Friday, 16 February 2018

How I learned to stop worrying and love the new politics

If this blog has any regular readers, they will know the story of my tortured relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. I was one of few self-declared Milibandistas, seeing his Labour Party as a vehicle not merely for a mitigation of austerity – as important as I thought that was – but also for the nurturing of a more socialist future. Blisters on my feet from days of canvassing, I woke up the day after the 2015 General Election to hear Tristram Hunt complaining that Miliband’s Labour had been too radical, failing to be harsh enough on benefit claimants and alienating mansion owners. In subsequent weeks this view became a consensus in the commentariat and upper reaches of the Labour hierarchy, with only one voice, Jeremy Corbyn’s, seeming to stand up to it. I celebrated his last-minute inclusion on the leadership ballot, only to become terrified at the prospect of his victory. By the time of Owen Smith’s attempted coup, I was so pessimistic about the state of the polls, Corbyn’s media management and the atmosphere in the party that I backed the losing side. I felt like my party had been taken away from me, by people who didn’t realise I shared their principles and didn’t care about putting them into practice.

Then, we had ‘the summer that changed everything’. Now I’m a paid-up member of Momentum and I’ve never been so happy I was wrong. How did I learn to stop worrying and love the new politics?
One by one, my concerns about the Corbyn project were proved to be misplaced. I despaired from the beginning about the competence of Corbyn and the people around him. Leaky reshuffles, lack of organisation for crucial NEC and conference votes, missing newspaper deadlines with press releases, interview gaffes – these characterised the first year of his leadership. The denial that many Corbyn supporters were in about this incompetence was as scary to me as the mistakes themselves. But what can’t be denied now is that, with the leader and his team settled into their roles, a less rebellious Shadow Cabinet, some more friendly party staff and a dose of confidence, Labour’s operation is as slick as it has ever been. The transformation of the party’s social media output deserves special mention, as well as Corbyn’s much improved television performances.

Incompetence was one reason I feared for Corbyn’s chances in a General Election. The other was that – mainly through aspects of his politics and biography I have no qualms about – he seemed to be an open goal for the Tory smear machine. I’d seen Ed Miliband, an Oxford PPE graduate who suggested a mild form of social democracy, called a traitor, a communist, economically illiterate and not ‘prime ministerial’. And it worked. How easy it would be, I thought, for the same trick to be pulled, ten times more ferociously, against someone who wears shabby clothes, refuses to deny he is a Marxist, met the IRA and believes in unilateral nuclear disarmament? For some reason, though, in the recent General Election campaign, this message didn’t work. Partly, perhaps, this was due to its being worn out on Miliband; probably it was also because the Tory right-wing is now so easily caricatured as equally extreme. But it also seems likely that the way Corbyn handled these attacks was effective. Whilst Miliband would squirm and promise voters he really wasn’t as red as all that, Corbyn trumpeted his radicalism and outsider status, turning fire on the Tories as defenders of the establishment. One thing that has not been up for debate since June: Jeremy Corbyn is not unelectable. 40% of British voters are perfectly happy with him being Prime Minister, and it is likely this number will rise next time around.

As well as my worries about Corbyn, I was (once upon a time) deeply suspicious of his supporters in the membership – although many were friends of mine – especially newer members. I never disagreed with their ideological inclination, and never bought into the ‘red scare’ stories attached to Momentum, mainly for organising just as Progress and their allies have done for years. But I worried about their analysis and their priorities. At times Momentum seemed to me like a personality cult for Corbyn, at times like a group more interested in settling internal scores than changing society. Some newer members seemed naïve about how easy electing a Corbyn government would be, and some more interested in making long speeches about themselves than taking power. Many seemed like they were looking forward to an all-out war with the party’s right, even as the cost of a chaotic schism.
But these prejudices were largely revealed to be just that. Momentum has grown far beyond a Corbyn fan club, running an impressively well-organised slate in recent NEC elections and growing rapidly, particularly amongst young people. Jon Lansman’s leadership has been pragmatic whenever it has had to be, and new members have brought discipline to the party as well as enthusiasm. Far from being unconcerned with the logistics of electoral politics, new activists were crucial to Labour’s success in the General Election. Far from being a faction supporting only ideologically pure candidates, Momentum worked hard everywhere, to the extent that Wes Streeting can thank them for his seat.

Most remarkably, there is a constructive sort of détente with the party’s right. When I supported Andy Burnham and Owen Smith, it wasn’t because I was more sympathetic to the heirs of Blair and Brown than Corbynistas were, but rather that I was more scared of them. I worried about how a leader from the left would ever be permitted to do their job without constantly being undermined (as happened to the only-mildly-left Miliband!). I worried, too, about their splitting from the party, not because I have any love for them but because the consequences could have been disastrous. But now both worries seem far-fetched. The right in the PLP blew its chance, and they have neither the numbers nor the organisation in the wider membership to do anything but learn to live with Momentum. And the risk of leaving a Labour Party polling upwards of 40% to go it alone looks much greater than that of leaving one you thought was headed for electoral annihilation.

Corbyn’s Labour now consists of a competent, socialist leader who has every chance of becoming Prime Minister, and a growing, enthusiastic, disciplined movement around him. Intellectual heft and ideas which now comprise the leading edge of socialist thinking are provided by a group of relatively young activists connected with Jacobin, New Socialist and Novara Media. Corbyn’s Labour has a social base: a generation of young people who are having the dreams they were promised in the Blair years shattered by debt, rent, and insecure work; public sector workers fed up with picking up the pieces from austerity; ethnic minorities disgusted by the imperial pretensions of Tory Brexiteers. And, incredibly, politics under Corbyn is fun, and almost cool – from grime to memes to podcasts, the young Labour left is becoming a trendy subculture rather than a collection of geeks. The question for leftists like me, who were previously sceptical of the Corbyn project, is this: what’s not to like?

True to form, I’ve not stopped worrying completely. Now a Corbyn government is a real possibility, we must start thinking about what it will face, and what it will look like. A large amount depends on when it happens, relative to the Brexit process. A Labour government elected before March 2019, and to some extent one elected during the ‘transition’ period, may find that unless it simply concedes all EU demands (which may be the best option for Britain in any case) the legal and political strains of Brexit will occupy all of its time and energy, stalling any radical domestic programme. We must also reckon with the fact that a Corbyn premiership is likely to rest on a tiny majority, or perhaps some agreement with the SNP – and even a healthy Labour majority is not, given the make-up of the PLP, a guaranteed majority for Corbyn’s more controversial policies. And the usual pressures put upon left-wing governments in capitalist economies will be there however large our mandate. Corbyn will be undermined by the state establishment, attacked by the press, and may have to take on a capital strike. How will his programme be delivered then?

And what exactly is the programme? Labour’s policies at the moment are what the Fabians called ‘supercharged Milibandism’: more tax on the wealthy, more spending on public services, more state intervention in utility markets and infrastructure, more protection for workers. This is all welcome. But it does not constitute a transformation of society. The hope of many on the left is that Corbyn is being coy: when we take hold of the levers of the state, banks will be expropriated, workplaces will be democratised, borders will be opened, universities will be freed, racism and misogyny will be ended. But it’s not clear how we will get there. What is clear is that the day after Corbyn walks into 10 Downing Street, and possibly for years after, there will still be unemployment, there will still be immigration enforcement, there will still be homelessness and there will still be inequality. For us to succeed as a movement, we must stick together through this period: but will we be able to once the compromises, prioritising and battles of government become apparent? There is currently a real explosion of thought in the movement, including about these strategic questions: but more work needs to be done to ensure a Corbyn government lives up to its billing.

At London Young Labour’s AGM this year, John McDonnell channeled Gramsci, telling us we must have ‘pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will’. We should be prepared for a hard fight to come, but we should not lose faith that we will win it. To me, after the tumult of the last three years, this seems right.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

Homelessness is a crisis and a tragedy for every one of us

The death of a homeless man who slept in Westminster tube station is not just an individual tragedy, but a symbol of the state of our politics and society, in much the same way Grenfell Tower came to be. The location has a lot to do with it: as Neil Coyle MP remarked on the Today programme (from 2:35:00) this morning, every member of Parliament and their staff walk past rough sleepers around the station every day.

Coyle also laid blame on the Conservative Party, saying that they need to take responsibility for the homelessness crisis created by their austerity policies. He’s not wrong. In September the National Audit Office reported that “homelessness has increased in all measures since 2010” and that “the government has not evaluated its reforms on the issue… It is difficult to understand why the Department [of Communities and Local Government] persisted with its light touch approach in the face of such a visibly growing problem.” That report shows a 60% increase in households living in temporary accommodation since 2011, including a 73% increase in homeless children. Rough sleeping has increased by 134% since 2010. The causes cited are benefit cuts and the fact that rents have increased three times faster than earnings – eight times in London. Local government services, the main support for homeless people, have been savaged, with 21% cuts in housing funding including a 59% reduction in the Supporting People fund, designed to prevent homelessness. These were foreseeable consequences of austerity, and if the Conservatives (and Liberal Democrats) didn’t foresee them it’s because they didn’t care.

Politics matters. Under New Labour, homelessness fell by almost two-thirds and rough sleeping by three-quarters. A major cause was the money Labour pumped into local homelessness prevention services as Blair and Brown prioritised tackling what they called ‘social exclusion’. New Labour policy wasn’t perfect – it was costly and failed to empower people, as this report shows. During New Labour’s time in office, we still saw, though on a smaller scale, the obscene inefficiency of rough sleepers sharing London with luxury homes kept empty by the super-rich. And the reforms were not entrenched, meaning that when a recession and then a Tory government came, the crisis of homelessness returned. Jeremy Corbyn was one of the first to express his disgust at the recent tragedy in Westminster, and a future, bolder Labour government could go a long way to putting things right.
But homelessness is more than a political issue. It is also a matter of personal and social morality. Those MPs Neil Coyle mentioned didn’t only cast votes about benefit cuts, they also literally walked past people in grave need, neglecting them to the point where at least one died. That is no criticism of MPs specifically: it is something that we all do if we spend any time in the centre of Britain’s cities. We ignore desperate people seeking help; we plan routes to avoid them; we shake our heads at them and mumble apologies under our breath. Sometimes we give them a few coins or a snack, but grudgingly, and not in a way that respects them or really helps. I do all of these things, and I’m meant to be one of the good guys – I volunteer at a fortnightly open door meal, I canvass for the Labour Party, and I’m trying to write a thesis about interpersonal morality. Still, there are people sleeping on the streets where I live and somehow I can just walk by, somehow I can sleep at night knowing this. Again, this is no criticism of me: it’s just the grotesque way things are.
That we can go about our lives so easily amongst people in such dire circumstances is testament to how far we distance ourselves from one another. Our deadly neglect of homeless people lies alongside our support for bombing foreigners and our hostility to refugees. All are the product of a profound desensitisation to the needs of our fellow humans. In a way our treatment of the homeless is more shocking, because they share our streets, our culture and often our race. They are othered simply because they find themselves on the wrong end of the system.
The rise in rough sleeping provides a visible reminder of the dirty side of our economy and society. This can have political benefits: some of us are so appalled by homelessness that we are moved to fight for a system that will end it. But it can also function as a means of social control. ‘You’re doing well,’ it says, ‘you’re better than these people - but look at what happens if you annoy your landlord or your family or your boss or your benefits advisor, if you dare to be an immigrant or an addict or too ill to work.’ Homelessness is a crisis and a tragedy for every one of us.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Trump as an argument against capitalism

“If letting people elect their leaders puts people like Donald Trump in charge, maybe democracy isn’t such a good thing.”

This is something I’ve heard a few people saying recently. I agree that any system that gives the power to command nuclear weapons, to shut down a government, and to select judges to someone so quick-tempered, suggestible and lacking in empathy is gravely flawed. But the system in question isn’t democracy, but the political system of the United States. Political scientists have shown that policy made in the US correlates with the preferences of the wealthy (‘the Oligarchy Result’) and not at all with those of the average American. (It gets worse: the more popular a policy is amongst African-Americans, the less likely it is to become law.) 

Add to this that Trump received several million fewer votes than Clinton, and we can see that what delivered his presidency was not democracy, but (at best) a highly defective version of it. 

Trump is an argument against that system. But he is also an argument against an economic system – capitalism. Before Trump turned to politics, he already held a massive amount of power in his tiny hands, due to the business empire he inherited. He had the ability to hire and fire, which in a capitalist economy without a social safety net can be equivalent to the power to make people destitute. He could dictate what his thousands of employees did with their time, and make or break the fortunes of smaller businesses through his interactions with them. His wealth allowed him to buy a public platform which he used, amongst other things, to lobby for the execution of several people later found to be innocent. His position in the capitalist economy meant that he could transform whole towns by opening or closing resorts there. He had a television show with the premiss that his decisions could shape the lives of others. 

This is the normal functioning of capitalism, not a defective version of it. Those who own the means of production (wineries, factories, golf courses) have power, in virtue of that fact, over those who don’t. They draw profit from their capital, allowing them to buy more power – perhaps, eventually, to fund a presidential candidacy. 

If Trump’s power as your (or America’s) president scares you, imagine if he was your boss. If you’re interested in preventing the concentration of power in the hands of those who are ill-equipped to use it, it’s not democracy you should be worried about, but capitalism.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Who's the real racist? Solidarity with Jason Osamede Okundaye

Just over a week ago, Jason Osamede Okundaye, the chair of the Black and Minority Ethnic students campaign at Cambridge University Students’ Union, wrote some tweets. Since then Okundaye has found himself in the eye of a media storm, and subject to investigations by the police and his college authorities, with serious consequences hanging over him (even discounting prosecution or expulsion, imagine prospective future employers googling his name). I used to do a job similar to Okundaye’s when I was a student at Oxford, so I feel a need to speak out.

Two sets of tweets sparked the storm. In the first, a discussion of the tendency of middle-class white people to blame racism on “the white working-classes” (I have written about this here) ended with the conclusion that “ALL white people are racist” and a call for the white middle-classes who are gentrifying black and Asian areas of inner cities to “go back to Solihurst or Exeter or wherever”. In the second thread, he expressed support for the protests/riots in Dalston following the death of Rashan Charles.

I don’t want to get into detail on the acceptability of his language and positions here, and for prudential reasons if nothing else, they were probably ill-advised (when I was in my role at Oxford, I stopped myself on several occasions from publishing controversial opinions, simply because I feared a similar backlash). But I do want to address the controversy that followed them.

Let’s look at some facts:
  • Cambridge University that has admitted more students from Eton than black men for every year of its existence until this one. White applicants are twice as likely to get a place at Cambridge than black ones (the same is true at Oxford). [Source]
  • This summer, two young black men in northeast London – Edson da Costa and Rashan Charles – have died after being violently detained by police. Investigations into both deaths are ongoing, but in the case of Charles, early suggestions that he caused his own death by swallowing illegal drugs proved to be untrue. Both men have young children.
  • Black people make up 13% of London’s population, and 36% of those whom the Metropolitan Police use force against. [Source]
  • Black and Asian people who are politically active are routinely subjected to racist abuse. This goes for MPs and Mayors, and for student representatives – in the same week as Okundaye faced the wrath of the national press (exposing him to even greater abuse), his counterpart at UCL received these emails.
  • The person who brought Okundaye’s tweets to national attention has called refugees “cockroaches”, called for “a final solution” against British Muslims, and recently showed her support for a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier.
What I want to say about the controversy involving Okundaye is this. He is a black student at a university that discriminates against black students. He is a young black man in a country where young black men are disproportionately subjected to sometimes fatal police force, and lied about after their deaths. He chose to take up a voluntary position that exposes him to racist abuse, and in the past week he has been made into a national target by a genuine fascist. Jason Okamede Okundaye is a victim of racism, not a perpetrator. That many individuals, in addition to the media, the police and university authorities seem more outraged and motivated to act by his tweets than by the facts above is as good an example as you could find of racism in modern Britain.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Eleven theses on British politics

1.       Austerity as a tool of politics is dead.
Since 2010, the Conservatives have undermined Labour by painting them as the party of uncontrolled spending and debt. There is evidence that this worked in 2015, so much so that John McDonnell felt compelled to adopt a restrictive fiscal rule. But now the consequences of austerity are becoming painfully obvious to wider sections of the electorate, a Labour manifesto dominated by spending can command widespread support. (This does not mean the Conservatives will stop pursuing austerity policies, but the discourse has changed.)

2.       Because of austerity, security is no longer the Conservatives’ trump card.
You can’t run a campaign based on your strength and stability when you are the ones who have made cuts to the police and public services that people rely on for their family’s security. The Tories can’t promise to protect us after Grenfell.

3.       It can no longer be sincerely denied that Corbyn is incapable of winning a General Election.
Not very many votes have to change hands for Labour to lead a government. The next election will be very different to the last, in good and bad ways, even if it comes soon: a Corbyn premiership will be considered a serious possibility, Labour will be more united, news from Brussels and economic indicators will be disastrous for the government, the Conservatives won’t be so complacent and will probably have a more inspiring leader.

4.       Age is the big divide in British politics – because of austerity and Brexit, on which the young lost out.
My generation has been politicised by a succession of defeats at the hands of our grandparents. We are the ones who lost most heavily from austerity, and turned out in unprecedented numbers on the losing side in a referendum. We are now squarely behind Labour. This is especially true of young women. (This confounds the narrative that the reactionary turn exemplified by Brexit was a popular reaction by the victims of austerity.)

5.       Because of this, the future is Labour’s to lose.
There are two ways in which Labour’s long-term demographic advantage can be squandered: it loses the support of the young as they age (which a turn to either Blairism or Brexitism would risk); or it allows the Tories, in this parliament and the next, to reshape Britain’s constitution and political economy to both hinder a Labour victory (through, boundary changes, for example) or render such a victory pyrrhic (through turning Britain into a post-Brexit deregulated tax haven more exposed to international markets, and thus more difficult to transform in a socialist direction, than ever before).

6.       Class politics is still possible, and necessary.
A lot has been made of age now trumping class as an indicator of party allegiance. This may be true, but class is far more difficult for pollsters to measure. It remains the case that many, perhaps most, people in Britain lead lives dominated by work done under someone else’s control and for someone else’s benefit. Some of these people voted Tory in the election, but few are natural or committed Conservatives. Winning them over must be the basis of a future Labour election victory. Boosting youth and minority turnout, given its inefficient geographical spread, will not be enough.

7.       Labour is now the party of London, due to Brexit, youth and race.
This is good as far as winning London marginals goes, but may well hamper Labour elsewhere, where distrust and envy for the capital is significant and often neglected.

8.       In England, two party politics is back, probably for good.
Labour, not the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Greens, is now the beneficiary of protest votes, and it is clearer, following the election results, that votes for minor parties are mostly wasted. Incidentally, the polling failures of the last two elections showed that supporters of minor parties do not fit the stereotypes often described. 2010’s Lib Dems, assumed to be sandal-wearing intellectual vegetarians, split far more to the Conservatives than expected in 2015. 2015’s UKIP voters, thought to be interested in nothing further than hard Brexit the national anthem, didn’t flock to the Conservatives without exception – in fact, some backed Corbyn’s cosmopolitan Labour Party.

9.       Brexit will dominate parliamentary and government time for at least two years.
Parliamentary arithmetic makes all bills very difficult for the government to pass, and the time-limited nature of the Brexit process, as well as its pervasive impact on all areas of government, will leave few resources for anything else. The tight parliamentary arithmetic, moreover, makes an orderly Brexit very difficult. On every EU regulation that has to be transposed into British law, every aspect of our divorce and future relationship with Europe, May will face rebellions (as would any other Prime Minister, including Corbyn). Passing everything necessary by March 2019 without a majority will be nearly impossible.

10.   Labour still has no coherent line on Brexit.
As as soon as it expresses one, which it will have to do if it forms a government, and will soon have to indicate through parliamentary votes, it risks fracturing its electoral coalition.

11.   This was not a victory, but it was the perfect election outcome for Labour.
Corbyn’s position is secure. The Tories can’t do very much. Labour can put off expressing a clear line on Brexit for a little longer and capitalise on the mess that Brexit inevitably will be, whilst having enough power in parliament to embarrass the government on a regular basis.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Some facts about the Grenfell Tower fire


1.       Grenfell Tower lies in the wealthiest locality in the country, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The average income is over £100 000 and the average property is sold for close to £2 000 000. David Cameron and Roman Abramovich both own a house there. The residents of Grenfell Tower are mainly working-class and ethnic minority, living in the cheapest accommodation in the borough, provided through the borough’s council, which pays KCTMO public money to manage the building. Senior managers at KCTMO earned £650 000 between them last year.

2.       The residents formed an association, the Grenfell Action Group “to record our struggle and… remain as evidence for future generations of how our community has been mistreated by RBKC [the borough’s council] and its social housing management agents the Kensington & Chelsea TMO (KCTMO).” The Group raised serious concerns about fire risk following near catastrophes at other KCTMO properties but were ignored, causing them to write “[we] firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.” 90% of residents signed a petition for an investigation into KCTMO’s handling of safety concerns.

3.       The residents sought legal support to force KCTMO to improve safety in Grenfell Tower, but could not afford it due to cuts in legal aid. In 2009, under Labour, England and Wales had the highest per capita spending on legal aid in the world, before Conservative austerity measures cut it.

4.       £10m was spent refurbishing Grenfell Tower from 2014-16, without addressing residents’ safety concerns or installing sprinklers. Instead, cladding was added to make the building look more attractive from the outside (presumably, to richer people who lived elsewhere in Kensington). Residents were told that the building was designed in such a way that a fire in one flat would not spread to others, and therefore advised to stay in their homes in case of a fire. This proved not to be the case,possibly because the cladding was flammable

5.       In 2009, a coroner’s report into another fatal tower block fire in London recommended that the government ensure sprinklers are installed during refurbishments. In 2014, given the lack of response from government, Labour MP and former firefighter Jim Fitzpatrick, pressed this in a parliamentary debate. Conservative minister Brandon Lewis said: “Sprinklers work. We know that. No one can deny it… They are an effective way of protecting lives and property.” But he rejected the idea that the government should enforce the fitting of sprinklers, citing the need to reduce the burden of regulation. Gavin Barwell, his successor as Housing Minister, and now Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, pledged a review of building regulations in this area, but never carried it out.

6.       312 Conservative MPs voted against a Labour bill last year which required landlords to make homes “fit for human habitation”. 72 of those are themselves private landlords.

7.       Ten fire stations and 500 firefighters’ jobs have been cut since 2009. Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London and now Foreign Secretary, told an assembly member objecting to these cuts to “get stuffed”. The new mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, will review the cuts.

8.       Thousands of ordinary people have donated money, supplies and time to help the victims of the fire, including many Islamic groups. According to witnesses and survivors, the Muslims who were awake for Ramadan prayers, having fasted all day, were crucial to raising the alarm and helping neighbours from the building.
9.       As of Thursday, after decades of Conservative rule, Kensington is represented by a Labour MP (Emma Dent Coad) who has a strong record of campaigning against gentrification, for housing rights and writes a blog endorsed by the Grenfell Action Group.

To sum up: in the richest borough in the country, poor people died in their homes, despite repeatedly warning the authorities of safety concerns and possibly as a direct result of actions taken by KCTMO. The government knew what should be done to avert such tragedies and did nothing. Cuts stopped the tragedy from being prevented through legal action or mitigated by the fire service. Those responsible remain in power. But the people are fighting back.