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.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Britpocalypse Now

British politics, at the moment, resembles the sort of thing you see in a corrupt state going through turmoil. David Cameron managed to lose a referendum on our membership in the EU, resulting in a horrendous blast at the economy, Boris Johnson has been exposed as having no clue what it is he wants to do with the Brexit, no plan or way forward, at yet for three solid days now the airwaves have been occupied with a meltdown in the opposition.

I'm not sure why I even bother with it any more.

The particulars of the case here are worth restating (as it appears lost): Hilary Benn (he of the Syria speech) was plotting a coup against Corbyn, irrespective of what the result of the EU referendum would be. This was leaked to the press, whereupon Benn admitted it in a phone conversation with Corbyn leaving him no option but to sack him.

It should come as no shock that this has somehow mutated into it being Corbyn's fault that Benn was plotting the coup.

The amount of bullshit being spewed from all corners is extraordinary, but is explainable by the simple fact that nobody is thinking. Everybody is currently wired up on emotions, hence why John McDonnell can encourage the protest supporting Corbyn (a silly thing to do) and George Eaton, political editor of the New Statesman, can see fit to announce solid evidence that Corbyn actually voted Leave in the EU referendum, on the strength Chris Bryant's imaginary friend saying so (or some such nonsense).

It goes without saying that period of everyone just calming down wouldn't go amiss here. The likelihood of that happening is probably nil.

It's quite clear as well that the Labour party have been taking lessons from the Boris Johnson school of politics: that of having no clue what to do next. They don't appear to have any plan on how they're going to achieve their aim, or what to fall back on if everything doesn't fall neatly into place. Whatever they may think, cocking up a coup is not a great advert for political effectiveness.

Where does it go from here? On balance Corbyn likely has to resign; chaos can't be allowed to continue at this time and there's virtually no benefit to be gained from sticking around. I'm slightly hesitant though a, in doing so, he would essentially be giving into a screaming temper tantrum from grown adults and I'm reluctant to see that sort of behaviour empowered.

And that's what makes me really angry about all of this. That if people had behaved like adults from the start then there would be no need for this. Had Corbyn been given a fair crack of the whip, and failed on his own terms, then he would have been easy to remove, or defeat in a subsequent leadership challenge. But he wasn't. Whether he could have won a general election is a moot point now; on balance I think he could have done - he has a better nous for strategy than is given credit and a willingness to confront and challenge issues head on, rather than going through the 'very real concerns' dance that the rest of the Labour party was happy to indulge - despite it being a reason for their defeat at the last general election. His execution of this has always been poor, and didn't show much sign of improving fast enough, but with the whole party pulling together it might have been possible.

Now we'll never know. And, being honest, the thought of it all makes me feel sick. Whether Angela Eagle, or whoever, becomes leader or not, or Corbyn stays, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Regardless of what happens I would only reluctantly vote for Labour. And this worries me, especially when the presumptive opponents look like their going to be the clown-car fascism of Boris Johnson, or the Poundland North Korea of Theresa May.

The party brand has taken a hell of a whack and all sectors of it are responsible for this.

I put this out there for the simple reason that, when the history of this period comes to be written, an enormous amount of blame is likely to be heaped on Corbyn's head. And true he has played a part in this mess within Labour occurring.

But it is, I think, the smaller part.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Bye Bye Missus Euro Pie

It's Leave...

I had a rather horrible feeling this would happen, sinking in. And now it has. For me personally this is a bit of a blow. I'm probably one of the few people who thought that a federal Europe, with directly elected presidents, enhanced parliament and so on, was a good idea. One that could have been a strong force for peace and prosperity and co-operation in the world. Growing up in Europe, I've always felt myself to be European first. It's an identity I'm comfortable with.

I have no illusions about the EU - it's not perfect. But then neither is the UK government. These things need work and it's important to remember that, in historical terms, the EU is very young. It needed work but it seems like many are not willing to work for it and make it the best that it could possibly be.It might still improve, it might still get better - indeed I hope that if there is a wider positive out of this it will be an impetus for some needed reforms. But the UK will take no part in that. And for me that's a sad thing.

The UK scene is already turning into a predictable blame game. Labour figures who would never have given any credit to Jeremy Corbyn had Remain won are already piling all the blame for the loss onto him. It, of course, has nothing to do with their own pandering to anti-immigration sentiment and racism, nor pissing a gargantuan majority up against the wall and doing nothing to solve Britain's fundamental structural problems in the economy. Oh no, no, no, no. Perish the thought.

I'm already seeing some pieces that are representing David Cameron as some tragic figure, who's vision has been horribly undermined. Well, sorry, but fuck him. He called a referendum he didn't want, on a tepid renegotiation he didn't want to have, and all to appease a party with ONE MP. And people ragged about how Ed Milliband would be a weak puppet of the SNP. Christ!

No, Cameron wanted a legacy. Now he's got one. He will forever spend his days being compared to Anthony Eden and Neville Chamberlain as the worst Prime Minister. He will be known as 'that fucking man'. And he can consider himself lucky.

For me this was the day that my dream, in all probability, died. It's the Leaver's dream that is ascendant now.

I just hope, for all our sakes, it doesn't turn into a nightmare.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

British Journalism, The State Of

I'm sure we've all witnessed that moment before: a bully who's been needling and generally beating up on someone for a long time finally gets a reaction, much milder than their own stuff, for the person they've been hounding: a punch or getting called a twat or something. The reaction of the bully is generally speaking always the same - a shocked, wounded outrage and what's been done to them, as if they couldn't imagine how someone could possible do something so mean to another human being.

Yes, this is an introduction to a post on the state of British journalism.

At a Labour In event for the EU referendum Laura Kuenssberg, when asking a question, got a set of pantomime hissing from the crowd. This has prompted outrage across all journalistic sectors about suppression of free speech and Corbyn supporters being hostile to journalists. Everyone is astounded that they could possibly be hostile to them for just doing their jobs.

That this was stupid behaviour from the Labour supporters goes without saying. When people are already pummeling you with bullet rounds the last thing you should do is give them more ammunition. It doesn't really matter if the hissing was just a pantomime joke; the Corbynites are complaining that the press don't treat them fairly (true) so it's really idiotic to think that the press would give a fair or charitable interpretation of this, rather than the most uncharitable interpretation possible (which has duly happened).

On the other hand the faux outrage from the journalists is very disingenuous. Yes, they shouldn't get hissed at for asking questions at an event they were invited to. But this wouldn't be happening if they had done their jobs before hand. The job of a journalist, distinct from an opinion writer [1], is: 1) to decide what is and what is not a story; 2) decide what are the salient elements of that story; 3) present those elements in the fairest light possible. This is how people get informed. Yes everyone has biases, ideological beliefs and so on that are going to colour what they think is a story and what are the salient elements of it but this is why having a diversity of papers with different views is, nominally, a good thing. And a good journalist should be able to recognize what their own biases are likely to be and work them out - or at the very least a competent editor should be able to catch it.

With that in mind is there any journalist out there who is, without embarrassment, going to defend the integrity, fairness and necessity of stories such as "Corbyn Didn't Sing the National Anthem Snubbing Queen"; or "Corbyn Didn't Bow Low Enough at the Cenotaph Displaying Hatred to Dead Soldiers"; or "Corbyn Thinks It Fine if ISIS Shot People on British Streets"? All of these were and are patently nonsense - and more to the point I think the people who wrote them knew they were nonsense when they wrote them. These are not fair stories, they're not informative and they're clearly not important. Yet they got published. And that's in the Guardian I'm talking about (actual front of the website stuff); with that in mind is it really so ridiculous that Corbyn, and his supporters, think the entirety of the press are out to get him? I don't think so.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is certainly right when she says that Corbyn and his supporters need to engage with the media if they want to win. But, as I grow tired of point out, compromise and engagement is a two-way street. If the PLP want to get more influence in the party then they need to respond to Corbyn's olive branches (and there have been many) and respond in kind - not just keep hurling their temper tantrum. Likewise if journalists want Corbyn to engage more with them and open up to them, they should engage more with him; cease being dismissive and uncharitable at every turn, treating 'anonymous briefings' from the PLP as being representative and authoritative opinion about the Labour party (looking at you George Eaton) and start reporting in a fairer light.

Nobody, bar a few lunatics at the fringe, is suggesting that criticisms can't be made. But what is being said is that criticism should be on matters of substance, not silly crap. Indeed criticizing on matters of substance would be a form of engagement and would be helpful for all involved. This applies to all parties mind. Again, to pick recent examples, when David Cameron can head a fundamentally racist campaign against Sadiq Khan and yet get away with only the mildest of mild taps, but Jeremy Corbyn can actually suspend people for antisemitism and get a bollocking for not having done it at the speed-of-light, it cultivates an image.

Or, to put it another way: if the journos don't want to get booed at Labour party gatherings maybe they should try doing their damn jobs.

[1] This is an important distinction: journalists work needs to be factually based, they can't make things up. Opinion writers however can advance whatever they like regardless of whether or not its connected to an actual reality that we're living in (see Nick Cohen on Iraq for an example of this).

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Normalizing Bad Things

I'm going to pick on Sadiq Khan here, but the point applies generally. A bit of brouhaha blew up after Khan appeared with Cameron on Remain platform. Cameron here is the man who lead the charge in what everyone, even the Tories, admit was a racist campaign. McDonnell, not unreasonably given what happened in Scotland, pointed out that sharing a platform with the Tories was unhelpful, a similar point that noted Corbhynite and hard-left extremist Hilary Benn has also made. The storm being whipped by this is is probably due less to the actual content of McDonnell's comments and more due to the Guardian having one it's periodic fits where it realizes it hasn't run an article in a whole week about how intensely divided Labour is, having focused too much on the Conservatives have a massive fight, and have grabbed the nearest issue to hand.

Now Khan is entirely free to make his own decisions here. He's evidently judged that appearing on the platform will help the Remain campaign to victory and has seen that as a goal that's worth getting even if he has to appear on a platform with an unpleasant extremist. I would differ in that I don't think this will help the Remain campaign and I don't think it will help Khan or Labour.

Indeed the only person it helps is Cameron. What this does is mean that he and his party will suffer no consequences from having run a truly appalling campaign, that could be fairly summed up as 'if you want an Imam for a mayor vote Labour'. [1] Recall that Michael Fallon dismissed the Tory campaign as just being the "rough and tumble of politics", which effectively becomes the party line. To try and dismiss such a campaign along those lines is startling. But the fact that Cameron hasn't been told to fuck off when it came to campaigning does allow it to be seen it that light. It treats at as just something that politicians do in campaigning and no hard-feelings. Which isn't right; there should be consequences for doing that and one of those consequences should be not being able to get stardust from the man of the moment. Like I said there's no benefit to Labour or Khan in doing this; the only one who benefits is Cameron from being able to pretend that that whole campaign was just rough and tumble politics rather than the nasty, deliberate hysterics that it was.

That Cameron is a shameless individual, who would cowardly hide behind parliamentary privilege to libel a member of the public, is no surprise. But that point would have been emphasized more with a cool 'get stuffed'. The potential unintended consequence is treating as a 'that's just politics' matter means that it will be much easier for the Tories to slip into running such a campaign again, as they obviously will [2], and also much harder for their opponents to claim that this is a disgraceful thing to be doing.

[1] A play on this infamous campaign.

[2] Once it was clear that Goldsmith would lose I think it was fairly obvious that the campaign was just being used a testing ground for these tactics. Expect them to be deployed at the next general election, if not a variant of them against Rosena Allin-Khan in the Tooting by-election.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Book Review: 'Hiroshima' by John Hersey

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Perhaps one of the most famous books every published, when it first appeared in The New Yorker, and was the only article in that issues, Hiroshima was the first indication that many people got about just how devastating nuclear weapons were. And the book is both harrowing and horrifying and is, in my opinion, all the more powerful for the fact that Hersey doesn't indulge in condemnation or make ethical judgements; he just lays out the stories of the people he interviewed plain and simple.

Maybe I should back up a bit...

On August 6th 1945 the Allies, more specifically the Americans, dropped an atomic bomb, 'Little Boy', on the Japanese city of Hiroshima - a port city, key for communications and shipping of supplies. Three days later, on August 9th, they dropped another bomb, 'Fat Man', on Nagasaki, another port city. On August 14th Japan surrendered and the war was over. Prior to this, in the West, general knowledge of the devastation that atomic weapons caused was not widely known. This article, turned into a book, was the first indication of it.

Hersey, as the title suggests, only covers the city of Hiroshima and his book recounts the tales of six different people who were in the city when the bomb went off. It recounts what happened to them, how they coped and the interactions they had with others which includes lots of interesting details, such as the initial speculation of what the attack was, with the popular belief being that it was a special kind of fire bomb, dropped after the city had been doused in flammable fluid. This was not outlandish as a speculation as firebombing was a popular tactic against Japan (most of the houses were still made of paper and were consequently very flammable). The book is divided into four chapters, which roughly divides periods of times, with each of the stories weaved through the chapters. It's presented simply; Hersey narrates the tales of each person, he doesn't offer comment or judgement. Some have criticised him for it saying that he should have been condemning the attack or adding a moral voice to what was being described. I don't agree with this. I think that what's shown is all the more powerful for it not having an authorial tone, informing people how they should be feeling. The stories and the images they conjure speak for themselves. [1]

There are six central stories, with three of them focused on more than others. The six are; Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist priest who is doing communal work in the area and suffering under suspicions of being a spy, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German minister of a Church in the area, Dr Terufumi Sasaki, a young doctor who works at the hospital in Hiroshima, Hatsuyomo Nakamura, a mother with three children, Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk working at a tin factory, and Dr Masakazu Fuji, a doctor with his own private clinic, which is destroyed in the aftermath of the bomb. The first three characters named are the ones who are followed most in the story, though all get their time as they show different aspects of the bombs devastation and effects on the city. All of them, at one point or another, encounter at least one of the other narratives. Tanimoto and Kleinsorge, in particular, cross paths and attempt to help others in the city, cloaked in dust, devastation and confusion.
What most emerges from it is just the confusion. Nobody seems to know what’s happening or what to do. So they just stumble around and try and survive. After the dramatic detonation of the bomb itself, which Hersey never describes but only indirectly recounts from the interviewees experiences of it (light and noise and destruction) giving it a greater, almost mystical power, than an actual account would have done, the haunting images arrive just from such confusion. The people congregating in the grounds of a rich man’s house, near the river, with the children alternating between crying and playing; Dr Sasaki working for three days straight as lines of burnt and bloodied people make their way to the hospital and he does the best he can to help them, on his own for the most part until some more doctors arrive. Toshiko Sasaki stuck for days after a bookcase collapses on her leg, breaking it, and then receiving no treatment for it for weeks leaving her crippled; Kleinsorge’s friend running into the fires of the city, believing that he must immolate himself, and the Father stumbling around the city trying to help others; Tanimoto ferrying people back and forth across the river.
The images crafted are all simple, in truth. The people are getting along with surviving in the aftermath and do so fairly quickly. Rumours about what happened are exchanged, with everyone more or less left out of the loop; when the end of the war comes what they’re most surprised about, and cheered about, is for the first time hearing the Emperor’s voice. But against the background of devastation the work, the people, the images, all of them feel eerie and strange. Like watching things at twilight, there’s just something off about it. That all that devastation was caused by one bomb is a sobering and powerful thought, and the narratives combine to create a real sense of the terrifying impact that it had.
Hiroshima is a powerful book. It conveys a strong message of the magnitude of what nuclear weapons can do, and leaves a series of horrifying and haunting images. Whatever your view of nuclear weapons, this is essential reading and arguably a prerequisite for taking part in the debate.

(Note: the version of the book I read was the Penguin Classics edition republished to commemorate the 60th anniversary of World War II. It is the complete book, as originally published, but there is another version that contains an afterword that follows up the stories of each of the people interviewed for the story; the afterword itself is essentially another book on top of the first one.)

[1] It is worth pointing out that Hersey, as a journalist, had witnessed the atrocities of the Imperial Army in China, so was perhaps not entirely sympathetic to the Japanese.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Does Labour Have an Antisemitism Problem?

Right, well, that happened.

To say the Naz Shah incident was a simple decision that was appallingly badly handled would be an immense understatement. As for Livingstone... Christ!

Leaving all that to the side there's the question of whether Labour have an antisemitism problem. This is a sensitive and thorny issue and one to which I don't have a concrete answer. But, to give some clarity to what is being discussed, there's two ways of how it's defined as a problem.

The first is to define it in terms of numbers and ask 'Does Labour have more antisemitic members than other parties on average?' This one is may well be true, but it's likely to be true for reasons that are independent of Labour. Put simply, Labour is the most left mainstream party; left parties tend to be less pro-Israel [1] than other parties; so antisemitism will be more likely to join Labour than they will another party. In this sense they might have a problem, but it would be the same problem that the Conservatives have in attracting more anti-Muslim people, or general racists (though this might be siphoned a bit by UKIP's rise), to the party.

In this instance there isn't an awful lot that can be done. Background checks aren't really feasible for everyone who joins the party (though you'd like to think they'd be better at doing it for people who are standing to be MPs...) Being vigilant and suspending and expelling when it comes to light is about all that can be done.

The second way of defining is to ask whether Labour has a systematic problem, which is to say 'Do Labour's actions cause antisemites to join the party?' This one is trickier. I suspect it's not correct; despite the way matters have been handled the leadership has been clear about their views on this and their bungling of this matter has been no different to their bungling of other matters. Evidently they need to get much better and more decisive at responding to antisemtism when it comes up, but that is true of the handling of much of what they're doing. There might a be a problem in that, in the past, Labour has been a little too eager to do dog-whistles on issues (immigration, foreign workers) to court votes and this stuff can very obviously bleed into other aspects ('hey if it's okay to be down on x it must be okay to be down on y too!'). This is a slightly separate issue, as its a general one to British politics at the moment. The point being that once you start to lift the lid on Pandora's box there's all sorts of unintended consequences that might start flying out.

As a last word, I'll just make a general point that's not connected to the above.  On the question of Israel and antisemitism there's an analogy that can be drawn with immigration and racism. There are some legitimate criticisms that can be made about immigration policy; this doesn't make the people doing this racists. However it is also true that lots of racists will criticize immigration because they are racists and are using concern about immigration as a cover for their racism. The same is true about Israel and antisemitism. There are legitimate criticisms that can be made about Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza; doing so does not make people antisemitism. However it is also true that antisemitism will criticize Israel because they are antisemitism and are using concern of Israel's policies as a cover for that.

Distinguishing between the two is often quite hard, but that's why there's a need for this to be dealt with seriously and maturely. Conflating the two, in the easy manner that both left and right are often too happy to indulge in, does not help the issue at all.

[1] I'm not going to launch into a discussion about the differences between Zionism and Judaism - it's a largely political thing historically and is not relevant to this discussion. For what it's worth the basic run-down of it is: Zionists were Jews who were fed-up of being persecuted and waiting for God to lift his finger and do something, so they decided to take matters into their own hands and found a state for themselves. To create this sense of 'nationality', for want of a better word, they went back and associated themselves with the stories of Hebrew warriors (as a more assertive group, to the perceived passive acceptance of the Jews of their persecution by Christians and others) and were quite explicit about distinguishing themselves from Jews, calling themselves Hebrews. Naturally the distinction isn't quite so clear now as, after that little thing called the Holocaust, most Jews quite naturally felt that they'd had enough and wanted a place of their own.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Fallout 2

Another budget, another fiasco from George Osborne. This one might well enter the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest unraveling on record. As ever Osborne's problem, and indeed a problem with many modern politicians, is they're almost completely incapable of thinking for themselves - hence why the need the army of special advisers. So it is with Osborne. The majority of his successful budgets have all come when he's had someone else's ideas to nab; the failures when he's had to do the hard thinking himself. The IFS has already comprehensively torn it to shreds and it was looking like it was going to be a bad week for the Tories and an amusing one for me.

Then Ian Duncan Smith resigned and it kicked up a notch from 'amusing' to 'hilarious'.

I can't really improve on Septisticle's discussion of it, so I won't try. I'd only add that I am perfectly willing to believe that this wasn't mainly about the EU for Smith. I think he perhaps does genuinely believe that this is where he has to draw the line on matter of principle. Ideologues often have odd ways of viewing the world (I should know I am one) and often remain committed to damaging ideological experiments long after the evidence has come in saying it should be canned (see also, academies and whatever the hell Hunt is attempting to do with the NHS).

There's no doubt this is damaging for the Conservatives. They're a complete mess at the moment and, for a supposed bunch of master strategists, the way they've lost control of this so quickly is eyebrow raising. The bitter infighting over this could rage for a while and it neatly shows just how little control Cameron has over his backbenchers. Osborne's reputation seems to be in the kermit as well and it'll be quite something if he bounces back from it. It will, however, be hard for him though. With the EU referendum on the horizon the right-wing papers are no longer inclined to be indulgent of him. It's telling, really, that all Osborne has done here is the same schtick he's always done - taking from welfare to fund giveaways at the top end. Indeed right back in one his early budgets, when he dropped the top rate of tax from 50% to 45%, the rationale was that it was only bringing in an extra £500 million, which was a piddling amount. That budget also contained an extra saving of £500 million pounds from the welfare budget, which was an important contributor to deficit reduction. It was fairly obvious to me then what game he was playing, but I'm delighted to see that others are catching up.

As for the Labour party, this is a good moment for them. On the back of two polls now showing them neck and neck and one point ahead, they seem to be building some momentum. Whether it lasts or not is an open question, and they have their own troubles ahead, but it is all there to be capitalized on. What it perhaps shows, more than anything, is that Corbyn seems to have succeeded in his fundamental goal of dragging Labour leftwards. Whilst Paul Mason is overplaying it to suggest that Corbyn's wholly responsible for this disorder in the Conservatives, John Rentoul is definitely underplaying it to suggest he had no part in it. Yes, Cameron and co are more worried about their backbenchers but it's worth noting that none of them were really piping up until after Corbyn made his effective budget response (you can usually tell how well Corbyn's done in a speech by how sour the grapes are among the media commentators. And after that one they all looked like they'd been chewing on lemons.) In particular the way he simply and directly pointed out that Osborne was robbing £30 a weak from some of the most vulnerable in society to pay for a tax give away at the top end made the Conservative benches look visibly very uncomfortable.

I would like to believe that this would have happened under the other leadership contenders, but I find it hard to imagine that the group that abstained on the 'tax credits budget' in order to look credible would have drawn the line here. For this Corbyn deserves some credit for seeming to change the nature of the debate. In doing so he's achieved more than Ed Miliband managed on these issues. Much as I like Ed he was always hampered by accepting cuts in principle, and so could always be batted with the 'so what would you cut then' line. Later on he went into the Harman tactic of abstaining and voting in favour to look credible, that had the predictable result of just moving the debate rightwards and undermining any arguments made against.

It's been notable just how willing Labour are to go on the offensive about this, even from the 'true opposition' crowd, where before I suspect they would have been wringing around with the 'have to understand the real concerns of the people' line (and would have perhaps achieved the remarkable feat of being outflanked on the left by IDS). This is a good thing and hopefully bodes well for the party being able to unite some more and start getting a consistent attack line going [1]. That I think can be fairly put down to Corbyn who seems to have managed to finally pushed the party to being stronger in standing up for the vulnerable and, yes, putting some principles into effect rather than just worrying about how to get a grip on power. And, materially, it's having results.

Ineffective opposition eh? Might be something to it.

[1] Well, at least until the Trident shenanigans trip them up again.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Book Review: 'The End of Influence', by Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford Delong

The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money, by Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford Delong

First, a gripe: the book contains no footnotes or endnotes, or even a bibliography. If you want that information you have to go to the website for the book. This is irritating. I can understand why it’s done, it helps keep the book short, stops it cluttering up the page with little notes, in-text citations or having to keep one finger in the back to check a source. Despite that, though, it is more irritating to have to look up something online, particularly if you happen to come across an interesting bit of information and just want to quickly check the source before carrying on. But, anyway, with that little rant out of the way onto the book itself.

The basic premise here is that, from the period following the end of World War II, the United States became the largest and the dominant economy in the world. It had, in other words, the money which it lent out to others and which people bought in the form of treasury securities. With this money came influence. Because of the United States' position it was able to influence the rest of the world in everything from politics and economics down to culture. This is not a new phenomenon, before the United States Britain had the role. And now, with the United States on the wane, China appears to be in the ascendancy. Cohen and Delong don't use the term but what they are talking about here is basically the concept of a hegemon - to take the term from Immanuel Wallerstein - that is a leader in the world who exerts both a direct and indirect influence over it (and you can accept that point as being true without going the whole hog with Wallerstein and assume the existence of a world-system.) The power afforded to the one with the money is therefore quite powerful: they get to promote the 'good' which, as Cohen and Delong somewhat wryly note, is whatever the hegemon decides it to be. Of course what the USA promoted was largely good, democracy, liberty, rule of law etc. are all objectively speaking good things and are certainly better, politically and economically, than what was coming from the Soviet Union. Their practice of promoting in many cases left a lot to be desired, and in quite a few places was probably counter-productive (looking at you Chile and Pinochet), but that shouldn't short on the fact that it helped spread some of the ideals and that was, mostly, a good thing.
What else was promoted was the idea of neoliberalism; that is the economic idea that countries function better and become richer when their markets are freer of regulations and the government steps back and lets them function. The neoliberal 'utopia', as they call it, is one where the increases in growth and productivity have a beneficial effect on all peoples, giving more jobs and more money. There will be gaps in inequality, but the rise of inequality is offset by the overall rise that is fed into the system, a sort of Rawlsian approach to the idea where any rise in inequality makes the worse off better off than they otherwise would be. The USA promoted this and exported it to other countries of the globe; some of which took in on-board (e.g. Britain) others of which were more resistant (e.g. France), but generally speaking the ideas infiltrated in to a greater or lesser degree in one way or another. 

At this point it’s worth noting a little niggle I had: at one point Cohen and Delong make the suggestion that Britain's growth post 1945 was not so great because of the decision to nationalize a lot of industries and increase state involvement. However they later say that France's growth was very good because the state had got involved and to a larger extent than it had in Britain. They don't elaborate on this in the book, it is admirably short, but this is a passage that would have benefited from being expanded on. I suspect the line taken would be that you can do state interventions well or badly (true) and that perhaps other factors such as institutional structure, history and culture play a role (likely also true), but the failure to elaborate does make the point stick out somewhat bizarrely. 

It is also worth pointing out that whilst both authors, as far as I am aware, are neoliberals that doesn't mean they're of the 'market good, government baaad' variety that you see around. Indeed they devote a very good chapter to pointing out the many ways in which states have contributed to innovative inventions, investment and such, even noting that a country such as the USA, which is typically seen as shining example of no-government economy, intervened in a variety of ways, with the resulting invention of the internet and the Boeing commercial jet, both of which were offshoots of military research. 

The general focus of the book, then, is on the way in which the USA has lost influence as other countries have gained the money. These other countries did so, basically, through having sovereign wealth funds - that is the countries with assets and good growth (the oil-rich Arab states, Norway, China, Taiwan etc.) invested some of their surplus in both pension funds and US treasury bills, a safe deposit that will keep incurring interest for them. The result is that the US owes a lot of people a lot of money, none more so than China. This was good for the US as it allowed them to fund their own projects back home and overseas. But in a sense it’s bad as it means their influence has declined and they're also in trouble if their creditors call in the cash. This, as the authors point out, is unlikely to happen: China and the USA are locked in a kind of death embrace as neither can do without the other. China needs USA spending to stay high, so that it can continue to export the goods that drive its own growth (as China's own population does not spend a lot) and the USA needs China to keep buying its securities so that it can continue to buy things. So whilst the influence is shifting to China, and the authors both express the hope that USA can influence the direction China will take for the benefit of the world (as they argue Britain did with the USA), it’s not completely gone yet. Some kind of managed decline will be in order, so that both the USA and China can deal with their respective problems without causing a catastrophe, but what that exactly is and how it should happen the authors are, unfortunately, somewhat scanty on. 

That is perhaps a problem with the book. It describes the system very well and its history but it’s somewhat lacking in terms of advice on what should happen next or what the proposals for it should be. I get that that is not the point of the book, but it does unfortunately seem to be something that is notable by its absence. It's a shame as I would have been interested in reading a proposal for how that should or could happen. On the other hand, it is a complicated scenario and one that probably doesn't benefit from a short, or speculative, idea about how to solve it. Best leave that for the political pundits with airport lounge bestsellers to hawk. 

Overall then this is a very good and short book by two very, to borrow Delong’s terminology, sharp people. I learned a lot from it. It's an enjoyable read, written in plain English and with a good narrative style. Things are explained in laymen's terms pretty well and it has some good moments of humour to keep it bouncing along.