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

Trumping

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.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fan dance

I attended a lecture many years ago by David Denver from the University of Lancaster. He was unique amongst academics as he combined being a professor with running the bar. He was the only person I can remember who could entertain an audience by talking about voting behaviour. This was in the early 80s and he was discussing the 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution. He told a story about interviews he did with voters. He spoke to an elderly woman.

"Do you support devolution?"
"Oh no. I'm no too sure, but I don't think it's a good idea at all."
"So you voted no?"
"No, I voted yes. But I only put a little cross."

I stole that line for my own classes for the next twenty years. It's a great story to make students laugh, but it illustrates a serious point. A yes/no referendum tells you nothing about the strength of the views held by a voter. A vote by the absolutely convinced carries the same weight as someone who is wavering and unsure. And the wavering voter could just have easily voted the other way. This matters if the vote is close, which is why there are usually safeguards built into referendums. In 1979 just under 52% voted in favour of devolution, just over 48% were against. The referendum was lost as you needed a majority of the vote and the support of 40% of the registered electorate to win. They only got 33%. It made sense, even if the loss of the referendum brought down the Callaghan government. If this precedent had been followed for this year's referendum on the single most important constitutional decision this country has taken for more than forty years, we would not now be negotiating to leave the European Union. The majority was similar, however although the turnout was larger than in 1979, leave only gained the support of 37% of the electorate. I have no idea why the rule was not applied this time, other than shoddy thinking about the principles of democracy and complacency about the result.

Yes/no questions also fail to tell you anything about why people voted as they did, and are totally inadequate if the options are not a straightforward yes or no. In the Euro referendum the consequence of a remain vote was simple, no change. But the leave campaign kept offering different options with no method of knowing which one you were voting for.

As a result, I cringe when I hear politicians talk about the 'clear' result, and the 'will of the people,' the result was nothing of the sort. It was a very narrow majority, as this bar chart from Political Betting shows.


As the accompanying post by Mike Smithson points out, a swing of just 1.8% would have reversed the result.

That leave won by the rules set before the referendum is incontrovertible. Whether it is a secure basis for popular support for such a monumental reversal of policy is doubtful. Of course, it shows equally that the overall support for the EU is weak, yet this result is being claimed by the May government as the ultimate mandate for anything regressive that they want to do. The interpretation that the government has put on it is that it was permission to pursue a right-wing nationalist agenda. It's a clear case of mandate creep. This is why I found this article by Daniel Hannan in the Financial Times so interesting.

Hannan is a right libertarian and an obsessive about the European Union. There is a good long profile of him here. Now, at the moment of his triumph, he is getting worried. He makes two good points, but smooths over the obvious objections.

The first is that the primary motive of most who supported leave was not to stop immigration. He objects to all leave voters being labelled racists. So do I. They aren't. The result is that he is horrified to see the government make immigration control their overriding priority in Brexit negotiations. However, though the majority may not have been motivated by xenophobia, the referendum would probably not have been won without strident anti-immigration rhetoric. And if you think that you can hitch a ride with Farage and not get his politics, then you have deluded yourself.

Secondly, he recognises that this was not a clear result.
A 52-48 split, it seems to me, is a mandate for a gradual and phased repatriation of power, not for a severing of all institutional links with the EU. Britain should withdraw from the structures of political union while retaining some of the current economic arrangements, including the prohibition on discrimination against the products of another EU state, which is the true basis of the single market.
The obvious objection is that "a gradual and phased repatriation of power" was not on offer from the EU. All that was available was withdrawal and they never seriously thought that anybody would want to do that. The now familiar Article 50 was never expected to be used. In negotiating the future relationship between Britain and the EU, the cards are not in Britain's hand. I am afraid that by his logic an inconclusive result points to one conclusion only, to remain until such time as the case for leaving has been made decisively. And Hannan, a classic liberal, is concerned.
... if we insist on seeing the referendum as a vote for nativism and protectionism, we shall lose that opportunity. Worse, we might truly become the meaner country that pro-Europeans kept talking about during the campaign.
The complexity of reality is beginning to make itself known after the over-simplification of the referendum. In the same way, the inadequacy of referendums as democratic devices are being exposed. Looking at the hard economic data is scary. (And with part of my life lived in Greece, I am distinctly unimpressed with the falling value of the pound). At the very least, the risks are huge. The costs, as always, will be borne by those least able to bear them.

I listened to David Davis, the Brexit secretary, speaking in the Commons. He talked about wanting the "most open, barrier-free access to the single market possible." Of course that is what we have now, it's called membership. Without membership, who knows? I couldn't help thinking that Theresa May has just turned on a giant fan. At the other end of the room is a vast pile of stinking ordure, made up of the difficulties, contradictions, threats, and unpleasantnesses associated with Brexit. It is sitting on a slow moving conveyor belt, getting ever closer. All that stands between it and the fan is a giant, invisible wall of wishful thinking. This could get messy.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Are you local?

This is getting silly.
Leading foreign academics acting as expert advisers to the UK government have been told they will not be asked to contribute to any government analysis and reports on Brexit because they are not British nationals.
Utterly bizarre.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Strange times

Ian Dunt is getting increasingly despairing, and he's right. He stresses the need to keep fighting.
If there is any hope it is with those who are still prepared to speak the things which are in front of their eyes. People who are still prepared to say that losing tariff-free access to our biggest market is not wise, that putting investment at threat is to handicap our own prospects. People who will point out that a two year timetable to unravel four decades of law and create a substantial trade deal is not realistic. People who believe that by having open borders and an open society, Britain is stronger and more beautiful and more successful. People who believe that sabotaging Ireland and pushing away Scotland is not how one keeps the Union together. People who recognise that a 52% vote on a vague question is not a mandate for the most radical possible interpretation of a referendum result. 
The next few years will see uncertainty and British isolationism start to cause demonstrable harm to the economy. Those who recognise the insanity of our current path must keep making that point and avoid the deterministic piety of those who demand we ‘get over it’. It’s by making the case for reason, liberalism and internationalism that we can best influence the debate when the repercussions of our current foolishness become impossible for even the Brexiters to ignore.
At the moment all I hear is silence.

In his latest piece, Dunt is, at least partially, right again. The Tories have become UKIP.
The policy is clear. Theresa May confirmed on Sunday that she would pursue a hard Brexit and pull Britain out the single market. What even 12 months ago would have been considered economically insane is now a cosy consensus. Her policy actually goes further than that which Nigel Farage's allies once held in the past.
That a narrow majority in the referendum, delivered by a minority of the electorate, can be taken as a mandate for pursuing what in itself was the minority position in the leave camp shows the democratic deficiency in the use of referendums. As this article makes clear, it isn't a problem confined to the UK.

I can add little more to previous posts. The referendum has delivered a comprehensive victory for the right who are wasting no time in consolidating their power in the absence of any coherent opposition. Beyond Brexit, the Tories' grab for the economic centre ground is an attempt at realignment around nationalist conservatism. Economically, it's closer to Heath than Thatcher, and is a long way from UKIP. But it's also allied with insular nationalism and social conservatism, which the Tory left have always rejected. It has strong appeal, though nemesis always lurks as the reward for hubris, and there are three factors in the Brexit drama lurking offstage waiting to play their part; constitutional, economic, and generational.

Scotland is determined to remain in the EU and voted to do so. In Northern Ireland, the leave vote effectively abrogated the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The Agreement had been overwhelmingly approved in referendums held both sides of the border. English voters alone have put it at risk. The contradictions are obvious.

Though the outcome is uncertain, there are huge risks to inward investment and exports, in both goods and services, if we leave the single market. The process of Brexit itself promises to be phenomenally expensive. There is little doubt that we will become poorer as a nation. What effect will that have?

Finally, the young voted overwhelmingly to remain. They are the future. In the longer term, will they fall into line with the new dispensation? It is possible. But it is also possible that a new political generation will reject national conservatism, and that it will merely be a brief interregnum for troubled times. That is also where hope lies.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

"You don't know what you're doing!"

What a man in search of a trade deal - any trade deal - will do. Here is Boris Johnson, our inexplicable Foreign Secretary, pledging to support Turkish entry into the European Union. This in the wake of the repression following the coup, with tens of thousands imprisoned on political charges. Elif Shafak describes what it is like,
Intimidation and paranoia permeate Turkish society. We are afraid to write. We are afraid to talk. Never before have we been so scared of words and their repercussions. If the government does not control this purge, it will not only cause injustices that will take decades to heal, but also weaken the credibility of legitimate efforts against putschists.
However, Mr Johnson has other reasons, he is apparently the “proud possessor of a beautiful, very well-functioning Turkish washing machine.” Cynthia Kroet comments,
Johnson’s relationship with Ankara has not always been so friendly. In May, prior to his appointment to the role of foreign secretary, Johnson won a poetry prize for a rude limerick about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan having sex with a goat.
But then hang on a minute. Is this the same Johnson who fought a campaign to leave the EU, partly based on the dangers of Turkish entry into the EU? The same campaign that denied that we had a veto over Turkish entry (fact check - we do)? It prompted this response in a Facebook post by Guy Verhofstadt, the flamboyant former Prime Minister of Belgium, leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament and frequent scourge of Nigel Farage.
So Boris Johnson wants to help Turkey join the EU, after he just campaigned for the UK to leave the EU on the basis that Turkey would be joining the EU in the near future. The UK defence Minister today says the UK Government will block EU efforts to enhance its security capabilities, even though the UK is leaving the EU, yet they say they want an enhanced security relationship with the EU after Brexit. Liam Fox, the UK trade minister, has indicated the UK will leave the EU's customs union, because he thinks other markets are more important, yet his Prime Minister tells us that the EU27 "will sign" an ambitious trade deal with the UK. Politics never fails to surprise me!
This act of self harm is going well, isn't it?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Leadership

Of course he will win again.

Let's forget the politics for a moment. There are long debates that need to be had, not just about the future of the Labour Party, but of left politics itself. This post isn't about them. Instead, I want to draw on personal experience.

During my working career I have often encountered poor management. It hasn't always been the case; some of my managers have been superb. If you are really lucky, you end up with a star. Sometimes you get people with strengths and weaknesses, sometimes you work for the mediocre, but on rare occasions you get a new manager who is catastrophic. They are so bad that they threaten the very existence of the organisation. Then what do you do? It's an impossible choice.

You start by keeping your head down, getting on with the job, and making sure that everything runs well. It's a bit galling when managers claim credit for all your hard work, when you know that successes have been achieved despite, not because of, management. But then the drip, drip of mistake after mistake, of stupidity repeated, of reputational harm, of antagonism and unpleasantness, reaches breaking point. At that moment you can do one of two things. You can internalise the problem and make yourself ill, or you can take action and rebel. I have done both. And both failed.

There is not a lot you can do to rebel. You can use the union to snipe away at small issues, but the main tool is to hold a vote of no confidence. The expectation is that if the management has any sense of personal honour or obligation they would resign, or, if not, their superiors in the power hierarchy would take action. Think again. Every time we passed one, the management ignored it, admitted no fault, blamed others, issued vague threats to what they saw as a rebellious and disloyal staff, but magnanimously said that we could be forgiven for telling the truth as long as we stopped doing so and did what we were told. Does this sound familiar?

This is why I take the Labour leadership election personally. I've been there. I know what it is like for the PLP. For nearly a year those who had to work under Corbyn's leadership faced a number of mini-crises without snapping. But it was the Brexit failure and Corbyn's unilateral call to immediately activate Article 50, without consultation or any real understanding of the complexities of Brexit, which was the moment that people sat back and thought that something must be done. (Even more bizarrely he denied doing so in the leadership debates although anybody can see the clip on YouTube). The bulk of the Shadow Cabinet resigned, the Parliamentary Party passed an overwhelming vote of no confidence, even his impressive personally chosen team of economic advisors resigned. All said the same thing. The leader's office was a shambles, they had been personally undermined, the media strategy was a mess, there was no consultation or coordination, it was impossible to get to talk to Corbyn, he was unable to take criticism and unwilling to listen, he showed no leadership skills and was an improbable prime ministerial candidate. Basically, he and his team were useless. In addition, the polls were consistently bad and his personal polling was catastrophic. It was clear that Labour was heading for the sort of defeat that is hard to recover from.

The result? Nothing. He ignored it all and carried on regardless with a small band of unimpressive loyalists. If a government is defeated in a no confidence motion, it has to resign, but the leader of a Parliamentary party, apparently not. So the next stage was a leadership challenge.

Owen Smith hasn't impressed. His undermining of Angela Eagle dismayed me, his strategy was poor, his inexperience showed, but at least he was prepared to try in a way others weren't. This points to the other problem, the inadequacy of the alternatives that opened the way for the experiment of the Corbyn leadership. And Corbyn is unbeatable at the moment, given his support within the membership. This is the oddest part of it.

Whenever I was involved in trying to get rid of bad management, those higher up in the hierarchy rallied round to support them against the workers. This time it is a mass of people outside the power structure who want to preserve Corbyn.

I cannot for the life of me understand the enthusiasm, idolatry and uncritical hero worship of the 'Corbynistas'. I dislike and distrust the adulation of political leaders per se. It marks a suspension of healthy sentiments like scepticism, judgement and doubt. Sometimes it can be pathological, especially when it becomes Manichean where all opponents of the beloved leader are enemies, traitors and, ominously, "red Tory scum." I look at the upturned faces at his rallies, burning with admiration at every mumbled platitude, happy to bathe in his banality, and it strikes me that this whole phenomenon is so divorced from reality as to be bat-shit crazy. I haven't put in any links in the post so far, though I could have used millions. Instead, I will point to this one piece by a Greek leftist, Alex Andreou. It's excellent. This paragraph captures the essence of the problem:
... my impression from many hundreds of discussions, is that post-Iraq, all competence and charisma has become a confused proxy for ruthlessness and deceit. To manage is to engage in "managerialism". To win is a sign of immorality. And that, I think, is the true source of my impasse with many Corbyn supporters. I see his incompetence and intransigence as fatal flaws; they see them as guarantees of purity. 
As Andreou says,
Labour is a party plagued by Magical Thinking. Reality has disappeared from view. Oblivion beckons.
This is a disaster. Politics is not a game. It is vital, and a strong Labour Party is needed. The real lives of ordinary people depend on it. Unfortunately, a large section of the Party has abandoned intelligence, and are ignoring the experience and judgement of elected Members of Parliament in favour of their fantasies. The result is that they are supporting the management against the workers and calling it "true socialism." They are replicating the actions of the authorities who ensured that our rebellions ended in failure. And we were proved right far too often. Sometimes our problems were fatal.

The question of the future of the left in Europe is really difficult, but I can assure you that one way to solve the conundrum is not to have the Labour Party lead by someone who is a living example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

UPDATE

An excellent account of the failure of the leadership challenge here. Well worth reading. It shows something else that I found as well in working life. However inept managers were at the real job, they knew how to cling on to it - ruthlessly.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Revolting populism

I've been enjoying my break in Greece and have neglected most of my writing, including this blog.

I want to pick it up again because of something that I have noticed more and more. It's becoming a bit of conventional wisdom amongst some on the left. This is the idea that both Brexit and the support for Trump are mainly benign working class rebellions. This article by Martin Jaques is a typical example.

It uses a superficial definition of populism:
This popular revolt is often described, in a somewhat denigratory and dismissive fashion, as populism. Or, as Francis Fukuyama writes in a recent excellent essay in Foreign Affairs: “‘Populism’ is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like.” Populism is a movement against the status quo.
Then he puts Brexit into that category.
Brexit is a classic example of such populism. It has overturned a fundamental cornerstone of UK policy since the early 1970s. Though ostensibly about Europe, it was in fact about much more: a cri de coeur from those who feel they have lost out and been left behind, whose living standards have stagnated or worse since the 1980s, who feel dislocated by large-scale immigration over which they have no control and who face an increasingly insecure and casualised labour market. Their revolt has paralysed the governing elite, already claimed one prime minister, and left the latest one fumbling around in the dark looking for divine inspiration.
And desperate to fit the Trump and Brexit phenomena into his class analysis he asserts,
Brexit, too, was primarily a working-class revolt.
We still don't have a proper academic study of voter behaviour in the referendum, but three things are apparent from a look at the figures and they don't bear Jaques out.

1. The working class Brexit vote was subject to the same demographic divides as the vote as a whole. It was weaker amongst younger voters and in the major cities, and was strongest in marginal or "left behind" areas. It was the product of a divided, not united working class.

2. Despite the presence of this vote, it was a minority in the Brexit vote as a whole. Far more votes piled up in the prosperous areas of the South than they did in poorer areas of the North. This was not primarily a working class revolt, it was a quintessential Conservative revolt. It's main base was affluent, suburban and rural, older voters.

3. That revolt was supported by a substantial number working class voters whose discontents have been ignored and whose views have been patronised.

I think that this is important too, however real the basis of working class voters discontent is, it does not mean that they are right about the solution. Trump and Farage are not their saviours. The interests they promote are those of the wealthy. Leaving the EU and curtailing immigration will not improve their lot and may make it worse.

What this working class sentiment does is present the political left with dilemmas. How do you gain the support of a large group of potential voters who have left Labour without alienating others? Thirty per cent of Labour voters may have voted to leave the EU, but that means seventy per cent voted to remain. How do you build a coalition with both? Without either, defeat is certain. In my eyes, too much conventional wisdom is favouring the minority, paying lip service to regressive sentiments. The poverty and insecurity that besets so many of these communities has to be decisively defeated, but how? We need intelligent engagement and respect, not empty slogans. It won't be easy. I doubt if EU membership is a high salience issue, but immigration certainly is. Once again, the answer lies in creating a credible alternative political economy. I see little sign of it at the moment.

The task is urgent. We should reject Jaques' flabby and superficial definition of populism. In this excellent piece, Jan-Werner Müller gets populism absolutely right.
There is a tragic irony in all this: populism in power commits the very political sins of which it accuses elites: excluding citizens and usurping the state. What the establishment supposedly has always done, populists will also end up doing. Only with a clear justification and, perhaps, even a clear conscience. Hence it is a profound illusion to think that populists, as potential leaders of Gray’s “revolt of the masses”, can improve our democracies. Populists are just different elites who try to grab power with the help of a collective fantasy of political purity.
It really is worth reading the article in full. Let's think historically. An alliance between disaffected workers and the petit-bourgeoisie was the class base of fascism. We aren't there today, but there are some unpleasant movements on the march. This isn't a time for complacency.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Monday, August 08, 2016

Movements

There are three very common political delusions that I see all the time.

1. Because I believe something, the majority of people believe the same.

2. Those that don't believe what I believe must be wrong (or evil).

3. What I believe is new, exciting and original. Those who don't think the same way are from a past that will disappear.

I ran into all three on social media the other day, when I was told that I was part of the problem that would be swept away by a new era. This wasn't comforting for a man in his sixties confronting mortality, but it did make me laugh.

The debate I was having was about reconstructing the Labour Party into a new social movement that would sweep it to power - eventually - after everyone else had cottoned on to the wonderful empowerment promised by a bunch of middle-class enthusiasts who like going to meetings.

Paul Mason is one of the prominent enthusiasts arguing for this. Disillusioned by Syriza and disappointed by Podemos, he has now turned to the Labour Party hoping for another Occupy moment. You see, this is the new politics that started around twenty years ago. OK, newish.
Labour could become — for the first time in its history — a mass, democratic and participatory opposition to the rule of the 1% that would be a major thing in the politics of the Western hemisphere: a social democratic husk transformed into a living, breathing counter-power...
Labour’s membership could create a new kind of politics: a more networked, more activist, and much more radical form of social democracy than has existed within Labour since the 1930s. A form of leftism rooted in the very communities where Labour is battling right wing populism, through community activism and grass roots engagement.
Except that I can't see much evidence of it. There are plenty of active social movements out there and they are creating new realities, but they aren't party political. They are setting up credit unions and LETS schemes. They are organising everything from tenants' associations, mother and toddler groups, adult education, environmental projects and the like. The growing Labour Party membership doesn't seem to be doing much of this. Nor do I see a flood of new ideas and policy initiatives coming from them. They don't even seem to do much of the hard graft of leafleting and getting out the vote. Instead they turn up to rallies and spend many hours in front of computers obsessively praising their leader and abusing his enemies. They are a noisy minority in the country, but strong in the Labour Party.

When I see what is happening now, I look back to the 1960s. There were fashionably optimistic theories knocking about then about how a one party state could be democratic if there was vigorous intra-party democracy. But most of all, I think of Richard Crossman's perceptive introduction to Bagehot's The English Constitution.
...since it could not afford ... to maintain a large army of paid party workers, the Labour Party required militants - politically conscious socialists to do the work of organising their constituencies. But since these militants tended to be 'extremists', a constitution was needed which maintained their enthusiasm by apparently creating a full party democracy while excluding them from effective power.
I am afraid nothing has changed. Sorry Momentum supporters, you are not a vehicle for a new participatory politics. Nobody is going hand power to you. You are being mobilised to maintain the power of a faction within the party, not to exercise it yourself. You are in thrall to old delusions, ones that will persist in future generations long after you have faded from the scene to pursue your own, comfortable lives.