Monday, 18 February 2019

Last Spasm of the Centrists

The Usual Suspects: the Seven Centrists of Neoliberalism  (photo - Guardian newspaper)
"What has happened to the Labour Party is a symptom of the dysfunctional state of British politics - it shows why fundamental change is so badly needed. It is time to build an alternative."

Bold words from Chukka Umunna as he announced the departure of himself and six other Labour MPs from the party to sit as the Independent Group. Politics is broken, asserted one of them, the hitherto unheard of Mike Gapes, MP for Ilford South, whose Twitter handle shows him relaxing in his straw hat - perhaps illustrating this whole exercise as a "strawman", hoping to peel off more right wing Labour parliamentarians and members. And, it seems, a few Tories too according to Mr Gapes. Bedfellows all.

Keeping coy about their intentions about forming a new party, they have set up a website to invite supporters to register. It seems a deliberate echo of the now distant time when social democrats split from Labour to set up the SDP in 1981, for a brief interlude beforehand setting up the Council for Social Democracy. That party briefly flew high before sinking under the ego of its second leader, Dr David Owen, and then vanishing into the merged Liberal Democrats in 1988.

The world shakes: the prominent MP Mr Gapes resigns from Labour
But this time, what prospects for the Independents?

Well, few could doubt that politics is broken - not only over Brexit (indeed, that is itself a symptom rather than a cause of the current temporal rift in British politics) - but over a society that is broken. And why is it broken?

Perhaps it has something to do with the last 40 years of "neoliberalism", the ideology promoted by Thatcher and happily adopted by Blair and his cronies - Umunna and Chris Leslie, another of today's defectors, among them. These seven dwarves of centrism - these are the people who happily sold off chunks of the NHS, privatised swathes of welfare, introduced student fees, and leeched out tens of billions in taxpayer funds to ludicrously expensive Public-Private "partnerships", a misonomer of a relationship akin to the type that a tapeworm has with a bowel. These are the people who gladly took us to war in Iraq and blew their own fuses when Miliband and Corbyn opposed bombing Syria. These are the people who were "intensely relaxed" about the filthy rich becoming even dirtier.

These are the people on whose watch Britain, the fourth or fifth richest country in the world, became one of the most unequal, a land where the equivalent of the population of a medium sized town sleep in shop doorways and under bridges every night of the year.

So they are not the harbingers of a new politics, these Balirite hasbeens and never-weres. Rather, this little parade of the Usual Suspects this morning seems more like the final spasms of the centrists, akin to a headless chicken still runing around for a frenzied few, final moments. Neoliberalism re-animated, a true Frankenstein for our times. Stitched together, stitched up and, as people turn for new answers to the problems they created, out of ideas and out of time.

Unlike the Seven Centrists, the SDP only had a gang of four, but at least they had a name: tellingly, Umunna & Co haven't adopted a name - "Independent" is meaningless, though to be fair, "neoliberal" is probably too obscure.

So what could they use?
Hang on - how about "New Labour"?! That should do the trick...

The Social Democrats 1981 - at least they had a name!

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Piers & Greggs: Or how to flog pastries with an entirely accidental food fight

For the last few days, Twitter has been clogged up with sausage rolls - these being of the vegan type, developed in time for Veganuary 2019 by the High Street bakery chain Greggs.

Reflecting the growing interest in vegetarian and vegan lifestyles both for personal health and to challenge the more damaging effects of the mass meat industry on the environment, Greggs launched their new product with a fairly bog standard release of a video showing a long tubular shaped item filled with meat-free gunk rather than its more traditional gunk-with-meat "delicacy". 



So far so corporately normal. But barely a couple of hours after the shops opened to flog the animal-free miracle food, there came a tweet by the louche "commentator" Piers Morgan as he played to the gallery with customary rightwing rudeness.


Next came Greggs' reply.


This was apparently very humorous indeed, almost hilarious in fact, because it channelled the iconic cool of James Bond (although ironically using the words of a villain as opposed to the bow-tied hero) and this gave the roll the traction to truly get rolling.

Vegans, vegetarians, greens and then the utterly massive demographic of everyone and anyone who can't stand the GMB presenter and former Mirror editor got chomping down to their local outlet to sample the apparent quantum breakthrough in healthy, sustainable eating. Though it has to be noted they first made a point of retweeting the Greggs' response nearly 20,000 times, granting it 146,000 likes and viewing the video over 5 million times. Some made their own videos, fulminating against Morgan, and even the Green Party co-leader tweeted a photo of himself sitting next to their white and blue corporate logo, eating one and promising to eat even more!

By the next morning, the national print media had picked it up and the Morgan-Greggs bun fight was headline news and even today a poorly attended anti-Brexit gathering in Manchester was confused for an anti-vegan roll protest when the police kettled it outside a local Greggs.



So Piers Morgan NIL, VeGreggans ONE!

Except...

In the world of Public Relations, everything is greasepaint.

Did Piers Morgan really wake up on Wednesday and decide to pour his wrath on Greggs over a vegan roll? He may or may not like a pie, but does he actually follow their account, scanning it anxiously of a morning as self-appointed sentinnel for carnivores? Was he motivated to troll Greggs after becoming riddled with guilt for failing to challenge the vegan sausage roll when it was trailed on his own programme a few days earlier? And equally, did the person running Greggs social media account really spontaneously think up an allegedly witty response to his verbal assault on pastry-correctness-gone-mad?

Well, maybe. Though it turns out that Greggs and Morgan share more than passionate tweets about vegan rolls.

They also share a PR company - Taylor Herring.

When challenged, TH responded, on Twitter of course, that "Yes we do regular work for the good folk Greggs and a while back promoted Piers book - but yesterday's launch was handled by the in house team."

Is that an actual denial of involvement? Was the handling of "the launch" by the inhouse team anything to do with the twitter-storm between Greggs and Morgan? After all, surely a spontaneous spat with Piers Pieman was not part of the launch plan - was it?

But whatever, how fortunate - what could be better, entirely accidental, publicity for both of them than this little quarrel? Piers reinforces his image as a caped conservative melting snowflakes faster than a bakery hotplate, while Greggs pose as heroes of inclusivity and get to flog their mass-produced fast-food to people who wouldn't previously have even considered darkening their doorways.

The PR press has been ecstatic over the whole episode. PR Week has lauded it as "a PR masterclass" with ecstatic reviews from industry insiders on the sheer savvy sausageness of it all.

Oh hello Piers, we've been expecting you...

Yeah, yeah, yeah...
In a world of confected products and confected "debate", that is possibly, maybe, allegedly the truest statement of the whole episode.


Script extract from "The Ploughman's Lunch", a 1985 film written by Ian McEwan and directed by Richard Eyre:
 
                                   MATTHEW
                               (a sudden laugh)
                         That food you're eating.

                                     JAMES
                         Yes.

                                     MATTHEW
                         What would you call it?

                                     JAMES
                         I dunno.  Ploughman's Lunch.

                                     MATTHEW
                         Ploughman's Lunch.  Traditional 
                         English fare.

                                     JAMES
                         U-huh.

                                     MATTHEW
                         In fact it's the invention of an 
                         advertising campaign they ran in 
                         the early sixties to encourage 
                         people to eat in pubs.  A completely 
                         successful fabrication of the past, 
                         the Ploughman's Lunch was.

               We look at James's plate, the unappetising food.  Matthew 
               takes a long drink.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Paris Is Burning

 
As he was brown nosing the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires on Friday, President Emmanuel Macron of France confessed to the butcher of Istanbul that "I am worried." 

Which well he should be - this weekend, his capital city was engulfed in a further round of street protests and riots that saw cars torched, the Arc de Triomphe damaged and police firing tear gas into crowds in the distinctive gilets jaunes (yellow vests) of the protest movement that has swept the country.

A tax on petrol as part of Macron's policy on reducing carbon emissions to tackle climate change sparked the initial demonstrations outside the capital. The jackets are a compulsory requirement for French motorists to keep in their vehicles in case of emergencies and so were donned to symbolise the problem the tax poses to many less well off people living in the countryside, where public transport has very low penetration. This last fortnight, the anger has come to the capital and shows little sign of abating. Both the far right Front National (now renamed the Rassmeblement National, or National Rally) of Marine Le Pen and a range of left-wing parties and groups have joined in what has become a reaction against the entire Macroniste project.

Macron, a former Socialist Minister under neoliberal President Hollande, resigned and set up his own party to challenge as a centrist for the Presidency. He was elected barely 18 months ago offered up liberal platitudes and wild promises of national renewal. An Obama-esque character, the peculiarities of France's two-round voting system saw him narrowly lead a four-way competition between himself and the neofascist, conservative and radical left candidates in the first round, where he led with just 24% of the vote. With far-right Le Pen as his sole opponent in the second round, he saw her off by 66% to 34%, the latter still the highest vote for a fascist-sympathising movement anywhere in western Europe since the 1930s. Notably, the turnout fell by nearly five million between the two rounds and although his En Marche! movement swept to a big majority in Assembly elections a few weeks later, Macron's Presidency was built on sand from the outset.

Like so many liberals, his response to fascism hasn't been to expose it and face it down for the dangerous and inhumane ideology that it is; instead, he has adopted parts of it, making noises he presumably believes will cut the ground from under Le Pen as she contemplates a further assault on the Elysee in 2024. He has legislated to increase the working week, to curtail immigration, re-introduce compulsory military service and cut taxes for the rich. And although his petrol tax is ostensibly an environmental measure, his Environment Minister resigned in August in protest at Macron's failure to take any significant measures to actually cut carbon emissions - many yellow jackets have been at pains to assert their protests are not about opposing action on climate change, but simply about how they are supposed to function day to day on a personal level.

In a country as affected as any by the collapse of traditional industries and deepening inequality, Macron's association with a wealthy liberal elite has led to him tumbling to near-record lows of minus 46% in terms of public approval. This led to him being mocked, for once accurately, by US President Trump, whose own low poll ratings look like a triumph in comparison. Similarly, damage has been done through Macron's imperious manner, attested to in a number of tetchy exchanges with ordinary people where his moderate mask has slipped to reveal his evident disdain towards the poor as hectored and lectured about appropriate behaviour and the need for individual effort. He seems not so much a would-be Napoleon as an aspiring Roi Soleil.

Marine Le Pen of the RN, formerly the Front Nationale
France however is now surfacing the fault lines of the age - Macron and his tired out liberalism look set to be sucked into the centrist vortex they have themselves created.

In their place, neither the traditional conservative Republicans nor the old Socialist Party look set for any comeback. Instead, gradually, French voters are moving towards either the FN/RN, on the far right or, on the left, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), a broad movement of former and new communists, ecosocialist greens and radical socialists. It is these two sharply opposed groupings or some successors to them that are likely to bring the neoliberal collapse to a head in the near future in the faltering Fifth Republic.

Jean-Luc Melenchon of La France Insoumise
The challenge for the Left will be that old chestnut of unity. The FN/RN hard right leads with 20% to Macron's En Marche's 19.5% in the latest poll for next June's European elections. The radical Left is on 23.5%, but this is split between six political groups (though excludes the old Socialist Party's 7% share).

It would be a tragedy of Weimar proportions if the coming historic choice was to go the wrong way because of leftist reductio ad absurdum ideological spats or, worse still, distinctly un-socialist personality clashes.

The stakes are too high; and Paris is burning.


Saturday, 17 November 2018

Corbyn and the EU: the Clock is Ticking

The last week has seen the fissures in the Conservative Party rent open for all to see more clearly than ever. With Cabinet Ministers falling like nine-pins in what can only be assumed were well-rehearsed tantrums (even the man who wrote the deal was among those who denounced it and resigned!), Theresa May's Coalition of the Damned seemed on the brink of collapse. Opponents inside and outside ranks circled like vultures over an bloodied prairie dog, while the media salivated over a fresh delivery of meat for their 24 hour newsfeast. Even Labour's Jeremy Corbyn mused that he could muster a little sympathy for the Prime Minister on a personal level - though someone might remind Gentle Jezzer that she was of course the Home Secretary who led on inventing the "hostile environment" for migrants, so any empathy might be better directed elsewhere.

Yet, while May is on the ropes and anyone watching must wonder what she does get out of it for herself, the fact is that she will almost certainly still be PM in 6 months time (just) and the Tories will still be in Government with their DUP Orcs snapping loudly but loyal on the benches behind them. The Tories are masters of survival and this time is no exception - their incumbency entrenched by Nick Clegg's typically short-sighted Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which means that over 100 Tory turkeys would need to vote for Christmas before there can be a new General Election this side of 2022.

We hear that five Government Ministers - yes, there are still that many left - led by the weasel-minded Michael Gove are sticking with Theresa May to persuade her to amend the deal. This would entail both May and the EU being prepared to renegotiate, which is unlikely in both camps. So that leaves two scenarios: either one where the Rees-Moggs and Boris Johnsons suddenly fall into line, which will simply not happen; or, more likely, the deal is scrapped and the Tories and DUP unite around a situation where May signs up to numerous piecemeal arrangements for things like customs checks and air travel before a"Hard Brexit" at the end of March 2019.

This will not be the apocalypse that so many Hard Remainers claim: we will not fall back to eating grass flavoured with the last packets of stockpiled bisto, though without question there will be many administrative problems and disruption especially to transport for several weeks or months.

What we will have is a Conservative regime though that will use the chaos to enact all manner of contingency legislation and regulations to dismantle a swathe of employment and consumer rights, privatise yet more or the state and possibly repress some of its opponents in the name of National Unity. May, her job done (she will say) will resign in May and Gove's hour will arrive.

Unless....

There is, in the next few weeks, a wide open chance for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to drive not just a wedge between the Tories, but a stake into the heart of the Government. It would involve neither a General Election nor a second referendum.

What if Keir Starmer were to announce that, on reflection, while May's Deal doesn't meet Labour's six tests, the party recognises that, in the short time left, it is the best deal available and the only one that will both honour the referendum result and afford some protection to workers and consumers?

Doing this, rescuing May's deal, possibly with a few amendments, would leave the Prime Minister prisoner of Labour and drive Mogg and co out either to foment ceaseless rebellion within the Tories or alternatively to the netherworld of UKIP - whose own revival, now gaining some traction in the polls where they are back in third place though on just 8%, would also be spiked. May might linger on longer at Downing Street, but her government would be paralysed and the time would come when even she would know the game was up and support an early General Election. Labour would be in pole-position to dictate the terms of the ongoing negotiations for our new trading relationship with the EU (bear in mind that the current deal is only about how we leave, not the future arrangements) and by reaching out across the political divide would be seen a force for unity in this divisive time.

Politics is the art of the possible. And while all acts should always be guided by deep-rooted principle, much of the hot air of the last few days has not been for the sake of beliefs and ideals, but simply jostling for personal and/or party gain at what is one of the most critical moments for the UK since we joined the EEC back in 1973.

The electorate, on the other hand, seek simply a settlement: for now, none of the uncompromising politicians parading before the cameras this last week are likely to have infused anyone with what is needed above all - hope. Corbyn alone has the chance to do so, but the clock is ticking.

Monday, 29 October 2018

FRACKING: No One Could Possibly Have Guessed This Would Happen...

Lancashire's future? Fracking has caused significant earthquake damage in the USA
 So tonight Cuadrilla have had to halt fracking operations at their Preston New Road site for the third time in two weeks after a third tremor abpve the 0.5 Richter scale trigger. The increase seems exponential - from 0.5 to 0.8 to 1.1 and while still relatively minor, their increasing power in such a short time has to be bad news for the shale-peddling carbonistas.

The area surrounding the site near Blackpool in Lancashire has seen 27 seismic events captured by the British Geological Survey in just 11 days. This compares to just two others in the entire rest of the UK over the same period - one in North Wales and one in the Norwegian Sea off the Shetlands. There were no seismic events in Lancashire in the 89 days prior to Cuadrilla commencing drilling.

While most of these are small, the incremental impact on the area if operations continue as planned for many years becomes sadly all too predicatble.

The only crumb of comfort in this could be that this litany of problems for Cuadrilla knocks future plans across the UK on the head and, quite aside from the appalling environmental impact of fracking, makes the whole project financially unviable for the profiteers who are prepared to sacrifice our country and planet for the sake of their bank balances.

Of course, the Greens and environmentalists who warned of this years ago, before fracking permits were opened up by the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Ed Davey during the Coalition government, were denounced as hysterical fantasists and Luddites.

After all, who could possibly have guessed this would happen...?!

Source: British Geological Survey  https://earthquakes.bgs.ac.uk/earthquakes/recent_uk_events.html

Friday, 5 October 2018

Brexit Reality


The Brexit process is nearing its climax. With the Green Party conference meeting in Bristol this weekend, some thoughts on their and other Remainers' campaign for a second referendum on British membership of the European Union. Is focusing on a new vote detracting from at least mitigating the reality of the now inevitable post-Brexit Britain being fashioned by the Tories?

June 2018, and by 17,410,742 - the largest vote for anything ever recorded in the UK - to 16,141,241 the decision is to exit the European Union.

Except, the Leavers lied. Their voters were misled, under-educated, and, well, just bitter about life. They didn’t know what was good for them. They were angry or racist or dead, or all three. (“Dead” is not sarcasm – one Lib Dem would-be actuary got out the mortality tables and, projecting from exit polls, declared that the Leave majority would be mouldering in the grave within 3 years - a line Nick Clegg later took in a BBC interview).

The most appalling, elitist smears have been called down on Leave voters, making it pretty clear that liberal democracy has in fact sparse room for actual democracy. Not unserious demands for people over 65 to be disenfranchised feel like a precursor to a return to the second business vote, or the reintroduction of University MPs. Some Remainer memes and arguments have sought to count non-voters and even babies as anti-Brexit votes.The People have spoken, damn them – time to get a new People.

Claiming to speak for the 10% perhaps rather than the 1%, a lobby of liberal professionals who benefit quite nicely from the opportunities afforded by the EU are irate. Extremely so. Why should their parade be rained on by an unholy alliance of Left Behinders on their grotty northern housing estates and ageing, Daily Mail-chewing Blue Rinse Zombies down in Brexiteer Bournemouth?

A second referendum must be held. One to put things right.

Except that it wouldn’t put things right at all. Aside from the fact that the polls do not show any significant overall movement either way since 2016, what would a rerun do? 

A narrow Leave vote would probably engender a revived UKIP, or worse, and a hard Brexit would turn into tungsten one. A narrow Remain win would face calls for yet a further plebiscite for a “best of three”- and again revive Ukip, or worse, as many among the 52% concluded that voting truly is pointless. 

But, aside from anything else, a second vote isn’t going to happen. The Tories will not concede one and, in spite of the hype, no one is going to make them. No one can. Not even JC at his most miraculously messianic. 

Greens are making a terrible strategic mistake in expending our limited political capital running with Cable, his Lib Desperadoes and a coterie of washed-up Blairite chancers. If the Leave campaign excelled in “fake news” such as Turkey’s imminent relocation from Anatolia to Croydon, it is now well-matched by dire warnings that by April Britain will run out of everything from cream soda to donated sperm. Much smacks of the panicked Scottish unionists during the independence referendum wildly warning YES voters that Doctor Who wouldn’t be on the telly any more, while Nicola Sturgeon would be waiting at Gretna to check your car boot for anyone smuggling Tories across the border. 

And no one made any distinction between so-called "hard" and "soft" Brexits until after the referendum result. Nor did anyone talk about any confirmatory referendum - neither Cameron when he called the vote, nor Clegg when he called for a "straight in/out" referendum in 2008, nor the Greens' Caroline Lucas when she proposed an amendment to a Eurosceptic backbench referendum bill in 2011.

Don’t get me wrong: I campaigned and voted Remain. I was as disappointed by the result as most Remainers. My support though was very much about countering the rise of racism and more positively to fostering internationalism – but that particular ship has sailed. We need to work out now how to heal divisions and address the outcome rather than try to wish it away. Just as impeaching Trump would be the biggest shot in the arm American populists could dream for, our apparent rejection of the referendum only confirms rather than challenges the beliefs that led to the outcome in the first place.

The environmental benefits of EU membership are significant, but they can be over-stated, because the economics of Europe have long been definitively anti-environmental. The EU is one of the biggest free trade blocs in the world. How can such an institution fit with the urgent need to develop localised green economies and sharply reduce the transportation of “things” across our crisis-stricken planet? All the more so when its trade policies are so harshly biased against poorer states outside the Union - it is a longstanding ally of the austerity and privatisation restructure programmes of the IMF and World Bank, disrupting the ecologies of many African and other Third World states in the process.

We are warned that apocalyptic queues of trucks will form at Dover post-Brexit. Kent will become a giant lorry park. Bad stuff - but consider what all these hordes of huge carbon waggons are doing day in day out right now as they carry their cargoes from Tallinn to Truro.

In terms of social benefits, contrary to myth, the corporatist EU does not guarantee employment rights. Apart from the discrimination directives (which notably did not stop the Coalition introducing tribunal fees for discrimination cases at triple the norm), our employment protection regulations are almost entirely set domestically. The same goes for holidays, established by UK law in the 1930s and driven by trade unions, not by international capitalists. By contrast, the EU was content to exempt Britain from key parts of the working time regulations. 

Greens talk of reforming Europe – but there is no blueprint for that in existence. Nowhere in our policies is there anything beyond a bigger say for the Parliament in the workings of the Commission. While the hard work of Green MEPs from both the UK and other EU states on social protections must be lauded, the bottom line is that zero hours contracts and the gig economy, the housing crisis, NHS privatisation and near unprecedented social inequality have all prospered inside the EU. There may be no Lexit under Theresa May, but there is no Lemain either.

We have a historic opportunity and an urgent need to portray a post-Brexit Green society: to promote wealth redistribution, sustainable agriculture, co-operative enterprises, public ownership of clean energy and transport, and the re-industrialisation of our economy using small-scale, local enterprises to manufacture infinitely more of the goods we use. In other words, to provide an alternative to the dark future being fashioned by the Tories right now. 

Green MEPs have recognised that, while unwelcome of itself, Brexit could provide "transformative opportunities" for the UK economy.
"…we recognise that Brexit does provide some opportunities for radical change in the UK economy, for example in trade relations and expenditure on agriculture. The economic challenge of Brexit has shocked the government out of the policy of austerity and offers us important opportunities in terms of making significant and timely investments in the transition to the greener economy that climate change demands." (Greening Brexit, Molly Scott Cato et al, November 2016)

This rather than pushing ceaselessly for a second vote should be the cri de coeur for Greens and their allies. This can be the springboard of creating at least an awareness of an alternative Brexit reality to the chaos of May, Mogg and Johnson.

Brexit will be a huge challenge, no doubt. There will be significant disruption, especially in the first few months. But much, much worse is coming very soon in any case as the environmental and resource crises deepen rapidly across the entire planet. The challenge for us is to engage with the majority who have no real stake in our society because so much of it is being accumulated by an ever smaller elite. 

All the liberal arguments in the world do not even begin to address the day to day lives of most people, and do nothing to resolve the barriers so many face in our current economy - a process stretching back to almost the very time we joined Europe and so not surprisingly, nor entirely inaccurately, associated with it by many. Fail to do this and, like the Russian Kadets and Mensheviks in March 1917 who fussed over the legal theories and niceties of drafting new constitutions while the Bolsheviks won the hearts and minds of the people with their demands of "Peace, Bread and Land", the momentum will stay with those who seek the harshest Brexit of all and a dystopian society for our country.

Greens and others on the Left can squander this precious time tilting at referendum windmills. Or we can focus furiously on advocating for the social justice, environmental sustainability and economic resilience we need for civilised society to survive and thrive. The choice is ours.


A slightly shorter version of this article appears in the conference edition of the Green Left's "Watermelon" journal. This can also be found on the Green Left website. Please note that this article is a personal view and not GL policy.