Friday, April 21, 2017

Wasting time

Why bother?

A big, expensive legal fight was won against the government and Parliament was given a vote on moving article 50 on exiting the EU. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed to stop the calling of a snap election on the basis of the government's short-term advantage. Parliament had to approve an early election by a two-thirds majority. Great, but only if the opposition doesn't decide to vote to do whatever the government wants. Parliament's power only exists if it is prepared to use it.

Now the right are consolidating their victory by holding an election to give them even greater control, presumably on the grounds that the Labour Party may not remain supine forever. 'So, Mrs May, what was it about a 21% lead in the polls that made you decide that an election was in the national interest?'

A Tory victory is a foregone conclusion. The size of the majority will depend on where the votes are cast and how effective tactical voting will be. But their lead is unassailable. The irony is that May is unimpressive at anything other than delivering platitudes. But once Miliband's ineffective leadership was replaced by Corbyn's destructive incompetence, we were doomed. It's as depressing as it was predictable (and predicted - this isn't hindsight talking).

This will be portrayed as a Brexit election. It isn't. Brexit will only become an issue when the consequences begin to unfold, but by then May will have a free hand. Although in another way, this is all about Brexit. Once again, I will have to get into the habit of agreeing with Tony Blair:
Some say it is to defeat the Tory Right so that she can go for a “softer Brexit”. This is naive. The opposite is true. At present, if she wanted to face down the Tory Right she has a Parliament with a majority to do so. What she doesn’t have is a Parliament that would vote for Brexit at any cost.
For the next couple of years Parliament will be marginalised, all the resources of government will be directed towards mitigating self-harm in the hope that the eventual deal will not be much worse than one we have already. What a criminal waste. And this is a crime which will leave many victims. One day someone will have to step in and clear up the mess, but who and when?

Sod it. From now on I am going to blog about cats.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Right turn

It's a wonderful Greek spring and I am enjoying the good fortune and privilege of being in my house in Pelion. The weather is gorgeous and the trees are in blossom. Cats are lolling about on the patio, stretching and yawning in the sun, occasionally to wake up and insistently demand food.

But there is a cloud on the horizon. At the moment I can come here as often as I like, when I like and as for as long as I like. For some reason, a number of my fellow Brits have decided that my right to do so should be taken away from me. My liberty and that of many others is down to my status as a citizen of the European Union and we are in the process of leaving as a result of a political miscalculation. So please don't tell me to move on, or sneer at me as a "remoaner." Depending on the final settlement, Brexit could hit me hard. I would love to see our departure stopped. It's personal.

Though this isn't just about me. I am upset by the referendum itself for constitutional and political reasons as well. Plebiscites are crude distortions of democracy. The mandate is weak, the majority was slim, and the outcome is highly uncertain, all of which should caution against change, rather than launch us recklessly into it. But above all, as I have been going on about for ages, Brexit is unambiguously a victory for the right.

However you look at it, this is not a win for the left, despite those who are optimistic about what they call a "lexit." Leftists who want to leave tend to make two main arguments. The first is that this was a working class revolt.

Owen Jones summarises and rebuts an argument that he once made:
Since the Brexit vote, the 48% who sought to remain have been demonised as a privileged elite attempting to subvert an authentic working-class revolt. “The working class have spoke!” crowed multimillionaire American citizen John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, recently. The referendum was a clash between the angry “millions of working-class people” and “prosperous middle-class homeowners in London”, declared the Sun. “Remoaners” are a clique formed of “citizens of the world” conspiring against the patriotic British working class, or so the story goes.
The only trouble with this is that, as Jones has spotted, it isn't true.
While Fareham is cast as part of an anti-establishment vanguard, Tower Hamlets – which has prevalent child poverty and two-thirds of whose residents voted for remain – is subsumed into the caricature of a pampered liberal elite. Most working-class Britons under 35 opted for remain, while most middle-class people over 65 voted for leave. Most working-class people who are white went for leave, most working-class people from ethnic minorities went for remain. Consider that the next time the Brexit press imposes its simplistic narrative on a complicated reality. Applying their logic, black supermarket workers and young apprentices form part of the privileged remoaner elite.
Reality is much more complex.

The second argument is based on economics. Forgetting the left's earlier attraction to the idea of 'social Europe' and the European Social Chapter of the Maastrict Treaty, they contend mainly that the EU is a vehicle for the imposition of right-wing economic orthodoxy, regardless of democratic demand, throughout the continent. This isn't without reason and there is nowhere better to see it than in Greece.

The crisis here rumbles on. There are small signs of recovery, but the social costs of austerity are ever-present. Greece's scope for action is limited by membership of the Euro and the flawed construction of the single currency. However, once again, real Greece is not the country of the left's imagination. Growing Greek indebtedness over decades would have resulted in a financial crisis whatever. Endemic corruption, clientelism, and the mess that is the Greek state, with its tangled bureaucracy, are obvious to anyone with more than a passing interest in the country. Greeks despair of the system. If it was to avoid economic collapse, Greece would always have needed structural reforms together with the large additional loans, coupled with debt write offs, that it has received from the IMF and EU institutions.

The problem has always been the macro-economic conditions required by by the lenders. They have plunged the country into a deep recession, a spiral from which it struggles to emerge. Keynesians predicted as much. The institutions have been misguided. But would Greece have got a better deal from anyone else? No way. The problem is the global economic consensus. Of course the EU's economic assumptions are based on it. It's a consensus after all. This is what needs to be challenged.

So rather than disengage, wouldn't it be better to support the social democratic left's work to change the EU from within? Well, part of the "lexit" narrative is that the EU cannot, and never will, change. This is an odd contention to make about a dynamic institution that has transformed itself from a coal and steel community of six countries, to a loose union of twenty-eight democratic nations, some with a new common currency, in only sixty years. And again it isn't true. Here are a couple of examples of the type of left thinking taking place in the EU. Wolfgang Kowalsky thinks change is back on the agenda after a hiatus and that we are heading towards a more flexible approach to integration. Whilst Prime have produced a research paper with constructive proposals for a democratic economic policy. Instead of getting involved, leavers on the left have chosen disengagement, which suggests that their nationalism is stronger than their socialism.

No, the right have won. Labour is collapsing into irrelevance, twenty points behind in the polls and supporting Brexit, leaving the half of the country that wanted to remain in the EU without representation. A Conservative hegemony, deeply wedded to economic orthodoxy, stretches ahead of us. The right have succeeded in consolidating power and building their electoral strength. They have had three main successes.

First, they managed to get the referendum held despite the huge indifference of the British electorate. There was no demand for a referendum. Outside a small group of obsessives, nobody was bothered. All opinion polling had Europe as one of the lowest salience issues as this chart makes clear:

People who had never thought about the EU or took our membership as a given were forced to take a position.

Secondly, the right were successful in mobilising opinion because they linked a low salience issue with one with much higher salience, immigration. And in doing so they legitimised a popular xenophobia. Just as the left has had a tin ear for the anti-Semitism in its midst, so the left leavers are resistant to the evidence that popular racism had much to do with the win. They cannot hear what outsiders find loud and concerning. This is one reason why reading some of the polemics of the poet George Szirtes is so illuminating. As a former child refugee he has the ear of the incomer to hear the whispers of the ghosts of the past that the EU was created to lay to rest. This essay is fabulous.
I don’t think demonisation is too harsh a word, in that Leave rhetoric called forth certain demons, or rather that it quite consciously opened the trapdoors where such demons were hiding. It legitimised them. It called forth the firebombers. It called forth those who immediately set upon elderly widows of French and German birth who had lived in the country for decades and taunted them by asking when they were going home. It called forth the teenagers on the Manchester tram who demanded a black American get off it. It called forth the murderer of Jo Cox. 
As is his reflection at the end of a piece on Hungary from February:
Whatever some politicians say, we are citizens of the world whether we admit it or not. We consume and live by that which was once strange and once we close doors and windows we begin to suffocate. The terms in which the EU referendum was conducted extended far beyond normal debate about the movement of peoples, whether refugees or poor workers seeking a better life. They sought and exploited a latent hostility towards the foreign, a hostility that has increased since the decision. What this can lead to is more than a lack of air. It is a kind of aridity that becomes combustible. A few sparks can do it. The conditions for combustibility are already in place in the UK and in other parts of Europe, particularly in the region where I was born, and – especially now – in Trump’s US. Isolationism and patriotism are on the rise, partly as political acts, partly as social mood, exacerbated by whatever means, for political reasons. 
Drop enough sparks on dry ground and a fire starts. We have seen such fires before. The view beyond the cell, as Vas put it, is vital: better still to get out of the cell and out into the fertile world, and become its citizen.
I know that focus group research is plagued by the possibility of sample error, but this is alarming:
When asked what level they would expect to see for immigration after Brexit, the views of leave voters are clear: "zero"; "immigration should be stopped"; "no more East European immigrants"; "as low as it can possibly go". 
And what happens when these totally unrealistic expectations are not met? Will there be an embittered constituency waiting for something more extreme?

This brings me to my final point. Brexit was our alt-right moment. If you are in any doubts read this profile of Arron Banks.

OK, there are many sincere eurosceptic leavers on both the left and right who want nothing to do with this stuff. Also, UKIP and were not the official campaign, though they probably tipped the balance. But Brexit will be hugely disruptive, and disruption is what the alt-right seek to provide the opportunity to lead us into some dark places.

I don't think that they can do it on their own, as Jan-Werner Müller argues in this article right-wing populists need mainstream allies to win. This is what the official Brexit campaign provided in the referendum, but only for the limited purpose of leaving the EU. Their aim is more ambitious, to break up the EU completely. It stands in their way, and particularly in the way of the authoritarian anti-democratic movement. Wilders, Le Pen, Orban, Kaczynski all see themselves as the future and Brexit as a model to follow.

The power centre of this authoritarian and illiberal right is Putin. He has long had his band of faux-left figures, 'useful idiots' like Greenwald, Pilger, and Assange cheering him on, but could more effective alliances be forged in the mainstream? The pro-Trump sycophancy shown by Michael Gove is alarming, but I don't think it will go much further. What has happened though is that this utterly distasteful politics has shaped the agenda in ways I would not have thought possible before.

It's not a happy prospect for our country. Amongst some of the left, nationalist arguments over sovereignty and an economic critique of neoliberalism have combined with the dishonest reporting of the tabloid press to produce a fictional view of the EU as a static bureaucratic monolith, rather than an evolving supra-national organisation and alliance of democracies. We are not only leaving the EU, we are abdicating our responsibilities and abandoning our allies who are attempting to shape the Union and challenge economic orthodoxy. Instead we are retreating into a Tory hegemony, while left leavers dream of social democracy in one country. I rather think that a left turn is more likely within the EU than in Britain.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Theatre of the absurd

So it begins.

Today, we start to leave the EU by accident.

The referendum was called to disarm UKIP and the obsessive right of the Tory Party, and by doing so to secure our place in the EU for good. That went well didn't it?

It might have just about worked until the leavers played the race, sorry, immigration card.

Not that there is a consensus. The majority was small, subsequent polling all points to the country being split half and half, while up to 100,000 people marched through London to demonstrate against Brexit last weekend. Never can a change as fundamental as this have been implemented on such a weak mandate.

A Prime Minister who campaigned to remain has started the process, supported by an opposition who campaigned to remain, and with the backing of a vote in Parliament, the majority of whose members consider this to be an act of folly. The principles of representative democracy have been abandoned.

To be fair, if all goes well in negotiations, given enough expertise (which we don't have), given plenty of time (which we don't have), given adequate experienced staff (which we don't have), and given politicians who know what they are doing (which we don't have), we might just about get away with a deal that is only slightly worse than the one we already have as members. Otherwise, the risks are huge. This is a change that hasn't be thought through and for which we are entirely unprepared. There wasn't even any contingency planning.

I can't help thinking that this is a colossal, reckless error and, even worse, a betrayal of the future of the younger generation who voted overwhelmingly - in all classes and all regions - to remain. This is the generation who will have to bear the costs and lose the opportunities they had expected, which have been taken away from them against their will.

Another fine mess you got us into, Mr Cameron.

Monday, March 20, 2017


"If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring," as the old song goes. Well, it's the first day of spring today. The clouds are low, a cold wind is blowing, and the rain is slashing down. The singer wants every day to be like this? Really? Of course the symbolism of the first day of spring is that it marks the end of winter and the promise of summer to come. So, the song offers us a promise never to be fulfilled. Oh joy.

Come on Ryley, it's only a song. But it got me thinking. It comes from the musical Pickwick and is a political speech, a manifesto sung by Samuel Pickwick, an ingenue mistaken for a political candidate. Perhaps it's rather an apt metaphor.

The question it raises is, 'when is it right for people to impose their will on others?' Quite clearly, I want every day to be mid summer. I don't want to be condemned to live the rest of my life in vile weather like today. There isn't a simple answer. The current fashion seems to be that the majority, however small, of voters in a referendum have the right to impose their will on everybody else.

I moan about having my EU citizenship being taken away from me against my will, Scottish independence is being raised again, but one of the worst aspects of the EU referendum is that EU citizens, legally resident in the country for many years, didn't even have a vote. They are at risk of losing everything and weren't allowed a voice. Others took away their automatic right to live here and now they can only rely on others to try and protect them. As for Gibraltar, the forgotten question, around 90% of its citizens voted to stay in the EU. This is because their entire economy is dependent on an open border with Spain, guaranteed by membership. Yet, they are to be wrenched out of the EU by the votes of people in England. I could go on and on.

This isn't just a question about Brexit, though I think it is a terrible mistake, it is about the nature of government and democracy. It is why I would always defend representative democracy against a plebiscitary alternative. I am not an individualist absolutist. There are clear cases when people's ideas and desires should be overruled for the collective good, but the mechanisms for doing so matter.

I don't have good answers for a blog post. While the case against vesting all power in a dictatorial ruler or an oligarchy is manifest, crude majority rule also has dangers and is a flawed model of democracy. In the meantime, roll on summer.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The state of the nation

"Now is not the time" for a referendum on Scottish independence. So says the queen of the platitude.

So what's this all about? After all, it's only a short time since the last referendum. Actually, it's pretty simple. I've worked it all out.

We have two politicians going head-to-head who owe their position to being on the losing side in a referendum. One supported the losing side, but when the leader of the losers resigned because he lost, she took over on the basis of implementing the winning decision despite campaigning against it. The other lost, but, because of the popularity gained through losing, trounced the winning side in the subsequent election where the losers emerged victorious over the winners.

Now, there is very little enthusiasm for another referendum, it's unwanted by most. But we have to remember that the reason for the call to hold an unwanted referendum is the unwanted result of another referendum that wasn't really wanted either.

This is all about taking back control. For the English loser who won, taking back control used to mean taking back control from the European Union. Now it also means taking back control from the Scottish institutions that were set up in order to allow Scotland to take back control from the UK. They can't have that control, because they must take back control from the EU along with the rest of the UK, even though they voted not to. So the winning Scottish loser now wants to take back control from the UK government so that she doesn't have to take back control from the EU and reckons she can do it by holding an unwanted referendum. The English winning loser thinks we are stronger together in the union of the United Kingdom, making it easier to take back control from the European Union, where we are not stronger together even though she campaigned on a slogan saying that we were. The Scottish loser who won thinks that we are stronger together in the European Union, but not in the union of the UK, because she will be forced to take back control from the EU, which she doesn't want to do.

It's clear. This is consensus politics. Both agree that they want to stay in a union, just not the same one.

It's the will of the people.

(Er ... can't we just go back to being a representative democracy instead? Please.)

Be happy, it's an order!

Playing away

Forget the cloth cap image, Rugby League has always been innovative and has led the way only for others to follow and claim credit. Its holy grail has always been expanding the game. Often this has resulted in failure, but these days the sport is focusing on more organic growth, with new teams starting in the lower leagues and progressing on merit. Geography has never been an obstacle. This year Toronto Wolfpack (yes that is the Toronto in Canada) are playing in Championship 1 alongside teams like Barrow and Hunslet, as well as other clubs trying to build the game North and South.

Last year, it was the turn of the South of France when Toulouse Olympique XIII joined and won promotion at the first attempt, joining Swinton in the Championship. They played each other at the weekend. What an opportunity. I and a couple of hundred others grasped it, struggled with an air traffic control strike and made it over to Toulouse. Having got, nothing was going to stop a memorable weekend.

The stadium is in Blagnac, a very bourgeois suburb. It's so quiet on a Saturday evening that you felt you had to whisper as you walked through streets whose life had been choked out of them by stern respectability. Then, in late afternoon on a hot spring day, Swinton fans arrived from the city centre. Few had stopped drinking from the moment they arrived in France, most had sung continuously. The barbarians had arrived. Amiable, humorous, warm spirited, and boisterous barbarians. It was brilliant.

Then on to the match where the noise was non-stop, Swinton supporters amongst the 2,300 crowd trying, and often succeeding, in making more noise than the French brass band in the stand. It was a superb game, where a fine Toulouse side were taken very close, only winning 36-28 on successful goal kicks after both sides had scored seven tries apiece.

You can watch the whole game here:

The crowd dispersed for more drinking, dining on cassoulet, and sightseeing on the following days. It was a celebration of our international Rugby League family, of the delights of Europe, and of the general friendship that sport can engender. For me, they were four unforgettable days in two beautiful cities - we took an extra day in Carcassonne. There was sumptuous cuisine, historical sites, great art, and sporting comradeship all rolled together.

And as fans bumped into each other as they wandered round the town, they all said they same thing. Will we be going to Toronto?

Friday, March 03, 2017

Devilish details

I was never a Blairite. It wasn't just his political economy, I also disliked what I saw as the vacuity of much of his discourse, the strange, verbless syntax, the corny soundbites, and his peculiar halting delivery. Then he gave his speech on the EU. It used the same formulas, but it was startling because it was excellent. It made me think how much our political discourse has deteriorated since his heyday. Instead of the dry platitudes of May, the false bluster of Johnson, and the delusional rambling of Trump, Blair did something unusual in a political speech. It may have been partisan, but it presented clear facts and asked questions that needed answering.

The response was predictable. Rather than deal with the issues of substance, his speech was deluged in ad hominems. The left went on about Iraq. The right sneered. The worst was Boris Johnson who dealt with the arguments by telling people not to listen to them. But what about the questions Blair raised? Did anyone try and answer them? If they did, I didn't see any replies. This is the problem. The trouble with Brexit is that it's scary. Look at the data and it is clear, Brexit will be expensive to implement and the gains are hard to see. So let's avoid all that unpleasantness and castigate the "remoaners" for their negativity.

This reluctance to look at the facts is on all sides. Take this from here. It's from an article by a natural Blairite and a remain voter. He quotes a bizarre statement from Wes Streeting that voting not to trigger article 50 would have led to riots in the street, and then he throws in this:
Here’s a rallying cry from Jonathan Rutherford that I want to share;"Instead of hedging its bets, lamenting Brexit, and echoing each dire forecast of impending disaster Labour must stand foursquare for the labour interest in the restoration of a self-governing, trading nation."
 There are obvious objections. I thought we already were a "self-governing, trading nation." And what if the dire forecasts are right? Standing foursquare behind a mistake isn't a very good idea. But mainly, the quote is meaningless. Again look at the data. Blair did.
We will withdraw from the Single Market which is around half of our trade in goods and services. We will also leave the Customs Union, covering trade with countries like Turkey. Then we need to replace over 50 Preferential Trade Agreements we have via our membership of the EU; for instance with Switzerland. So, EU-related trade is actually two thirds of the UK total. This impacts everything from airline travel, to financial services to manufacturing industry, sector by sector.
So, how do we deal with this problem, who do we trade with? How do we overcome the loss of our membership of our main market? How do we do it with a productivity gap and trade deficit? And how can it serve the labour interest? These are real problems. Surely they should be discussed before leaping into the dark? There's nothing about any of this in the "rallying cry."

Ah, but then there's the 'will of the people.' That always gets pulled out. It's OK, don't worry about the details, because 'the people have decided.' 'They have spoken.' 'Their verdict is in.' Never mind a discussion of the quality of that decision or how well informed it was, let's look at the figures. 17 million voted out, 16 million voted remain, 13 million didn't vote at all, and millions more were not on the register. This wasn't even a majority. It was the largest minority. Now it is often sensible, customary, and democratic to vest power in the largest minority (though there are exceptions - Germany in 1933 springs to mind), but to describe this as somehow being the immutable will of the British people as a whole is absurd. I could accept the result as the starting point of a long deliberative and consultative process, but not as a blank cheque to the government to do whatever it likes. What politicians are really doing is hiding behind the vote to avoid talking about the substance.

Then there's the Labour Party's dilemma.They nominally supported remain, yet two thirds of their constituencies voted leave. What do they do? Their instinct is to protect what they hold. They must fall in line with their voters. All very commendable - except, as the vastly experienced psephologist, John Curtice pointed out, around two thirds of Labour voters voted remain, even in those constituencies that voted out. The referendum result was carried mainly by voters of other parties. It was based on the support of affluent, middle class areas. This gives Labour a profound problem, but not the one they think they have

In one sense Labour's timid position, to abandon policy and principle, and whip its representatives into line to support a hard Brexit, is thoroughly Blairite. Accommodate to a Conservative settlement and privilege one section of your support over another on the grounds that they 'have nowhere else to go,' is exactly what New Labour did. The weakness is that in order to win now Labour needs both. This points to a different strategy. I fear that if Brexit goes badly, the party has put itself in a position where it will have no credibility to criticise and propose an alternative direction. If it goes well, something I find unlikely, Labour will get no credit. Safety may well prove to be a lose/lose strategy.

When will we realise? This is a victory for the right. A big victory. Look at the voting figures. The last general election was one of the few times in post-war history when the parties of the right gained more than 50% of the vote. Brexit was predominantly the cause of right-wing obsessives and the Conservative press. This is our reactionary moment. But look again. It's a rebellion of the old. The young don't share it. It will pass.

So where should Labour stand? Should they embrace the present or gamble on the future? Who then should Labour stand with? The future or the soon to be past? That's their dilemma.

What all this shows is that if we rely only on slogans, conventional wisdom, clever journalistic phrases, or ideological biases, we can get things badly wrong. They make complexity seem simple, and the difficult easy. We have to look at the data. This is the hard, material reality that will decide what will actually happen. At the moment there is little comfort to be had from it for either side, which is presumably why all are lapsing into public expressions of wishful thinking.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Against conventional wisdom

This is a fine start to an excellent piece by Jan-Werner Müller:
Asked recently what liberals could learn from the annus horribilis 2016, the historian Timothy Garton Ash responded that they should beware of groupthink and conventional wisdom.
Absolutely. Müller does precisely that, writing against a modern domino theory of right-wing populism. He doesn't minimise the growth of right-wing populism, he simply states the obvious point that it cannot win on its own.
At last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the conventional wisdom was that a Brexit vote and a Donald Trump presidency could not possibly happen. This year, it was taken as given that an unstoppable populist wave is rolling across the west, a wave that will wash away political elites in upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Yet this image completely fails to capture a simple but crucial fact: nowhere have populists won majorities without the collaboration of established conservative politicians.
Trump won because he was the official Republican Party candidate. Brexit would not have happened if the campaign had centred around Farage alone. He needed the legitimacy of mainstream Conservative politicians, Johnson and Gove, supported by decades of anti-EU agitation by the Tory tabloid press. The wild hyperbole about Trump being a fascist is completely off target. After all, there is a long tradition of anti-rational, authoritarian right wing thought to draw on, other than fascism. But there is one point where the comparison with Hitler holds. Hitler could not have come to power on his own. The Nazis did not and could not win a majority. In what was arguably the worst mistake in history, Hitler was placed in power by mainstream politicians who underestimated him and thought they could use him for their own ends.

The big question is whether conservatives will repeat their errors. The way the Republican Party has begun to accommodate itself to the new presidency does not give hope. Neither did the sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg, dressed as always as if he was in the 1940s, repeating Trump's lies on Channel 4 news give me any reason to doubt that our current dismal crop of politicians are perfectly capable of making the same mistake and persuading themselves that the grotesque are respectable.

And while all this is going on there has been an astonishing neglect of the events in Romania. The mass protests there are pro-EU, contemptuous of conspiracy theories, and thoroughly democratic. They are the antithesis of right wing populism. They tell another part of the European story. As does this intriguing article by Catherine Fieschi. In concluding that Le Pen is unlikely to win the French presidency, she spots something else:
 My work with focus groups across France suggests something is shifting, some of it manifesting as support for the FN but also in the green shoots of a new more positive outlook, a new decentralised, local entrepreneurialism. In no way should we underestimate the FN’s capacity to mobilise – it is a threat. But as things stand, renewal may emerge in other, more hopeful ways.
Europe is not lost. Despite Hungary, despite Poland, a union of European democracies can thrive.

A second piece of conventional wisdom is that this populism means that we have to have a conversation about immigration. Chris Dillow thinks otherwise.
In fact, there’s a positive reason not to want a debate about immigration. Ms Cooper is an economist and so should know that everything carries an opportunity cost. And the opportunity cost of debating immigration is high. Our time and cognitive bandwidth is limited, so time spent debating migration is time spent being silent about other questions. 
From this perspective, debating immigration serves a reactionary function, as it silences debate about another question: is capitalism today best serving people’s interests? Debating immigration encourages the idea that immigrants are to blame for stagnant real wages and poor public services, and deflects attention from the possibility that the causes of these lie instead in secular stagnation. 
What Labour should be doing therefore is demanding – and instigating – a debate about how best to increase growth, wages and living standards. We should be asking not what to do about immigration but what to do about capitalist stagnation?
It's ironic, it became commonplace to blame jihadi terrorism on western foreign policy as if the terrorists faced no choice or agency in their decision to commit murder. Now, the same habit of thought is being applied to working class racism. People are being stripped of their agency. Racism thrives in conditions of alienation, but is just as prevalent amongst the wealthy suburbs. It's daft to see its causes as purely economic, though it is convenient to confine our recognition of it to a single class. That doesn't mean that economics can't ameliorate racism's appeal, but it shouldn't mean that we must pander to it.

This is a genuine problem for the left. It has lost its ability to speak for and to working class people. This long and thoughtful article from Julian Coman is well worth reading. It's full of ironies. The complaints that underpinned a strong working class leave vote had nothing to do with the EU. In Rochdale, for example, explicit racism was aimed at an earlier generation of migrants from South Asia rather than Eastern Europeans, while their laments about the decline of their town centre apply equally to high streets, in rich and poor areas alike, across the country. Structural change, some of it unavoidable, has been poorly managed by successive governments. Communities have been neglected. Regions have been allowed to decline. Ordinary people have borne the cost. They voted to leave the EU despite European funding being one of the few sources of investment in their areas.

Coman quotes Marc Stears:
“New Labour explicitly did a deal with the devil – it said, ‘Look, we’ll leave neoliberal policies alone because we’ll be able to cream off enough money to redistribute adequately.’ So you could generate support for the public services by being very hands-off with market forces, but then redistributing through the state.” The achievements of New Labour in re-investing in the NHS and renovating crumbling schools were the fruit of this bargain. But, says Stears, there was a darker side to the project. 
“The big problem with the model was that the Labour hierarchy grew to have disdain in high places for the people who were not happy with that settlement. People who were miserable at work because they were being treated badly by some corporate power; or people working in a public sector that was increasingly marketised and target-driven; or people whose communities were changing and felt aggrieved at the emergence of clone towns and high streets that lost all their identity.” 
The crash brought an uneasy compromise to an end. “If economic times are good and you are getting a fancy new GP surgery, you may feel you can put up with the lack of control at work, or the nature of the high street and so on. But when that improvement in the public realm comes to a shuddering halt, as it did in 2008, then this deal is no deal at all. And you get the populist revolt that we’ve seen.” 
For Ukip, Donald Trump and other rightwing populist forces on the rise, the aftermath to the crash offered a golden opportunity to fuse xenophobic nationalism with provincial and regional discontents that have been simmering for years. But the response, says Stears, cannot be to wave the anger away as part of an “age of unreason”. Seeing off the likes of Farage depends on finding a vision of work, place and community that can speak to the wider concerns of those Nissan workers in Sunderland, not a return to the status quo ante.
I think he's right, but it is not enough to speak to wider concerns, it is equally important to talk with the concerned - and to listen to them and negotiate with them. Wigan's MP, Lisa Nandy, was interviewed for the  piece and was despairing at the way policies have been imposed in the past without discussion with those most affected. It's very worthwhile listening to her recent talk on the future of the left below, not least because she doesn't wish away the difficulties.

The result is that I agree with Chris Dillow's sentiment, but not wholly with his conclusion. We do need a conversation, but not one about how to appease atavistic sentiment. It's a conversation that should not be held in isolation. It's about how we build better communities, manage them, and democratise - really let people take back control. And, at the same time, to vigorously oppose racism in all its guises. It comes down to looking at things in a different way. If we do, we can see the instinct Fieschi saw in her French focus groups. This is a conversation that gives Labour a future.

Finally, we have just witnessed one of the most dismal failures of parliamentary democracy. It took a private individual to go to court to ensure that Parliament, not government, had control over the decision to initiate the process of leaving the European Union. It was a futile effort as Parliament capitulated and duly handed all the power back to the government to impose their interpretation of the result. It marked the nadir of Corbyn's inept leadership of the opposition, as Labour, a few honourable rebels aside, duly voted with the government to give it an overwhelming majority. The capitulation of the pro-European Tories was just as shocking, with only Kenneth Clarke voting against the government. We had the extraordinary spectacle of the majority of MPs of both main parties, who had voted and campaigned to remain, and who viewed leaving the EU as potentially catastrophic, voting to trigger Article 50. We saw both parties whip their members into voting against their decades-old official policies on Europe. Why? Well, it was because of the "will of the people," another piece of conventional wisdom.

I would not be impressed with an A level student who argued that there was a homogenous popular will. I would be even less impressed if the student said that a narrow majority of those that voted, a minority of the electorate as a whole, constituted a consensus binding parliament and government in perpetuity. A C Grayling, in his typically overwrought style, makes a good point. The outcome of the referendum was solely the result of the rules applied. If the rules as to who could vote were the same as those for the referendum on Scottish independence, then it is highly probable that remain would have won. What I would add that even without a wider franchise, if it had been held under the same rules as the referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1979, leave would have lost as they failed to reach the threshold of winning the support of 40% of the electorate.  This survey suggests that a referendum held today would produce the opposite result. Perhaps, but given the margins of error of all surveys, we cannot be sure. The one thing that it does show is that the nation is still sharply divided, there is no consensus, let alone a single will of a people who split 50/50 on the issue.

MPs have failed in their primary duty, to act as representatives of their constituents and of the national interest as they see it, not once but twice. They not only voted against their consciences on Article 50, they also abandoned their democratic duties by voting to hold the referendum in the first place, giving over a complex and vital question to the uncertainties of a plebiscite. It was a critical failure.

These three issues point to choices about the democracies we want. To choose to delegitimise the populist, authoritarian right; to devolve and democratise politics at the local level; and to strengthen representative democracy. Taken together they are the foundations of a programme for a revived democratic left. It is one that I would want to see flourish in Britain and within a European Union of which the United Kingdom remained a proud member.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Children, children

Two of the least impressive political speeches ever.

Theresa May: "Give us what we ask for, or I'll thcream and thcream 'till I'm thick."

Donald Trump: "It's mine. You can't have it."

Oh, grow up.

It would be comic if it were not for the consequences of two major nations indulging in wanton self-harm, with god knows what collateral damage in their wake.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brrr ...

Europe is freezing. Certainly this corner of Greece was, though the weather is now mild, the sun is out, and the sea of white is giving way to green.

Very picturesque, very Christmasy, but it's supposed to be Greece, and in a house heated by wood stoves, central heating seemed more sensible by the minute. I've never been a fan of cold.

And are we entering a very cold political climate? Brexit and the collapse of the Labour party opening up the prospect of endless Tory government? The rise of populist nationalism? The authoritarianism in Poland, Hungary and Turkey? The bizarre and sickening Putin worship on both the left and the right? And the coup de grace, the most disturbing and dysfunctional president ever to enter the White House? It's a grim catalogue.

Despite all this, I am not a pessimist. This rise is very resistible. It is easy to make a comparison with the 1930s, but democratic societies are more secure and, above all, more prosperous. We have more to lose and have a collective memory of the disasters of the past. Yet it has to be resisted. The far right has not stood still. It has reinvented itself as something respectable, distancing itself from the death camps of the past. This makes the need to oppose it even more urgent. And this is what disturbs me about Corbyn's apparent and confused capitulation to a UKIP-lite agenda and acceptance of a hard Brexit. It seems a curious position to take for a leader of a party that supported remaining in the EU and 70% of whose voters voted to remain. It mirrors the actions of the Conservative Party, and shows that the major parties' approach to UKIP is one of appeasement, not opposition. A hard Brexit on UKIP terms would never have won a majority.

16 million voters are unrepresented by the two major parties. Even if you accept the legitimacy of the result, that does not mean that you have to think and say that it was the right decision. An opposition's role is to organise and, at the very least, fight to protect people's rights and livelihoods as part of a process they oppose. Eurosceptics accepted the decisive result of the 1975 referendum, but they still kept fighting their corner, so much so that leaving the EEC was official Labour policy in the disastrous election of 1983. Why should we now meekly abandon our beliefs and acquiesce in error?

It's a bad mindset for a time of challenge.

To sum up the situation we are in, here are three articles from very different writers, each worth reading in full and each coming to a similar conclusion from a different perspective. First, a review article from the New York Review of Books by Timothy Garton Ash. His conclusion:
...this is no time for freezing. No, we who believe in liberty and liberalism must fight back against the advancing armies of Trumpismo. The starting point for fighting well is to understand exactly what consequences of which aspects of the post-wall era’s economic and social liberalism—and of related developments, such as rapid technological change—have alienated so many people that they now vote for populists, who in turn threaten the foundations of political liberalism at home and abroad. Having made an accurate diagnosis, the liberal left and liberal right need to come up with policies, and accessible, emotionally appealing language around those policies, to win these disaffected voters back. On the outcome of this struggle will depend the character and future name of our currently nameless era.
Secondly, this is a beautifully written piece on Trump from Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. I thought of Brexit when I read this:
This is what was once called Bonapartism: I won and I can now do anything I choose. Victory, however narrow, is license for all. Autocracy, after all, has always been compatible with plebiscitary endorsement. The point of constitutional government is to make even the victors subject to the rules.
His conclusion is similar to Timothy Garton Ash.
There’s no point in studying history if we do not take some lesson from it. The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were. We must learn and relearn that age’s necessary lessons: that meek submission is the most short-sighted of policies; that waiting for the other, more vulnerable group to protest first will only increase the isolation of us all. We must refuse to think that if we play nice and don’t make trouble, our group won’t be harmed. Calm but consistent opposition shared by a broad front of committed and constitutionally-minded protesters—it’s easy to say, fiendishly hard to do, and necessary to accomplish if we are to save the beautiful music of American democracy.
And finally, from the left, Michael Walzer writes in Dissent that, "One of the historical tasks of the left in the present period is to help hold the center." He concludes:
In fact, of course, the survival of a vital center is also the precondition of an active left. Never think that “the blood-dimmed tide” is a threat only to immigrants and minorities. It is a threat to all of us: dissidents of every sort, union organizers, left intellectuals, feminists, peaceniks, men and women of conscience, students discovering Marx, teachers who don’t like standardized tests, and journalists who write about the misdeeds of the rich and powerful. We all need constitutional protection; we all need a center that holds. We have to stand in the center and on the left at the same time. That may be complicated, but it is our historical task.
They are right. This isn't the time for timidity.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

In a right state

Brexiteers tend to make a fetish of the nation state as an alternative to the European Union. They see it as the source of popular sovereignty and thus the purest expression of democracy. The remain campaign focused on economic consequences, rather than principles of sovereignty. This has fed a mutual misunderstanding.

The nation state has not always been with us. The ideal of the autonomous, sovereign state stems from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The idea that the source of sovereignty is the will of the people came afterwards, mainly through the American and French Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century. The idea of ethnic nationalism, that the nation is composed of specific peoples, came later still, giving rise to the advocacy of the self-determination of nations from the nineteenth century onwards.

The problem is that nation states have a dual nature. They have successfully built democracies, liberated oppressed peoples, and grown prosperity. However they have also turned long existing populations into ethnic minorities and persecuted them relentlessly. They have harboured expansionist ambitions and launched wars of conquest. They have been grotesquely corrupt tyrannies, and, if R. J. Rummel is correct, nation states have killed 262 million of their own citizens in the twentieth century alone. Yes, 262 million. And we moan about a few regulations about health and safety and agricultural subsidies. Nationalism may have given us Tom Paine, but it has also produced Adolf Hitler. Controlling the nation state has been as much a problem in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as has been promoting national self-determination.

This is where the European Union comes in. The nation state is one of four broad historic models of rule: localism, nationalism, federalism, and imperialism. Localised bodies, such as city-states or autonomous regions, were absorbed into large Empires with centralised authority. This conquest and suppression was resisted with the idea of the sovereign nation state. It became a weapon of liberation. It offered rights and independence to peoples, freeing them from the domination of imperial control, but with it came the need to control the darker aspects of nationhood. One of the answers was federalism.

The term federalism is used in two senses. First, as a system of localised power within larger states, achieved through devolution and limitations on the rights of the central authority, balancing local autonomy with central power. Secondly, it can refer to a voluntary arrangement between states to share sovereignty for specific and limited purposes. The EU is the latter.

When I read advocates of Brexit, I find it hard to pin down their definition of what the EU actually is. Pure nationalists reject federalism as a concept in favour of national sovereignty, but the rhetoric of others confuses federalism with empire. The picture they paint is of Britain reclaiming independence ("taking back control") from an empire into whose grip we have fallen.

There are three ways in which they see the UK as subjected to imperial control.

1. Economics. This is the main argument of the left Brexiteers. The EU is a way of enforcing neo-liberal economics on European nation states. It's a bit of a truism. Of course the economics of the EU are the same as the mainstream everywhere else. There is a consensus after all. It doesn't mean that the consensus can't or won't change and the EU's economic policies with it, despite treaty commitments. For the life of me, I can't conceive of how a social democratic paradise can be achieved by a political settlement outside the Union drawn up by the right wing of the Conservative Party.

2. Bureaucracy. Ah, the faceless bureaucrats of Brussels. Let's escape from their grasp and place ourselves in the hands of our own faceless bureaucrats from Whitehall. This critique confuses administration with representation. Representation is the business of politics. Administration is always in the hands of the unelected. That there are weaknesses in democratic representation is undeniable, so too are there bureaucratic rigidities. It would be impossible to coordinate and harmonise rules over twenty-eight member states without consistency to the point of obduracy. Otherwise everything would be down to the will of the most powerful members. It can make the EU's institutions cumbersome and inflexible, but are their administrative systems any more burdensome than our own?

3. 'Rule by Brussels.' This is the most common way in which the EU is spoken of as an imperial power rather than a voluntary federation. The pooling of sovereignty, conflicting national interests, opposing national democratic mandates, and the differential sizes and strengths of the member states, all cause concerns about a 'democratic deficit.' Executive decisions are taken at a stage removed from elected representatives. The important bit that Brexiteers tend to ignore is our role in the process. We are one of the big three powerful states and key decision makers. If Brussels is an empire, then we are one of the imperialists and not its subjects. Or at least we were. We have given our position away.

I think that the view of the EU as something approaching an alien Empire is hopelessly overblown. There may be a tension over the scale of European integration, but so far the UK preference for a looser model has prevailed. However, if someone who views the EU as a federation debates with someone else who sees it as an empire, there is no possible point of agreement.

Leaving the EU is a nationalist project. Even if it does not see the EU as an empire, it prioritises national sovereignty over the compromises necessary to create federal structures. But what sort of nationalism? The nationalism of Brexit is more prosaic than the anti-EU ambitions of the European far right. The British national narrative is about resisting continental tyranny, not embracing it, but I still have worries.

The European Union was founded as a direct consequence of the second of two catastrophic breakdowns of the European state system in the twentieth century. The balance of power - restraint through deterrence - had failed, as had collective security through the League of Nations. Instead a slowly developing federalism was put in place to bring peace to Europe. It sought to restrain national ambitions by building a union of independent states committed to democracy, joined together through free trade and economic self-interest, and by establishing a continent-wide framework of law and citizens' rights. That is what we are leaving.

Nationalism is a potent force and lies in wait for any failure of legitimacy, yet we can't overestimate the importance of national self-determination as a form of liberation. However nationalists in Scotland and Catalonia for example, can see their self-determination taking place within a broader federation. Leaving the UK or Spain need not mean leaving the European Union. In fact, it makes independence more possible. No, the nationalism that rejects the EU comes from the right. There is a good reason for this. The EU was conceived and developed in order to foil the ambitions of the nationalist right that had nearly destroyed the continent. The far right seeks to weaken the EU precisely for that reason, to remove a formidable obstacle to seizing power.

It seems folly to abandon something so recent, especially given its successes as well as the inevitable failures of human institutions. But doesn't the referendum vote show that the legitimacy of the EU is weak, being rejected by just over half the people who voted? I don't think so. The vote was complicated with sharp regional and class differences, but the consistent divide is between the young and the old. According to NatCen's research, even amongst the working class, where voting leave was strong, young voters split 61% to 39% in favour of remaining. Britain was voted out by a coalition of the elderly poor and the elderly affluent. They had different motives, but shared a folk memory of a better past. They, like me, remember the days before we joined what was then the EEC. The right wing press have assailed all generations with a stream of negativity about the EU, but it seems to have made little difference to younger people. Europe has always been part of their lives. They like the freedom to travel and work that it offers. They are less concerned with immigration and more receptive to change. They wanted to remain.

I can't help thinking that the old voted for a future they will not see against the wishes of the young who will have to live in it. It's a future based on a past the young neither share nor value. Their memories are shorter and the issue of sovereignty is far less pressing to young people who see it as limiting rather than liberating. Time passes, and as it does people die and younger people come of age. By the time we actually do leave the EU the narrow majority of those who voted, already a minority of the whole electorate, will have vanished. It probably has already. Our departure will be arranged by politicians who are opposed to leaving, but who feel bound to a referendum result that would no longer command a majority. Despite the rhetoric about 'the will of the people' our departure will almost certainly be against the wishes of the majority.

The referendum result is merely a quirk of timing. We have an ageing population and it was called as the shocks of the financial crash are still shaking our societies and economies. Calling it for no other reason than managing conflict in the Conservative Party was an act of gross irresponsibility.

We do not know what will happen. Much does depend on how the drama of economic crisis and resurgent populism plays out. My suspicion is that not much in Britain will, other than a long, slow decline. It will be something that we will muddle through. There will be a sharp economic shock in the short term and we will become poorer, but still cling to our illusions of greatness. Our hubris will mask the nemesis of the slow erosion of our power as we linger outside the prosperity of a growing Europe.

Much depends on how we disengage. If the Europe Union collapses in the wake of serial crises, then leaving may be prescient. However, I doubt if that will be the case. It's more likely that the Westphalian state has had its day. The global constraints of trade, markets, and ecology offer little scope for sovereignty outside the power blocks and markets of international organisations. A solitary country has only a weak hand to play. We have changed from being a power broker to being a supplicant.

And in our worship of the nation state, we are trying to live in a past that has gone and celebrating a political institution that has only had mixed results, the worst of which have been murderously dire. Surely given European history, we should be looking for something beyond the nation state to resolve the problems and paradoxes of our continent. However fumbling and clumsy, the European Union was offering just that – the flourishing of nations within the shared strength and guaranteed liberties of a limited federal structure. Who knows if European federalism is the answer? But to abandon the experiment this early in its history seems premature and foolhardy.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Gathering winter fuel

Festive wot nots.

Deep thoughts on the issues of the day coming when I've sobered up.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A tale of two elections

OK, I was on the losing side in both. Obviously, I didn't have a vote in the US presidential election, which was won by the candidate with the fewest votes (other than the two fringe candidates). I did vote in the EU referendum, which was won by the side with the most votes. My view is that both results raise serious questions about democratic processes.

So why should we respect a majority in one case and not the other? Am I just trying to find reasons to wish away results I don't like? I hope not. Let me try and explain.

The most important point is that these votes were utterly dissimilar. One was to choose a president to head the executive branch of government, and the other to take a crucial and irreversible decision about the future of the country, arguably the most important for more than forty years.

In the US, the President is not a representative of a state or region, but the President of the whole country. Yet the Electoral College proceeds on the basis of state representation. This year, 55,000 people in three states delivered victory to the candidate with over two million (and still counting) fewer votes than his rival. If they had voted differently Clinton would have won. I might have met this troubling outcome with a resigned shrug if the winner hadn't been Trump, the most outlandish and unsuitable candidate imaginable. This was a critical election to be decided so bizarrely. The consequences of his election are unknowable, but it doesn't look good at the moment.

(Yes, and I know that if it had been a straight fight based on the popular vote both sides would have campaigned differently, but it is very unlikely that what may turn out to be a majority of two and a half million would have been overturned).

Now to Brexit. Here the majority did win. So what's the problem? Well, in elections for parliaments and presidents you get the opportunity to change your mind. Every four or five years the country gets to re-run the general election. A referendum like Brexit gives you no second chance, which is why the majority has to be secure and represent a broad consensus. If it isn't and minds change, we could see a decision being implemented against a majority of public opinion, despite a majority in favour being the sole justification for that decision. This is the reason why most referendums on irreversible constitutional change, like Brexit, require qualified majorities, rather than a simple one. And the onus should be on those seeking to make the case for change rather than on those wanting to keep the status quo. A 52/48 majority is fragile, and there is evidence that the result may well have been different if it had been run once the full consequences and the high cost of this decision were understood.

The polling has been interesting. A survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation in August, more than a month after the referendum, found that,
56% of British citizens wanted to stay in the EU, compared with 49% when a similar survey was conducted in March.
A more recent poll found that 90% of leave voters wanted to remain in the single market, but without the free movement of labour. This was something that the leave campaign insisted was possible, despite the EU constantly repeating that it was not an option. Once staying in the single market became contingent on accepting free movement, opinion divided 50/50 again. This is not a secure basis to enforce an irreversible decision, especially with a majority of both Houses of Parliament opposed to leaving, but acceding to what they refer to as 'the will of the people'.

Of course, this shows that the very notion of 'the will of the people' is a fiction. There is no such thing as a unified will. In this case there are deep demographic and regional divisions, so we can't point to a nationwide consensus. These two interesting posts suggest that even the original narrow majority no longer exists. There may be elements of wishful thinking in both, but one thing deserves close attention. When I talk about people changing their minds, it isn't just about individuals switching sides having learnt from experience; it is about the churn in voters too. At each election the electorate is different. People move, migrants become citizens, and, obviously, people die and are replaced by new voters coming of age. Surveys suggest that people under 25 voted by a majority of 70% to 30% to remain in the EU. They have lived with membership all their lives, appreciate the freedoms it brings, and are far less concerned with immigration. They are now facing up to living with a policy, which they have overwhelmingly rejected, being imposed on them by an older generation of voters, when it is only the young of today who will experience the full consequences of that decision.

In the years it will take to negotiate Britain's departure, the slender majority for leaving may well have evaporated. We could leave the EU against the wishes of Parliament, all our major allies and trading partners, most businesses, and the EU itself, on the basis of a small popular majority that has since ceased to exist. Yes, we could enact 'the will of the people' just at the moment that 'the people' will the opposite.

The moral of this story is that politics is a serious business with far reaching consequences for people's lives. It is not a tool for advancing the ambitions and prejudices of frivolous ex-journalists and dodgy businessmen. Therefore, it is imperative that the methods of democratic decision-making are fit for purpose. When I look at Trump and Brexit, I can only think, "FAIL."

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Out of proportion

As the remaining votes in the US presidential elections are being counted, it's now becoming clear that although the election was still close Hilary Clinton's 'win' was more substantial than first thought. With millions more votes to be counted, it looks like she will end up with something like a million and a half more votes than Trump, perhaps even two million. It's troubling that this should have resulted in a Trump presidency. I want to raise three points.

The first is trivial, the popular vote shows that the polls were not that far off. The result falls within their margin of error.  Most were predicting a 3-4% Clinton lead. She will end up with a lead of between 1-2%. All polls are issued with a margin of error, usually around plus or minus 3% for voting intention. Unfortunately, the headline figure is generally reported as gospel and the error margins ignored. There seems to be a common pattern in polls though, they overestimate support for the left. It's an overestimation that pollsters are trying to adjust their findings to correct, but it still seems to persist. YouGov's initial response is here.

Secondly, this highlights the problem with first-past-the-post, winner takes all, constituency systems. Elections are decided by swing voters in marginal constituencies alone. They are the only votes that count. Get those voters and you win regardless of how poorly you do elsewhere. Swing voters may be small in number, but they hold disproportionate power at election time. They, and they alone, determine the result, and so politics becomes a contest as to who is the most attractive to that small group. Trump won key states with tiny majorities and gained all their votes in the electoral college as they are not cast in proportion to the popular vote. This is what can produce a distortion.

The final point is the most challenging to mainstream parties, we now have a new category of swing voter. In the past, it was assumed that the swing voter was predominantly middle class and 'moderate'. To win their support you had to be control the 'centre ground'. That was the basis of New Labour's strategy. We are now seeing something else. There is a second group with a strong strategic position. The continuing count is showing that the turnout did not drop significantly and so is not responsible for the Democrats' defeat as I suggested in my previous post. I was wrong. Instead, it was Democrat voters switching directly to Trump that won it. Significant pockets of small-town and working-class America voted for Trump, and put him in the White House. There are now two groups of swing voters, but their demands are contradictory.

I don't think the reason for this can be wholly attributed to economics, more on that in a subsequent post, but political economy did play a role in detaching formerly loyal voters from the parties of the centre-left. Prosperity has not been evenly shared, working conditions can be crap, people work hard and still struggle. They feel that they deserve better and are not respected. And they're right. That leads to two things, cynicism about the political process and a resentment of others, who they see as either getting more from government than them and being favoured at their expense. This is not to the advantage of the left today, it is opening the door to right wing populism and therein lies considerable dangers.

The policies that were designed to appeal to middle class floating voters helped create the conditions that detached the working class ones from their automatic party loyalty. It was assumed that they would stay loyal because they had 'nowhere to go'. They did of course, they stayed at home. Turnout dropped. The left hoped that a core vote strategy could win them back. It failed. Social conservatives are also repelled by preachy liberalism. The left, of course, could not and should not abandon its commitment to rights and liberties that have been hard won. They are caught in a trap. Trump offered economic interventionism and cultural conservatism. He posed as being on their side against the government and those they saw as their rivals. That was his appeal.

This isn't new at all. It is what Eric Hobsbawm was writing about in the late 1970s in "The Forward March of Labour Halted?" His argument was not that the working class was disappearing, as embourgeoisement theorists suggested, but was becoming fragmented. And this fragmentation was graphically displayed in America with the division of the working class vote on urban, rural, and ethnic lines. A system that cannot accommodate that fragmentation is not fit for purpose. On the constitutional level we need to think seriously about the quality of our systems of representation, of proper liberal safeguards and democratic processes. Crude majoritarianism is not democracy, but then neither is an election that allows a minority to gain victory on the basis of a tiny majority in a small number of places. Politics is realigning. Current American and British electoral systems cannot cope with that realignment. The time for sophistries in support of the status quo is over. We must reform. Trump's election shows that the risks of not doing so are now too high.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


I haven't blogged for a bit. It's been a difficult time and I have been preoccupied. Ideas have been swirling round my head though not making it to the screen, but Trump - something as horrendously bizarre as Trump - how could I not add to the noise?

I don't really like instant judgement, which is why I am attempting some, and I have read a lot of commentary since the American election. Most of it is saying that 'Trump's election shows I have been right about everything all along.' You have the standard tropes about the white working class. Either they are uneducated, stupid hicks, or they are racists, or they are the left behind victims of the system, protesting about their poverty. Either the media is to blame for indoctrinating them or the liberal intelligentsia is at fault for ignoring them. Not many bothered to look at Trump's middle class support. Then there is the internet and Facebook taking a kicking. And, of course, there are tales of a right wing populist surge. Others pick on the weakness of Clinton as a candidate and sigh, 'if only …' There are elements of truth in all of them, but few are looking at the complete picture. Let's look at some facts that tend to be overlooked.

The first thing, though this is now getting a lot of attention, is that Clinton won. She won very narrowly, but none the less got more votes than Trump. She lost in the Electoral College because her votes were in the wrong place. It's crazy. Any presidential electoral system based on a simple plurality would have given her victory. She had just about held off the challenge. She may also have been hit by the loss of votes to the Greens and Libertarian Party in very close run states, though we have no idea how those votes would have been cast if there had been no other candidates. Trump lost, but still won. It's another example about how we cling to institutions created for a different era because they appear to work approximately or conveniently. As I have argued before about the design of the Brexit referendum and proportional representation, we need to reconsider the appropriateness of our democratic systems for a modern mass society.

Second, Trump had an automatic advantage. Not because he was a crazed racist bully, but because he was a celebrity. He was familiar to millions. His TV image was that of a ruthless, successful businessman. The apolitical already admired him. They had watched him hosting The Apprentice on TV for years. They knew him. Many of his supporters did not vote for the demagogue, they voted for the businessman from the telly. Those in the know about his methods thought he was a crook, but not the average punter. Clinton was a mystery to them. Bill Clinton's presidency ended sixteen years ago.

Third, despite that advantage, he only performed moderately. He polled fewer votes than either McCain or Romney when Obama roundly beat them. There was no vast populist surge. He lost votes rather than won them. But the support he did pick up was in the right places for the Electoral College. He had the good fortune that the Democrats' vote dropped further than the Republicans. Democrat voters didn't turn out. If Democrat numbers had held up, he was toast. For whatever reason, Clinton did not inspire.

Fourth, this was not wholly a working class insurgency. Though there was strong white working class support, it could not have won on its own. His support was an electoral coalition between the poor and the affluent. Neither could have won without the other. What appears to have held that alliance together was cultural conservatism rather than economics, and, just like Brexit, it was the older generation that formed the bedrock of Trump's vote. The black and Hispanic working class were firm in their support for Clinton. The ethnic divide was critical.

Finally, it didn't come out of the blue. There were authoritarian and culturally conservative movements that had prepared the ground. Conservative Christian fundamentalists and The Tea Party had led the way. Fox news and shock jocks on the radio had built an audience by preaching anti-elitism from their own elite pulpit. More importantly, the Republican Party had deliberately targeted blue-collar workers since the Reagan era. This had been years in the making - it had been a conscious effort. It was never intended to pave the way for a Trump presidency, but he was a perfect fit for the paranoid and reactionary political style that had been mainstreamed by this movement. Once the campaign was underway, his team devised a highly professional operation that completely understood the uses and abuses of communications technology. Liberals had hardly challenged this movement. They didn't take it seriously, and preferred to mock it and talk amongst themselves.

I am reading lots of angry stuff about the Democrats. 'Why didn't they choose a better candidate?' 'They should have done this rather than that?' 'Why didn't they do what I have been saying all along, even if I didn't say it then?' They rarely say just who is this mythical beast that would have inspired the masses. Some of this is relevant, but as a whole it misses the mark. The real anger should be directed at the Republican Party that adopted and adapted to a candidate absolutely unsuitable for any public office, let alone the presidency. Individual Republicans did distinguish themselves by refusing to support Trump, but the rest either persuaded themselves that he would be OK or were crazy enough to join in the hatefest. The Republicans not only let down their country, but those of us in the rest of the world who depended on the result. They allowed a candidate to go forward who was the reflection of the wildest fantasies of their most extreme membership. They were grossly irresponsible.

At this point, it is easy to cue the Hitler analogies. There are plenty around. There always are. But Trump is not Hitler. I think we should consider historical parallels, but this is one of the rare times I agree with Niall Ferguson. In a very good article he looks back to the populism of the 1880s in the wake of a previous economic crisis. 1873, not 1929, is his model.

This is not the sanest moment in American history, but not all of the USA has gone mad. What it is though is extremely dangerous. The racism, the demagoguery, the authoritarianism, and the Putin-friendly isolationism don't bode well. And if this particular evil does turn out to be banal, the huge conflicts of interests over his businesses promise a presidency devoted to self-enrichment at the expense of the people who foolishly hoped for something different. And before we get too hung up about Americans, our European crazies are on the march too. I am very anxious about the French presidential elections.

The presidency is passing into the hands of an inexpert, sociopathic narcissist. He has issued wild promises and don't kid yourself that he won't try and deliver on them. The big problem is that they will not work. Niall Ferguson again:
Indeed, populists are under a special compulsion to enact what they pledge in the campaign trail, for their followers are fickle to begin with. In the case of Trump, most have already defected from the Republican Party establishment. If he fails to deliver, they can defect from him, too. 
Of course, populists are bound eventually to disappoint their supporters. For populism is a toxic brew as well as an intoxicating one. Populists nearly always make life miserable for whichever minorities they chose to scapegoat, but they seldom make life much better for the people whose ire they whip up. 
Whatever the demagogues may promise—and they always promise “jam today”—populism tends to have significantly more economic costs than benefits. 
And what will happen in the wake of that failure? Who knows? But it certainly makes Britain's own act of isolation look even more foolhardy.