Thursday, 19 January 2017

Time to ditch Corbyn?

If you listen carefully, you'll hear the murmurs in the ranks. Maybe, just maybe, it's time to ditch Corbyn.

Here are four reasons this would be a bad idea. Not to say his leadership is "working" in any conventional sense. The data is clear and widely known. Labour is tanking everywhere. He is widely unpopular with everyone outside his base. There is no clear policy on either of the two most important issues - Brexit and, related, immigration.

But here in brief are the five reasons to keep Corbyn for now - reasons that anyone (left or right) who wants to see the long-term existence of the Labour Party maintained should at least consider.

1. Good things are - very slowly - happening below Labour's surface. The membership appears to still be increasing. People are getting active in the party - albeit unevenly. Broad positions on investment, industrial strategy, fiscal and monetary policy are being sketched. New ideas are bleeding through. Excellent, young (admittedly mostly left wing) MPs are coming through - Angela Rayner, Kate Osamor, Rebecca Long Bailey, Cat Smith, Clive Lewis. This deep rejuvenation of the Party is vital in the long-run.

2. Corbyn could straddle the divide between liberal and 'left behind' voters in a progressive way and keep just enough of Labour's voter coalition intact during the Brexit process for Labour to survive. Corbyn is moderately eurosceptic, liberal and in economic terms an interventionist. Only that combination can appeal to both sides.

3. If another leader were in place - say, Chuka Umunna, Owen Smith or Yvette Cooper - all evidence suggests Labour would be offering another referendum on Europe and curbs to freedom of movements. In other words, the David Cameron 2015 position. This would be a disaster for many obvious reasons.

4. Yet another leadership contest would hit Labour's polling and demoralise activists. Corbyn has a mandate and his leadership has to be allowed to play itself out.

It's true that Labour has no clear position on either Brexit or immigration, but that's less because of Corbyn and more because of the many conflicting views in the party. Just as the Tory vote has been firmed up by Brexit, Labour's has been fractured. Changing the leader won't help.

It is worth recalling that Corbyn's policies are broadly very popular. But people don't believe he can implement them. There are two possible reasons for this and they are always at play when socialist parties propose radical changes in a neoliberal context:
1. People don't trust the political process - from the individual politicians to the institutions. They don't think politics does what it should and they don't see Corbyn as a break from that.
2. People don't believe that radical but desirable policies can be implemented in a time when market power predominates over the state. 

Corbyn's issue is that either he personally is incapable of delivering in his promises or the system in which he's participating will not yield those reforms to him. Corbyn has a lot of baggage and his early days as leader were not exactly persuasive. But it will take time before someone on a surer footing, younger and better able to play politics, can sell Corbyn's popular policies in a way that makes people believe they can really be implemented. 

Corbyn deserves another year. Then he - and all of us who want a radical Labour government - need to decide.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Brexit is a Simulation

The craftiest thing Theresa May's government could do right now is follow through with exactly what it's promising. To disguise itself as itself. Where the default position is cynicism, no one will ever expect the Tories not to be lying, not to be concealing some hidden motive.

Official Brexit so far has been tantalisingly, provocatively ambiguous. 'Brexit means Brexit' had a double function - as a reassurance to leave voters, and as a sort of coy provocation to the press. All the liberal hair pulling last year about this slippery turn of phrase was really just a refusal to see the obvious. Brexit means 'hard Brexit.' The opposition of the latter to some fantastic alternative -'soft Brexit', 'non-Brexit' - was always a mere disavowed hope of despairing liberals.

Brexit means hard Brexit because there was never really any other Brexit - speak to anyone, especially the angry pleb-types on Question Time, and they knew what they meant by Brexit. This was the problem with the assumption that Brexit could be shaped, because it was just a 'howl of pain from the void', one that could be answered with either the angelic voice of liberalism or the angry puffed up face of populism. People knew exactly what they wanted and the issues weren't 'too complex for democracy.' People assumed the economic hit of leaving the single market was worth the punt. And that's what the government is now doing - with 39 percent backing. That figure represents both those who now back a hard Brexit and the Tories' current vote share. There's a near perfect, reactionary alignment on the right of politics. And it means Brexit.

Voters back the Tories over Labour by a ratio of three to one deliver on the Brexit referendum. Sceptical remainers warned this would happen: leaving the EU would re-unite the Tories, much of the British establishment, and many of the voters who left them for UKIP. It would leave an already weakened centre-left floundering and embittered, while the radical left would be the primary victim for its frustrations. As long as Brexit remains the key divide in British politics, Labour is bound to lose. Brexit added to an infection that was already debilitating for Labour - coarsening a split amongst its factions that might otherwise have stayed hidden. Just as the right has stiffened its resolve, the left of British politics and its old alliances with the liberal centre are, structurally speaking, a mess.

But to paraphrase that most cliched of pop-postmodernists (after all we live in a cliched version of a postmodern dystopia) Jean Baudrillard: Brexit is a simulation - it relates to no underlying Real. As any philosophy bro waxing lyrical about Nietzsche and shit at your first year party will tell you, reality no longer exists.

"To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have. One implies a presence, the other an absence," Baudrillard (probably) says. All I'm arguing is that we should openly partake of this honest naivety. Today's critics of May all leapt at the chance to accuse her of wanting to have her cake and eat it. Well, why not? What else is she supposed to want? What's the alternative? The faux-realism of the 'grown-ups' - the AC Graylings of the world - who keep piously insisting that Brexiters will crash back down to earth when they realise they've shaved a couple of percent off GDP? I'd rather the apocalyptic naivety. It's always far better in politics to promise the impossible than tut and tell people to grow up. Politics is fuelled not by sensible men saying sensible things but precisely by impossible demands. 

But of course there is a Real and it's my belief that the Real comes back to bite you. Not in the form of the apocalypse - the climate crisis is taking care of that - but as a world-historical anti-climax. Brexit - to Grayling's credit - probably does mean two percent shaved off some phantasm of projected future wealth (what better example of a simulation?). It probably does mean a hit to the British economy. And it means other bad things too, though that depends on your subject position: for migrants, for the poor, for those who don't have savings or investments or property. For me. But fuck all that - Brexit really means something slightly tedious for most. It means some imaginary future Polish shop won't open. It means an imaginary future Labour government won't get elected. It means the minimal change May can make to our migration policies and the minimal hit to the economy she can get away with. It means Germany looking just tough enough and controls on immigration looking just militarised enough.

But enough is never enough. It never hits the spot. Because the more you crack down on migration, the more the thirst for it grows. That's the problem with a perverse fixation - you don't cure it by feeding it. Each hit needs to be bigger. 

Brexit will mean the Tories win the next election. Brexit will do just enough to keep reality feeling real. And then the same lingering disappointment with our shitty lives will kick in and we'll want to do something else, something more. And we'll go stumbling in to the next world-shaking crisis. Want to imagine the future? Imagine the tedium of Tory government forever, rocked only occasionally by sudden, inexplicable spasms of rage, before life returns to dull normality, only this time a little crueler. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Farewell Free Movement?

It has been a strange day for the Labour leadership team, with the new 'populist' Jeremy Corbyn coming off rather a lot like death bed-era New Labour.

There was the 'human touch' tweet involving "teaching" Piers Morgan about Arsene Wenger. Then the pre-briefed volte-face on Freedom of Movement. The strained morning sofa appearances. The semi-retraction cum botched explanation that Corbyn hadn't "changed his mind" on immigration (just maybe his policy - or then again maybe not). A raft of other "thinking aloud" moments. And all this before the trailed speech had even been given.

So, for those still listening, where does Corbyn now stand on immigration? The answer is - exactly the same place. Only striking a slightly different pose. This is one problem that populists sometimes run into: with the emphasis on rhetoric, we are supposed to suspend concerns about substance. But eventually the posturing of populists can lead to exactly the same cynicism it's designed to counter.

Now, there's also the specific problem of thinking you can talk your way out of the "immigration issue." Blair once promised "tough immigration laws that work." He policed borders. He went after "illegitimate" asylum seekers and opportunistic economic migrants. New Labour created much of the Right's anti-immigrant language.

At its best populism creates new cleavages between the majority and the elite few. It is able to name its political enemies and isolate them. Needless to say this has risks. But it is important to accept that in politics there are enemies and we should call them out - the billionaires, the oligarchs, the tax dodgers and the political elite. Bernie Sanders does all this very well. But its limits can be seen in the wink-wink-nudge-nudge discursive contortions of Podemos. What they call "transversalism" sometimes just looks like a fudge. Trump's asset is his clarity. Left-wingers looking to dodge difficult questions with a rhetorical gloss end up backed into a corner.

Corbyn has sunk rapidly into the latter group. His stance on immigration risks satisfying no one. While much of the public want 'answers' to immigration 'problems', this sounds like New Labour waffle. There is nothing to say people will believe anything Labour says about migration, even and perhaps especially if it starts announcing targets.

Also, it's not at all clear if the public appetite for migration controls can really be  satisfied, as if all the migrant bashing will end if numbers dip below 250,000 or even 100,000. There's of course the small economic matter that fewer migrants will reduce GDP, see a fall in employment, reduce the tax base, and lead to more poverty. But besides the 'material' side of it, there is the fact that sadism is by nature unquenchable.

Corbyn was confusing and looked insincere. He managed to remain pro-FoM throughout the entire Brexit campaign. His new tone just sounds off. Labour won't be wooing back thousands of disenchanted white people on the strength of this.

Meanwhile, the liberal centre and the hard right are revelling in Corbyn's supposed ditched principles. He's given the worst people in the British media further fuel and in the worst, disorganised, Thick of It way.

Although I wrote at the time of the EU referendum that I thought freedom of movement should be defended, I don't want it to be the sword the left dies on. Immigration has many upsides and almost no downsides. The few negative effects that can feasibly be attributed to it can be counteracted by a decent government with a constructive industrial policy. My evidence for all this was a recent LSE report (link below). Moreover, migration is a good for labour as such: if capital is free to move, labour must be too. Otherwise wages really do become a race to the bottom, with capital free to choose the lowest wage areas.

But with Theresa May content for Britain to leave the single market, a change to Britain's migration system is assured. Free movement between Europe and the UK is effectively dead already. This a cold political fact. Jeremy Corbyn is perhaps attempting to communicate that truth today. But his intervention lacked clarity to say the least.

The speech was overshadowed by Corbyn's precise language on immigration and the meaning of legal cap on pay - but perhaps that was the idea. Part of me wonders if Corbyn's whimsy has just been the beginning of an apparently spontaneous (though secretly tightly managed) process of flooding the press with contradictory ideas designed to spur on the base a la Trump's Tweetstorms. But then I remember: no, that's  just Corbyn. No doubt someone somewhere has called yet again for his resignation. The one good thing is, as these haphazard media appearances multiply, people aren't even listening to those siren voices any more.

People in Corbyn's camp need to do some serious thinking soon: do they want to gain a point or two in Opinium's latest poll, or do they want to set the party on a forward path that can feasibly persuade people of social democratic solutions in the longer term?