Thursday, 29 September 2016

What I've Been Reading Recently

The quarterly round-up of books I've piled through since, well, the last quarter.

The Quantified Self by Deborah Lupton
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Particularly Cats by Doris Lessing
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco
Our Biometric Future by Kelly A. Gates
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Science of Science and Reflexivity by Pierre Bourdieu
I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume
Social Theory, The State, and Modern Society by Michael Marinetto
The Boat by Nam Le
Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner
My First Seven Years (Plus a Few More) by Dario Fo
Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
The State: A Warning to the Labour Movement by Peter Taaffe, Ted Grant, and Lynn Walsh
Bureaucratism or Workers' Power by Roger Silverman and Ted Grant
The Marxist Theory of the State by Ted Grant
Marxism on Trial by Militant
The New Way of the World: On Neo-Liberal Society by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval
A Passage to India by EM Forster
The Future of Socialism by Anthony Crosland
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Trial by Franz Kafka
Swastika Night by Murray Constantine

Not as many as previous thanks to some hefty works on that list. So thought I'd cheat and throw in a few old Militant pamphlets too.

What have you been reading?

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Jeremy Corbyn's Prime Ministerial Speech

Interviewed in the wake of this year's Labour leadership contest, Progress director Richard Angell conceded that not only were they out-organised, they had lost the battle of ideas because, well, they didn't got any. Witness poor Owen Smith, who offered only Corbynism minus Corbyn but with nuclear weapons and immigration controls, and last year's candidates whose managerial, vision-free politics fell flat. To underline the vacuity Richard spoke of, Jeremy Corbyn's conference speech today was, to borrow a phrase, ram-packed with them.

Old favourites were dusted off - the national/lifelong education service, an end to punitive DWP sanctions, restoration of rights at work, the national investment bank, the return of the migrant impact fund, and house building. And newbies shown off too. Allowing councils to borrow against the value of their housing stock, restrictions on private rents, support for small businesses, greater access to the arts, all are entirely welcome. It was also good to see Jeremy spell out Labour's opposition to a hard Brexit and the party's commitment to a Lexit politics - if the Tories are determined to make working people bear the cost, or they come to an arrangement with the EU by which the sorts of interventionist policies our economy needs are disallowed, we will oppose. More important for the future health of our politics, I was pleased to see Jeremy not shy away from immigration. Given Rachel Reeves's disgraceful and cynical speech yesterday, the real "tough decision" is not to ape UKIP and decades worth of tabloid lies, but stand up to them. He made it absolutely clear this means concentrating on economics, housing, on unscrupulous employers and deregulated labour markets, not capitulating to scapegoating and hate. Good.

There was something quite unusual about the speech. Perhaps it's the darker suit, but whatever. Jez was a man transformed. Jeremy came over as articulate, polished, and convincing. He avoided lefty jargonbabble while setting out the stall, sounded passionate and firm in his belief in what he was saying was right (a sincerity, alas, that always evaded his predecessor), and was as assured as he was galvanising. Readers know I don't do uncritical cheerleading, but this was Corbyn at his best. A man with the vision of the good life, with a coherent policy agenda, and a confidence in his leadership and our movement's capability to deliver it. Jeremy has had more stick than any other mainstream politician, but today's performance gives hope that it can be turned around. We had a glimpse of something we never expected to see from Jeremy Corbyn, that rarefied and seldom spotted commodity: prime ministerialism.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

A Note on the NEC Vote

A quick note on the conference vote that gave extra seats on Labour's NEC to representatives from Scotland and Wales. Very quickly Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale revealed her appointed rep was ... herself. Don't be too surprised if Carwyn Jones takes up "his" seat too.

There are plenty of delegates and Labour watchers who've decried this as a stitch up by the outgoing committee. You'll remember that NEC, the one who, by banning party meetings over the summer, gave credence to the meme that Labour is a thuggish bear pit. This is also the very same NEC who altered conference eligibility criteria for CLP delegates to ensure newer members were crowded out by older, more "reliable" folks. Lo! When this package of rules came before conference a "sensible" result was arrived at. And what does this amount to in practice? It ensures the already underrepresented majority for Corbynism in the party on the NEC is now eclipsed, assuming that Carwyn and Our Kez set their faces against party reform proposals coming from this direction.

The beginning of the end for Corbynism then? No. Well, not necessarily. A check, certainly. The elections to the Conference Arrangements Committee now assume greater importance, and a win for the left here mean blocking actions from the NEC can be circumvented eventually as more Corbynist motions from CLPs get through gate-keeping. And the Welsh and Scottish leaders cannot be seen to act in overly partisan ways lest their positions be threatened. In the mean time, however, it only adds more fuel to the democracy fire. As we live in a liberal democracy in which majorities theoretically have the right to be majorities (don't get me started on the iniquities of first-past-the-post), to have the NEC conniving to fall short of its tepid standards doesn't contribute to the unity folks have been pleading in recent days.

Therefore in the spirit of peace and reconciliation, I have a proposal of my own to make. As we are all agreed democracy is a good thing, and we want to harness the collective power of our membership, it is only sensible that members' representation be increased on the party's governing body via the seats reserved for CLPs. Six seats sufficed when the party was knocking around the 200,000 member mark, but now we've almost tripled in size the composition of the NEC should reflect the new situation. Therefore, for every 50,000 above 200,000 full members, the party should add a NEC seat. That would not only ensure more proportional representation of our party's lifeblood, but increases the likelihood all shades of members' opinions are heard on the leading body. That way all groups in the party have a vested interest both in expanding the selectorate, ensuring the party connects with our constituencies and communities, and taking democratic discussion over stitching more seriously.

How about it?

Monday, 26 September 2016

Work and the Second Machine Age

Albert Dock has seen a bit in its time. A centre piece of the industrial revolution, the goods of trade and the spoils of empire were offloaded, stored, and transported from here to all over the country. Long after the dockers had gone, it symbolised the sort of go-getting regeneration Thatcher and friends pined for in the 1980s - at the same time Liverpool was making headlines for the city's defiance of the government and all its works. Showcased by Richard and Judy, and the weatherman we can't really talk about anymore, Albert Docks was now a place for media companies, cafes, entrepreneurialism, and reinvention. Apt that it should play host to a joint TUC/Fabian fringe on the future of work. Titled 'A second machine age or business as usual?', Jim Waterson of Buzzfeed presided over a discussion with TUC Genereal Secretary Frances O'Grady and Yvette Cooper. Readers may recall that rather late in the day, Yvette tried seizing the white heat of technology mantle from, well, no one to distinguish her 2015 leadership campaign. It's something she has variously associated herself with since.

In her opening remarks, she suggested that the new wave of automation is here and, for a movement with work at its core, presents us a series of difficult challenges. Part of this is understanding the intertwining of opportunities and threat, of understanding that new, exciting businesses can dissolve existing power structures and offer the potential of greater autonomy for workers, such as self-determination of work hours and control over work/life balance. The positives, however, cannot be fully harnessed if we ignore the fact networked workers face new forms of exploitation, a fragmentation of solidarity, and new levels of precarity - Yvette cited a report that stated up to 15 million jobs could be at risk, concentrated primarily in white collar occupations. With a two-tier workforce pretty much a reality already (and the subject of much forecasting in the 80s), the policy and organising challenge is looking at new laws, the use of investment, and thinking about what constitutes new, fulfilling jobs (and how to encourage their creation).

Frances noted that our discussion about change is nothing new. In the 1930s there was talk about leisure-based societies in which the fruits of technology are shared out. The 80s saw a different kind of industrial change driven by political calculation, and one in which our communities were left to rot. What's worrying now is not just the pace of change, which seems to be intensifying, but how they're multiplying exploitation and unjust working practices. The new business models are all too often about increased surveillance at work, zero hours, and making workers slaves to their apps. This is just not sustainable. From the standpoint of social security, how can people access support when their incomes are so unpredictable? And what happens when workers can neither pay into a pension, nor acquire a property that could later be sold to provide care in their old age?

Asked whether demand would be enough to create new jobs and this is an ado about little, for Yvette the problem is the pace of change is so fast that workers cannot acquire skills fast enough. And where is the opportunity for them to do so? We've also seen that left to its own devices, the market prefers to churn out lower paid, insecure jobs in greater numbers. However, where there is one area of work that will appear resistant to automation for some time is care - it is massively undervalued and needs to undergo a huge expansion. On the perennial question of training, Frances notes that we already have an over-trained, over-educated workforce. If there was an industrial strategy in place, the kinds of mismatches whereby graduates are undertaking unskilled work because there's nothing else on offer can be overcome.

Other unintended consequences of the new economy is the concentration of these kinds of businesses in cities, not towns, even though they could be done anywhere. As such towns are getting left behind, and this was one of the feeders into the Brexit vote. Another consequence is the combination of old school with new organising techniques. Citing the example of North Sea divers, who recently won a hefty pay hike from the employer, this variegated and otherwise atomised group of workers networked and discussed matters through Facebook. Likewise, social media was and is a useful adjunct to organising in Sports Direct.

There followed a number of questions about education at school, the nationalisation of robots, industrial democracy, care, and our old friend the basic income. For Frances, the robots question forces us to focus on where the state should intervene and where it shouldn't: if infrastructure is essential, be it digital or automotive, then isn't there a case? On industrial democracy, having elected workers on boards would only bring Britain into the mainstream of European policy, and it has a proven track record of ensuring businesses make more rounded investment decisions that tend to benefit the company as a whole. On the basic income, for Frances it's pretty clear the jury is out. While passed at the latest TUC congress, it was with the proviso of undertaking a detailed consideration of what it would mean. Yvette was more dismissive. Acknowledging the problems raised by the sceptical questioner (she noted how it wouldn't address unpaid domestic labour, which still falls heavier on women, nor how the poorer would lose out), she didn't think it would be helpful for the party of work "to give up on work". i.e. Because there won't be enough jobs to go around doesn't mean Labour should give up and opt for what amounts to a welfare solution instead. As far as I'm concerned, while there are difficulties attached and more work has to be done about the level it should be set at, affordability, impacts on existing social security recipients and so on, I don't think leaving millions at the tender mercies of the DWP and capricious employers is much of a starter.

Overall, a very interesting discussion. It seemed to me Frances showed greater awareness and radicalism than our future-facing Yvette, perhaps because her bread and butter is organising and attending to the concerns of working people. For Yvette, unfortunately, while absolutely right on care and the creative destruction wrought by the new technologies, her unthought dismissal of the basic income shows she's not just strait-jacketed by the old politics, she's grown snug and comfortable in it.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

On Shadow Cabinet Elections

No sooner had Jeremy Corbyn's leadership been confirmed by a vote decisively larger than last year, sundry MPs have taken to the airwaves and television studios calling for elections to the shadow cabinet. Longer-term members and politics watchers will recall this has been a staple of the Parliamentary Labour Party for decades, until it was abolished by Ed Miliband five years ago. The elections saw honourable members put themselves forward not for particular positions, but rather as a potential pool from which the leader appointed successful candidates. For argument's sake, suppose Angela Eagle put herself forward and was voted in by her peers, Jeremy could appoint her to any portfolio he sees fit. Though politics being politics, a wise leader with a view to party management would sift through the nominated to ensure those with the biggest following/support/standing get the juiciest roles. Competence, sadly, is not always the primary consideration.

Given these elections were abolished by a PLP vote in 2011, why do a large number of MPs want them back? As with all things, there are the good reasons, and there are the real reasons. From the PLP rebel standpoint, a great many of whom are unreconciled and irreconcilable to Jeremy, on the face of it elections to the shadow cabinet are one way of healing the rift between themselves and the leader's office. Quite how this makes it easier for them to come back isn't explained, it's not like they've found the confidence they lost in June. After all, the leader is still the same man he was before summer, except now strengthened and, dare I say it, a wee bit more polished and battle hardened. Nor have they explained why the party benefits from this process. We've had our Chukas, Tristrams, and Heidis talking about the need to face outward in unity and that these elections make this possible, but they haven't said how yet another period of internally focused campaigning and the pushing out of present shadow cabinet members creates the sorts of good party vibes we need to take on the Tories.

It's also unavoidable to view this call without a factional hat on. Whether these elections are a good in and of themselves is something the party can't decide on. Some local council Labour groups have them for shadow and incumbent administrations, some don't. It varies from locality to locality. Likewise, the old system saw us hold elections for the shadow cabinet, but these are deemed no longer necessary when the party is in power. Why? I suppose you could argue that having the party's permission to for a cabinet doesn't look good when you're trying to stamp your authority as a prime minister. But it that's true then, surely it's true for the potential PM role that comes with being the Leader of the Opposition.

The second point is far from engendering trust, shadow cabinet elections in this context could be a means of disciplining the leader. For one, as already stated, many of the incumbents are unlikely to get in. John McDonnell has had himself crossed off many MPs Christmas card lists, so he stands as much chance of getting into the shadow cabinet as I do. All of those Corbynist MPs friendly to the leader could also lose out. Jez could still appoint some, but only with attending as opposed to voting rights. That this would spark off another round of ill-feeling and hostility from an antipathetic membership isn't a calculation that appears to have been made. Second, it gives successful members a legitimacy that doesn't depend on the leader's grace and favour. Rebel MPs have grown quite attached to their (non-existent) personal mandates of late, so you can imagine some using that to misbehave, flouting collective responsibility, and otherwise stirring up trouble because they have an independent base of power. On top of that, with a rebel shadcab majority Jez would be hard pressed to get his policy positions through: we talk about a wide unanimity on domestic policy, for instance, but there are still MPs even now wedded to market fundamentalism, which is a politics fundamentally at odds to our party and movement. And lastly, there's NEC shenanigans to consider. The occupation of the seats reserved for shadow cabinet by MPs opposed to democratising the party rubs out the majority the party majority presently has. This would permanently put the reform agenda into stasis until the logjam in the rest of the party works itself out.

In short, the call for shadow cabinet elections now means, in practice, a perpetuation of the open warfare and an undermining of the leader's power. It's about asserting the primacy of the minority over the majority, just as that has been emphatically defeated in the needless, unnecessary leadership contest just gone. If Jeremy wants to carry on unimpeded, then this suggestion should be rejected.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Saturday Interview: Ravi Subramanian

Ravi Subramanian is a Labour activist and full-timer for Unison in the Midlands. Splitting his time between Nottingham and Birmingham, Ravi blogs at More Known than Proven, where he uses data to fact check and challenge some of the more egregious idiocies touted by leading politicians and commentators. Ravi also composes sentences of 140 characters or fewer at @RaviSubbie.

Are there any blogs or other politics/comments websites you regularly follow?

I follow dozens of blogs on my Feedly RRS feed reader, so I’ll stick to a few key ones.

First, your blog is a must read for me and I always recommend it to others because you understand the labour movement at a deep level and I find your insight helpful. I always find your blog worth reading, even on those rare occasions I don’t agree with you.

My other must read is Chris Dillow’s blog Stumbling and Mumbling. It is superb. He writes about economics with a clarity seldom found. I’ve learned a lot from his blog, particularly around cognitive biases and behavioural economics. He is thought provoking and engaging. Thoroughly recommended.

Political Betting is another must read. Everything you need to know about opinion polls is here. What I really like about this blog is that is it is written by, and for, people who bet serious sums of money on politics. Consequently, there is a real attempt to deliver an objective analysis, because although the writers have political allegiances, their primary motivation is making money. Serious gamblers are generally good at objective analysis. Their take on opinion polls is particularly good.

Finally, although I read lots of other left wing blogs like Left Foot Forward, Union News, Labour Uncut etc. Another of my must reads is The Spectator magazine’s Coffee House blog as it gives a good insight into mainstream right wing opinion. I’m firmly on the left but I like to know what the key ideas are on the right and to my test arguments against them. Also, Isabel Hardman who edits the blog writes about Westminster perceptively and in an even handed way. The only real downside to the Coffee House blog are the posts from the Pound Shop Jeremy Clarkson that is Rod Liddle.

Are you reading anything at the moment?

How Not to be Wrong: the Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg. A book that describes, with great clarity, the power and utility of mathematical thinking in everyday life, including in politics. There are hardly any equations in it as Ellenberg focuses on the concepts and the process of critical mathematical thinking. Thoroughly recommended for all types of reader, including those who don’t get or like maths. Read the book and you will probably change your mind about maths.

Do you have a favourite novel?

Kelly and Victor by Niall Griffiths is a love story for the rave generation written in the Scouse vernacular. Like all Griffith’s work it is dark side but it is beautifully written and poetic in places.

Are there any works of non-fiction that has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

Seize the Time: Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton by Bobby Seale. My mate bought me this when I was in my early 20s and it had a big effect on me. I love the soul and funk music of the 60s and 70s and this book explained the story of the civil rights movement in a way that both illuminated the music and illuminated my political thinking.

A stand out part was “We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with Black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.”

The leadership of the Black Panthers were clear that “a poor black man has more in common with a poor white man than they have with a rich black man.”

More recently, reading Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein made my jaw drop. Of course I know that big corporations rapaciously take advantage of disasters. However, reading her book that forensically dissected the way global corporations exploit national crises really hit home in a way other books have not. I think her analogy with psychiatric electro-shock therapy is a little overplayed but she argues her well-researched case intelligently.

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

I trained and worked as an engineer before becoming a union official so my intellectual influences are less political and more scientific as I’m passionate about evidence based politics and decisions.

Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman had an approach to science is one that has influenced me. He said many wise and interesting things. One of my favourite quotes is “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” He was talking about the practice of scientific enquiry but it applies equally to politics.

Over recent years I’ve become fascinated the study of rationality and cognitive biases. It’s clear to me anyone interested in politics needs to have an understanding of these biases as they shape how people see the world. Daniel Kahnamn’s work on cognitive biases had a profound impact on my own analysis of politics.

For example, understanding false consciousness as being derived from a serious of cognitive biases gives a greater insight into what it is, and how it might be combated. Also if you understand and accept confirmation bias as existing, you might manage to heed Feynman’s advice and not fool yourself!

And has there ever been an event/moment that has exercised a similar influence?

In my early 20s I was very involved in the anti Poll Tax movement. It definitely shaped my worldview and I saw what could be achieved when communities worked together.

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Currently I’m a member of my union UNISON and the Labour Party. In the past I’ve been a member of the Co-Op Party, Compass and The Fabians but I’ve come to the conclusion I feel more comfortable just being a member of the Labour Party with no side distractions such as Momentum, The Fabians, Compass etc.

Is there anything you particularly enjoy about political activity?

Meeting people and hearing what they have to say. The camaraderie that comes with the short campaign before a general election is great. I also enjoy talking to other political activists - there is always something new to learn, for example about history, or a political issue. Being a numbers junkie I do like to look at election and polling data and see what I can uncover.

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

Tories. I used to have a very simplistic, visceral hatred of all Tories. But my time as a union official meant dealing with Tory councillors in their role as employers and I found some to be decent people who cared about the staff at their council. I’ve sometimes had more constructive relationships with some Tory councillors than I have had with some pretty awful Labour councillors. Of course I still think Tories are wrong but characterising them all as bad people with ill intent is plain wrong.

Also proportional representation is another thing I’ve (nearly) changed my mind on. I used to be passionately against it. Whilst I’m not yet definitely for PR, my opposition has massively softened and I feel like on a journey to becoming an advocate for it.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

In wider society the urgent need to fight inequality and redesign our economic system so that social utility is at the heart of the economy.

For the left we need to learn to be honest with ourselves and not just retreat into the warm confirmation bias filled comfort zone of only talking to people who agree with us. We need to find a different way of persuading people. If all we need to do to persuade people is to give them a self-righteous lecture, then we would have fixed things a long time ago. The left, myself included, are great at giving self-righteous lectures but the evidence is that it does not work.

The left needs to learn how to listen to those who do not agree with us and find the right questions to help people change their views themselves. I’ve been exploring how the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy technique of Socratic Questioning could be adapted for doorstep campaigning.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Bigotry in all its forms. The fact that people are judged, discriminated against and attacked because of a physical/biological characteristic, their religion or who they chose to love appalls me. As human beings we should be above this. Aside from the obvious immorality of bigotry, it needs to be tackled because it provides a convenient distraction to the much bigger, systemic economic issues.

Do you have any political heroes?

It sounds cheesy but for me the real heroes are the women and men in workplaces and communities who stand up for what they think is right. Politics is not only done in Westminster and the Town Hall. It’s done in the workplace, on the doorstep, in our front rooms and in the pub. And, it is not always done by politicians.

A politician who stands out is Barbara Castle. She had an incredibly tough time fighting the male labour movement establishment to get equal pay laws enacted. What is saddening that despite this major leap forward the gender pay gap still stubbornly persists over 40 years later.

How about political villains?

Farage. Why? Look at the increase in racist and xenophobic attacks over the past few months. Farage created the conditions for this to happen.

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

For the left it has to be organising. The surge in membership in the party under Jeremy’s leadership is impressive and to be welcomed. But despite lots of noises about movement building I’ve seen little evidence. Too many on the left confuse mobilising (for rallies) with organising (in communities). Jeremy’s recent proposals for an Organising Academy are to be welcomed but very long overdue. I’m hoping that his aspirations are met because if they are then it’s definitely “game on” for the 2020 general election.

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Housing is such a fundamental issue and it needs to be addressed in a transformative way that will be hard to be undone by future governments. I’d like to see a massive social housing building programme with the abolition of the Right to Buy. To stop such a social housing programme being undone by future governments, I’d want to see blocks of social housing to be transferred to housing co-ops owned and run by the tenants. That way tenants can control rents, improvement programmes and who gets access to vacant houses; and the co-op ownership structure protects the status as social housing.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

More immediately it has to be a Trump presidency. His childlike lack of self-control when he feels insulted or slighted is dangerous given he would be Commander-in-Chief of a massive army. It is truly frightening to think about.

Longer term it has to be dealing with the inevitable massive migration that will happen as a result of climate change. There will be huge population shifts and wars as resources are hit by the changing climate. Every government has to be ready to respond in an effective and humanitarian way.

What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Two things. First, value your education and always keep learning.

Second, be prepared to change your mind on things. A quote from the philosopher WOV Quine has always stuck with me: “To believe something is to believe that it is true; therefore a reasonable person believes each of his beliefs to be true; yet experience has taught him to expect that some of his beliefs, he knows not which, will turn out to be false. A reasonable person believes, in short, that each of his beliefs is true and that some of them are false.” We almost certainly all hold some false beliefs so we all need to be prepared to be wrong.

What is your favourite song?

Ain’t no Sunshine by Isaac Hayes live at Wattstax. Without doubt the best ever recorded version of this song by anyone. Every time I’ve played to someone they have always gone “wow.”

Do you have a favourite video game?

I don’t really play video games much now. But one that did take up a large part of my life a few years ago was Football Manager. Utterly addictive. “Just one more game …” I’d say to myself and find myself still playing hours later.

And what was the last film you saw?

I cannot remember. Which tells you that I haven’t seen any films for a while. Which is sad. So, thank you for this question it has motivate me to make sure I watch some films soon.

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?

I’m going to cheat and have two. First, a capacity for self-reflection that allows them to consider their impact on others. Second, empathy.

What fault in others do you most dislike?

A lack of integrity. I accept that we are all humans and we sometimes fall short of acting with integrity at all times. But most people do try. What I cannot abide are those who are so self-serving that they don’t give acting with integrity a second thought.

And any pet peeves?

The misunderstanding and wilful misuse of numbers, especially from those who should know better. Numbers have the power to illuminate the world around us in a way that words cannot. But the wilful misuse of numbers is a dishonest distortion of reality.

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

There are so many important things my younger self got wrong I really don’t know where to start. I could write a couple of books. Perhaps the best advice I’d give to me teenage self would be “your education is massively important – don’t waste it.” My dad said this to me all the time and I ignored him, so I doubt my younger self would listen to my own advice, as even for a teenager I was unbearably stubborn. I did not make the most of my educational opportunities in my teens and had to study part-time in my 20s to catch up.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Number one pleasure is spending time with my two grandsons who are five and two. Being a grandparent is the best job in the world and you don’t really get it until you become one. Weird as it sounds I like finding data that can be used politically and then analysing it. It helps me stretch my Excel skills and forces me to think about the numbers. I’m trying to learn the stats programme R just for the intellectual challenge.

I used to do a lot of DJing but haven’t done so for a few years. Though I think in the next few weeks I may be dusting off the headphones and record box to play at my mate’s newly acquired pub in Nottingham.

What is your most treasured possession?

I treasure my grandsons more that words can describe, though strictly speaking they are, of course, not possessions. As for inanimate objects that’s a hard question as aside from photos, I’m not really sentimental about inanimate objects. Though I do have a 1970s Admiral England tracksuit top that I am fond of.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I can scoff a packet of biscuits or tub or ice cream in one sitting.

What talent would you most like to have?

I have a 3,000+ vinyl collection and spent 20-odd years DJing so music has been a big part of my life. But I can’t sing, dance or play an instrument. So I’d like to be able to do all three.

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true, what would you wish for?

A Labour government would do. I’ll leave it to your readers to decide if that is realistic wish or not.

And if you were to suddenly win or inherit an enormously large sum of money, would it change you and how would you spend it?

This is very hard. The most important thing for me is for my grandsons and other family members to be secure in their future but I am not a big fan of unearned income so I would think carefully about how I would spread the money about.

Would it change me? I think it would be inevitable it could change me so I’d want to use it in a way that would minimise any negative impact. I think I’d want to use the money to fund some political project or activity. It would allow me to continue with political activity and it would keep me grounded.

If you could go for a drink with three people, past or present, who would they be?

Barbara Castle to hear her story of battling for Equal Pay. Richard Feynman as he is a fascinating character and could explain given me a deeper understanding of physics. Huey P Newton to hear first hand about the Civil Rights movement.

And lastly ... Why are you Labour?

My primary political identity is as a trade unionist. Being a member of the Labour Party is a natural extension of being a trade unionist.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Now What for the Labour Establishment?

Unless the entirely unexpected happens - not a first for 2016 - Jeremy Corbyn is set to be reconfirmed as Labour leader tomorrow morning. As that announcement is made, a section of the party will plunge into abject despair. Some shall leave (though I hope most stay), and others must have a serious think about what they do in the party now. Just like the left has done for the majority of Labour's history, in fact. For the most visible wing of our party's establishment Jez-sceptics, the Parliamentary Labour Party, this casting about for purpose and direction is set to play out publicly. In fact, the truth is on this issue the PLP are very divided. Uniting them was an alliance of convenience. Jeremy achieved unity, alright: he firmed it up among his opponents. But as the reality of the leader's win sinks in and his position strengthened, that glue forged in a common opposition could come unstuck. Indeed, following a week of rumour and petulant declarations, the PLP's differences over "managing" Jeremy are likely to come to the fore, and it won't be long until they rub up against each other in tension.

You can discern four tendencies among our Westminster cohort and these have more or less been around since the beginning of Jez's time in office. The main difference between then and now is the reality of the new (with a small n) Labour Party weighs heavy on their thinking. The first of these factions are typified by those Dan Jarvis rumours, that former shadcab members who earlier resigned on the hour, every hour back in June are coming back to serve for the good of the party. That some are willing to put aside very serious reservations and criticism to ensure we have a functioning front bench is welcome, even if one or two might be doing so with an eye to the leader's job themselves.

The second and third groups differ in that they're not reconciled to the new reality (which, to be truthful, is the same as the old new reality), but share a certain quietude. The more obviously defeated and despairing of the two feel like the stuffing's got knocked out of them. Everything is hopeless, there's very little point, so one might as well focus on survival. Local politics, the love-bombing-the-CLP thing, and clearing up dog shit has never looked so important. Heads down at Westminster but heads up in one's patch, the invisibility in one is in proportion to the visibility in the other. Give it a couple of years and a few local campaigns for local people later, and perhaps the selectorate shall forget previous things said and done.

It's the other group Jeremy and friends must pay some attention to. This is the section of the party establishment in it for the long haul. Set to be weakened by a slew of members resigning in a fit of pique, their game is to build up a head of steam around a set of policies and values they believe pass the "electability" test. It will be critical but a touch more constructive than the recent nonsense, using debate rather than chicanery, and recruitment over stitch up, or, to be more accurate, be seen to be doing things this way. In short, for them it is a long march through the institutions, a Gramscian slog for position over direct, frontal assaults.

And lastly, it's our rather boring self-publicising chums from core group hostile. If they had political nous and an instinct for self-preservation, they too would recognise that a period of silence is necessary. Or perhaps for the good of everyone if they learned to sublimate their anger and turn it outwards against the Tories. Lest we forget, they're the ones responsible for Brexit. They're the ones who threaten to permanently weaken the British economy while doing untold damage to our social fabric. The usual suspects have gone quiet of late, though Alan Johnson has talked a good rebellion this last week. Perhaps it's too early to tell, but the penny might well have dropped: constantly running to the press and slagging the leader off in public doesn't make one's position or politics stronger in the party. In fact, it invites its very opposite.

With our overlapping but discernible factions, the question now is how much they work at cross purposes to one another. Continued backbench sniping might inconvenience the leadership, but it might jeopardise the work done by shadcab members trying to make it work. Is the latter likely to look upon this assistance favourably? Likewise, shadcabs and hostiles might appeal to the heads down brigade for assistance with this, that, or the other, and might not find it forthcoming thanks to timidity/disinterest. Not the recipe for a happy family. And already, the unity is cracking. Chuka Umunna wants the Home Affairs Select Committee, probably as part of the shadow shadow cabinet wheeze some are wedded to but, ooops, so does Yvette Cooper. Two leading "moderates" openly scrapping for position isn't the most seemly of sights.

That is where the Labour establishment is. Dethroned and declassed, which way they'll go no one knows. Eternal rebellion, non-cooperation, and deselection. Or cooperation, stabilisation, and survival. What is it to be?

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Some Critical Advice for Jeremy Corbyn

Regardless of what we think about him, we're going to be discussing Jeremy Corbyn for years to come. Decades, probably. And yes, I'm about to talk about him a little bit more. As readers know, I voted for Jeremy in this year's Labour leadership contest. I thought it was important for two key reasons. First is a point well-trailed by others, and that's about the kind of party we want: an organisation where the members are sovereign and have the final say, or one where a parliamentary establishment is in charge with all the chicanery and stitch-ups that entails. Incidentally, I have not seen one argument, let alone a convincing one suggesting that being a government-ready, effective opposition (that phrase, again) is at odds with having a properly functioning democratic party. And the second reason is about realignment, of a new, networked working class finding its political feet and pouring into the Labour Party in large numbers, and therefore saving it in the long-run from stagnation, decay, and final expiration.

All this, I'm afraid to say, is in spite of Jeremy. I would be lying to say I was enamoured with him before last summer, and since taking up residence in the leader's office my scepticism grew over into disappointment and, on occasion, got tinged with despair. The greatest opportunity the Labour left, indeed the left as a whole has had in modern times, and it was in danger of fucking up because of unforced errors and daft decisions. Yes, the PLP and media have been arseholes, but that would happen if Jeremy or similar sweated trough-loads of charisma, or was Competent McCompetentface, the honourable member for Competent Central. And what else has stirred my pot of disappointment is, well, Jeremy isn't exactly a newbie. As a MP of over 30 years and a lifelong labour movement activist, on the very basic details - organisation, messaging, discipline, competence - the sad truth is Jeremy has been found surprisingly wanting and occasionally naive. It is frustrating, sometimes embarrassing, and time after time given opponents and enemies targets so large they scarcely had to aim to hit them. Even worse, despite acknowledging mistakes and recognising he needs to do better, it still goes on. On the long awaited day Jez finally triumphed at Prime Minister's Questions, leaving Theresa May looking wooden and out of sorts, who thought it would be a good idea to write down a "hit list" of recalcitrant MPs, let alone leak it? Unconscionable amateurism.

"There is nothing socialist about incompetence", as one of my comrades put it recently. And he voted Jeremy last year. Like many other members who've repented their previous support, it's these issues that are the killer. And, crucially, they are for the wider electorate too. The party may be chaotic, but if the leader at the centre of it gives the impression of not coping well, then despite all their other talents and qualities this is fatal to our election chances, and imperils the relationship between our party and the new people flooding in and rejuvenating our politics. Simply put, Jeremy must up his game because, otherwise and eventually, his opponents will get the upper hand and win and the episode of his leadership will come to nought. This time, they were clueless, foolish enough to take constitutional phantasms for real relationships, and failed to understand their own party. They won't make the same mistake twice.

Luckily for Jeremy and everyone who's placed their hopes in his leadership, the situation is salvageable. The opportunity to fundamentally change politics and the country remains open. His being confirmed in position this coming Saturday will underline that, and it's likely another wave of new members will pour into the party. Some old hands are going to leave to spend more time with their bitter tweeting, and others could get under the duvet with the LibDems, but the losses are sure to be more than outweighed by the gains. To consolidate this and have a hope of winning over even more people, enough to carry the party back to power, we have no choice but to marry the impulse toward being a social movement relevant to the lives of ordinary people with the vision, ideas, and competence of a government in waiting. That's the challenge Jeremy's leadership must meet, but with a split parliamentary party and all the other problems unlikely to disappear it's going to be tough. Nevertheless, there are things he and his team can do to steady the party's course and set it on an even keel. Some are managerial and technical, some political, and while not guaranteed to magic bullet every difficulty away, they could make a positive difference.

Firstly, it's time for a tighter ship. This doesn't require the employ of a Malcolm Tucker of the left (though my rates are reasonable) or a Tom Watson to growl "traitor" at MPs walking through the wrong lobby. At the most basic level of organising the office, there has to be a grid and one Jeremy and team should single-mindedly stick to. There can be no more embarrassments like the leader undermining the party's day of action on transport, and therefore alienating good honest party people like Lilian Greenwood. With the exception of emergencies, the plan must always be adhered to. The method mostly served Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell well, and it could us too. Related to this is a problem oft-highlighted by former front benchers. This was how Jez would listen, promise to act on their suggestions/concerns, and then do nothing. I'm a bugger for this sort of behaviour too, especially when it comes to washing the pots. But there is a difference between a few dirty dishes and the political direction of our party and movement. If Jeremy is boss, he's got to start acting like one. Whether he pulls his own finger out, or has an empowered office manager that ensures meeting outcomes are implemented, it doesn't matter, as long as it gets done. Simple, basic stuff.

Then there's the biggest difficulty - re-winning the confidence of enough of the PLP so front bench functions can be maintained. The recent spat over shadow cabinet elections was so much factional jostling bound to end in zero agreement. But even with elections, there are some MPs who are lost forever. Over the coming year, it is to be hoped they will attend more to constituency matters instead of courting their own deselection. Meanwhile, there are just enough MPs who, for the good of the party, are willing to give a stint in Jeremy's cabinet another try. It behooves Jez to make this work. One way it might pique the interests of some is by offering them de facto autonomy in their briefs, which would mean freedom to develop policy provided it's consistent with the overall direction of the party (sorry Liz, no more business penetration of public services, ta muchly). This could prove attractive because it's the very opposite of how Ed Miliband used to run things. Shadow ministers frequently complained about micromanagement and interference with their briefs, and were weary of running every dot and comma of every press release and speech by his office, and especially the irritating insertion of the compulsory "as Ed Miliband says/thinks/has shown" line, Kim Jong-un style. Provided it is managed well and communication flows properly, giving shadcab members much more room allows for the emergence of something Jeremy very definitely believes in: collective leadership. If local authority Labour groups, whether governing or in opposition can manage it, there's no reason why our leading lights, the party's crème de la crème cannot.

As we know, former "A-listers" are seeking out powerful committee positions and there's the persistent rumour of that shadow shadow cabinet set to provide "proper" opposition to the Tories. To be honest, I have no problem with our Rachel Reevess and Michael Dughers tearing the Tories a new one from the back benches. It would be an improvement on what they did in office. But there are very significant policy challenges coming down the line that require the application of talent and intellect. As this wing of the party aren't short of wonky brains, and I mean that in the nicest possible way, they would do the party and themselves a service by heading policy commissions (as mandated by the leader's office). These should lead and feed from the hitherto moribund National Policy Forum process. It's not as though there aren't problems to be discussed. Climate change, refugees, Brexit, the new economy, electoral and constitutional reform, automation and the future of work, life long learning, care and the ageing society, the NHS, and so on. We often hear there's unanimity on the Labour benches around domestic policy issues, so let's see this in action. Because if we're ever going to win, we need distinctive definitions, understandings, and strategies for addressing these politically contested problems.

Jez has to do politics better. His performance last week at PMQs show he can galvanise and unify the party on the right issues. But sometimes, it is necessary to make compromises too, of realising there are big fights to concentrate on and causes one should not die in a ditch for. One of these, as far as I'm concerned, is Trident and nuclear weapons. I fundamentally agree with Paul Mason on this issue. Nukes may be repugnant and Trident a waste of money, but if accepting their renewal smooths the path to power it's a price the party should be willing to pay. Not least because nuclear power status feeds into a complex of security anxieties. To put it simply, there are a lot of otherwise sensible voters who would not support Labour if they think our party is going to make them less safe. Jez doesn't have to hug a warhead, not least because it would be entirely inauthentic. Instead, all he needs do is signal that settled party policy stays settled. There is absolutely nothing to be gained from stirring up the party even more about an issue the public don't care about, unless it is made an issue. Magnifying division is never a clever move. Far more helpful would be concentrating on matters the party can rally around and where the Tories are weak, like education, the economy, health, housing, and Brexit. These are the grounds on which the next election, whenever that is, will be fought and won, so we need to make that terrain ours by relentlessly attacking them and their record on it.

Not an exhaustive list, but something for comrades to think about. In his long interview with Gary Younge, Jez reflected that people wanted him to be tougher, but added that it's not his style. No, we don't need him to be tougher. We need him to be smarter. With the support of good, close comrades and with the goodwill of most of the party behind him, Jeremy can rise to the challenge. Politics doesn't often give out second chances, but it has this time. Don't waste it.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Monday, 19 September 2016

Momentum is Nothing Like Militant

Asked whether Momentum should be compared with Militant, the rapidly diminishing Owen Smith replied "Creating a big 'M' at the front of their name should give the game away." He went on to argue Momentum is a party within a party, an outfit organising around its priorities, personnel, and policies. He could almost be talking about Progress. Except, of course, Momentum doesn't publish its own magazine, nor is it an "unaccountable faction dominated by a secretive billionaire", as one of its leading lights described his organisation a year ago.

The fact is there is nothing untoward about Momentum at all. And you don't have to take my word for it, just watch Channel 4's Dispatches on the very same. We were sold a shocking tale of people rallying around Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, of three AWL supporters filmed saying terribly controversial things at a Momentum meeting, of issues around branding, and the blurring of work between Momentum and Jeremy 4 Labour campaigning. Just like folk sold on Moon landing hoaxery because they don't understand light and reflection in Apollo photographs, you'd have to be a political ingenue to believe this shoddy journalism uncovered a dastardly plot.

Having been an active member of Militant's successor party, knowing many friends and comrades from the "old organisation", and, well, a PhD in Trottery, it's reasonable to suggest I'm qualified enough to speak on this matter. Momentum categorically is not Militant in new clothing. The Militant Tendency, or to use its undercover name, the Revolutionary Socialist League was a Trotskyist outfit that had worked in Labour for decades to build itself up, in far left terms, as a substantial organisation. It had a central committee, regional and branch structures, operated its own funding and propaganda and, most crucially, exerted its own discipline on its ranks. Famously, at one point Militant were said to have more full-timers than the Labour Party itself! While I'm opposed to that kind of politics now, Militant did bequeath a few positives to our party and movement. Unlike most far left outfits that are predominantly middle class, Militant was as workerist in its composition as the old Communist Party was in its heyday. It brought disaffected working class youngsters into politics and, despite losing nearly all of them as it declined from the 80s on, many of these comrades continued their commitment to the Labour Party and/or labour movement politics. My late friend Eddie Truman was one of them, for example.

Momentum is nothing like Militant. It is a network with a steering committee that organises openly in support of Jeremy Corbyn and the sorts of policies he favours. That is what it is, that is all it is. I know if I want to join Momentum, I can fill out a form online and give the local organiser a ring. There's no qualifying period for membership, no punishing membership educationals, no tedious pamphlets to remember for the next lead off, no unaccountable central committee to bark orders at me. Everything is open and above board. And it cannot be otherwise. As we've seen, the huge army of new members the Labour Party has gained flooded in thanks to networks established online and in real life between left leaning but otherwise atomised and fresh people. The old hands of the 1980s who evidently stalk Neil Kinnock's nightmares are vanishingly small in number and are totally swamped. And so to harness the support of the new members, only an organisation that is totally transparent, easy to get involved with, and mirrors the properties of the network would do. There's a reason why dull, plodding authoritarian outfits like the Socialist Party (despite its mini-Militant rebrand) and the SWP rape cult have been left out in the cold. As it stands, Momentum is a good way of consolidating these new members and turning them to campaigning activity, both with the party and in other labour movement campaigns.

Of course, what we're dealing with here are not honest, mistaken criticisms about Momentum. Some folks might be hoodwinked by contested reports of shouting in meetings, and of idiot anti-semites who badge themselves as Momentum, but ultimately Momentum is a proxy. It stands in for everything the old Labour establishment fears and hates about the new Labour Party. They hate the fact hundreds of thousands have joined and even more could be poised to flood in after Jeremy's leadership is reconfirmed later this week. They hate the fact their stitch up culture has now been rendered largely obsolete, and most of all they hate how these members have taken control away from them. Momentum is a lightning rod for all their fear, their bile, their impotence and they are worried Momentum can only consolidate this hold the new members have even further. For them, the name calling and proscription threats are desperate (and are seen as desperate) efforts to disperse this nascent organising capacity before it gets off the ground.

Militant and Momentum are antipodes, not twins. And anyone pretending otherwise is genuinely clueless and has no understanding of each, or are deeply, truly cynical.