a minimum six-month membership. Last summer, many were bemused that the barriers to voting for the leader of the entire party were virtually non-existent (£3) whereas a minimal six-month membership was (and remains) required before voting on selection for candidates to the local council.

There are also backdoors to voting for leader, which is being spread widely in Corbyn-supporting social media circles:

howtovote

There are many things fascinating about this ongoing storm, but one that I’ve consistently found the most bemusing is the ratio of energy expended in some circles in the Labour Party at perceived internal “enemies” to the energy expended against the Conservative Party. My feed is full of 38Degrees petitions about how Labour should scrap the outrageous franchise requirements for the leadership election, but barely a mention that, umm, hey? we’re getting a new Prime Minister later today who was elected by 199 votes out of an entire electorate of 329. Instead of focusing his energy on the real opposition, the shadow chancellor instead pointed out that a significant number of his fellow Labour MPs are “fucking useless” as plotters.

Moving on, in skimming the rest of the comments from yesterday, I do want to make one point of clarification. I don’t necessarily believe that the PLP should have supremacy over the membership writ large. However, I do think that the two should be structurally required to work together and agree. In short, a vote of no confidence in the party leader should require the leader to resign (and disallowed from standing in the subsequent election). I also believe that the PLP should somehow have an equal say to that of the membership in electing the leader. Giving the Parliamentary MPs an equal weight in this process is really the only way that parliamentary government (or opposition) can work. Hypothetically, if a snap election were to be held by the Autumn, Labour either wins or attains a plurality of MPs, yet an overwhelming majority of those MPs neither support nor can work with the party leader, who becomes the Prime Minister? Nicola Sturgeon?  Balanced against this is that the membership should not have to accept just anybody as leader that the PLP forces upon them. How to do this effectively (and in a manner acceptable to all parties) is an open question. But, given current conditions (a leader who has strong support amongst the members, is happy to ignore tacit norms, yet has at best the support of only 20% of the PLP and of those, few are considered heavyweights or really acceptable to the broader electorate as a government in waiting) an infinite loop of dysfunction is likely.

To make things more lively, Owen Smith announced that he’s likewise challenging Jeremy Corbyn, although he still needs to gather the 51 endorsements of MPs/MEPs. Obviously, the coup against Corbyn didn’t have much of a plan beyond an elegantly timed cascade of resignations from the shadow cabinet. It was assumed that he would conform to the tacit norm by resigning, so why bother planning for the unexpected. He didn’t resign, so here we are.

If I’m Theresa May, my first order of business is a snap election. The opposition are the very definition of disarray, and this has the side benefit of pushing Article 50 back several more months. I’m sure there are risks to the Conservatives of an election (the potential for a greater UKIP presence in Parliament at the expense of Labour, or that she could lose . . . ) but it seems to me that the benefits outweigh the risk, especially when her own majority remains just as small as David Cameron’s.

 

Rules and Labourshambles

[ 284 ] July 12, 2016 |

javier-mays-law

Javier Sajuria posted this over at the UCL Constitution Unit last week while I was busy finding new and efficient ways to haemorrhage cash in Geneva.  It’s worth a read, and applies some political sciency-type stuff to the situation that the Labour Party finds itself in.  Rules matter, they aren’t neutral (implied), and the Labour Party failed on two levels: codifying this set of rules in the first place in 2014, and then the PLP failed in their role as gatekeeper by allowing Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot at the last minute. The Conservatives, in contrast, made it more difficult for their MPs to fail in this regard by forcing a winnowing of the field presented to the membership to only two candidates.

The final two paragraphs capture the problem Labour faces:

Finally, under the current rules, the leader of the Labour Party is not accountable to the PLP. This might seem obvious given that those voting for the leader are the members and supporters, not the MPs. However, the current situation shows how important it is that the leader is able to bring together all groups within the party. As we have seen earlier this week, not even a vote of no-confidence with over 80 per cent support can force Corbyn to resign, nor stop him from putting his name forward in the event of a challenge of his leadership. Under the current situation, is difficult to see how the Labour Party can provide a strong opposition to the government, if any at all.

The main take home point from this exercise is that the Labour crisis is not (only) ideological. Preference heterogeneity within parties is a well-documented phenomenon and the internal mechanisms should be able to cope with it. This is exactly what has been failing in the case of Labour. MPs were not able to understand their role as gatekeepers and guardians of party unity, but also the rules do not give them enough power to fix the problem. It seems that in this case, the leader of the party is willing to test how much he can steer the party to the left before breaking it.

Back in August I discussed (neither as pointedly nor as eloquently) a problem the party might face with its electoral system:

Labour have invited such shenanigans, and have only themselves to blame for creating electoral rules that cast a modicum of doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome.

In re-reading that post, it’s apparent how the PLP worked out just a bit too late that they failed in forwarding candidate(s) that would not negatively effect party unity. Assuming that the NEC allows Corbyn on the leadership ballot automatically (and he will, of course, fight the NEC if they do not), he will probably win. His support within the party membership is down, but not enough to make it close in my estimation. He’s ahead of Angela Eagle 50% – 40% in a leadership contest, though this is against the backdrop of his net favourability (among party members) falling from +45% to +3% between May and (very) early July; in May 60% of members wanted him to lead the party into a general election, while now it’s 41%. These figures do not include the three-quid supporters, and this (astonishingly misguided) facility will again be in place:

What about the £3 supporters?

People who signed up to vote last year under the £3 supporter scheme will not automatically receive a ballot this time around – so they will need to part with another £3 and register again. This scheme will re-open once the NEC has confirmed the timetable for the election.

It’s not ludicrous to suggest that the £3 supporters will break for Corbyn in a leadership election.

The Labour Party is faced with a leader (under the current rules, this could be any leader) who is not accountable to the PLP. In a parliamentary system, this is dangerous, as we’re witnessing. It hard codes in an increased probability of dysfunction, and given that we delight in dysfunction when we’re at peak organisation, we don’t need the help from the rule book. If there’s a snap election, and Labour lose by a margin worse than 2015, what prevents Corbyn from hanging on as leader? Nothing. Sure, there’d be a leadership challenge, but the current rules combined with the cult-of-personality that the hard left have for Corbyn, it’s possible that this continues in perpetuity. The rules as currently constructed would not prevent this, even following a crushing electoral debacle.

Such an electoral tsunami is several years off, as odds are against a snap election. Theresa May should call one, for both electoral advantage and democratic legitimisation. Since the referendum, the Conservative lead over Labour has increased by four points in the ICM poll, but this is not due to an erosion of support for Labour but by what appears to be the Tories gaining support at the expense of UKIP; either way the Tories have an 8 point lead according to ICM. However, past experience suggests an election will not be called. The last three times there has been an internal leadership change that resulted in a new Prime Minister (Wilson to Callaghan in 1976, Thatcher to Major in 1990, Blair to Brown in 2007) there was not a resulting snap election. All three heirs saw out the statutory limit of the extant parliament before calling an election.

It appears that the only chance that the Labour Party have of shaking Jeremy Corbyn is to get obliterated in an election (and even then the outcome is not guaranteed). Of course, no sane person in the party would ever go into an election hoping for a devastating defeat (or a defeat of any variety). I’m not confident that some Corbynistas would likewise go into a general election behind Angela Eagle hoping for victory, however.

Theresa May to be Next UK PM

[ 278 ] July 11, 2016 |

theresa may

As Andrea Leadsom has just withdrawn from the race to be Conservative Party leader:

Andrea Leadsom says her backing from MPs is not “sufficient support to lead a strong and stable government” if she were to win the leadership election.

Additionally, a not-too-subtle dig at the opposition party.

This opens up several questions, most namely the on-again, off-again snap election.  Given that May will only have faced her fellow Conservative MPs in deciding the PM, and not the much broader electorate (and highly representative of the general UK population!) of Conservative Party members, combined with the somewhat disorganised state of the Labour Party, it’s in her interests to call an election as soon as possible. I’m willing to bet that we can find record of her and a good chunk of the Conservative front bench criticising Gordon Brown’s lack of calling a snap election in 2007 when he assumed leadership of the Labour Party uncontested.

While May was Remain, she was even more puke-warm than Corbyn. She’s on record today making it clear that there’s not going to be any back-door attempt to remain in the EU.

I’m on the radio in half an hour or so about political predictions for the remainder of 2016, and one of the points I was going to make was not to rule Leadsom out, even though the only poll we’ve seen had May ahead 63% – 31% among the Conservative Party membership. While not an explicit prediction, its veracity is consistent with any prediction I’ve made of late.

Today in British Understatement

[ 125 ] July 6, 2016 |

Chilcot says there was no need to go to war in March 2003.”

And . . .

“Blair “overestimated his ability” to influence US decisions on Iraq.”

“the inquiry does not accept Blair’s claim that it was impossible to predict post-invasion problems”.

“Blair presented the intelligence about Iraq’s WMD “with a certainty that was not justified”.”

Who would have thunk it?

Brexit: The Continuing Fallout

[ 168 ] July 2, 2016 |

moon

When the NYT runs a series of stories about the cross between East Enders and Game of Thrones that British politics has become, it’s somewhat serious.

As part of the expert-sourced fear mongering in the run in to the referendum vote, one concern was that the financial services industry in London would haemorrhage jobs to some alternative location in the European Union. The response from the Leave Campaign was, of course, all rainbows and unicorns and lovely, sweet magical fairy dust. Well, turns out that a critical component of an already shaky economic foundation in Britain will lose jobs:

I spoke this week to several high-ranking executives at major financial institutions that collectively employ tens of thousands in London. While none of them have any immediate plans to move their European headquarters from Britain’s capital, all agreed they would eventually shift a significant number of highly paid employees to cities that remain in the European Union.

One executive in charge of relocation (who like the others, spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue) said the percentage of employees in his firm who might be required to move ranged from 10 percent to 40 percent. “Multiply that throughout the industry and it’s tens of thousands of people and their families,” he said. “And bear in mind that most of these people are millionaires.”

Helpfully, the NYT has graded the contenders for the next London here. Surprisingly, Amsterdam comes out on top, narrowly edging out Frankfort.

The NYT also has an at-times funny treatment on Boris here.

Labour are still engaged in a potentially fatal game of chicken. Tis is probably not an optimal strategy for establishing your bonafides as a government in waiting. And John McDonnell is making about as much coherent sense as the dreamiest of the Leave campaigners:

Amid the confusion, McDonnell used his speech to try and present a coherent Labour plan for a post-Brexit future, calling for the UK to remain in the EU single market and for the financial services industry to keep its privileged “passported” trading status.

However, the shadow chancellor appeared to dismiss the idea of the party seeking to block departure from the EU, saying: “The people have spoken and their decision must be respected.”

He also predicted that Brexit would end unrestricted travel and employment for EU nationals in the UK. “Let’s be absolutely clear on the immigration issue,” McDonnell said. “If Britain leaves the European Union, the free movement of people, of labour, will then come to an end.”

Sorry, mate, you’re not going to get to cherry-pick the best bits of EU membership without having the bits you don’t like.

Theresa May is going to be Britain’s next PM. She was beating the crap out of Boris a couple days ago, and now is well ahead of Mr. Charisma.  At least until things change.

In the week since the vote, hate crimes have overwhelmingly increased. It’s ugly out there. I’ve heard anecdotal stories from people I know as well that range from low-level abuse and harassment to worse.

But, it’s not all bad news. The march of Wales inexplicably continues, having defeated Belgium 3-1 last night.

 

Random Musings on the Continuing British Fiasco

[ 362 ] June 30, 2016 |

Conservative Party Chief Whip Michael Gove addresses delegates on the final day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, central England, on October 1, 2014. Talk of treason cast a shadow over Britain's Conservative party conference this week, where gossip raged over who might be next to defect to the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP). AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

Michael Gove has joined the cast of thousands vying to be the next Conservative Party leader, hence Prime Minister.  Seriously. Yesterday while enjoying a pint or several with fellow bemused Labourites, we figured Gove was the next Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Boris government. After all, he screwed up education and alienated all the teachers, then messed up the justice system, so why not have a crack at what’s left of the economy?

His personal path of destruction has loftier ambitions.

Corbyn is not going anywhere, and will likely face a challenge from Angela Eagle. She will probably lose. I’ve asked this before, but I’m at a loss to understand how he can run an opposition without the support of enough MPs to fill out a shadow cabinet? A country based on an unwritten constitution runs smoothly on tacit norms. Corbyn is ignoring one of those tacit norms. As was brought up in comments yesterday, according to David Ward, Chief Policy advisor to John Smith, the then-Leader didn’t think there was the need to hard code the requirement to resign into the Labour Party rule book when he was redrafting it in 1993:

If the Parliamentary Labour Party had passed a motion of no confidence in John Smith he would have resigned immediately. How do I know this? Because he told me he would. In 1993 during the Labour Party debates on the creation of an electoral college we discussed the lack of a mechanism to eject an unpopular or ineffective leader. He argued there’s no need for one. Without any hesitation he told me that any leader who lost a motion of no confidence in the PLP would have no alternative but to instantly resign.

John Smith was acutely aware that the PLP is the part of the Labour Movement that directly represents millions of Labour voters. He knew that any leader lacking the support of Labour MPs would not have the slightest chance of persuading voters to elect a Labour Government. That’s why he favoured the adoption of an electoral college made up of the three pillars of the Labour Movement; MPs, ordinary members, and the affiliated unions that created the Party in the first place. This system gave the elected leadership a powerful link with trade unionists, members, MPs and their voters. If that link collapses, as it now clearly has with Jeremy Corbyn, then resignation is the only responsible course of action.

To quote a local Labour Councillor and a friend of mine:

The Labour Party leader effectively is leader of three things: the Party at large, the Parliamentary Party, and the Labour Party staff (although Ian McNicol, General Secretary is de jure in charge there). Just in terms of organisational functionality, if they cannot command substantial support in two of those three areas, then their ability to lead the Party as a whole is nullified.

The Labour Party itself is supposed to be the democratic representative arm of the Labour movement, whose official constituent parts include Trades Unions, various socialist societies, the Co-op Party, and unorganised disparate groups and individuals. Obviously this more disparate movement changes over time. It’s primary purpose is to elect representatives of this movement to positions in Parliament, Councils, and other elected positions. For someone so steeped in the Party, I can only be either astonished that the present leader doesn’t recognise this, or assume he ignores it.

Fortunately for Labour, the chances for a snap election following the naming of the new Conservative leader are receding, with both Johnson and Crabb on record as stating it won’t happen. Apparently the Conservative backbenchers don’t want an election having just had one nearly 14 months ago. The overly optimistic amongst us might read into this that they’re worried. I’m not one of those people. This does, of course, bring to the fore questions regarding democratic legitimacy and quite likely contradicts statements made by several of the contenders back when Gordon Brown supplanted Tony Blair. (Side note: the now notorious “Blairite” Tom Watson orchestrated the coup that deposed Tony Blair in 2007. Such is the loose relationship with reality exhibited by some Corbynistas).

UPDATE: While three days old, Owen Jones on the plight of Labour and the left in Britain. Sobering.

Finally, in skimming the comments from yesterday’s post, I’m delighted that the Daria reference was picked up. I should watch that again.

janelane

 

Post-Brexit Labour: Our Own Omnishambles

[ 481 ] June 29, 2016 |

daria

I was planning on writing about something else this morning, like strategies to avoid Brexit, political and constitutional dilemmas of the same, or the soul-crushing reality of being a life-long Mariners fan (where life-long is measured in the life of the franchise and not me).

Alas.

As expected, the vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership by the Parliamentary Labour Party easily passed, 172-40, or 81% of sitting Labour MPs (who voted; there were a handful of abstentions and even several “soiled ballots” — so roughly 75% of Labour MPs are on record as opposing the leader).  This follows the resignations of two-thirds of his shadow cabinet, and all the various positions have yet to be filled (and considering when one adds in parliamentary private secretaries and junior shadow ministers, simply stated, there might not be enough Corbyn supporters remaining in Parliament to fill all the roles). Indeed, this morning the SNP has stated that it will request to be named the official opposition (no link, as this is just breaking):

A bit more on the news we mentioned earlier that the Scottish National Party will today ask to be declared the official Oppositon at Westminster.

They say their leader Angus Robertson enjoys more support than Jeremy Corbyn.

There are 56 SNP MPs – but only 40 Labour MPs have expressed support for Mr Corbyn.

They also say they are able to fill all the relevant shadow posts to the government, unlike Mr Corbyn.

They point to Parliamentary rules which say the official Opposition must be “prepared to assume power.”

A source said: “We have looked at Erskine May (the Parliamentary rule book) and will put it to the Speaker that the Labour Party no longer meet obligations to remain as the official Opposition.”

The expected response from the Corbyn and Momentum corners are that none of these MPs ever supported Jeremy, so this shouldn’t be a surprise and holds no democratic legitimacy. This is partially true.  It’s no secret that a significant share of the PLP were wary of Corbyn’s leadership, and a core of those on the right and center of the party took themselves out of contention for shadow cabinet positions (which troubled me; the shadow cabinet would have been more effective and representative had Liz Kendall and / or Yvette Cooper taken a role for the sake of the party). And yes, a significant group of MPs have been dreaming of a coup against Corbyn from September, so to some degree this was long in the cards.  However, from what I’ve heard, the majority of the PLP were firmly in the center — not knee-jerk hostile to Corbyn, and willing to give him time and a chance. It stands to reason that anybody who agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet was at minimum open minded about Corbyn’s leadership. It’s one thing to accept that a disaffected core existed on the right of the PLP hoping for this moment, but it’s another thing entirely to explicitly and publicly lose the support of 2/3rds of your own shadow cabinet.

As I stated yesterday, it’s close to impossible to lead an effective opposition, government, or even a marginalised political party if an overwhelming majority of your MPs are rebelling against your leadership. The response of Corbyn and his supporters is to hang on and cite the democratic mandate of the 251,417 (59.5%) votes he received in last summer’s leadership election. As I don’t shy away from stating, I was one of those 251,417.

However, there’s an alternative narrative of democratic legitimacy that is not likely to be warmly received by Corbyn’s supporters.  As MilitantlyAardvark said in comments yesterday: “A decent case could be made that MPs are elected by the people of their constituency and therefore represent a broader and more genuinely democratic section of Labour voters than the relatively small number of party members.”  This narrative is also here in The Guardian:

A defiant Mr Corbyn tonight brushed off the thumbs-down that four in five colleagues gave him, by reciting the rulebook which puts the leadership decision in the hands of the members who he believes remain as loyal as ever, although – amid such chaos – can that be assumed? More fundamentally, the rulebook becomes immaterial when there is no ability to do the basic job. The rules of a charity may, for example, put the appointment of a chief executive in the hands of the trustees, but that chief executive will not be able to function if the staff all want him out. And in the Corbyn case, the option of replacing “the staff” does not exist without showing contempt to the electorate, since they are not mere party functionaries, but MPs elected by 9.3 million Labour voters. And if the election comes this year, there would be no time to go for wholesale reselections to pick a new slate of Corbynite candidates, even if Mr Corbyn had not solemnly promised to avoid this unwise course.

That’s right. The PLP were elected by 9.3 million voters in May 2015. These people are (or at least should be) significantly more important to the operation of a major political party with aspirations (however dimming) of one day again returning to government.

That argument has not nor will it make any headway amongst the core Corbyn support.  Reviewing the discussion in the various pro-Corbyn and Momentum groups I belong to in social media, the tenor is that any criticism of Jeremy is apostasy. The PLP is the enemy (aside form the 40 who voted confidence) including those who once served in the shadow cabinet but have since resigned. It’s fascinating to read. And depressing. Politics in a democracy requires the building of coalitions, of compromise, of reaching consensual outcomes. Jeremy’s core support doesn’t appear to reflect this reality or even accept its legitimacy.

Unlike the Leave Campaign, the Corbyn team and supporters have a plan should he be allowed to stand, and win, the forthcoming leadership election:

“We will offer the most radical leadership reform package ever,” said one insider. “Reselection, recall, a lock on leadership elections that only members can remove. We will bring it.”

This is elaborated upon here. It’s difficult to say if this is really the plan, or wishful thinking taking the shape of rumour.  It would help solve the dilemma I wrote about yesterday, that if we’re going to allow the leader to be elected by, and only by, a direct vote of the membership, the elected leader needs the PLP on side. Having Corbynistas take control of a majority of the Constituency Labour Parties, and force re-selection of candidates for Parliament, is a means to this end.  It will result in bad blood, and could possibly result in a fundamental split in the party, where Corbyn and Momentum have control of the name and machinery, while the PLP breaks off to form another SDLP SDP (or even join the Liberal Democrats), presumably dragging a share of their CLP supporters with them.

Regardless of how this ends up, if there’s a snap election between October and December, there’s probably not enough time to seize control of enough CLPs, nor will there really be enough time for a proper leadership election to progress. Last summer’s leadership election took three months from the close of nominations to the declaration of the winner.

Effectively, the Labour Party has defaulted on its job to be an organised opposition to the equally disorganised Conservatives precisely when the country needs precisely that.

Brexit: What Can the Opposition Do?

[ 413 ] June 28, 2016 |

 

 

 

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Jeremy Corbyn chairs a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet (a meme that did the rounds yesterday)

Seeing as how it’s Labour, the obvious choice is to hit the self-destruct button. A vote of no-confidence in the Corbyn leadership will be held today, with an estimated 150 MPs expected to vote against the leader (out of 229 Labour MPs in the House of Commons). Given Jeremy Corbyn is exhibiting personality traits more familiar with a certain US Senator from Vermont, he’s not expected to resign. This creates a problem (on several levels), not helped in that the Labour Party isn’t even in agreement on its own rules:

And there will also be an attempt to stop Corbyn standing again, with a legal battle pending as two pieces of advice from lawyers have drawn opposite conclusions about whether the standing leader needs to secure MP nominations in the face of a challenge.

Whoever ends up on the leadership ballot, current rules dictate that it goes to a vote of the membership. If Corbyn is on the ballot, he should win. He won 60% of the vote in September, and since assuming the leadership of the party, membership has increased significantly.

The current highly fractious nature of the party (not to be confused with the business-as-usual fractious state of the Labour Party) offers us a delicious dilemma. To be effective, in government or opposition, the leader of the party needs his or her MPs largely on side. When elected leader, most of the high profile MPs of the right and center of the party ruled out participating in his shadow cabinet, and over the past 48 hours he’s lost the majority of what remained. It’s clear that Corbyn does not have the support of Parliamentary Labour Party, and that’s a problem. While the initial group who signalled their lack of support by rejecting the opportunity to serve in the first shadow cabinet did so on ideological grounds, the current tsunami of defections appear to be largely based on the assessment that Corbyn lacks the competence as a leader for what is expected to be a snap general election.

But, the dilemma. How can Labour square the current system for electing the party leader with the very real need to have a strong relationship with the majority of the PLP? If Labour is stuck with Corbyn, there’s really only two options, neither pretty. First, the system can be scrapped (which will not happen so long as Corbyn is leader). While it should not return to the “electoral college” system that elected Ed Miliband, where membership, MPs/MEPs, and trade unions had equal weighting), the PLP should have some sort of input. On the other hand, Momentum (the campaign group set up around Corbyn supporters; they function as a party within a party more or less) could attempt to “de-select” sitting MPs when it comes time for Constituency Labour Parties to select their candidates for the general election. That may or not be effective.

Either choice is sub-optimal, and is guaranteed to piss a lot of people off.

Regardless of what happens, should Corbyn go (either on his own or forced out) the party stands to lose a not-insignificant number of paid up members. Corbyn has a similar hold on his supporters as Bernie Sanders does / did. He is viewed as transcending politics into a near messianic figure. I’ve witnessed this in FTF discussion as well as among the several pro-Corbyn groups I belong to in the social media universe. Ideological purity reigns, and no criticism of the messiah is warranted. Anybody who comes out against Corbyn is either a traitor to the cause, or worse, labelled a Blairite. More energy in these groups is dedicated to criticising the moderate and “Blairite” wing of the party than the real enemy, and Tony Blair (who, recall, did what no other Labour leader had ever done by winning three successive elections, and was one of only four Labour leaders to win an election) receives significantly more attention in these groups than, say, Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron, or Nigel Farage. What is hilarious to watch is how each resignation from the shadow cabinet is being explained as either Tony Blair’s direct involvement, or all of those who resigned were Blairites at heart. Of course, this is rubbish; any MP with true Blairite tendencies ruled out serving in the shadow cabinet in September, and to cite two examples, it would be difficult to characterise either Hilary Benn or Angela Eagle as Blairites.

I identify as on the left wing of the party, but I guess in the parlance of the Labour Party, it would be among the so-called “soft left”. I voted for Corbyn, and posted about my reasoning here. That said, I do think that actually winning an election is a pretty good thing, and more critical than ideological purity (which premised that post in September). I still hold to my basic analysis in the September post, but following ineffective leadership of the Labour In campaign (which is stating it charitably) combined with his inability to mobilise much support amongst the PLP, I am becoming increasing less convinced that he is the leader to mobilise this hypothesised expanded electorate that I initially believed.

Lexit: The Fool’s Journey

[ 288 ] June 20, 2016 |

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A recent poll (10 June) estimated that 44% of those who voted Labour in the 2015 General Election will support Brexit. This was perhaps the poll that began the general freak-out amongst remain supporters. That said, neither that number nor the top line figure of 55% leave are likely to survive the vote come Friday morning.

Brexit is an emotional, nationalistic movement, and my guess is that a strong majority of that 44% figure are not motivated by the Lexit arguments. Summed up, the basic argument is that the European Union has been little more than a neo-liberal project, concerned only with big business and trade, and worse, would prevent the UK from becoming the progressive, socialist paradise should we ever, you know, elect such a government. Most Labour-Brexit support want the same (ill-informed, misguided) things all Brexit supporters want: their “country back”, an end to unregulated immigration, and to snub their collective noses at the elite.  According to at least two vocal members of the audience of a panel I chaired a few weeks back debating a “better EU”, I represent said elite.  (I’m still waiting for my membership card, instructions for the secret handshake, and the financial stability that membership of the elite promises). But, there are those that genuinely believe that Britain, and the left in Britain, would be better off and in a better position to effect progressive chance should we leave the EU.

This is a good, brief read on the folly of Lexit-ism. It outlines how ignorance over the EU is driving the left as well as the right, albeit from different perspectives entirely such that the EU is rendered some sort of schizophrenic institutional blob:

If you listen to some left-wing voices – proponents of what is being called Lexit – the European Union is an undemocratic, neo-liberal empire. It is ruled by Angela Merkel and an army of cold-hearted, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels who spend their lives plotting to privatise British public services and deliberately making life in Southern Europe as miserable as possible.

Listening to both left-wing and right-wing arguments for Brexit can be rather confusing. Similar to Schrödinger’s immigrant who lazes around on benefits while simultaneously stealing jobs, the EU seems to be at the same time both communist and predatory capitalist. It has transformed Europe into a fortress while at the same time opening its borders to mass immigration. The EU’s rescue packages for Southern Europe have been too stingy while at the same constituting an outrageous burden to British taxpayers.

But here’s some truth:

But that is not the case for the UK. Britain has been driven by neoliberal economic policy for the past four decades. The EU has actually brought back all kinds of protections for workers, consumers and the environment. Among other things the EU forced the UK to introduce the statutory right to paid leave. Before the implementation of the EU Working Time Directive in 1998, two million British employees did not receive any paid holiday at all.

European integration has clearly been a left-wing corrective to British neoliberalism. Meanwhile, it was actually the UK that has pushed many of those developments in the EU that the left opposes.

The government of the United Kingdom lacks any sort of real checks and balances that can be found in many democratic systems. Yes, there’s the toothless House of Lords, who can be somewhat of a nuisance to the government of the day if they so desire, but then said government can effectively quash any objection the House of Lords raises by invoking the Parliament Acts 1911 & 1949. Within this constraint, their power is limited as the Lords can not muck around with supply bills or anything mentioned in the governing party’s electoral manifesto.  What does that leave?  The Queen.  The monarch hasn’t withheld royal assent since 1708, and I’m thinking that the left doesn’t want to rely on the monarch to share in its goals regardless.

The European Union effectively provides the left of the UK with an implicit check on the ability for Conservative parliaments to make life harsh. Furthermore, in the event that Britain elects a left-ish Labour government (where left-ish equates to the left of Blair and Brown) the EU does not prevent a lot of the left’s dream agenda (which is a common critique of the EU by Lexiters):

Nor do arguments about the EU holding Britain back from re-nationalising public services and the railways stand up to much scrutiny.

The privatisation of British public utilities had a lot to do with British politics and very little with European integration. While the EU Rail Directive opened up the railways for private competition, it did not oblige member states to privatise state-owned service providers. In fact, the UK was the only big EU state to do so.

If a left-wing British government tried to renationalise the railways, or any other utilities, the EU would be the least of its worries. The main obstacles would come from within the UK, most notably from the private sector and, indeed, the electorate. British voters are – whether the left likes it or not – far more economically conservative than most of continental Europe.

The piece correctly points out that the only way for this dream to work is for a left-leaning Labour government (or, let’s face it, a Lab-SNP coalition) to get elected. Alas, there are problems with this dream.

Brexit could only be in the left’s interest if it was followed up by consequential left-wing politics. It would require a Labour party that has significantly moved to the left to get into government very soon.

Giving up on the EU and the left-wing corrective it already provides in exchange for the slim hope of a genuine left-wing government coming to power in Britain is a rather risky gamble. In the short term, Brexit will empower the likes of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who have never made a secret of their Thatcherite fantasies.

In the long term, Brexit might render Labour completely impotent. If Britain leaves the EU against the will of the majority of Scottish voters, their appetite for independence will surge again. Needless to say the left’s electoral potential will diminish for generations without the Scottish vote.

Unmentioned is that any future Conservative government, and there will be more Conservative governments than Labour governments, can simply undo whatever it is that a progressive left government established.

Should the UK vote for Brexit on Thursday, there’s a decent chance that we’ll be governed by some form of a Boris Johnson – Michael Gove administration. This would make Kansas appear well governed in comparison. Which leaves this for our Lexiters:

Any British left wingers thinking of voting to leave the EU over these issues should perhaps instead consider leaving Britain.

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