Saturday, April 30, 2005

Stupido! Chicken-brain!

I don't think much of Johann Hari; I doubt that statement will surprise many people, and I'm not going to spend good blogging time on an anti-Hari rant. But I am going to say a few words about Johann's column in today's Independent - which you can read over at Hari's Place - and its conclusion in particular, which is... striking, let's say.

Johann takes the view - and he's supported by polling by YouGov, no less - that the people of Iraq, by and large, are quite glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein, and don't really give a damn whether he had weapons of mass destruction or not. But he's aware that the invasion was transparently illegal (you know this one: "Any force used pursuant to the authorisation in resolution 678 (whether or not there is a second resolution) must have as its objective the enforcement of the terms of the cease-fire contained in resolution 687 ... regime change cannot be the objective of military action." - Peter Goldsmith, 7/3/03). So he tries to reconcile these two positions. Take it away, Johann:

when it comes to legality, you have to answer a basic question: who is sovereign in Iraq? If you believe the Iraqi people are sovereign, then there was no crime, because Iraqis and now their elected government say they wanted the invasion to proceed. You can't invade the willing. The problem is that currently international law does not recognise peoples as sovereign. Incredible though it seems, right up until the moment he was forced from power, international law regarded Saddam Hussein's government as sovereign.

That cannot be right, and that cannot be a law worth defending. I support the idea of international law; but protecting the sovereignty of tyrants - against the will of their people - is a perversion of the benevolent instincts that lead people to seek lawfare not warfare.

(Incidentally - "lawfare not warfare"? Do what?)

This is nonsense on stilts, and dangerous nonsense at that ("currently international law does not recognise peoples as sovereign" - somebody should take a look at that...) To quote a comment I left on Hari's site:

Of course
Saddam Hussein's government was recognised as sovereign - that's the meaning of the word 'sovereignty'. International law works on the basis of a world made up of national governments, each of which is sovereign within its own territory; that sovereignty cannot be challenged without very, very good reason. A moment's thought will tell you why this is, on balance, a Good Idea. It's certainly better than the alternative, which is allowing any national government to remove any other national government it takes a dislike to, subject only to having the power to do so.

International law is based on a fiction - the fiction of 'International Society', a kind of virtual assembly of nation states, each equal before the bar of international law and each according one another the same rights and the same respect. It's a crude fiction: as well as the obvious imbalances of power between actually-existing nation states, the model is blind to the existence of non-national agencies exerting power within and across nation states, such as trans-national corporations. Nevertheless, it's powerful; a huge (and ever-growing) body of conventional forms of interaction between governments has grown up on the basis of that fiction. These conventions now have a real power to influence and constrain individual nation states - or, at least, to give an orderly and acceptable form to collective attempts at constraint by other states. (See the discussion here, particularly in the comments.)

Above all, international law is generalisable: it lays down (or aspires to lay down) how any state can and can't act towards any other. What Hari's suggesting (or rather, gesturing vaguely towards) is some kind of New World Moral Order, where powerful democratic nation states are free to overthrow undemocratic states so as to liberate the sovereign "people" - who will then be free to invite their liberators in.

Needless to say, this model isn't generalisable - or rather, generalising it would rip up international law by the roots. For Bush Republicans - who work on the basis that the US is Number One Nation and thus shouldn't be bound by the same laws as everyone else - this is a feature, not a bug. What Hari's doing endorsing this stupid and dangerous line of thinking, I really don't know.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Oh, good grief

Via Nick, another Blairian fantasy:

The PM also this morning urged Labour supporters to turn out to vote on May 5, saying: "It only takes one in 10 of our voters to drift off to the Liberal Democrats and you end up with a Tory government."

That is a figure hotly disputed by the Lib Dems, who said the swing voters would have to be concentrated entirely in Labour/Tory marginals - and even then the figure would be much closer to one in four.

What they don't say is that it's a figure hotly disputed by anyone with a brain. I've been following the polls, and the running average of all of the national polls I've seen is something like this:

Labour: 38%
Conservatives: 33%
Liberal Democrats: 20%
Others: 9%

Wave our magic wand of tactical-voting apathy - what is this about drifting off to the Liberal Democrats? "Sod it, I just can't be bothered voting Labour this time - I'm going to take the easy way out and cast a protest vote for a party I've never voted for in my life. I'd better take something to read in case there's a queue - pass us that Trotskyist Anarchist, could you?"

But anyway. Transfer 10% of the Labour vote to the Lib Dems and you get a split of 34.2%/33%/23.8%/9%. Plug that into the BBC's very wonderful seat calculator and you get... a Labour majority of 62.

The polls could be wrong, of course. More to the point, all the polls except YouGov could be wrong. YouGov has consistently reported a much narrower gap between the levels of Labour and Tory support, more like:

Labour: 36%
Conservatives: 34%
Liberal Democrats: 21%
Others: 9%

Transfer 10%, and you get 32.4%/34%/24.6%/9%. And... a hung parliament, with Labour taking 318 seats out of 646; the Tories and the Liberal Democrats put together would only have 299.

The facts are what they've been all along:

The Conservatives have a mountain to climb (hey, pictures!).

They're showing no sign of being able to climb it.

Liberal Democrat votes won't enable them to do it.


Tony Blair is constitutionally unable to make any appeal to natural Labour voters which will actually get the vote out. From that same Guardian article:

the prime minister and chancellor joined forces to unveil a new slogan of "Forward with Blair & Brown".

Good old Gordon - at least he's an ex-pinko. We'll be seeing a lot more of him this coming week.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

For Tomorrow (VIII) - Arrows with a very bad aim


I’m sick of meta-campaigning and dark warnings about unintended consequences, and I don’t want to vote for entirely negative reasons, so I’m going to vote for the idea that’s been shoved before the public that I happen to like best. That happens to be the citizens basic income idea, which commits me to the Greens. Actually, it probably doesn’t because Blackley isn’t crusty-friendly territory.

Well never mind. Blood & Treasure says: vote crusty. They could do with a few more meat eaters.

How about you lot, then?

Actually Existing says: what Jamie said, including the bit about the meat-eaters. Although Manchester Central hasn't got any more actual Green candidates than Blackley, so it looks as if I'll end up voting Lib Dem.

I've been thinking about reasons to vote for parties, and in particular about reasons not to. This is, in part, a reaction to an anti-Respect post by Nick which irritated me greatly, and an anti-Lib Dem post from Meaders which irritated me almost as much. I rate both Nick and Meaders highly - they're two of my favourite bloggers - but on this one they're both wrong.

So, there you have it. Right then. Any other business?

Maybe I'll go into it in a bit more depth. You could start with Kant's Categorical Imperative, which (in one of its formulations) says:

Act as if the maxim of your action was to become through your will a universal law of nature.

Don't do anything, in other words, unless you'd be happy for everyone to act the same way all the time. Taken neat as an absolute principle, it's a bit difficult to live up to - I think I'd just never get out of bed. Watered down and made relative, it makes quite a good tool to think with.

With regard to deciding who to vote for - and who not to vote for - the question is how far your reasons for choosing or avoiding a particular party can be generalised. Imagine that you explain your voting preferences to a friend, who is sufficiently impressed by your reasoning to pass them on to a visitor from another country. Parties have different names in the visitor's country, of course, but your friend thinks that your choices are good enough to pass on anyway. You said, "I don't vote BNP because they're a racist party"; your friend passes on the general recommendation, don't vote for racist parties. You said, "We're a Labour family - my dad always voted Labour"; your friend says, "vote for whichever party your father supported". What I'm getting at is that there's a difference between reasons which can be generalised and those that can't. For simplicity, I'll call the first kind Good Reasons and the second kind Bad Reasons.

A few common reasons for not voting for a party:

$PARTY are a bunch of lying, unprincipled scumbags who would make a deal with the Devil if it would gain them a few extra votes
Bad reason. Show me a party that isn't - or, to be less polemical, show me a party that hasn't been accused of this by its opponents.

$CANDIDATE is an untrustworthy sleazebag with a long record of [coat-turning|idleness|drunkenness|dodgy property deals|sexual harassment|all of the above]
Bad reason. Even if your candidate's a bad lot, you can't hope to make a consistent choice between parties on the basis of avoiding people like that.

$CANDIDATE is a lickspittle power-worshipper
Bad reason, obviously. Very much the same reason as the previous.

$LEFT_WING_PARTY is crawling with Trots
Bad reason. Show me one that isn't. Apart from the Greens, obviously.

The point isn't that you should never make a choice on the basis of Bad reasons, just that you should be aware of what you're doing. Personally, I have a deep distrust of anything the SWP are involved in, and an equally deep personal dislike of George Galloway, so if I lived in Bethnal Green I'd find it very difficult to vote for Respect. But I see those as Bad reasons, and I wouldn't urge them on anyone else. (And they certainly wouldn't outweigh my reasons for not voting Labour.)

When you get right down to it, it seems to me, there are only two Good reasons for not voting for a party.

It's a bad project.
There is nothing good to say about the New Labour project. There is nothing good to say about the project of the Conservative Party or UKIP or Veritas: voting for these parties could conceivably help break the New Labour log-jam, but breaking it on their terms would be far too high a price. (As an aside, I'm not an enthusiast for the European project & have a definite soft spot for the Sked/Booker UKIP of old, but those days and that party are long gone.)

The only other Good reason is

It might be a good project, but it hasn't got a hope
Which is why I'm not intending to vote for the only true Left candidate in my constituency, who is standing for the Socialist Labour Party. I'm not advising anyone not to vote Respect; I wouldn't advise against voting for the Socialist Party, the Alliance for Green Socialism, the SSP, Forward Wales or the SPGB, either, and I'd be all in favour of voting for the IWCA or the SADP. But I would advise anyone who will listen to give up on the Socialist Labour Party. (Or, as the leaflet that came through our door says (twice), "the Socialist Labour Party - Arthur Scargill". Maybe it's a toast.) Not because they're Stalinists; I tend to prefer Trots to Stalinists (and I'm not very keen on Trots), but that would be a Bad reason. Just because the SLP, after all these years, urgently needs to give up and let its activists get on with their lives - and perhaps contribute to a political project which has got a future.

(You could say that the one about the Trots is in fact a Good reason, because any party that's run by Trots by definition has no future. But I think you'd be wrong; at the moment I'm willing to give Respect, in particular, the benefit of the doubt. Apart from anything else, their activists are doing a great deal of work on the ground, which is a damn sight more than I am. I salute their indefatigability.)

(Sorry. Couldn't resist it.)

What does all that add up to? What it adds up to, for me, is a choice between the Lib Dems and a spoilt ballot. Parliamentary democracy is hard, says Barbie.

[Update (29/4): Jamie (see comments) is right; I'll have the choice of voting Green after all. Phew.]

Public service announcement

Could the 200 people who slashdotted me yesterday looking for "126 as a limit" please come back and have another look? Only it's got graphs in now and everything. I've even put a graph in the Italian election post. I [heart] Flickr.

(30s and 40s and the odd 50 or 20, then whoomph! 230, never seen anything like it in all the time I've been blogging...)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

For Tomorrow (VII) - Put your lips together and blow

I like Frank Dobson. I hope he's recovered from the experience of being Labour's sacrificial lamb when Ken Livingstone first stood for Mayor; it can't have been much fun. I knew he was doomed when Newsnight convened three representative local lefties in a pub back room. There was one gung-ho Livingstone enthusiast; one guy who wanted to vote for Ken, but was agonising about deserting the faith of his fathers by voting against the Labour candidate; and one guy who was intending to vote for Frank. Or, as he put it:

"I'm Labour through and through - I'd vote for a dog with a red rosette. So I'll be voting for Frank."

Sorry, Frank.

Back in the 1970s - and, yes, in Italy; it's time for another trip down Academic Specialism Lane - there was a famous study which concluded that people support parties for three distinct reasons. There's the vote of opinion, the more-or-less floating vote which is cast according to the different parties' positions on the issues of the day. There's the vote of belonging, which expresses loyalty to a community represented by the party. And, this being Italy, there's the vote of exchange, which is more or less openly bought and sold. (Good job we haven't got anything like that here, eh readers?)

There are two obvious problems with this model, and one that's not so obvious. Firstly, the vote of opinion is quietly privileged in the model: who wouldn't want to be the detached, well-informed but uncommitted person who chooses how to vote following a leisurely perusal of party literature, rather than the unthinking oaf who always votes the same way? But voting on the basis of opinion isn't necessarily a good thing. 'Opinion' covers a lot of ground: someone who took absolutely no interest in politics and chose how to vote on the basis of the last thing they read in the Daily Star would also be casting a vote of opinion. Secondly, the vote of belonging also covers a broad range, according to precisely what it is you feel you belong to: a political project that's actually continuing? a project that's dead or moribund now, but that you were once proud to be associated with? or a bundle of values, icons and symbols which you associate with voting for a certain party, whatever that party actually does here and now? Put it this way, a committed Blairite and a fan of Dennis Skinner both vote Labour on the basis of a vote of belonging - but it's not at all clear to me that they're voting Labour for the same reason.

The less obvious problem follows from the other two. In this model, there is no way of representing the behaviour of someone who consistently votes according to a set of principles, without thereby being tied to a single party. Either you're a party loyalist or you're a floater - like the woman I heard once on the radio breezily announcing, "I'll just read all the party leaflets and make my mind up on the day". But this isn't really good enough. There are reasons why I voted Labour at most opportunities between 1979 and 1997, and most of them are the same reasons why I'm voting against Labour this time. I haven't moved - they have.

A party can change its principles even if it hasn't changed its name. That doesn't mean that you have to follow suit. Voting for a party name - as Mr Kotz and Ms Toynbee would have us do - really is dog-whistle voting ("Labour voter! Here, Labour voter! Come by! Yeesss... good dog...")

Don't vote for the name, vote for the principles - meaning the principles by which the party works in practice, not the principles they invoke at elections in an attempt to catch stray voters ("Come by!") If you don't like the principles, don't vote for the party.

Update: Francis Beckett has been thinking along the same lines.

Most of us joined Labour not out of some ideological fervour about socialism but because it was the party of the underdog. It still was in 1992, and it isn't any more. If you voted Labour in 1992 - the last time the party was led into an election by anyone other than Tony Blair - then you voted for a party that was fundamentally different from New Labour. Unless your views have changed along with those of Labour's top brass, you can hardly vote for them now with any self-respect.

(Read the whole article - it's excellent.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

For Tomorrow (VI) - Everything you say is like iron

"Hold your nose and vote Christian Democrat", Indro Montanelli wrote in 1976. Montanelli was an independently-minded, secular, intelligent right-winger; he was a great journalist and, for my money, a great man. (He began writing under Fascism, and lived long enough to describe Berlusconi's Italy as the ugliest he'd ever seen.) But on this occasion he was tragically, horribly wrong. To anyone who might have wanted to free Italy from the influence of the Church, or to curb the flagrant corruption of the Christian Democrats, or to make a break with years of stagnation and spoils-sharing, Montanelli's message was: don't risk it. Don't risk scattering the right-wing vote to the point where the Christian Democrats are no longer the largest single party; don't risk letting in the Communists by the back door.

The results of the 1976 election were rather odd. Between 1972 and 1976, the vote for the Communist Party (PCI) rose by over 7% (from 27.1% to 34.4%). However, the share of the vote taken by the other two main parties - the ruling Christian Democrats (DC) and their main ally, the Socialist Party (PSI) - stayed almost exactly the same (38.7% and 9.6% respectively).

I've never seen these results analysed in any detail; my impressionistic reading is that all three parties gained votes from parties to their Right, but the Christian Democrats and Socialists also lost votes to parties to their Left. On the Right, the Liberal Party (the bankers' party, essentially) did particularly badly, falling from 3.9% in 1972 to 1.3%.

If right-wing voters had not rallied to the Christian Democrats in this way, it's not inconceivable that 1976 might have seen the Communist vote overtake the Christian Democrats'. This would have made the continued exclusion of the Communists from power scandalous and ultimately unsustainable. It would also have shaken up the Communist Party leadership, which would have been no bad thing. The Communists at this time were heavily committed to the 'historic compromise': this was based on an essentially mystical view of Italian history, in which the Bourgeois Hegemony (Christian Democrats) was about to pass the torch to the Proletarian Hegemony (Communists), by way of a period of co-operation between the two great popular movements (political parties). This intoxicating vision might have been shaken by a swift electoral reminder that the Christian Democrats were in fact (a) one political party among others; (b) a gang of crooks; and (c) a political party whose popularity was on the wane, not least because of (b).

In short, a dispersed Right vote in 1976 might have broken the log-jam of Italian politics. What actually happened was that the Christian Democrats kept the Communists at arm's length for a couple of years, then discarded them when they had ceased to be a threat. The blocked political system stagnated and festered for another decade and a half, until the earthquake of Tangentopoli pulled the rug out from under the big wheels of the Ancien Regime and oblivion engulfed a thousand mixed metaphors. Voting Communist might not have been a great idea in 1976, but holding your nose and voting Christian Democrat was a really, really bad idea.

In the Morning Star today, a writer whose name I forget (somebody Kotz?) had the following recommendation:

"Hold your nose and vote Labour (with a few exceptions)"

(The exceptions turned out to be Reg Keys, Rose Gentle and Craig Murray, plus Respect and (rather amusingly) the Communist Party of Britain. I suppose you can't actually tell Morning Star readers to vote against CPB candidates; they'd get letters.)

There are a number of ways to describe this advice; I'm going to try out another one tomorrow. (Because I've got a couple of ideas for posts queued up, you understand, not just because I'm fickle.) My word for tonight is 'insane'. As far as I'm concerned, this is a single-issue election - and the issue is New Labour. Iraq matters - the government's duplicity over Iraq matters hugely - but these things matter because they shine a light on what this government is really like. This government has pulled a whole range of foul and insane and alarming strokes in the last four years, but they've always been able to talk their way out of trouble (particularly when they were talking to people who weren't directly affected). Iraq is the moment when this government ceases to have the benefit of the doubt; from this point on, there is nothing they can say that we will ever believe.

The trouble is, they're still there. They're still occupying the centre ground of British politics, and reshaping it in their own unsavoury, authoritarian, crony-capitalist image; they're still sustained by having the Left vote in an armlock. (Replace 'Left' with 'Right' and 'British' with 'Italian', and you've got a precise description of how the Christian Democrats squatted on Italy for forty years.) They have to be shifted - and if they can't be shifted, they have to be shaken up. The last thing anyone on the Left should be doing right now is encouraging people to vote Labour - not even if the alternative is the Liberal Democrats; not even if the alternative is Respect. Cde Kotz's recommendation is exactly as good an idea as Montanelli's was, and for the same reasons.

Don't hold your nose: inhale the stink. If something smells bad, you don't have to take it. The clothespeg brigade inveigh against tactical voting, but if the words mean anything they're the ones who are encouraging it. The message isn't Vote for what you believe in; it's not even Vote against what you don't. It's something more like Vote for the candidate who is most likely to ensure that the most plausible overall result that you are strongly opposed to doesn't happen. (Or it might just be Shut up and vote Labour.)

Tactical voting is holding your nose when you vote: voting Labour even at the cost of registering your support for policies you oppose, or voting against Labour at the cost of supporting a party you oppose. It's not tactical voting to vote for breaking the log-jam, and vote to make it more likely that it breaks to the Left. It's not tactical voting to vote to replace New Labour with something better.

It's not tactical voting to make your choice from among the local anti-war parties and candidates, excluding Labour. It's not tactical voting to vote for a left-wing party against Labour, or even for a slightly-left-of-Labour party. Not even if you believe that the Conservatives will benefit in your constituency; not even if you've got a good, anti-war Labour MP. (More on these last points later.)

It's not tactical voting. It's principled voting.

Monday, April 25, 2005

They're only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains

Friday, April 22, 2005

For Tomorrow (V) - Beneath the flag of democracy

[Written Friday, eaten by Blogger and rewritten Saturday, revised Sunday, revised again Monday. Must... stop with... the... revisions already...]

You know, I wasn't going to post about the war. I was going to post about Howard Dean and what Clay Shirky said about him, and about Richard Neville and his inch, and all sorts of nice stuff. I didn't think the war was all that relevant to the topic of tactical voting. (We need a new phrase, I think. What I'm talking about is much less cynical than tactical voting. Come to that, it's less cynical - less hold-your-nose-and-do-it-anyway - than voting according to party loyalty. We could call it 'principled voting', maybe.)

But I was wrong about the war not being relevant. I was also... well, kind of wrong-ish... about Backing Blair. I still think they're idiots to suggest voting Tory, but this... now, this is a breath of fresh air. If you haven't read this, please do. It's excellent.

I started thinking seriously about the war and the election when I read this thing by Jonathan Freedland. The war has Freedland puzzled; he can't see what it has to do with the election, which is after all a contest between Labour and the Tories:

Neither the government nor the opposition talk about it much. In contrast with recent elections in Spain and the United States, the two main parties were on the same side over Iraq.

And yet, people keep talking about the war. Well, some people do. Muslims, obviously:

For Mr Raza, Iraq is just one part of a process that began on September 11 2001 and saw him feel newly uncomfortable, even rejected, in a country he had grown to love.

Racism's bad, m'kay? Better do something about that. Muslims, check. And then there's That Bloody Man, of course:

In Bethnal Green and Bow in east London, where Respect's George Galloway is challenging Labour's Oona King, who backed the war, Iraq is the decisive issue.

And students.

Student towns report high interest too.

I mean, students - what are you going to do? But apart from the Muslims and the students (and That Bloody Man, obviously) it's really just an issue for the Italian Bread-Eating Classes:

Others draw a distinction between traditional Labour seats, especially in the north, where Iraq is hardly mentioned, and "Guardian reading" constituencies, where it can dominate. Hornsey and Wood Green in north London, where former minister Barbara Roche faces a stiff Lib Dem challenge, is the prime example of the latter.

In the former, said one Labour candidate, the issue surfaces in a less direct form - cited as proof that Mr Blair is out of touch, off pursuing "a baseless diversion" when he should have been sorting out problems at home.

There you are, you see. In proper Labour seats up North, where men are men and nobody's voted Tory since Albert Tatlock was a lad, they don't talk about the war. Or rather they do, but not because it was a bad thing as such - just because it's one of Mr Blair's "baseless diversions" (bit of a Guardian-reading turn of phrase, that, but let it pass).

Hardly anyone else cares, either. Apart from the Conservative voters:

Tory Nicholas Boles, trying to overturn a Labour majority in Hove, has been struck by the number of elderly, "culturally conservative" voters who raise Iraq.

"It's mentioned to me much more than I expected," he said. "They talk of Blair's lies and Blair's deceit. Women say 'it could have been my son.' There's definitely real anger there."

And the Labour activists:

Mr Boles's Labour opponent, Celia Barlow, is opposed to the war: if she wasn't, Mr Boles speculates that Hove's Labour activists would not be stretching too many sinews to get her elected.

Hardly anyone, really. Freedland sums up:

Labour is feeling it most keenly - among its activists, but also among what party tacticians call its "intelligentsia" vote, among students and among Muslims.

(But apart from that, when did the Romans mention the war?)

Elsewhere it is symbolic of a much larger theme: trust in the prime minister.

Finally, we reach the crux of the biscuit. Perhaps it's because I've never trusted the blighters, but it's taken me a while to understand this. The point is, war is the ultimate trust issue. What a war boils down to, in terms of our relationship with our government, is simple: They declare a war, and We go out and get killed. It's hardly surprising if We insist on Them telling us exactly why it's a good idea.

And that's just what hasn't happened. Instead, we've had a war whose justification actually changed while it was being fought. We've had an invasion which has killed... well, nobody actually knows how many people, but a lot; really rather a lot. And we've had a plan for regime change which seems to have been designed as a kind of macabre homage to the Underpants Gnome business model - except that in this case they can't even tell us what stage 3 is. Iraq is the hippopotamus in the room (one of them, anyway); the way it's currently being ignored by all the major parties is genuinely shocking as well as being disgraceful. If an initiative like this can do something to change that, I'm all for it.

Because the people who took this country into Iraq aren't just asking us to ignore what they did; they're actually asking us to put our trust in them all over again. The fact that those people are New Labour makes it all the more blatant - New Labour's all about trust. Or rather, it's about trust, ruthlessly efficient machine politics, Economist-reading power-worship and motivational-poster managerialism - but the greatest of these is trust. You could sum up the basic proposition in one line: "It's not Old Labour. It'll work. Trust me."

The trouble with this is that if you lose trust, you've lost everything. From a purely tactical standpoint, for Blair to stake his biggest asset on Iraq was a huge gamble. Even Martin Kettle seems to have picked up on this, as far as you can make it out through the clouds of incense:

Labour's election in 1997 (and to some extent in 2001) was a collective attempt, articulated by and through the uniquely qualified person of Blair, to reassert some sense of lost community and nationhood amid the disintegration. If that is so, then Labour's great tragedy is to have disappointed that yearning - and the Iraq war was the pivotal moment in that process.

But Blair is a gambler - and at this election he's playing for double or quits. Reading the Independent interview Nick quoted, what struck me was just how little Blair was actually conceding. He won't assume that every Labour voter backed the war, fair enough. The real question is whether he will recognise the possibility that we were right and he was wrong. There's no sign of that in the interview - just the usual moralistic squid-ink that Blair produces whenever his decisions are questioned (you know the kind of thing - ...I'm honest enough to accept that I may have been wrong, but I would hope that people would recognise that I sincerely believed...). Ted Honderich skewered this stuff in the Guardian a few weeks ago:

"He is always asking to be judged by the morality of his intentions," he spits. "He doesn't understand that no one cares about his fucking morality. We judge him by the consequences of his actions. In any case, his morality is so muddy and ill-considered. I'm increasingly coming to the opinion that Blair's main problem is that he's not very bright."

Be that as it may, if Blair's government gets re-elected with a workable majority, Blair isn't going to see it as his cue to introduce PR, abolish the monarchy and bring back Jackanory. He's going to see it as a vote of confidence in his government, past and present - Iraq included. More to the point, that's how it will be seen by a lot of other people - to the point where, a few years down the line, that will have been part of what it meant. As Norm says, "Election results have a way of affecting what it makes sense to go on saying, and what it doesn't." If Labour are re-elected with a majority of 80-100, we will have officially drawn a line under Iraq and moved on; we will have told Blair, loud and clear, that we do trust him after all.

Is that what you want? Because that, frankly, is what'll happen.

One word: Iraq.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

For Tomorrow (IV) - I just can't see myself following you

I'm increasingly unhappy about associating myself with Backing Blair. Before I get into explaining why, here's a small reminder of just how broken our electoral system currently is. Nick has already buried the "Vote Lib Dem, get Tory" argument, but here's another nail in its coffin.

Posted by Hello

We assume that the Lib Dem share of the vote goes up to 35%. We also assume - wildly unrealistically - that the Lib Dems are twice as attractive to former Labour voters as they are to ex-Tories; in this example, approximately 2/3 of the overall swing to the Lib Dems has come from Labour voters, putting Labour 5% behind the Lib Dems in the popular vote. The result? A substantial Labour majority.

The brokenness of the electoral system is one of the key facts about this election, and one of the reasons why it's hard to talk about the election without talking about tactical voting - or other creative uses of the vote, from vote-swapping to this calculated attempt to break the log-jam. But there's another, equally important fact, which I was reminded of by Billy Bragg's comment - in the piece I've just quoted - that

"The last thing we want is a resurgent Tory party which forces Labour to tack to the right in the direction of their main perceived threat."

With this thought in mind, the words of the Backing Blair FAQ -

I refuse to vote Tory/Lib-Dem etc.
Suck it up. There's a job to be done.

- seem less like hardnosed political realism and more like wilful obtuseness.

The point here isn't that the Tories are uniquely dangerous - although they've shown some pretty unpleasant faces in the last week or so, God knows. The point is that all the main parties are stuck. The Tories are stuck because New Labour has stolen so much of their core post-Thatcher programme; an imaginative Conservative Party (perhaps under Portillo) might have bitten the bullet and outflanked Labour to the Left, but as it is they've been reduced to rummaging around in the Powellite gutter. The Liberal Democrats are well and truly stuck, because they're attracting votes from the Left - Left of New Labour, anyway - but they need to win Tory seats. And Labour are stuck, because they've lost the trust that they were relying on, and - as I said earlier - the one thing they can't do is appeal to core Labour values. (They're giving it a go, but not very convincingly.)

We're living in a strange, muted, deadened political landscape, where many of the most important questions go unanswered or unasked. I don't for a moment believe that this is our historical condition, that we're beached in some Fukuyamaesque arrivals lounge at the end of History; I believe it's the calm before the storm breaks. The question is how it will break. Clearly New Labour's blockage of the political system needs to be cleared, but this doesn't mean - quoting Tim Worstall - "get rid of Tone even at the expense of voting Tory": breaking New Labour at the cost of endorsing the Tories, in their current state, would be disastrous. What it means, I think, is "get rid of Blair, but not at the expense of voting Tory"; it means, apart from anything else, that the Left needs to hold its nerve. It's not just the anti-Blair vote that we need to maximise on May 5, but (what will be seen as) the anti-Blair left vote - or, at the very least, (what will be seen as) the anti-Blair, anti-war vote. (For more along these lines, read The Anti-War Movement Must Resist Labour Scaremongering - it's excellent.) We can vote tactically, in this sense, but not at the expense of voting on principle. At least, that's what I'm planning to do.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Coming out

Sorry Bill, sorry Meaders. I may think of myself as a revolutionary anti-state Marxist, but when it comes down to it I'm just another wet liberal:

Who should you vote for?

Your expected outcome:


Your actual outcome:

Labour -22
Conservative -57
Liberal Democrat 90
UK Independence Party -4
Green 43
You should vote: Liberal Democrat

Hmmm. Can't help wondering what would happen if we ran those questions against the positions of Bill's World Socialism but only if you're really, really sure party, or the don't mention the M-word Socialist Party, or even (mutter, mumble) R*sp*ct...

...if you didn't have to kneel down

[Revised 15th April - edits for clarity plus MacTaggart stuff. Apologies to anyone who was halfway through a rebuttal.]

Pearsall has a couple of fascinating posts about 'Islamophobia'. He's critical of the outlook represented by sites such as Islamophobia Watch, but for some interesting reasons. He argues that prejudice on the grounds of religion is a real phenomenon - more specifically, that there is such a thing as an irrational fear and hatred of Muslims; it isn't just a proxy for racism. However, he maintains that religious prejudice is not itself racism, for the simple reason that religion is not race. The language of race refers to ancestry, countries of origin and physical characteristics: attributes which are fixed at birth and have no direct bearing on an individual's beliefs or practices. They are also attributes which can be grouped and categorised in multiple different ways, to the point where it seems highly unlikely that anything identifiable as a 'race' exists: to a large extent, what we think of as 'race' is actually the product of racism. None of this is true of religion. Religions are identifiable sets of beliefs, underpinned by cultural practices which accord with them, and supported by loyalty to a community of believers. In short, a religion is a cultural construct, making it at once more definite and more mutable than race. No one would deny that there is such a thing as Islam; equally, no one would deny that people can convert to Islam - or abandon it. In principle, any religion can be adopted or abandoned by any individual - or advocated, or criticised.

So it's misleading to talk about 'anti-Muslim racism'. And 'Islamophobia'? It strikes me that prejudices are held against people, not against religions. You can believe any number of things about the content of a religion: you might believe, for example, that the Old Testament enjoins both Jews and Christians to kill witches but bars them from wearing polyester/cotton blends. If you don't also believe that followers of those religions put these things into practice, I don't see any grounds for arguing that you're prejudiced - and if you do believe that Christians go around killing witches, it's Christians that you're prejudiced against, not Christianity. The point here is that a religious affiliation isn't an all-or-nothing deal: knowing somebody's religion will never give you a full account of their identity. As this celebrated critique of fundamentalist Christian moralising reminds us, all believers are selective; everyone makes judgment calls.

Equally, we can't assume that someone who is critical of a religion is prejudiced against its believers. All religions embody some sort of a concept of the good life: they tell their believers how to live and what to do. Some religious people will argue that anyone outside a community of believers simply doesn't get it and has no right to criticise, but I don't think we need to spend too much time on this argument; it strikes me as rather a blatant hack for protecting one set of ideas from the kind of criticism other ideas are routinely subjected to. It's also highly counter-intuitive. If you believe that capital accumulation through interest is a bad thing, for example, you're likely to look favourably on a religion which bans it. Equally, if you're a Wiccan with a wardrobe full of polycotton, you'll probably feel that the Judeo-Christian tradition has some bad ideas. There is such a thing as being prejudiced against a religious group; Fiona MacTaggart is right to say that anti-Muslim prejudice isn't reducible to racism. (Check out these people, for a start.) But the line has to be drawn at prejudice against people, not criticism of ideas - which means that the line has to be drawn very, very carefully, and erring on the side of caution.

So I have serious problems both with the word 'Islamophobia' and with its most widely-used definition, formulated by the Runnymede Trust in 1997. Indeed, the Runnymede definition fails the fundamental test of distinguishing between a religion and its believers, which are referred to interchangeably as 'Islam': "Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc"; "Islam is seen as violent"; "Criticisms made of the West by Islam are rejected out of hand", and so on. I'm also concerned about some of the ways in which the concept has been used, particularly on the Left. Let's say that you and I are both in a radical group - it could happen - and I've suggested working with a Muslim group, or making an appeal to Muslims. You're not keen. Some possible replies:

  1. Religious radicalism is fine, as long as radicalism is uppermost. If Muslims come to us because their religion is in line with our campaign, great, but we shouldn't appeal to them as Muslims.

  2. Religious radicalism is fine, as long as it's genuinely radical. If Muslims come to us, we need to make sure that they personally agree with our campaign and haven't just come because of Islamic positions aligned with it.

  3. Religious radicalism is fine, but religious conservatism is a danger. If Muslims come to us, we need to make sure that they don't hold Islamic positions which we strongly disagree with.

  4. Radicalism takes precedence over religion. We shouldn't work with anyone who identifies as a Muslim, only with political sympathisers who happen to have a Muslim background.

  5. Religion is out. We shouldn't work with Muslims, or Christians, or Buddhists, ever.

Any one of these replies could be motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice (even the first), but I don't think any of them is necessarily evidence of prejudice (even the last). The Left is a broad church, if you'll pardon the expression: the kind of aggressive secularism which underlies the fifth of these positions may be inappropriate in a lot of situations, but there's nothing right-wing about it. Added to which, different campaigns will suggest different approaches: the Catholic Church's position on abortion, for example, might be seen as irrelevant to the question of working with Catholic priests in a peace campaign, relevant if the campaign concerned the death penalty and central if the issue were sex education. There's no single right answer; the point is to ask the questions and have the debate.

What concerns me about 'Islamophobia' is that it is being invoked, as a substitute for argument, when any of the positions listed above are advanced. Harry, whoever he is (Tom Watson's evil twin?), is not somebody I often agree with, but I thought he had some effective arguments here - and that Bob Pitt's response was alarmingly weak. Bob's argument was that Harry - like the BNP - set up an unrealistic standard of 'moderation' in the Muslim community, allowing him to dismiss Muslims en bloc while purporting to oppose the 'extremists'. Bob's exhibit A was Harry's attempt to sidestep the hackneyed 'moderate'/'extreme' dichotomy altogether:

'Moderate Muslims' is the wrong phrase - we are talking about democratic Muslims who accept a secular, democratic state regardless of their individual theological beliefs.

To which Bob replied:

apparently to qualify as moderates it is not enough for them to support democracy, human rights and freedom of organisation for other faiths – they also have to support a separation of religion and state along the lines proposed by western secularists. Which of course excludes even the most democratic, reformist tendencies within Islamism.

Even assuming that Bob's right on this point, something's gone badly wrong if - as this objection implies - prejudice against Muslims can be inferred from a failure to engage constructively with Islamism. Personally I value the separation of church and state very highly. To say that it's fundamental to my political identity is an understatement; it's fundamental to any political position I can imagine entertaining. It follows that I don't think it's appropriate for anyone with views like mine to work with anyone who aspires to establish a theocracy (position 3), except for limited goals which are presented in the same way to non-religious people (position 1). I recognise that there is room for debate on this point; what I object to is attempts, like Bob's, to shut down that debate with accusations of prejudice.

Some specific examples. (Open questions, although I'm personally starting from the answer No in all cases.)

Is it 'Islamophobic' to criticise anti-gay statements made by a Muslim cleric?

Is it 'Islamophobic' to ask someone advocating a woman's right to wear the hijab whether their position is based on the liberal principle that women should be able to dress how they like, or on the conservative principle that all Muslim women should wear the hijab? (This is not an academic question or some sort of secular Western totem. The last time I was anywhere near a large group of British Asians, scarved and bareheaded women were fairly evenly balanced. If I'm not in favour of forcing one group to bare their heads, I'm certainly not in favour of forcing the others to cover up.)

Is it 'Islamophobic' to criticise a fatwa instructing Muslims to vote as their mosque advises rather than according to individual beliefs? Meaders? Anyone?

One final point on Islamophobia Watch. Paul Anderson has an interesting discussion of these issues, covering some of the same ground as this post, under the heading "Am I an Islamophobe too?" This obviously called for a response from Islamophobia Watch. It would have been appropriate if there'd been a posting on the site acknowledging Paul's concerns and engaging with his arguments. Perhaps it would have conceded one or two of his points; perhaps it would have resolved any misunderstandings by clarifying the true meaning of Islamophobia. We'll never know. What we actually got was this: "The jury's still out on that one, Paul." And, er, that's it. Not even an attempt at argument, just a one-line sneer - and a reminder that, true to their name, Islamophobia Watch are watching. Peter Mandelson couldn't have done it better.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The radio did not make a sound

Less than a week in, and things are already getting weird. On Wednesday, I argued that "we should forget any thought of differential protest voting ... [trying] to identify the real Blairites and punish them accordingly". On Friday morning I read that the New Statesman had published a weird article listing 35 Blairite Labour MPs (plus 12 Blairite parliamentary candidates) who would be vulnerable to non-Tory tactical voting, and advising its readers to vote against them. Or, er, to vote for them. But not to stay at home, anyway:

All that said, the only sure way to keep the Tories out is to vote Labour. The NS offers this guide in a spirit of public service. We do not recommend anti-Blair tactical voting - but it is better than staying at home and not voting at all.

There's an odd whiff of Prisoner's Dilemma about this: it reads like the result of a deal between Labour loyalists and anti-Blairites at the Statesman. It'll suit one group if we vote for Labour candidates and the other group if we vote against them; the one thing they can agree on is that they don't want us to abstain.

Then I read Paul Anderson's reaction to the New Statesman's cunning plan. Paul's agin it, on the grounds that the hitlist includes "some of Labour's best". In which category he specifically includes John "friend of Radovan" Reid and Charles Clarke. Yes, that Charles Clarke. Speaking as a socialist and a libertarian, I wouldn't feel any compunction about voting against Charles Clarke - in fact, I can't imagine voting for him unless the only alternatives were Alan Clark, Petula Clark, Ronald Stark and Mark Park, and even then I'd have to think about it. If this is "democratic socialism with a libertarian punch", Paul, I'd hate to catch you on an authoritarian day.

In the evening, things got weirder still. Remember the line I quoted from John Lanchester back here, about the possibility of the Conservatives making one final last-ditch move to the Right, in the form of "an open appeal (as opposed to coded ones) to the Tony Martin/Enoch Powell vote"? Well, the Conservatives have unveiled two new posters, continuing their theme of "are you tired of pretending not to be an evil selfish bastard?". One says, "The law should protect me, not burglars". The other says, "It's time to put a limit on immigration". Looks like we're further down the track than I thought.

Friday April 8th: the day the election went mad.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

For Tomorrow (III) - the Big Muddy

So, the election campaign's finally started and Labour and the Conservatives are neck and neck in the polls, give or take a % either way. On mature reflection I'll no longer be surprised (as I said earlier) if their majority on May 6th is less than 100, but I will be surprised (and gratified, frankly) if it goes below 60. Protest voting is still very much on the agenda, I'd say.

That said, there are still some unanswered questions about protest voting. Primarily, what is it for - what are we trying to achieve? (By 'we' I of course mean 'people like me' - in this case, committed left-wingers who have voted Labour at some stage in the past and now want to offer New Labour as little support as possible. If that's not you, some of this discussion may read a bit oddly. Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Are we trying to elect the Tories? Well, er, no. If there were any realistic chance of the Nasty Party being elected, a lot of us would be scared back to Labour toot sweet. We're voting against Labour because we know that an awful lot of people will be voting for them. That's a pragmatic calculation, and arguably a cynical one; I don't think it's necessarily dishonourable.

Are we trying to bring about a hung parliament, which would give the power to make or break a government to the Liberal Democrats, who would refuse to sustain a minority government, which would necessarily lead to the introduction of PR, which would make calculations like these tedious and irrelevant (not that it wouldn't bring a whole new set of calculations)? Mu. Too many subordinate clauses. I don't personally despise the Liberal Democrats as much as some, but I don't trust them much further than I could throw Lembit Opik. Besides, a hung parliament is still a fairly unlikely outcome.

Which leaves the goal - a realistic goal, I think - of reducing the (almost inevitable) Labour majority from 60-70 to 30-40, say. In passing, I think we should forget any thought of differential protest voting, using resources like the Public Whip to identify the real Blairites and punish them accordingly. This is a blunt instrument at the best of times, as Chris points out. Moreover, the sad fact is that the parliamentary Labour Party contains damn few consistent rebels. The numbers dwindle further when you add other reasons for voting against particular MPs - Diane Abbott is nobody's Blairite, but her record on the former Yugoslavia was hardly any less shameful than Douglas Hurd's (google "Committee for Peace in the Balkans", although you won't find much). To be blunt, the problem is a large majority of Labour MPs in the Commons; it's only going to be addressed by reducing that majority.

But what would that get us, apart from making the Whips work for a living and preventing another disaster like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which isn't nothing)? The obvious answer is, of course, "Blair out". I wonder about this; I wonder if anything short of a hung parliament would loosen the man's grip on power. But let's go with it: on May 6th Labour is returned with a majority of 35 (say), and on May 7th the knives are out for Blair. And then what?

When I first started thinking about this scenario I came up with all sorts of possibilities involving four- or five-way internecine warfare within the Labour Party: Blairites vs Brownites vs Old Labour (right) vs OL (Campaign Group) vs OL (left but anti-CG)... It could get extremely messy, and extremely interesting in terms of who would come out owing favours to whom. It won't, though, for the simple reason that Blairites are serious about power (as, indeed, are Brownites). As soon as Brown emerged as the front runner (i.e. almost immediately) the Sensational Tony Blair Machine Without Tony would swing behind him, and it would all be over bar the shouting.

At this point I tend to agree with Paul Anderson's astringent take on protest voting - is that it? We're doing all this for Gordon Brown? To which I think the answer is: no, we're doing it for Tony Blair. We're voting against Tony Blair and all he stands for, in the knowledge that Gordon Brown is more likely to reap the benefit than anyone else. There won't have been a massive public endorsement of Brown, after all; he'll begin his premiership on sufferance (especially if there's been a clear swing to anti-war parties - including opportunists like the Lib Dems).

That said, there is something deeply unsatisfying about encouraging the Left to place any kind of trust in Brown, and a pure anti-Blair vote isn't much better. There's a point here about the sheer weakness of the Left, which I'll return to in another post. For now, I commend Meaders' dissection of Tariq Ali's defeatism and heartily endorse this comment in particular -

it is not enough to make voting decisions based solely on the Iraq war, and especially not when rewarding an essentially pro-war party. We have to think longer-term, about rebuilding left-wing political organisation in opposition to all the parties of neoliberalism and war

(Although I don't, actually, think Respect is any part of the answer. Sectarian, moi?)

Friday, April 01, 2005

For Tomorrow (II) - When you need cover

These posts on tactical voting - and, truth to tell, this blog - grew out of a thread on dear old Tom Watson's blog. What struck me most about that thread (linked below) was the weakness of the arguments against tactical voting - or rather, the argument, singular. If you don't vote Labour, you'll make it more likely that we'll have a Tory government. You don't want that, do you? No? Vote Labour, then. Sorted. Followup questions got the same response:

What if I want to send a message to Blair by reducing Labour's enormous majority?
Don't do it - you don't want a Tory government, do you?
What if I'm in a safe Labour seat and I want to send a message to my MP by reducing his or her enormous majority?
Don't do it - you don't want a Tory government, do you?
What if I'm in a safe Tory seat, or a Tory/Lib Dem marginal?

To be fair, you wouldn't necessarily expect an impartial discussion of the pros and cons of not voting Labour from a Labour MP, let alone a recent appointee to the Whips' Office. But the thinness of Tom's argument seems symptomatic. Paul Anderson has recently written a summary of the issues - nip over and read it now, it won't take long. I've known Paul, & respected his judgment, for the best part of two decades, but really - this is awfully thin stuff. Prefer the Tories to Labour? No? Well then, vote Labour. Sorted. Paul's not a Labour Party apparatchik, and he's certainly not a fool or a dickhead (that would be me, apparently) - so what's going on?

I caught a couple of minutes of Alan Milburn on World at One the other day. He was asked whether Gordon Brown would still be in his current job after the election. He dismissed the question, and rightly so, as it's obviously not the kind of thing someone like Milburn can decide; you could even see it, kremlinologically, as a slight to Brown that the question was asked. Anyway, Milburn took the opportunity to say what he wanted to say, which was that this election was going to be all about turnout. The Tories were banking on turnout being low generally, so that they could deploy Lynton Crosby's black arts to get their voters to come out and vote, effectively winning by default. So Labour needed to get turnout up as well, which meant that Labour voters needed to get out there and vote Labour.

The risk of low turnout hitting Labour harder than the Tories seems real; all the same, I felt - as with Tom Watson's posts - that something was missing here. The key was the reference to the Crosbyfication of Tory campaigning. What the Tories are doing is identifying the (much-diminished) range of political positions whose resonances are only, or primarily, Conservative, and hitting them hard. The results are often quite alarmingly vile, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft pointed out the other day; if Labour recovers in the polls, we could even see the Doomsday Option of an open appeal (as opposed to coded ones) to the Tony Martin/Enoch Powell vote. But that's not the argument I want to pursue here. The point is that, tactically speaking, what Crosby and the Tories are doing makes perfect sense. If you're sure of your supporters, you bank their votes and attract new voters by broadening the message. If you think your supporters are drifting away, you call them back by appealing to your core values - and if some of your core values have been poached by the other side, you keep looking until you find some which haven't.

This explains why the Tories are currently campaigning as the Nasty Party. It also explains why Labour are feverishly working to drum up their own support by reminding us of the party's role in building the NHS and the Welfare State, its overriding belief in equal treatment for all, its fierce commitment to social justice, its historical roots in the struggle of working men and women for decent conditions, its philosophical birthright in the thought of Morris and the Webbs and Tawney, its proud record in the struggle for democratic and liberal socialism...

Except, of course, they're not. This is partly because the New Labour project isn't about consistent political principle, let alone history. In the piece I quoted above, John Lanchester suggests that Labour under Blair adopted "the same maxim that the Tories had used for most of the 20th century", aiming "to do everything necessary to win power and then, once in office, to do as much as possible of the stuff it wanted to do consistent with not frightening the electorate and losing the next election". This isn't quite sufficient - it doesn't say anything about the nature of 'the stuff it wanted to do' - but it says something about the thinness of Labour under Blair. What do they believe in? Gaining power and keeping it, so that they can achieve what they want to achieve. (I remember an extraordinary discussion of EMU on the BBC news, with Andrew Marr blandly repeating that Blair's reason for wanting Britain to join EMU was that it would be "his legacy" - we should do it, in other words, because he wanted to be the person who had made us do it.) And why should we vote for them?

This is only half a story, though - after all, the thinness of New Labour doesn't logically preclude a cynical appeal to Labour values. (I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Michael Howard isn't really a bigot, come to that.) The other key aspect of the New Labour project is that it's built on a battle within the party - and a battle which the New Labour cadre don't quite believe is over. Back in 1997 I suggested that New Labour began with "the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from": convulsive, because they couldn't give any quarter to Old Labour in any of its forms; triumphant, because they won. The trouble is, that's made it very difficult to answer the question of what Labour is: all we can say for certain is that it isn't what it used to be.

Hence the thinness of Alan Milburn's and Tom Watson's and Peter Hain's and, I'm afraid, Paul Anderson's arguments: rallying the core Labour vote isn't just difficult for New Labour, it's the one thing they can't do. What remains is an empty, moralistic appeal - you ought to vote Labour because, well, you ought to. You're on the Left, aren't you? You want a Tory government, do you? No? Right then, vote Labour. Sorted. I'm reminded of nothing so much as the Beat's dissection of patriotism in the song "I am your flag", from their extraordinary second album Wh'appen?:

Yes, I'll be down your street again quite soon
But don't ignore me when I wave at you
For although I'm looking rather sad
I'm all you've ever really had
And when you're desperate you will hold me,
Hold me to that

Another four years of Tony Blair with a three-figure majority? Frankly, I'm not that desperate.