Sunday, May 29, 2005

Le jour de gloire

(Or "the glorious day", for any lurking Citizen Smith nostalgics. Has Robert Lindsay ever done better work?)

I've known John Palmer, slightly, for some time - we were both involved in the Socialist Society in the early 1990s - and respected him for rather longer. Still, I can't endorse his take on the European constitution.

There are six main points - which is to say, there are three main aspects to the constitution itself and three significant supplementary arguments. Very briefly: the new elements of the constitutional treaty can be grouped under the headings of economic liberalisation, democratisation and institutional consolidation. Moves to entrench the dominance and extend the scope of free-market capitalism in the EU would be, I think John would agree, a Bad Thing, which the Left would be well advised to oppose. However, John's response to this aspect of the treaty consists of denying its existence:
If the constitutional treaty is killed, all the free-market provisions that the no side objects to will still be in force. This is because they are part and parcel of all the other EU treaties that will remain in force.
Really? Does the treaty do nothing to entrench the neo-liberal model or extend its scope, nothing to promote privatisation or assist European corporations? This has not, to say the least, been my impression. (Nor is it Victor's, and he's got references.)

Secondly, democratisation - of which, I think we can agree once again, the EU currently stands in crying need. John again:
What the new treaty does - for the first time in clear terms - is to balance the imperatives of economic growth and competitiveness with a commitment to a wide range of human rights and social values and standards, and to greater powers for the elected European parliament. This opens the way to the emergence of a democratic European polity where voters will be able to choose between rival European party programmes and candidates for election as president of the commission.
This strikes me, again, as a distinctly partial summary. Wouldn't meaningful democratisation start by giving the elected European parliament power over the unelected Commission, not by giving the Commission a fig-leaf of democratic legitimacy? To whom would an elected EU president be accountable, and how? What John describes here sounds less like democratisation, more like a continuation of the long-term project of building a new Europe by stealth ("a political project dressed up in technocratic clothing", in the words of one of the pieces I quoted here).

The third aspect of the treaty - and of the Yes campaign - John barely touches on, but I think it's central. I'm talking about the provisions which make the EU look a bit more like a state, for example by giving it a President and a Foreign Minister. Some commentators are quite excited about the idea of a United (Capitalist) States of Europe emerging to challenge the global hegemony of the USA; a vision something like this is lurking in Habermas's comments and, perhaps, in John's peroration:
[rejection of the treaty] will also obstruct the urgent task of creating a genuinely common European foreign, security and defence policy. No wonder the neocons in Washington gloat as they prepare to celebrate.
For me this in itself counts neither for nor against the treaty. By which I mean that, in the current situation, it counts very strongly against. Were we talking about a reasonably democratic EU - let alone a social-democratic or socialist EU - institutional consolidation would be much to be desired. Since we're not, I can't see any justification for giving the governing elite even more power, or even more swollen heads, than they have already.

Those, I think, are the important questions - the first and second in particular. I'm not saying I've got a final answer to any of them. If (as John says) the treaty genuinely democratises the EU while doing nothing to tilt the balance in favour of neo-liberalism, it's well worth voting for. If, on the other hand, it does little or nothing to bring genuine democracy while extending the reach of neo-liberalism, it's well worth voting against. I'm leaning towards the second of these positions, but that's not particularly important; the point is that these are the terms in which the treaty should be judged. That much should be reasonably clear.

If it's not clear - and it certainly hasn't been up till now - part of the blame lies with two supplementary arguments, both advanced in John's piece. Firstly, John points out that we can't choose our allies:
Perhaps the biggest self-delusion of the anti-treaty left is that it can ignore the link between hostility to the EU and hostility to immigrants and to the further enlargement of the European Union. These links are at the heart of the no campaign in the Netherlands.
This, though, is an appallingly bad argument. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a coherent Left case to be made against the treaty - or even against the EU - the fact that racists and xenophobes are also campaigning against the treaty can't discourage us. If anything, it should make us work harder, precisely to demonstrate that not all critics of the treaty are racists - and, perhaps, win over some disgruntled democrats who have ended up on the Right because only the Right was prepared to criticise the EU. If there is a coherent Left case against the treaty, we can't afford to leave the field to Kilroy. (Victor, again, is very good on this. Shut up, Victor - I stayed up late to write this post and everything...)

Secondly, John argues that the French Left should support the treaty on tactical grounds:
Rejection of the treaty - including its provisions to extend democracy and social rights - will only strengthen the determination of the majority of centre-right and conservative EU governments to weaken its democratic and social content further in any new negotiation.
If there's a Left "No" and a Right "No", in other words, it's only the Right "No" that will be heard. We have been here before, and not very long ago - less than a month, as I write. We were told that we should hold our noses and vote Labour, since any swing away from Labour would only benefit the Tories; we - hundreds of thousands of us - went ahead and voted against Labour, mostly not for the Tories but for the Lib Dems or the Greens or Respect; the swing away from Labour was massive, the swing towards the Tories tiny. Blair reacted exactly as if there had been a major swing to the Tories. He's deaf to appeals to move to the Left, but he can hear appeals to move Right loud and clear - even if they aren't actually there.

Well, so much the worse. The vote was what it was: all those Labour MPs (and ex-MPs) whose vote crashed know that, even if Blair doesn't. The vote is our means of communicating with our representatives: to vote according to our judgment of how they'll react is to compromise ourselves and corrupt the vote. In any case, if it's hard to tell between a Left "No" and a Right "No", it's even harder to identify a Left "Yes". The referendum is a request for popular endorsement; to vote Yes is to endorse the treaty. C'est tout.

There's a third supplementary argument, which John doesn't touch on. It's this:
This Constitution has been put together behind our backs, by delegates who may well be representative but were co-opted - in just the same way that Europe has been built by mechanisms whose inexorability leaves us sidelined. ... A fog of political and media propaganda, broken all too rarely by attempts at explaining the issues, has ended up promoting the impression that we're being taken for idiots: yes, the French people will be consulted, but they must not be allowed any alternative to accepting everything.
- Zoe Margarinos-Rey, quoted from Le Monde. The level of discussion of the constitution in Britain, even among its advocates, has been abysmal: it's generally assumed that this is simply one more obligatory step in the journey towards European integration, whereupon the discussion moves on to the more interesting meta-topics ("will Blair secure the backing of his party?") and meta-meta-topics ("if Blair fails, how will the Tories exploit it?"). If I were voting in today's referendum, I'd vote No on this principle alone: if this treaty is as important as it's cracked up to be, it deserves a period of consultation so prolonged and intensive as to give every citizen the means and the opportunity to express an informed opinion - and have it heard. Anything less, in matters of this importance, really is taking us for idiots.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

We all want to see the plan

Jurgen Habermas says:
Without the dynamic of economic interests, the political union would have probably never got off the ground. This dynamic only strengthens the worldwide tendency toward market deregulation. But the xenophobic perception of the Right that the socially undesirable consequences of this lifting of boundaries could be avoided by returning to the protectionist forces of the nation state is not only dubious for normative reasons, it is also outright unrealistic. The Left must not let itself be infected by such regressive reflexes.
What is vaunted today as the "European social model" can only be defended if European political strength grows alongside the markets. It is solely on the European level that a part of the political regulatory power that is bound to be lost on the national level can be won back. Today the EU member states are strengthening their cooperation in the areas of justice, criminal law and immigration. An active Left taking an enlightened stance toward European politics could have also pressed long ago for greater harmonisation in the areas of taxation and economic policy. The European constitution now creates at least the conditions for this.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit says:
A French 'no' will be the beginning of a period of confusion, or recrimination, of gradual unwinding of what we have already achieved in Europe. I fear that, for once, the right-wing press in Britain is right. A French "no" would be the prelude to an attempt to impose a purely economic vision of Europe, a market vision. Murdoch would jump for joy.

Denis MacShane says:
Europe’s new constitutional treaty belongs neither to the left nor the right any more than the French or American constitutions, in themselves, define the political or social choices of France and the United States. It is up to the left in Europe to develop a new agenda to achieve full employment and social protection. Let the conservatives, isolationists, souverainistes, and populists say No. The new constitutional treaty contains language for 450 million citizens which workers elsewhere on the planet can only dream of. The left should say Yes to Europe.

Pierre de Lauzun says:
At heart, they know that Europe can only be built on the basis of nation states. It's for that reason that what they call the Constitution is actually an international treaty. But they do not draw the right conclusion from this: the myth of substituting Europe for nation states is utopian. Europe is above all the pooling of tools, whose true - national - political authorities judged that they were better implemented together than separately. If they want to go further than this, they need to define positively what the people of Europe objectively have in common, and to cease trying to build Europe in the abstract.

But they prefer to continue with the political myth. Lacking content, the adopted solution has become procedural: taking abstract principles and judging any decisions based on their variation from them. The procedural and legal approach entirely invades the language of debate. We should not therefore be surprised by the indifference and sometimes hostility of the people, in spite of their previous benevolence. Europe is the paradox of an undemocratic construction built on a democratic foundation. It remains more the fruit of the will of the elites than of the people. Each stage was decided from above and was ratified, as well as it could be, after the fact. Being democratic is not its aim, in spite of the European Parliament: there is no public discussion between two parties or two programmes, sanctioned by the ballot boxes, in a common political space.
For the first time, the referendum puts the question of the nature of the European project. It's no surprise that this should happen in France, where a voluntaristic faith in integration is combined with a refusal to recognise the inadequacy of the political basis of Europe. ... Without the referendum, which let democratic light in on the Brussels game, nobody at the level of the French voters would have heard the constitution talked about - and it would have passed in the end, in one form or another. But this surreptitious approach can't be continued indefinitely, certainly not in the field of politics. We need to get back to reality - and the merit of the current debate is that it enables us to do so.

Zoé Magariños-Rey says:
the main argument for a Yes vote consists in saying that the Constitution consecrates a community of values, with particular reference to democracy. It is all the more astonishing that nothing in the Constitution brings the EU closer to its citizens. ... The powers of the European Parliament have been augmented quantitatively but not qualitatively. The most anti-democratic features of the EU remain: there is no separation of powers; there is nothing resembling a principle of popular sovereignty; the executive is politically unaccountable, with the exception of errors of management ... This Constitution has been put together behind our backs, by delegates who may well be representative but were co-opted - in just the same way that Europe has been built by mechanisms whose inexorability leaves us sidelined.

It is very tempting to treat this referendum, not as a matter of domestic politics, but as a historic referendum on the construction of Europe. This would be to overlook the 10% of new provisions, buried within the Constitution, which are the real subject of the referendum, given that the other 90% of the text will remain in force whichever way the vote goes. A fog of political and media propaganda, broken all too rarely by attempts at explaining the issues, has ended up promoting the impression that we're being taken for idiots: yes, the French people will be consulted, but they must not be allowed any alternative to accepting everything.

Paul Anderson says:
Although I agree with rather a lot in the Green manifesto, including the proposals for a citizen’s income and for a massive rethink of environmental taxation, I can’t swallow the idiotic Euroscepticism. Campaigning against the European constitution as nominal pro-Europeans because you want a better one? Get serious.

What I really can’t get my head around ... is the sheer idiocy of left-wingers deciding to become a tiny, swamped minority in a campaign that will be (a) overwhelmingly dominated by the Tories and far-right loons who want to destroy the welfare state, reduce workers’ rights, send immigrants home and tell the frogs to hop off; and (b), if successful, a massive boost for the Tories’ next election campaign. What on earth is going through the left Europhobes’ minds?

Meaders says:
This should not be difficult. It is a free market treaty with a few sops. That's why the No campaign in France has been led by the Left.
Nowhere in this is any sense that other agencies or forces may exist that are better placed to deliver social justice than the venal political classes of Europe, committed for decades to a broadly neoliberal vision of the world. Quite why a declaration of faith in the existence of the EU by its citizens would alter their course is unclear.
(Brief excerpt from an excellent post.)

Sarah, in comments at Meaders' blog, says:
Surely the important thing is not how a vote against the Constitution would be perceived but the fact that the Constitution should not be adopted in the first place. Because if it is adopted, "undistorted competition" will become legally enforceable (as set out in the third part of the Constitution), and this also applies to what are quaintly called "services of general economic interest" (known to normal people as public services). It is specified in the Constitution that it is a duty of member states to introduce further liberalisation (as quickly as their circumstances permit). It is further specified that they have to increase their military spending (nothing optional about that). This is not really a Constitution; it is a straitjacket for every member state's future domestic policy.

Lastly, Henry Farrell says:
the EU is a political project dressed up in technocratic clothing – it’s succeeded in part because its day-to-day activities sounds so boring to outsiders.

The problem with this, of course, is that over time, the European Union has begun to leach legitimacy, as it has become ever more powerful and less accountable. Hence the long-lasting debate over the European Union’s “democratic deficit” and how best to solve it. The primary solution over the last fifteen years or so has been to give more power to the European Parliament, which on its surface is the most ‘democratic’ of the EU’s institutions. The problem has been that European voters don’t pay very much more attention to the Parliament than they did when it was a toothless congeries of windbags, so that the Parliament is accumulating power without much in the way of democratic responsibility ... Thus, we have a set of institutions (the European Union) which are increasingly politically powerful, but which don’t have much democratic legitimacy.
While EU policy is shrouded in technocratic gobbledygook, it has very substantial political consequences. Nor are these consequences what you might expect. The European Union is typically perceived by English-speaking non-experts as a vaguely social-democratic bureaucratic leviathan, in part because of criticisms from the British government and the British tabloid press over the last couple of decades. In fact, its most important impact has been to further neo-liberalism by creating European markets, and by wearing down the particularities of national economic systems that are incompatible with these markets. The European Union has taken over vast swathes of economic decision-making, and effectively taken them out of democratic control. It’s no wonder that people on both the left and right are beginning to get upset by this; what’s more difficult to explain is why it’s taken them so long to begin to mobilize their frustration.

All this means that the traditional means of furthering European integration – agreeing new treaties among heads of government, and then getting them ratified by a supine public (when the public is consulted at all) won’t work any more. Nor will tearful appeals to that public to pass the Treaty on the nod, because of the inherent worth of Europe, gloire nationale or whatever-you’re-having-yourself work very well either. For better or worse, the European Union is becoming increasingly politicized. Nor is this likely to change in the future. But exactly because it’s becoming politicized, it’s starting to become politically present in a way that it hasn’t been in the past. As best as I can tell, the question is beginning to change from one of whether Europe, in some abstract and ineffable sense, is ‘good,’ to one of what kind of Europe is good (as usual, the UK is the glaring exception to this generalization). .. the recent decision by the European Parliament to remove Britain’s opt-out from the Working Time Directive was portrayed by both sides as a blow in the fight over whether Europe should adopt a liberal-reformist or more traditional social-democratic model.

Thus, a new debate is beginning to emerge over what kind of European Union we should have – a Europe that’s more aligned with the social-democratic model, or a Europe that’s closer to the classical liberal approach; protection versus free markets.
these arguments are less obstacles to European integration than the birth pangs of a European Union in which voters actually begin to pay attention to what’s happening at the European level. The European Union is becoming a political space, in a way that it hasn’t been in the past.

Not much to add to all the above (you'll be pleased to hear), except: interesting times. Let's see the plan. I don't believe that the Left opposition is going to make the running - but let's not fool ourselves that it will have no influence at all. (Pessimism is not realism.)

Above all, let's keep the discussion going rather than shutting it down. The last thing we need is another round of nosepegs.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Just us

The idea of a 'just war' has been around for a long time - since the fifth century, in fact, when it was formulated by St Augustine. One of the key criteria in judging whether a particular conflict can be considered 'just' is that war is not waged lightly: it has to be a 'last resort'. It can be tricky to tell when you've reached the 'last resort', or the last of anything; you could easily jump too soon, or else wait too long and miss it altogether. Think of Father Ted, urging himself to confront the odious Father Fintan Stack and simultaneously rationalising his failure to do so before: "No, this is definitely the last straw. I thought that was the last straw, but obviously I was mistaken. This now, this is positively the last... bit of straw... left... in the thing, what I'm saying is there is no more straw!"

Of course, problems like this are what we have philosophers for. Michael Walzer is an international authority on 'just war' theory; a collection of his writings was recently reviewed by Corey Robin in the LRB. Here's a slice:
Walzer wrestles with terrorists who claim that they are using violence as a last resort and antiwar activists who claim that governments should go to war only as a last resort. Walzer is equally dubious about both claims. But far from revealing a dogged consistency, his scepticism about the ‘last resort’ suggests a double standard. ... Walzer refuses to accept the terrorist’s ‘last resort’ while he is ready to lend credence to the government’s, or at least is ready to challenge critics of the government who insist that war truly be a last resort.
Here's Walzer, at greater length, on terrorists and the last resort; the essay, reprinted in the collection Robin reviewed, can also be found in a 2001 issue of the American Prospect.
In parts of the European and American left, there has long existed a political culture of excuses focused defensively on one or another of the older terrorist organizations: the IRA, FLN, PLO, and so on.
The first excuse is that terror is a last resort. The image is of oppressed and embittered people who have run out of options. They have tried every legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed everywhere, until no alternative remains but the evil of terrorism. They must be terrorists or do nothing at all. The easy response is that, given this description, they should do nothing at all. But that doesn't engage the excuse.

It is not so easy to reach the last resort. To get there, one must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things) - and not just once, as if a political party or movement might organize a single demonstration, fail to win immediate victory, and claim that it is now justified in moving on to murder. Politics is an art of repetition. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by no means clear when they run out of options.
"Last resort" has only a notional finality. The resort to terror is not last in an actual series of actions; it is last only for the sake of the excuse. Actually, most terrorists recommend terror as a first resort; they are for it from the beginning.
And here's Walzer on 'just war', adopting a very different position - although, oddly, the rhetoric doesn't change that much. He wrote in 2003:
We say of war that it is the "last resort" because of the unpredictable, unexpected, unintended, and unavoidable horrors that it regularly brings. In fact, war isn't the last resort, for "lastness" is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life: it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last. The notion of lastness is cautionary - but this is a necessary caution: look hard for alternatives before you "let loose the dogs of war."
The distortions and elisions in Walzer's arguments are striking, and sometimes strikingly obvious. Take that (unchallenged) 'easy response' in the first paragraph quoted: even if we have tried every legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed everywhere, it is better to do nothing at all than to take up arms. This is an extraordinary failure of imaginative engagement on Walzer's part, which must put us on our guard relative to the arguments that follows.

Walzer also plays fast and loose with the key word 'last'. When he's dealing with terrorists, his argument is rigid and mechanistic: by implication, each individual group must try everything ... and not just once before non-violent forms of action can be discarded. This seems counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. Let's say that we're in El Salvador in the early 1980s, and a local trade union organiser has just been murdered by a right-wing death squad. What's our advice to other trade unionists - learn by doing the same thing over and over again?

When Walzer is dealing with regular armies, 'last' means something quite different. In fact [sic], war isn't the last resort ... The notion of lastness is cautionary. 'Last', in other words, means... what? 'Worst'? But if starting a war is not merely an undesirable course of action but the worst option (which seems like a reasonable position), the distinction Walzer is trying to make dissolves. To say that something is the worst option is precisely to say - if you'll excuse the pedantry - that it's the last course of action one should resort to. Presumably 'last' here means no more than 'quite bad'.

These two opposed redefinitions of 'last' meet oddly in a formulation from that 1992 essay:
we can never reach lastness, or we can never know when we have reached it. There is always something else to do: another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution, another meeting.
One must indeed try everything ... and not just once. One must go to the UN Security Council, and not just once; one must sit through yet another meeting. Or rather, one mustn't: just because it's called the last resort, that doesn't mean you've actually got to try it last.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, Walzer slips all too easily from discussing an argument from principle to challenging the good faith of those who invoke it: Actually, most terrorists recommend terror as a first resort. Well, one activist's lifetime of experience is another's starting point (unless every one of us needs to try everything ... and not just once); it's not hard to imagine situations in which a 'last resort' is the only resort. Besides - 'most terrorists'? Has Walzer run a survey among veterans of armed struggle groups or analysed the copious literature these groups tend to produce? I suspect that this is a starting point rather than a conclusion: what purports to be a critique of 'most terrorists' is actually a statement about how Walzer imagines these groups to be, based on his antipathy to them. (Tellingly, Walzer describes the positions he's attacking not as arguments but as excuses.)

Walzer detects bad faith in peaceniks as well as terrorists - always with another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution... He made the point more bluntly in 2004, in his contribution to a Radio 4 discussion programme:
Last resort is a metaphysical term. You never reach lastness, there’s always something you could do. If there is a massacre going on in Rwanda, the crucial thing is to stop it. As we saw, there were lots of things to do — or to pretend to do — in the face of the Rwandan massacre, but the use of force was, I think, the just response; and just because if we were interested in stopping the murders, there was no alternative.
there were lots of things to do — or to pretend to do. Terrorists lie - they talk about principle, but they just want to be violent. Peaceniks lie - they talk about principle, but they just want governments to be non-violent. The fact of it is, Walzer says - the philosophical fact of it is - that governments can cut ethical corners and may use violence, whereas citizens must act ethically and must not use violence. Because... because that's how it is.

Comments made on the same Radio 4 programme by Vaughan Lowe, a professor of international law, show just how dangerous this idea is.
I think the general population is quite rightly concerned not simply with the question whether it’s lawful or not, but whether it’s right. And it’s certainly not the case that every lawful action is morally defensible. And I think that’s what they’re trying to get at when they talk about just war. They’re saying more than that it’s technically lawful. They’re saying it’s a good idea. And I think that people think that answering the legal question excuses them from answering the moral question and that they think it’s enough to concentrate on that. And I absolutely agree—the ultimately critical issue is the moral one: is it justified to use force or not?
Both Walzer's readings of 'just war' theory are concerned with this three-way connection between legality, justice and violence, but they articulate it in very different ways. For Walzer I - Walzer on terrorism - a course of action can only be just if it is also legal, which necessarily precludes violence. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by no means clear when they run out of options. If armed struggle is unjust unless it is the 'last resort', armed struggle can never realistically be just. (Even if activists do run out of options for legal activity, they should react to this setback by doing nothing at all.)

For Walzer II - Walzer on war - "lastness" is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life. If war is unjust unless it is the 'last resort', war can never realistically be just; in a 1992 essay Walzer wrote that the upshot of the 'last resort' argument was to make war "morally impossible". But Walzer is convinced that 'just war' is possible, which means that war cannot literally be the 'last resort'. The circle is squared by divorcing justice from legality (which, in the case of international law, can only finally be determined by doing the same thing over and over again up at the UN). For Walzer II, the justice of a just war is an intrinsic property - and if there is a conflict between justice and the procedural minutiae of legality, justice takes precedence, in principle just as it does in practice.

As Lowe hints, Goldsmith's legal advice on the Iraq war was, in effect, "It may not be a just war but it's technically legal." Under criticism, Blair has opted decisively for the opposite position - "It may not be technically legal, but it's a just war." Walzer I wouldn't tolerate this type of argument for a second; Walzer II endorses it wholeheartedly. The result is that his arguments cease to be intolerable to the advocates of actually existing 'just war', at the cost of becoming dispensable. As David Gordon comments: "Walzer mocked overly rigid just-war thinkers: if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen. ... But the upshot of Walzer’s slippery standards is that policymakers will pay him no heed either."

The yawning inconsistency between Walzer I and Walzer II - and, I would argue, the equal and opposite dodginess of both positions - highlights the limitations of the terms involved (what does last mean, after all?) A more nuanced - and hopefully more consistent - position might start from one of Roy Bhaskar's more lucid observations. We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation, a leap "into a realm free of determination"; what we can hope to do is move "from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination".

Which brings us, indirectly, back to the 'last resort'. Suppose that people and nations determine one another's actions; suppose that some of these 'determinations' are acceptable and others not. The 'last resort' is then the point at which 'unneeded, unwanted and oppressive' determinations cannot be removed or alleviated, other than by force or the threat of force.

Where individuals are concerned, the question is whether there are groups whose 'determinations' I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don't have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti "KILL NAZI SCUM". As I say, I'm not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn't involve death - it's more along the lines of "SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM" or "NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA" - but I can't help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.

In the semi-imaginary land of international relations, on the other hand, it is not clear to me that the last resort is ever reached, unless the offending nation is either initiating a war or attempting to provoke the other into doing so. This suggests that the 'last resort' is always a defence against aggression - for otherwise it would always [be] possible to do something else, or to do it again - and hence that there is no such thing as a just war of aggression.

But in that case the Iraq war would not have been a just war. And we know in advance that that conclusion is intolerable (if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen). And if Iraq was right, the model must be wrong. Simple.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Under marble Millichip

Surprised to find that a week's gone by since I last posted here. I'm working on a lengthy (aren't they all) post on the ethics of war, which will probably go up both here and at the Sharpener.

In the mean time, have a look at this fascinating take on the Glazer affair. I should say that it's not about football. I was a Red at primary school, & would be now if I was anything - they're now my local side, ironically enough - but by and large I really don't give a monkey's about football.

This is interesting stuff, though. Here's Jamie's conclusion (slightly edited):

Some pro-Glazer sentiment is pure cap doffing feudalism [...] but other Glazer supporters reach towards a more developed conservatism: the idea that the club – the nation, effectively – is an organic, essentially mystical entity whose ownership follows natural laws and where the role of the fans is simple loyalty.

By contrast, the anti-Glazer camp tend to hammer at the details of the deal, their patriotism motivated by a sense of active responsibility for how the club conducts itself and of the rights and liberties that should attend “citizenship”.
You can imagine the same kind of discussions in the taverns of late fifteenth century Florence, when the Medicis moved to end the city’s mixed constitution and take the city private under the leadership of Lorenzo the Magnificent. See also the Putney debates.

(The club/nation analogy isn't as far-fetched as it might sound - it's developed further here.)

I think that last sentence struck me most forcibly. See also the Putney debates. But, but... surely Putney is finished business? We can argue about the Diggers - about Burford, even - but not Putney; Rainborough's line was radical then, but it's been common sense for a century or more. We're all democrats now.

What was borne in on me as I read Jamie's piece is that this is a half-truth at best. It's true that certain important battles were won, in the name of liberty or democracy or equality; it's also true that life went on, and those power relations which weren't extirpated tended to revive and perpetuate themselves. In this century, it's entirely possible to believe oneself a staunch democrat - to believe sincerely in equality before the law and government by the people - and come out with something like this:
So, you fear that your new owner will run you solely for a profit? Well, tough. In any case, I don't see what the worry is about. Is it really in the interests of a man trying to run a commercial empire to have a floundering team, uncompetitive at the highest level?
"He'll take good care of the team - that's all you need to worry about. Of course you can trust him - look how rich he is! Besides, who asked you? The club was up for sale, he bought it, end of story."

Villeins ye are still and villeins ye shall remain, in other words. Old myths die hard - and they perpetuate themselves by clothing themselves in new language. Of course, this isn't a new insight. We've known for some time that people who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life - without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints - have a corpse in their mouth. But the problem goes deeper. In A dream of John Ball, William Morris wrote:
I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name
Revolution could be a live term; for that matter, so could socialism or workers' control. They could be living terms, capable of inspiring the right people (and alarming the right people), but they aren't - any more than democracy can be enlisted against the power exercised by Malcolm Glazer. There will be challenges to the position of Glazer and people like him, and they will return to the terrain sketched out by Rainborough in Putney - but the word that strikes fear into the bosses won't be democracy, and it won't be revolution either. We shall need new terms - which means, first and foremost, that we will need to look to be new battles, new tactics and new organisations.

Which in turn means that we need to know how to wait. "We are in a battle between two worlds: one which we do not recognise, and one which does not yet exist." Thus Vaneigem in 1961; Gramsci and Matthew Arnold both said something similar (thanks, Ellis).

Things will get worse before they get better - and we may not know 'better' when we see it. But I think we can be confident that it will come.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Happy in his work

It's true what they say about Oxbridge. I spent three years at Cambridge doing little more than fade into the panelling, but I still knew (or at least bumped into) some stars in the making - a Tory MP here, a Guardian columnist there. Not to mention the thesps. A friend of a friend acted with Tilda Swinton! I went to a drama workshop and was personally loosened up by Simon McBurney! I met Richard Hytner (brother of the more famous Nicholas) and told him I'd been at school with, er, Richard Hytner!

But none of those people are in government. Nigel is.

To explain about Nigel, I'll need to tell you about Brian. Nigel and I both did English, although he was a year or two above me. Brian was our Director of Studies, and Nigel admired him enormously. Most of us did. Brian was intellectual in the highest degree: he had written a book on the semiotics of cinema, which proposed a way of reconciling Marx and Freud on the first page. He was a stern and uncompromising teacher; if you fell short of his standards he would immediately let you know, with an agonisingly long silence or a withering put-down (or in some cases both). If you asked him a question he'd often gabble dismissively through the obvious answer, then slow down to trace the interesting complexities which lay beneath the surface, before finally grinding to a halt at the end of the sentence, padding the pause with 'er's and making a circular 'etcetera, etcetera' hand gesture. Despite the cinema and the Marx and the Freud and the semiotics, Brian was tremendously interested in English literature, and wanted us to share his interest; there was always more he wanted us to know about. He was an extraordinary teacher.

So, Nigel wasn't alone in admiring Brian, but he took it a bit further than the rest of us. Brian dressed in jeans and combat jacket - which, at that time and in that place, stood out. Nigel dressed in exactly the same way. Brian's handwriting was, frankly, awful - his signature was a capital letter and a horizontal swipe of the pen. Nigel signed his name in exactly the same way. We all imitated Brian's accent occasionally; Nigel talked exactly like Brian, all the time. He even did the 'er's and the circular hand gesture. What wasn't quite so clear was whether he was actually into the Marx and the Freud and the cinema and so on. There was a definite question mark over the cinema. Once, at a showing of a video artwork organised by Brian, I was surprised to hear Brian's own voice from the back of the room, asking a distinctly critical question. When the artist had politely but firmly shredded his arguments, I glanced round to see how he was taking this rebuff. It was, of course, Nigel. As I turned round I caught sight of Brian, sitting over to my left. He was smiling.

After college I lost sight of Nigel. At one point I heard through a mutual friend that he'd gone to work for That's Life!. It seemed like a bit of a comedown from the world of Cambridge English, but it was a job in the Media (which was more than I'd managed), and at the BBC to boot. So, good luck to him, really. I couldn't help wondering if he was still going through the world as Brian II, and if not whether he was modelling himself on anyone else. (Not Esther, surely?)

Then I heard that Nigel, former That's Life! researcher, former devoted acolyte of a radical Cambridge don, had gone to work for the Conservative Party; his media experience would be put to good use in his role as the party's Director of Communications. At this point, those of us who remembered him started muttering about Mephisto. We had no idea.

Then I heard that Nigel, former Conservative Party Director of Communications, former That's Life! researcher, former devoted acolyte of a radical Cambridge don, had been found a safe seat in Parliament and was now the Conservative MP for a constituency in Oxfordshire. It was a country seat in more ways than one: he had married a millionaire along the way, and now lived on a large estate.

Then I heard that Nigel, former Conservative MP, former Conservative Party Director of Communications, former That's Life! researcher, former devoted acolyte of a radical Cambridge don, had broken with the Conservatives and joined New Labour. They welcomed him with open arms and found him another safe seat for the next election: a very different constituency, this one near Liverpool. He bought a house in the constituency, but it was said that he didn't spend much time there, preferring his townhouse in London and his country estate. He gave one disastrous interview in which he attempted to make light of the number of servants he employed ("only five", I think it was). According to They Work For You, he voted 'very strongly' in favour of foundation hospitals, student top-up fees, anti-terrorism laws, introducing ID cards and the Iraq war. On the other hand, he was 'very strongly' in favour of the fox hunting ban and equal gay rights, neither of which positions can have done him many favours down in Oxfordshire. At the 2005 election he was said to have Tony Blair's ear; his insider knowledge of the Conservative Party's presentation strategies must have been very useful.

After the election, Nigel was rewarded with a minor government post: he's now a junior minister for Northern Ireland. His name isn't Nigel, though. (Brian's name isn't Brian, come to that.) Nigel's name is Shaun.

Shaun Woodward, government minister. Shaun Woodward, Labour MP for St Helens South, husband of a millionaire, former Conservative MP, former Conservative Party Director of Communications, former That's Life! researcher, former devoted acolyte of a radical Cambridge don.


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Doing the best things

So, Blair's responded to the May 5th result by announcing his intention to move yet further Right, and backed it up with new Cabinet appointments. Which is disappointing in itself, as well as representing two fingers to all those of us who chose left-wing alternatives to Labour. Given the scale of the left-alternative diaspora and the insignificance of the swing from Labour to the Conservatives, this response also makes very little sense in terms of political rationality (as I wrote here). That said, it does have a certain ghastly predictability within the Blairoverse. Poach Tory votes and drag the Labour vote along behind: that's how the New Labour clique work. Unfortunately for us, May 5 didn't see them leaving quite enough of the Labour vote behind to slow down the march into Tory territory.

What's interesting - and, I think, revealing - is how New Labour are moving right. What, after all, does the Left/Right split mean? There are a number of different ways of looking at it. Firstly and most obviously, you can map Right onto the interests of capital and Left onto those of labour. Along similar lines, unfettered capitalism and paid-for services (Right) are opposed to state intervention and tax-funded provision (Left).

Secondly, you can associate the Right with tradition: upholding inherited institutions and belief systems, rather than trusting individual judgment and taking the risk of changing things. The belief in progress, on this reckoning, is fundamentally of the Left; so are rationalism and free thinking. The opposition between nationalism (Right) and internationalism (Left) is related to this: for the Right, the fundamental nature of nationality, as an element of individual identity, outweighs its basic meaninglessness.

Thirdly, the Right can be associated with order, discipline and social control; the Left, in this perspective, stands for an all-inclusive and all-forgiving community, which avoids the pain of excluding anyone at the cost of tolerating people who breach its own values. Along similar lines, hierarchy (Right) contrasts with democracy (Left): democracy, on this view, is a solvent of necessary constraints and a gateway drug for anarchy.

New Labour's position on the Right in the first of these three senses was well established before the election; there wasn't anything new or surprising about Blair's promises to cut the dole, marketise the health service and introduce compulsory private pensions (slight paraphrase). What was new was more interesting. There's a weaselly little nod to the tradition-and-nationhood Right:
the British people are a tolerant and decent people, they did not want immigration made a divisive issue in the course of the election campaign, but they do believe there are real problems in our immigration and asylum system and they expect us to sort them out, and we will do so.

Note the slippage here: the government will sort out the problems which the British people believe to exist. The problems may be fictitious, but the belief is real - and that's good enough to act on.

More significantly, there's a positive lurch to the order-and-discipline Right:
though they like the fact we have got over the deference of the past, there is a disrespect that people don't like. And whether it's in the classroom, or on the street in town centres on a Friday or Saturday night, I want to focus on this issue. We've done a lot so far with anti-social orders and additional numbers of police. But I want to make this a particular priority for this government, how we bring back a proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns and our villages.

It's true, New Labour have done a fair bit in this area, what with all those police (and Community Support Officers) and those "anti-social orders" (not to mention Penalty Notices for Disorder, juvenile reprimands, conditional cautions and ABCs). But in the first two terms the relevant legislation tended to arrive piecemeal and without much fanfare. For a Labour Prime Minister to announce, as a "particular priority", a project to "bring back a proper sense of respect" in society seems... well, it seems downright weird, apart from anything else. But it certainly seems like an open and emphatic move to the Right.

Blair's new Cabinet reflects his new priorities. In particular, the campaign for a proper sense of respect has a voice in Cabinet, in the shape of David Miliband ("Minister for Communities and Local Government"). But thereby hangs a tale:

Gaby Hinsliff, 8 May:
Nor did Blair get everything his own way. The job created for Miliband - Minister for Communities and Local Government, with a remit ranging from council tax reform to anti-social behaviour and crackdowns on yobs - was originally earmarked for Blunkett. That avenue was closed after both Prescott and Clarke put their feet down: the more tactful Miliband was an eventual compromise.

Private Eye 1132:
John Prescott pronounced himself "particularly delighted to welcome David Miliband" as a second cabinet minister in the office of the deputy prime minister (ODPM) - as well he might be, having fought off the prime minister's initial intention to plonk Alan Milburn or David Blunkett in the middle of his empire, which would have diluted his power still further.

Michael White, May 11:
This week the usual problems were compounded by leaks of what are now said to have been no more than "internal musings". Thus David Blunkett had let it be known he wanted the kind of local government and communities job which David Miliband got. That was never a runner with Mr Blair.

Perhaps not. It's worth noting, however, that Miliband's new brief encroaches on the turf of Prescott's ODPM as well as Clarke's Home Office, making its award a clear sign of Prime Ministerial favour. Moreover, it represents a continuation - and, presumably, intensification - of some of the initiatives most closely associated with David Blunkett's time as Home Secretary. It also brings with it responsibility for local government, a topic on which Blunkett can (and probably does) claim to be the Cabinet's resident expert.

In short, the simplest explanation of Miliband's new post is that it was designed as Minister For Being David Blunkett - and redesigned hastily in the face of resistance from Blunkett's once and future colleagues. This also helps explain the current confusion within the Cabinet as to who is actually the Minister with Responsibility for Yobs and ASBOs. Clarke, who dealt with this stuff after Blunkett left, appears to feel that it is still a Home Office matter, and has given the job to Hazel Blears. Blears hit the ground running: she has already proposed uniforms for teenagers doing community service, as well as delivering the obligatory denunciation of hoodies ("Mrs Blears denied that the Government was straying into 'dangerous territory' by saying what people should and should not wear."). Prescott has also weighed in, presumably on the basis that he is Deputy Prime Minister, and so if there's anything to be handled by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister who better to speak about it than, and let me just say, setting aside all the cheap jibes, I think we can all agree, quite clearly and simply, and that's where we are at present.

What all this adds up to is that David Blunkett's fingerprints are all over three ministries instead of one. It begins to appear as if one of the new government's main policy initiatives - an initiative which makes emphatically public the government's break with one of the key traditions of the Left - was designed around a disgraced ex-Minister. We knew, of course, that Blair wanted Blunkett back in government, but we may not have appreciated how much Blunkett's return mattered to him.

Assuming for the moment that this analysis is accurate, I think it tells us a couple of interesting things about the state of New Labour. One is that Blair's ministers are becoming the ideological driving force of the government. The point here is not just that Blair is running out of ideas. The Blunkett/Blair relationship reminds me of nothing so much as something a minor Nazi official wrote in 1934:
everyone has best worked in his place in the new Germany if, so to speak, he works towards the Fuehrer. Very often, and in many places, it has been the case that individuals, already in previous years, have waited for commands and orders. [...] Rather, however, it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Fuehrer, to work towards him. Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But the one who works correctly towards the Fuehrer [...] will, in future as previously, have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining the legal confirmation of his work.

The Nazi belief in the 'leader principle' at all levels, coupled with Hitler's notorious idleness, made "working towards the Fuehrer" one of the driving forces of the regime. The "Fuehrer's Will" was supreme, but it could not be known, only guessed; the golden rule was "What Would Hitler Do?". Ironically, what Hitler did - other than delivering endless unfocussed rants against his enemies - often amounted to little more than endorsing or condemning the initiatives taken by his subordinates. (Not that this diminishes his responsibility as leader - if anything, the reverse is true.)

As one junior Nazi was favoured over another, as one version of National Socialism was endorsed and another rejected, Hitler's followers formed new impressions of what the Fuehrer wanted. They "worked towards" the "Fuehrer's Will" as they understood it - and the process continued. Leading Nazis were bitterly divided among themselves, and often pursued radically different policies within their own fiefdoms. What united them and drove them on - and, arguably, radicalised them still further - was the lure of the Fuehrer's approval. Hitler himself rejoiced in not having a detailed programme. He didn't need one; all that mattered was that he knew what he wanted - that is, he knew it when he saw it. And he knew that the Nazi regime would provide it: that was what it was there for.

While Blair and Blunkett are many things, they're certainly not Nazis. But perhaps part of Blunkett's boundless assurance derives from the confidence that, as he moves further to the Right, he is working towards the Prime Minister. And perhaps Blair welcomes this approach. He's never been a deep thinker; he probably wouldn't have come up with anything as coherent as Blunkett's order-and-discipline agenda unaided. But that doesn't matter; what matters is that Blair knows what he wants, and knows what New Labour is. That is, he knows it when he sees it - and he knows that ministers like Blunkett will provide it.

The second interesting element of the story is the suggestion that Blair's proposals were met, not with a bit of a tug-of-war between his people and Brown's people, but with an out-and-out turf battle ("internal musings", indeed). This suggests that Blair's ministers are becoming the political driving force of the government - and they're not necessarily driving it Blair's way. Blair's authority has been significantly weakened by the election result, in Cabinet as well as in Parliament and the country. We already know that back-bench rebels will have a major part to play in this parliament; the anti-New Labour roll of honour may yet be joined by the likes of Prescott and Clarke.

Essential logic

Old German joke, as retold by Sigmund Freud. A man borrows a kettle from his neighbour. When he returns it, the neighbour complains that it's got a hole in it. Don't look at me, says our man, I never borrowed your kettle. Besides, it was fine when I gave it back to you. I wish I'd never borrowed it anyway - it's useless, it's got a great big hole in it.

In other words, Don't blame me, I wasn't there. Well, OK, I was there, but nothing went wrong. Well, maybe something did go wrong, but it was like that already - nothing to do with me... Look, just don't blame me, OK?

Martin Kettle (you can groan now) is outraged that anyone should even think that the election was won by Labour and not by Tony Blair...

The rest is here; it's my first 'exclusive' (non-crossposted) contribution to the excellent new group blog The Sharpener.

Now, think on.

Monday, May 09, 2005

What I tell you three times is true

Ellis Sharp, whose Marxist surrealist fiction deserves better than lazy tags like 'Marxist surrealist', has a fascinating post here about Robert Lowell's poem "The Fens". It's a short poem, so I'll include it here:

The Fens
(After Cobbett)

From Crowland to St. Edmund’s to Ipswich
The fens are level as a drawing board:
Great bowling greens divided by a ditch –
The grass as thick as grows on ground. The Lord
High Sheriff settles here, as on a sea,
When the parochial calm of sunset chills
The world to its four corners. And the hills
Are green with hops and harvest, and a bitch
Spuddles about a vineyard on a tree;

Here everything grows well. Here the fat land
Has no stone bigger than a ladybug,
No milkweed or wild onion can withstand
The sheriff’s men, and sunlight sweats the slug.
Here the rack-renting system has its say:
At nightfall sheep as fat as hogs shall lie
Heaped on the mast and corncobs of the sty
And they will rise and take the landlord’s hand;
The bailiff bears the Bell, the Bell, away.

From Robert Lowell’s second collection ‘Lord Weary’s Castle’ (1946)

There's nothing much I can add to Ellis's discussion of the poem's language, its politics, its roots in Cobbett's writing and his politics. But I can throw some light on that mysterious last line, which - with its onomatopoeic repetition of "the Bell" and that weird, mythic capitalisation - seems to evoke everything from the Bells of Aberdovey to Lewis Carroll's Bellman. Ellis:

The landowners rule the Fens through their complete social control and their lackeys. The bailiff is the sheriff’s agent. To bear the bell means to take the prize. (The notes to the ‘Collected Poems’ say of this line: “See the anonymous ballad ‘The Baily Beareth the Bell Away’”, but what you see when you do isn’t explained. This is irritating since none of the ballad collections I’ve consulted contain it.)

In an online nursery rhyme collection, I've found a piece titled "The Bailiff Beareth":

The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay,
The silver is white, red is the gold,
The robes they lay in fold;
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay;
And through the glass window
Shines the sun.
How should I love and I so young?
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

And so it ends. I don't know if it's a fragment of a longer piece; I certainly don't know what it's 'about'. It is an extraordinary piece of writing: a kind of verbal stained-glass window pieced together out of luminous, resonant images, and written almost entirely in the kind of poetically heightened language which has always seemed archaic but never actually been in common use ("pass us my robes, love, it's time I was off to lay the lily and the rose"). Perhaps it's about a girl being given in marriage and seeing herself as property being confiscated from her family home. Or perhaps that's an over-intellectual reading, and it's simply 'about' the lily and the rose, silver and gold, the window and the sun - and the sad alliterative fall of the bailiff bearing the bell away.

It's beautiful, either way. And it's another way in to what Lowell was trying to do with that poem, it seems to me: to write something that could carry both types of workload, functioning as a constellation of luminous images and at the same time as a critique of rural property relations. An exercise, as Ellis said, but an interesting one - and a reminder of how political good writing can be (and vice versa).

(Incidentally, I've never knowingly read a damn thing by Lowell before this poem. Thanks, Ellis.)

Saturday, May 07, 2005

You're lucky I'm there

This excellent post from Jarndyce brought Norman Brennan to my attention. Brennan runs the Victims of Crime Trust, who operate on the basis that our criminal justice system is currently biased against the victims of crime. Jarndyce shows just what offensive and dangerous nonsense this is. What I hadn't taken in, though, is that Brennan has recently branched out: when the fancy takes him, he rallies to the defence of convicted criminals.

Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust welcomed the court's decision to free Walker. He said: "What she did was wrong, but so was the sentence.

"If the criminal justice system continues to fail to protect the public and victims of crime, I predict that more and more people will look to taking the law into their own hands and that is anarchy."

Let's take that step by step. Linda Walker took the law into her own hands, by threatening some lads with an air rifle. And that is anarchy (a word which I think we can assume Brennan uses pejoratively). That said, Walker's action was a predictable by-product of the criminal justice system's failure to protect victims of crime, and its failure to protect the public in general (Walker's certainly suffered from loutish behaviour, but she's not a victim of crime). Because of this, presumably, Walker's sentence was 'wrong', even though she was guilty as charged - and, what's more, guilty of a descent into anarchy.

Brennan's endorsement of actions like Walker's is a kind of blackmail: if the criminal justice system does not protect people like Walker adequately, they will inevitably take the law into their own hands and rightly so. (The last phrase isn't spelt out, but it's hard to see what else to make of Brennan's insistence that Walker should not have been imprisoned.)

As Jarndyce points out, the idea of bringing victims of crime into court is pretty repugnant in itself: it sentimentalises the law, as well as tending to elide the fundamental distinction between an arrested suspect and a convicted criminal. But this is something else entirely. Brennan isn't primarily concerned with victims of crime; what he wants is to see more criminals punished more harshly, and to see more manifestations of general loutishness and yobbery treated as crimes. If the criminal justice system can't do all this, people who feel they have suffered from this kind of behaviour will pick up the slack - and take some victims of their own. And Norman Brennan, advocate for victims of crime, will be cheering them on.

Friday, May 06, 2005

With your be-bo talk

Quick plug for The Sharpener. It's a new collective blog, put together by a group of political bloggers of unparallelled wit, marklawson and incisiveness. (And they invited me. Which was nice.) Contributors to The Sharpener cover just about the entire marklawson political spectrum, from unapologetic pinkoes such as myself to real live Conservatives. Which means that, wherever you're coming from, you're likely to find some unexpected and challenging viewpoints at The Sharpener. You'll also find good writing, good jokes and an almost complete absence of marklawson.

Give it a go - there's already some good stuff there. You can find it at Oi, Mark Lawson! Mr So-called Political Blog Expert! Review this!

I mean, The Sharpener, obviously. Sorry.

(It really is a great initiative; many thanks to those responsible for setting it up & giving me a chance to be involved.)

A retrospective thing

It's been a weird campaign.

If I were a Conservative voter, I'd be really worried about the state of the party. For as long as I can remember, it's been a good rule of thumb that when Labour were in trouble, the Tories would be the first to benefit, and vice versa. Ironically, during the only period when this wasn't true - the Alliance surge of the early 1980s - the electoral system made it true anyway, converting Labour losses to the Alliance into Tory gains. This time round, it looks rather different. The campaign began with the Tories and Labour more or less level for a week or so, after which there was a small but definite shift away from the Tories and towards Labour. And there it stuck. Even when Iraq and Goldsmith became major issues for Labour, towards the end of the campaign, the Tories didn't capitalise; support for Labour did flake away in the last couple of weeks, but support for the Tories stayed just as low or even fell a little more. In 1983 Tony Benn declared that Labour had actually had quite a good result: 28% of the vote was an unprecedentedly high level of support for an explicitly socialist programme. (Well, yes and no - or rather, 'maybe' to the second statement and a definite 'no' to the first.) Michael Howard and Lynton Crosby achieved something similar: they mobilised a core 'Right' vote, representing around 30% of the population, and absolutely nobody else.

We know about the approach which led to this result - the focus on 'dog-whistle' issues, which is to say, on unreasoning prejudice (against foreigners, against idle public-sector employees, against thieves and yobs and louts, against Guardian-reading middle-class liberals... but mainly against foreigners). This, of course, wasn't the product of a personal reversion to Garnetto-Powellism on Howard's part, still less a worked-out political programme. It was more like Labour's grovelling after the Sunday Express vote in 1997 (the union jacks all over the place were bad enough, but the bulldog?). But where that was shameful, cynical and gratuitous, this was shameful, cynical and rather sad - unlike Blair and Mandelson (who really didn't need any votes gained by those means) it seemed that Howard and Crosby actually had nowhere else to go. The increasing salience of racism as the campaign wore on was significant; most of the other issues which were supposed to press Tory buttons turned out to be themes New Labour was quite happy to appropriate, just as it had appropriated law and order and value for money and extending choice and decent working people. (Guardian readers? We certainly know what New Labour think of them. And we know what the Guardian thinks of Blair: it thinks he's lovely, and he only says those things when we've provoked him, and he cares about us really...)

In this election we've seen New Labour's triumphal achievement: reducing the Conservatives to their current state. It may even be irreversible: all they need to lock themselves into the downward spiral is to appoint yet another leader who plays well with the grass roots (whatever they amount to these days). Broadening the party's appeal has to mean going the other way and outflanking Labour on the Left - if not on public ownership or workers' rights, then on social tolerance and individual liberties. But I'm not sure who would be willing and able to take on that kind of repositioning operation. Certainly David Davis, the front-runner, is a 'dry' of the old school. (Can we skip a leader and go straight to Boris?)

New Labour isn't in a much better state; it's had very few other triumphs. This may seem like an odd judgment to pass on a party which has just won a third consecutive election, but take another look at the campaign. The Honourable Fiend's summary is, if anything, too kind. Firstly, the shift from positive to negative campaigning started weeks ago. The leadership realised quite early on that they weren't winning any votes by talking about being 'unremittingly New Labour', sidelining Brown, Cook and points leftward, and making policy commitments that revolved around selling off everything that's not nailed down. They also got the message that a lot of Labour supporters were still quite peeved about Iraq, and quite willing to vote Lib Dem as a result. In short, they couldn't rely on their core vote; they couldn't sell the programme they wanted to sell; and they couldn't hide the issue they wanted to hide. Their response to this negative feedback, rather than a reversion to Labour core values, has been an extended fit of pique. (I've speculated before about why Blair doesn't appeal, even cynically, to Labour core values. I think the simplest explanation is that he doesn't know what they are.)

Secondly, I don't recall ever being begged not to vote Lib Dem; I've been hectored, reproached, subjected to emotional blackmail and lied to shamelessly, but not begged (let alone persuaded). The tone has got more aggressive and the lies more blatant as the campaign's gone on; for that reason alone, I'll be quite glad when it's over. Because (thirdly) the target hasn't only, or even mainly, been the Lib Dem vote; it's been the protest vote. This is what's been most shameless, and most insufferable, about the Labour campaign. It's aimed squarely at former Labour supporters who now feel disillusioned or angry or betrayed, and its message is: we know how you feel, but don't act on it. Vote for us anyway - the other lot are even worse, and if they get in it'll be your fault. Perhaps, on second thoughts, there is an undertone of pleading - "we know how you feel, but for God's sake don't act on it! for pity's sake, you could ruin everything!" I'm flattered that they think my vote is so important - but I'm incensed that they're campaigning on the basis of, essentially, offering to take my vote away from me. ("Yes, we know you'd rather give it to those other people. Look, we've gone through all this - they're no good for you. You're upset, you're not thinking straight. Just hand it over, eh?")

But what could make a party campaign like that? Obviously, they were running scared - but they obviously weren't scared of anything like losing the election. They were and are scared, I think, because New Labour is running out of road. The leadership's loss of trust over Iraq is irreversible, and it's having a multiplier effect: more people are looking more critically at New Labour policy in a whole range of areas, from control orders to nuclear weapons to PFI. To be New Labour has always meant being against much (if not most) of what Labour has historically stood for, and trusting in the leadership of the New Labour clique to deliver in ways that Old Labour supposedly couldn't (setting aside odd little achievements like the NHS). New Labour, in other words, was always a battle within the party; and, given the roots of the support the party depended on to get elected, it was a battle which could never quite be won. Within the party as well as outside it, a lot of people are starting to wonder which side of that battle they're really on. (The debate over when, rather than whether, Brown will take over from Blair is a sign of this rethinking - or rather, a sign of incipient damage-limitation.)

The Lib Dems did some good campaigning, with reasoned policies and un-repellent personalities; by the end they were genuinely starting to make an impact, albeit more at Labour's expense than the Tories'. They could have done with another week to campaign in. (Mind you, they could have done with not losing the focus on Iraq, and that was partly their own doing.) What they really wanted was something like the 1983 28%/26% result, but with the Conservatives in second place rather than Labour; unfortunately that wasn't going to happen without the party positioning itself firmly on the right on at least one of the possible axes, and that wasn't going to happen while there were anti-war Labour votes to collect up. Which way the party jumps now will depend on which of the other two parties' bases disintegrates faster; I'm not placing any bets.

Nothing to say about Respect, for the moment. Well, maybe just a few things. Firstly, Galloway is truly ghastly, and I wouldn't trust John Rees and Lindsey German to run a cake stall, but on balance I think the win was a Good Thing for the Left - better than a win for Labour, anyway. Secondly, the idea seems to have got about that Respect are a bad thing because, unlike Labour, they're a 'communalist' party (i.e. they're relying on the mosque vote). At the very least, this is clearly a somewhat... selective view, let's say. Thirdly, they may not have had a hope of getting anyone but Galloway elected, but they're certainly not a Galloway-only operation; I've seen some very energetic leafletting going on, and I don't think anyone in South Manchester has a vote in Bethnal Green and Bow. (Maybe a postal vote?) That said, in terms of the overall vote they didn't do much better than the Socialist Alliance of blessed memory; a bit of rethinking is going to be needed if they are intending to be around in five years' time.

Nothing much to say about the Greens; I voted for them, but the candidate only got 4% and lost his deposit. (He was never really a runner in this constituency; the only Green literature I've seen anywhere was the leaflet that came through the door). Shame about Brighton Pavilion; still, 22% is not bad for a fourth party. It should give them something to build on. Who else is there? Nothing to say about the BNP, except that they're not going to go away (unassisted). And nothing at all to say about UKIP or Veritas, except perhaps "ha ha ha". Voters of Thanet and Erewash, we salute you.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

For Tomorrow

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

For Tomorrow (X) - None of you stand so tall

Here's my advice, for anyone who's interested.

Don't vote Labour.

Don't vote Conservative, don't vote UKIP and for God's sake don't vote Veritas. But don't vote Labour. Here are 35 reasons (hat tip to Ellis Sharp). Iraq is at numbers 11 and 22. There are another 33. The name Blunkett doesn't even appear on the page.

There are values which have been associated with Labour throughout its history: even under operators like Wilson and Smith; even under chancers like Kinnock; even during the long retreat in the face of Thatcherism. Under New Labour, that's all gone. Maintenant c'est joue'... The party of the Left must be built, and it won't be built in a matter of days. For now, what's essential is for the Left to withdraw its consent from the representatives who have betrayed it. If you want to vote for the values which Labour once stood for - under Hardie, under Attlee, even under the member for Monklands East - don't vote Labour.

This isn't about the war, except insofar as the war has shown a lot of people in their true colours. As I wrote back here, "this is a single-issue election - and the issue is New Labour." From which it follows that I don't advise anyone, anywhere, to vote for a Labour candidate. Not even if they've got a good record on the war; not even if they've got a good record on control orders and ID cards and tuition fees; not even if they're Jeremy Corbyn, frankly. (Sorry, Jeremy.)

The objection that these tactics will lose us some good MPs misses the point. This is a boycott. If boycotting something - goods from a certain country, say - didn't involve forfeiting choices we would normally make, there'd be no need for the boycott: the invisible hand of the market would do the job for us. Boycotts, by definition, cannot be relied on to deliver an optimal choice: that's not what they're for. What they do is signal that there are choices we are not willing to make - positions that we are not prepared to endorse - even at a cost to ourselves. I'd hate to have a Tory MP, but I would rejoice to see my Labour MP's vote drop far enough to make that a possibility.

While Labour is controlled by the New Labour clique (and it is - these people are serious about power), nobody running as a Labour candidate deserves our support. It doesn't matter whose name is on the ballot paper. It doesn't matter if Labour won last time or came second or third. If you can't stand the Trots and the tankies, vote Lib Dem. If you can't stand the Lib Dems, vote Green.

Don't abstain. Don't be an idiot and vote Tory.

But don't vote Labour.

Not moving any mountain

Two days to go till the election. Right then: let's talk about religion. I've done Islam - here goes for Christianity. Or rather, I've done Islamism - here goes for Christianism.

I grew up in a Church of England family. This meant four things. Firstly, we took charity and social justice very seriously (particularly the kinds of social justice which could be arranged without upsetting too many people; my father was solid Labour, but on Gaitskell's side rather than Bevan's). Secondly, we didn't look down on people who were Not Like Us. Or rather, we did - we were dreadful snobs - but racism was right out; so was prejudice against gays; so was sexual moralising in general. We were never challenged on the relationship to Christianity of any of this, but if we had been we could have gone straight to the New Testament - see Colossians 3, "neither gentile nor Jew"; see Luke 10, the parable of the Good Samaritan; see John 8, the woman taken in adultery... (My parents both had a better than average acquaintance with the Old Testament, but they wouldn't have dreamt of referring back to it in this way - "new covenant" and all that.) Thirdly, we went to church every Sunday, where we generally heard sermons about tolerance and social justice. Fourthly, we occasionally talked about the spiritual side of Christianity - what actually happened after the Crucifixion; what they actually saw on the road to Emmaus; what actually happens when people die... But we never really got anywhere with those questions, or wanted to. Being Christians gave us an interest in that stuff, but it didn't seem to mandate that we had any particular convictions about it - or even that we all thought the same way.

When I went to university, I met people called Christians who didn't seem to care very much about social justice or tolerance, but cared very much indeed about the Crucifixion and the road to Emmaus and, above all, What Happens When You Die. They also seemed to refer back to the Old Testament a lot more than I was used to. I thought this was all a bit wrong-headed, but I didn't get very far arguing with them - not least because they weren't very interested in arguing, which was another difference from my family. In fact, the more I argued the deeper I seemed to get onto their territory (well, no, obviously I didn't read the story of the Creation literally - nobody did, did they? er... did they?). After a while I gave up and stopped calling myself a Christian. (By then I'd discovered Marx, which helped.)

You take your eye off the ball for a few years, and look what happens. Look at the Christian Institute ("Christian influence in a secular world") and look at its judgment of MPs' voting records. For example, "according to our Christian beliefs" Ann Widdecombe has cast an absolute hatful of "morally right votes". To summarise, she's voted
  • against legal abortion

  • against gay rights

  • against divorce

  • against euthanasia

  • against gambling and

  • against reclassifying cannabis; she's also voted

  • for "mainly Christian" Religious Education and

  • for the parental right to smack
Apparently, these eight policy areas are vitally important to Christians. Or rather, apparently these are the only policy areas important to Christians: whether Widdy has voted to feed the hungry and clothe the naked the Christian Institute neither knows nor cares.

What I'd like to know is: where do they get this stuff? Serious question. Leaving the Apostle Paul out of it for the moment, I've cited Matthew 25, Luke 10 and John 8. Where does Jesus express punitive views on the topics of marriage, gambling and drugs? Where does he pronounce in favour of compulsory religious indoctrination and smacking? For bonus points, where in the whole of the New Testament is it written that these are the most important issues for Christians? (Think carefully.)

I don't know how it came about that the mobilising power of Christian faith could be harnessed to an agenda like this. What I do know is that it's very bad news. These people aren't just a joke any more. They're a menace.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Calm, calm, calm

Something a bit odd about this, I feel:

'Oona King's campaign in Bethnal Green and Bow wants volunteers on election day, when it is expecting a large turn-out from supporters of George "How can he call it Respect?" Galloway aimed at intimidating voters outside polling stations.'

- We're expecting lots of Respect supporters to come out and intimidate people!
Oh no! What can we do to respond to this threat?
- Let's get lots of our supporters to come out!

Yes, that'll calm things down.

I'm not entirely sure what's meant by 'intimidating voters', either. Scaring people into voting for Galloway? This would only work if Respect could find out how people had voted afterwards - and I don't believe they're going to be rooting through ballot boxes and matching up counterfoils in the small hours of Friday morning. I suppose they could scare some people away from voting altogether, but this would only make sense if they already knew that those people weren't going to vote for Galloway. I don't believe Respect have that kind of intelligence on the people of Bethnal Green.

In short, King's warning would only really make sense (a) if Respect in Bethnal Green were in cahoots with MI5 or (b) if they were acting without any political rationality - in other words, if they were a gang of thugs who go around intimidating people for the fun of it. Or, indeed, if they were fascists; calls to action like this have been issued against the threat of BNP mobilisation, and have been entirely appropriate.

I don't know much about Respect, and most of what I do know is a couple of years old (...shibboleth...Democracy Platform...Steve Godward...that awful woman from the Express...) I dare say they've moved on since then. And perhaps they've moved on to the extreme right - I don't know. I'm not sure I want to take their single greatest rival's word for it, though - least of all when she's apparently trying to inflame the situation herself.

For Tomorrow (IX) - Yeah yeah, yeah, yeah

Here's a depressing thought. As I write, Electoral Calculus is predicting, on the basis of opinion polls to date, that Labour will win a majority of 142. Where in 2001 they took 42% of the vote and 403 seats (61.2% of the House), they're currently set fair to take 38.8% of the vote and 394 seats (61% of the new House). Assume that the pollsters are wrong - or rather, that the atypically Labour-sceptical YouGov are right; add the maximum feasible effects of tactical voting; and you get... a Labour majority of 16. Hung parliament? Not this time round. Even if the goal is to keep the ultimate Labour majority below 50 (say), there's a lot of work to be done - and I'm not sure who's able to do it.

Just over a year ago, there was a lot of discussion in the liberal American blogosphere of Howard Dean's candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. It ended in tears; one of the key turning points seems to have been a concession speech which turned into an embarrassingly triumphalist "Kinnock in Sheffield" moment (comically hostile account here).

Anyway, the Dean campaign had three interesting attributes. It was politically radical (or, if you're American, liberal), and radical in populist, anti-establishment ways. Its candidate appeared to be in the lead - way in the lead - throughout the early stages of the campaign, despite ultimately failing miserably. And it made heavy use of Net technologies - blogs and IM and... er... other things that I'm not even cool enough to know about. I mean, this was the kind of campaign that would have picked up an RSS feed of its bookmarks on its WAP phone if it could have done. (And no, I wasn't about to say the B word, but hold that thought.)

Clay Shirky, who often combines genuinely suggestive ideas with dreadfully rickety supporting arguments, thought that the combination of the second and third factors was no coincidence and argued the case here, here and here. The argument was weighed in the balance and found wanting in a number of places, most interestingly here and here. Nevertheless, along the way Clay made some telling points. For example:

The size of the MeetUp in NYC was as much a testament to MeetUp as to Dean — it’s a wonderful tool for turning interest into attendance, but it created a false sense of broad enthusiasm. Prior to MeetUp, getting 300 people to turn out would have meant a huge and latent population of Dean supporters, but because MeetUp makes it easier to gather the faithful, it confused us into thinking that we were seeing an increase in Dean support, rather than a decrease in the hassle of organizing groups. We’ve seen this sort of effect before, as when written correspondence on letterhead stopped being a sign of a solvent company, thanks to the desktop publishing revolution


Margaret Mead once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
It’s hard to understand, when you sense yourself to be one of Mead’s thoughtful and committed people, that someone who doesn’t even understand the issues can amble on down to the local elementary school and wipe out your vote, and it's even harder to understand that the system is designed to work that way.

And, putting the two together:

the pleasures of life online are precisely the way they provide a respite from the vagaries of the real world.
We also know from usability testing that the difference between “would you” and “will you” is enormous — when “would you use this product?” changes to “will you use it?”, user behavior frequently changes dramatically. <...> “Would you vote for Howard Dean?” and “Will you vote for Howard Dean?” are two different questions, and it may be that a lot of people who “would” vote for Dean, in some hypothetical world where you could vote in the same way you can make a political donation on Amazon, didn’t actually vote for him when it meant skipping dinner with friends to drive downtown in the freezing cold and venture into some church basement with people who might prefer some other candidate to Dean.

You can see where I'm going with this one. Several of the sites in my blogroll are supporting anti-Labour tactical voting - but how many hits do those sites get? More to the point, how many minds do they change? Backing Blair, setting aside my differences with them for the moment, have actually got out and talked to people (or at people), but even they aren't likely to have had much of an effect. Their proudest moment seems to have been preaching to the assembled Nathans of Soho.

In a few, gratifying instances, it really seems as if we've won the argument. But most of the time we're just not reaching that many people. Perhaps there aren't enough of us to make a difference; perhaps we need to post less and talk more. (Excitingly, this evening I briefly persuaded my mother (who lives in the Pavilion constituency in Brighton) to vote Green. Unfortunately, by the end of the phone call she'd remembered that she likes the local MP and doesn't like her Green councillor, and swung back to Labour.)

Or perhaps anti-Labour protest voting is already an idea that's in everybody's mind, and I'm worrying about nothing. I don't know. But the way it looks tonight is that Labour are still heading for a three-figure majority. I just hope that some of the posts that have appeared here (and on other, much better-known sites) have made that a bit less likely; and I hope that posting this stuff hasn't diverted our energies from more productive alternatives. (And I hope Keith Taylor doesn't lose to David Lepper by one vote.)