Thursday, 5 July 2018

Should Labour be X points in front?

Back when the EU referendum was gathering pace, there was an odd pattern that kept cropping up. Jeremy Corbyn would declare that Labour was backing Remain. Then, in that article, there would usually be a short paragraph that said something along the lines of 'doubts remain about Corbyn's true loyalties'. The commentators, invariably the same thing promoting the line that Corbyn was unreliable on Europe, would then express their shock and outrage when polls dutifully informed them that people were 'confused' as to what Labour's position actually was [1].

This is a prelude to the current discussion, namely the perennial question of whether Labour should be anywhere between 10-20 points in front of the Tories. The rough argument is that if Labour backed being members of the single market they'd be romping home. Naturally, whenever this is queried further as to how, why and where they'd get the voters from, the person saying it suddenly remembers an urgent appointment elsewhere.

A familiar point to make is that the right-wing press are part of this, with their full throated backing of the Tories. A counter-point is that this should be taken as read and Labour should attempt to work around it. I agree in theory with this, but the focus on the right-wing press obscures the dynamics. The real problem is that the main outlets are the right-wing press and the centrist press, the latter of which regulalry concentrates on attacking Corbyn (as the representative of all that is bad about the Labour party and its Brexit policy). The centrist commentators have largely managed to convince themselves that (1) Corbyn has the power to stop Brexit; (2) but he won't because he wants a hard Brexit [2]. There is, thus, very little out there that's giving a realistic portrait of Labour's Brexit policy and why it is the way it is (Stephen Bush is the one that comes to mind).

The reasons for this are the same as the reasons why there was a need to obscure Corbyn's actual support for Remain: because staying in the EU/stopping Brexit is second priority to regaining control of the party, or helping their mates regain control of the party [3]. That was one of the key factors that scuppered Remain, and it's one of the factors scuppering a push for a soft Brexit (i.e. the Tory rebels know that they don't have to actually carry through with their rebellions, because they'll still receive praise for being heroes whilst suffering not consequences).

With this in mind, we should not therefore be surprised that Labour's support isn't higher than what it is. Contrarily to what some commentators suppose, people do not derive their understanding of current affairs from the collective aether, but rather through reading or watching the news. When that news has a consistent spin on it it's natural that the average person (who does not have the time or energy to delve into it further) absorbs a particular perspective and responds accordingly.

If we want Labour's support to be higher, than more pressure should be put on the centrist press to more accurately and fairly report what Labour's actual policies and positions are. Until then, I don't imagine Labour's support will be going much higher or lower than it actually is.

[1] This was not, of course, helped by the Labour right throwing a tantrum over Corbyn's support of Freedom of Movement, but that doesn't fit the narrative so goes unmentioned.
[2] The sheer desperation to pretend that the Conservatives are really, deep down, decent pragmatists whilst Corbyn is a Satanic ideologue has led the farcical scences of some claiming that Theresa May is fighting against Corbyn for a soft Brexit.
[3] Be under no illusions, if a coup brought Chuka Umunna to power tomorrow I strongly suspect his actual Brexit policy would be no different to the one currenlty being pursued -- if anything it would probably lean towards a harder Brexit.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Toxic Masculinity and the Imperative to Bomb Everything

Back in the heady days of 2013, when the discussions about bombing Syria in the name of truth, justice and the American way first rolled around, I got into discussion about the need to bomb. I, myself, was opposed to the bombing, but was open to the idea of humanitarian intervention. The other person was opposed to humanitarian intervention, and taking in refugees, but felt that bombing was necessary in order to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons.

When I pointed out that the likely outcome of this was just blasting a couple of places, killing a few people who were likely not involved in producing or using the chemical weapons, followed by a return to everyone being slaughtered with conventional weapons, he basically admitted he was fine with that. The point was to demonstrate to Assad, and the world, that we would not allow the barbarity of chemical weapons; merely the barbarity of guns, bombs, barrel-bombs and all manner of other horrors.

It strikes me that the current debate runs on the same track--there’s very little discussion of actual interventions that would make the situation better, plans on how to resolve the conflict and just generally stop the fighting. The imperative is all in the bombing and the appearing to do something.

This joins up with a sense I’ve had since the Iraq War went pear-shaped. It’s sometimes muttered that the Iraq War made intervention a dirty word and that’s why nobody can authorize boots on the ground anymore. This is true to an extent, but I think it misses the reason why somewhat. What the Iraq War exposed, like with Vietnam, was that it’s very difficult to achieve a ‘win’ in these kinds of situations. This is where the bombing comes in: it’s flashy, simple and, more to the point, makes it easy to declare ‘mission accomplished’.

The odd thing about nationalism is that we all, to a certain degree, live vicariously, through other’s achievements, or failures, and feel it at an emotional level, purely by dint of having been born on, or to, people from a particular hunk of rock. This is true of football and is also true of war. People, it seems, take great pride in victories in warfare, just as much as they feel angry about defeats, even when it’s very far away and doesn’t directly impact on them.

The imperative to bomb is linked to this. The politicians and their PR people (the media) want to have the vicarious pleasure of a ‘win’, but don’t want to risk the vicarious disappointment of a ‘loss’. This is, in a gendered sense, quite a male way to look at the world: seeing it as a competition, a test of strength and courage, where talk is for faint hearted weak-willed saps (the women), and all those other culturally conditioned ideas. This is, I think, infecting the discourse and not in a good way: as far as I can see there’s virtually no discussion about what we could actually do to help the situation in Syria (help refugees, make it easier for people to flee the violence, negotiate with Assad), in favour of chest thumping and stentorian declarations of our righteousness and, less explicitly, manliness; with anyone who opposes it denounced as traitors or pacifists (used in the pejorative sense).

I don’t have the answer on what to do in Syria and I’m not telling people how they should feel about it, particularly Syrians. I’m an idiot, miles away from the conflict, bashing out some ramblings.

But, from a UK perspective, I’m finding the way the discourse has been infected with the need to proclaim our strength and triumph, to virtual exclusion of almost any other kind of potential discussion, quite disturbing. Like I said, I’m not opposed to intervention even now: but it needs to be something that’s thought over, planned out, discussed and clearly set out what we’re going to do to help and how this is going to achieve our target. Not have an attitude where we’re so convinced of our rectitude, expertise and superior knowledge that we can just rush in and solve everything without having to have any plan worked out.

The latter is, culturally speaking, a very male mind-set to problem solving. And it’s a highly damaging one.

Friday, 5 May 2017

You and Your Mate go Shopping: A Parable About the Labour Party

It's time to go and get the weekly shop and, on this occasion, you've been put in charge by your housemates, having never done it before. Your friend, who has been the one in charge for all the recent occasions, insists on going along. He's not happy about this arrangement, as he makes very clear to you at the outset.

"You're going to fuck this up," he says, as you clamber into the car. "I know you're going to fuck this up. You should let me do it."

"Everyone said that they want me to do it," you reply. "At the very least, if you're not going to be helpful, you could be polite."

"It's not fair," he spits. "I build us all up. I got us the house. I ran all the operations well. Why am I suddenly being punished like this?"

"Because you and your American friend got drunk and drove a car through a shopping mall."

"But I installed insulation in the house," he whines.

You decline to point out that he lost everyone's money playing Three-Card Monty, lost the house and the new tenants had already ripped out the insulation and were converting the garden into a car park. You start the engine and set off on the road in silence.

Well, almost silence. Your friend is insistently tapping at his phone as he sits in sulky silence.

Your phone buzzes and you glance at it when you hit the lights. It's a pretty nasty message. You turn to your friend. "Did you tell Sasha that I called her a 'flatulent bitch'?"


"So why does she think I called her a flatulent bitch?"

"Because you did say that."

"No I didn't!"

"Well, it sounds like the sort of thing you might say."

You practice every spiritual technique you know to calm yourself. It doesn't really work but you reach the shopping centre without further incident.

Inside you check the list and pick up the items. You turn to your friend. "Should we get the Coke?" you ask, indicating the bottle.

Your friend shrieks and hurls himself to the floor. He slams his fists on the ground. He kicks his feet. "You're messing everything up!" he howls. "You're excluding me!"

Bewildered you look around and feel a bit embarrassed as a crowd starts to form.

"Leave him alone you fuck!" someone shouts.

"Why won't you just give him what he wants?!" another cries. "Stop being a shit-head!"

"You're ruining this for everyone, dickhead!"

They shout more abuse. Your friend kicks and screams even louder.

"But I'm not--I haven't--you stupid--!" you protest. One of the people clutches his chest, his eyes wide with horror, as if he's been shot.

"How, how dare you say that to me!" he roars. "Did you hear that abuse!? Did you hear it?!"

You turn to go away. Your friend grips your leg and refuses to let go. You drag him out of the shop, the crowd pursuing. You arrive at the car and you start to open the door when a pick-up truck arrives. The tenants who took the house off you hop out and run into the shop. Gunfire is followed by screams.

"They're robbing the place!" you say, pointing at the shop.

"Don't try and weasel out of the real issue!"

"We need to stop them!" you say.

"Yes, go and stop them," someone says.

"I can't do it alone!"

"Not up to the task are you? Maybe you should let someone who is take over."

"Can someone call the police?" you ask.

"Yes someone call the police!" a voice shouts. "What he's doing to that man is inhumane!"

You wrench open the car door and leap inside. Your friend scrambles into the passenger seat before you can drive off. You drive out of the area, the crowd running alongside, shouting and obscuring the view. You peer through the window, trying to see, knowing you're driving along a cliff-face.

"Let me drive!" your friend shouts. "I can drive so much better!"

"Will you just--!"

Your friend dives for the wheel and tries to grab it from you. The car whirls and skids before crashing into the side barrier and flipping over it. The car hurtles over the side and down towards the water.

The people outside shout louder. "Why didn't you do something?! Why didn't you stop this?!"

And on the seat next to you, your friend bounces with barely contained glee.

"I knew you'd fuck it up! I knew it! I knew it!"

Friday, 21 April 2017

The Intolerant Left

Thanks to Clive Lewis sharing a joke flow-chart on how to vote in the general election and Philip Collins fucking up reading it, the horror of the Intolerant Left is now back in the news.

Because naturally, calling people twats for voting to deliberately immiserate some of the most vulnerable members of society is a far worse crime, and far more intolerant, than actually voting to immiserate some of the most vulnerable members of society. And kick out immigrants.

I'm not going to go into a long discussion on whether or not the left really is more intolerant than the right: I have my suspicions about why this result perhaps comes out, and you can see an indication on that in the paragraph above, but without seeing the data or the research methodology I can't go in-depth on it. Let's just assume it's true and ask what would be the more important question here which is: are there reasons why the left might be more intolerant than the right?

I think there might be. As a lefty your concerns are usually with the more vulnerable, the poor, the excluded, the minorities and so on and what you're normally going to be seeing is the effect that various policies have on these communities. If you're actively seeing and reading about the effects that cuts, needless cuts as Chris Dillow points out, are having on people's lives then you're not likely to be all that considerate towards those who actively vote for these things.

The right on the other hand tends to much more concerned with processes, mechanics and, crucially, costing. Thus it is that they'll, generally, dismiss stories about the hardships of the poor and disabled or being on benefits as evidence of an inability to work hard or save properly, but will absolutely blow their gasket at the news that a government department spent two pence more on office stationary than was necessary.

And let's not even get started on the subject immigrants and refugees (the latter of which I've seen run the gamut from 'their just economic migrants seeing an opportunity to live a life of luxury' to 'they should stay and fight for their country').

So the left do have lots of things to be intolerant about (and that doesn't mean it's a good political strategy), but it's also that the discourse is structured in such a way that it promotes opportunities for the left to be intolerant, whilst keeping it on subjects that enables the right to speak with more tolerance.

In the brief moments when that shifts it's quite easy to spot right-wing intolerance, and it doesn't take long for it to emerge. It's just that, at those moments, it suddenly becomes an important discussion about 'very real concerns'.

And I suspect that there's all sorts of reasons why people aren't too keen to discuss why that is.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Action and Inaction with Military Humanitarian Interventions

Syria is the news again, first from Assad's horrific use of chemical weapons and then with mass cheering and celebrations as Donald Trump fired off missiles at an airfield, which is apparently the equivalent of drawing Excalibur from the stone in American politics. This has led to much warbling about the costs of inaction and pile-ons of Jeremy Corbyn, as is tradition.

First something to dispense with quickly, before the serious discussion: it is worth noting that there are always important lessons to learn from the consequences of inaction, but never any important lessons to learn from the consequences of taking action. It is notable that the people who have wailed and gnashed their teeth over what inaction has done tend to be the same people who get very shirty if you point out that the Iraq War led to ISIS, or who pretend that Libya is a country with the same status as Narnia.

The main thing about the inaction/action dichotomy, and the one that tends to get obscured, is this:

It's never a choice between inaction and action but rather inaction and a specific form of action. And that's the key point. Back in 2013, when the original vote was taken, it was a choice between inaction, and taking the time to rethink the plan and come up with something better, or firing a couple of missiles at Damascus and then slapping each other on the back shouting 'we did something! We did something!'

This is a point that is missed frequently--when Ed Milliband whipped Labour to vote against the war the position was not 'no war' but 'this plan sucks, come up with a better one'. It was Cameron who subsequently threw a temper tantrum and refused to do anything. Doing something other than firing missiles or dropping bombs would have, after all, forced him to actually think about the situation.

All wars are complex and civil wars especially so: they don't reward people bounding in without any clue of what they're doing or what their end goal is. And that is the level the discussion on action should take: what are we doing? Why are we doing it? What the end goal is? And how is this going to help? These are the bare minimum of questions that need to be asked and answered before military humanitarian interventions are taken. After that there is more planning. It's a time consuming process that requires a lot of careful thought, but all actions that directly involve human lives should be thought about carefully.

And even then, military humanitarian interventions are not the only forms of action that can be taken. There are others that can be just as helpful, if not more so. For example, we could have taken action to help Syria. We could have welcomed in the refugees. We could have set up humanitarian centres to protect people, give them food and safe passage. Instead we spent most of time actively making it harder for people to get out of danger, actively making it easier for them to drown in the Mediterranean and using them as an excuse to run racist campaigns and push personal agendas.

Firing missiles is not taking decisive action to resolve a situation. It's just virtue-signalling with a body count.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Motte and Bailey Rhetoric

There's a particular form of argumentative reasoning that's dubbed a 'motte and bailey strategy' and it works like this:

A motte-and-bailey is an old form of medieval defensive system. The motte was a raised area of earth surrounded by a stone wall, whilst the bailey was a larger, but more weakly defended, area in front of the motte. As a rhetorical strategy the motte contains a true, but trivial, claim that a person can retreat to in a argument if their bailey argument - the one they want to make, but the one that is shakier as it's a more outlandish and extreme claim.

Recent discussion in the UK on the subject of opposition pressure operate according to this principle:

Bailey: Corbyn is useless and its only thanks to brave Conservatives that thing x is being stopped.

Motte: Labour doesn't have a majority, so only Conservatives rebelling could have stopped thing x.

The second is true, but also trivial. This is standard stuff about the mathematics of majorities in the House of Commons. The first, however, is making a stronger claim -- namely that it is only because of Conservatives following their own hearts that they're rebelling, nothing to do with opposition pressure whatsoever. That claim is wrong, or at the very least much harder to defend, hence why there's so much stampeding to the motte.

The particular impetus for this is the NIC U-turn that Hammond has announced, but note that this is nothing new. After all, how was it portrayed with Osborne u-turned over tax credits? Was it pressure from the opposition spooking Conservatives into changing their minds? No it was brave Tories, concerned about the impact on the common folk challenging their leadership. It was wise George Osborne recognising his mistake and changing his mind. When the government u-turned over the prison deal with Saudi Arabia? Michael Gove, with his wise wisdom and stern love of liberalism, was the hero of the hour.

And when Article 50 was voted through, with all amendments being voted down, was the story about cowardly Conservatives refusing to defy their government, showing no concern for what damage they might do to people's livelihoods or using EU citizens as bargaining chips?

Of course it wasn't.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Centre-Man and the Spinless of the Universe

The post-Chuka, Reeves, Kinnock response is in from the Ideological Centrist pundits, after close to a week of silence: if you had money on 'they'd just redefine centrism to mean to mean disliking immigration and declare they're centrist credentials' then well done.

This isn't all that surprising. In Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Freedland's pieces on the response to the leadership you can almost taste the bitterness: here they've been, defending Labour's moderates through the whole year of their tantrum and this is their reward - being forced into supporting a position that they know is bollocks in order to continue pretending that they're all still sensible and centrist. It must also be galling to have the 'Corbyn critique' that they've raged against for so long essentially proven correct: that these MPs are junkies for power and don't care who they screw over to get their next fix.

Ian Dunt is the only one I've seen getting angry about this, but even that is essentially reduced to 'I am shocked, shocked that a group of people who prioritize power over principles would sacrifice a cherished principle in order to get into power'.

I mean, I suppose they could have written something along the lines of: 'there's still much that I disagree with about Corbyn, and I don't think he has a hope of winning, but nonetheless I will back his position on this because some principles are worth sticking up for'. But that would mean admitting error or folly and the whole point of being a member of the Very Serious Person club is that you need never do this.

Freedland's piece today is a truly execrable example. He flat out admits that he should be defending migrants and immigration, but finds he can't because some MPs have faced some anger about it in their constituencies [1]. Why, after all, bother defending a principle or standing up for something when you can just cravenly give in and hopefully reap the rewards. Freedland and colleagues, after all, are unlikely to be the targets of this anger.

Naturally, though, this isn't enough. Corbyn must also be branded. Thus it is we get some sort of 'political equivalence' where Freedland divines that Corbyn wants to lose single market membership and keep free movement. So, Freedland declares, it's about what's most important: do you want to keep single market membership? Or keep freedom of movement? And with a pat on his back he strides off.

Okay, let's grant for a moment that Corbyn wanting 'access' at an 'equitable level with other EU member-states' doesn't basically mean single-market membership. Let's grant that it means something less. Whose position is closer to getting single-market membership: Corbyn? Or the anti-free movers.

Well, given the EU has stated forcefully that freedom of movement and single-market membership are linked and you can't have one without the other, the answer is Corbyn. Even if Corbyn doesn't want single-market membership his position is closer to getting it than the anti-free movers.

Now if I know all of this than Freedland certainly does. That he doesn't just say this shows just how far the Centrist project is willing to abase and cave itself in its desperate bid for power [2].

Sometimes you can't keep doing that. Sometimes principles do matter and shouldn't be sacrificed.

In the words of Jean-Luc Picard, "The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!"

After all, it's far better to lose standing up and fighting for what's right, then lose kneeling and prostrating for what's wrong.

[1] His piece includes the line: "Yes, they include the likes of shadow cabinet resigner Rachel Reeves, who spoke of her fear that “bubbling tensions” could “explode” if the kind of angst over immigration she encounters in her Leeds constituency is not assuaged."

That, of course, is the anger that the Guardian couldn't find when they went for a look around Reeves' constituency

[2] And that's before we get onto whether Labour could actually win power with this strategy. Given how little they're trusted on immigration (before Corbyn as well), I suspect not.