if i were a big clever capitalist …

I wasn’t sure whether to say “big bad”, “big diabolical” or “big disingenuous” …

In the end, I’ve settled for “clever”.  It’s fairly neutral.  I could’ve chosen “ingenious” too.  Or maybe “self-serving”.  I’m sure each adjective tells a story of moral baggage; their choosing – or not – just as much.

So.  Anyway.  The one I’m plumping for is the one in the title.

If I were a big clever capitalist, what would I do?  Faced with the “threats” of Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn (shortly) in the UK, and a right-wing extremism which similarly serves to splinter received opinion everywhere (read the establishment’s power to decide what people are prepared to publicly think), I’d probably do something pretty much like what’s being done.

Less playing with fire, though.  And, now, with a much grander dose of urgency:

  1. For a couple of years I’d let austerity bite to a pretty savage degree, focussing on those who find it difficult to defend themselves in mainstream media.
  2. This would serve to create a narrative whereby the poor (whether in a condition to work or not) were to blame not only for their situation but also for the parlous state of an economy which once – many years ago – had journeyed hand-in-hand with a quite different narrative that stated it would aim to engage with the biggest majority possible (full employment; social security; health services for all etc).
  3. Meanwhile, I’d confuse the official parliamentary opposition into shutting up about the injustice of blaming the poor for their poverty, so making it impossible for the aforementioned opposition to develop any substantial counter-narrative.
  4. Once I’d undermined the poor’s sense of self-worth, and the opposition’s sense of right and wrong, I’d proceed to make the reasonably well-off a tad nervous about the privilege they were beginning to learn how to count.
  5. The goal of all the above being, of course, to keep everyone – whether poor or reasonably well-off – on very uneasy voters’ toes.
  6. Come general election time, the risks of “austerity lite” – ie austerity operated by people not entirely convinced by anything, it would seem – meant that “austerity full-on” was bound to win the day.  (Well.  Actually, 901 voters won the day – but that’s a bit of a different story …)
  7. This would then lead to a pendulum swing for the opposition itself, as halfway houses were shown to have failed dismally.  No “lite” anything – not any more.  Balance and equilibrium in reply had manifested substantial failure.  What was needed, instead, was “something else full-on”, to battle violently against what we assume to be Capital’s unremitting idiocy.
  8. Here, however, we come to the big clever capitalist bit.  Playing with fire, it’s true, as consciousness amongst those most hit by “austerity full-on” begins to come together, and as time is left for cogent contra-argument to find its mainstream.  But let’s imagine the following was the process; the following was the thinking of the big clever capitalist I would gladly become:
    1. Kick people into desperation through a manufactured austerity.
    2. Generate interest in all kinds of alternatives to traditional capitalism.
    3. Allow society to splinter into two grand blocs: a) the “haves” who slowly begin to fear they might one day not; b) the “have nots” who’ve little clear idea how to achieve anything concrete any more.
    4. Make bloc b) gravitate to a politics easily described as extreme (even though of extremist thinking we could surely argue any austerity has more than its fair share), so bringing together in full view of bloc a) the neighbours, friends and family who’d happily sign up to the terror of a democracy where the “have nots” can effect something concrete.
    5. Once the two blocs are delineated, and the differences and loyalties are sharp, and even as we recognise this is dangerously playing with fire, roll out in dribs and drabs – slowly, but ever so slowly – ameliorations of the nastiness that has been deliberately employed to put people out of dignified work.

I know.  It’s all too organised, structured and planned for any of the above to really tell useful truths.  But unconditional basic income (UBI), as an alternative to traditional capitalism, is a form of neo-capitalism that could maintain the former just about as is.

What’s the real problem for traditional capitalism structures when it comes to the figure of semi-permanent austerity?  Why, the lack of regular income streams which simultaneously serve to keep people more or less in place.

Fairly hard work – not very hard, just hard enough – was enough to keep us in the weekend money and weekly drudge without complaining too much.

In the future absence of such types of work (not only for technological reasons; also because of the capitalism I’ve been describing today), we not only lose our weekend money, we also begin to suffer a 19th century weekly drudge that, once more, truly means we have nothing to lose but our chains.

Yet imagine how that might completely change with a minimum level of unconditional, state-delivered and sanctioned comfort.

Imagine what would happen if the “austerity full-on” right decided, little by little, to trundle out such change.  They’d sell it as an anti-poverty measure, of course, and in essence that is what it would do.  Nevertheless, it would also, in reality and primarily, serve the needs of traditional capitalism to have a continuous supply of solvent customers.

They wouldn’t trundle it out before Jeremy Corbyn broke the back of a Labour Party whose back has already been broken, and whose cracks have been ineptly papered over, several times in the past twenty years.  No.  Politically, expediently, cleverly (to use that word again), the right would wait for Labour to fully tear itself apart.

But the cementing of any opposition’s final destruction – exactly what Peter Mandelson dreamed of with respect to the Tories all those New Labour years ago, but in reverse – would surely be on the table for Cameron & Co.

By cruelly allowing the dispossessed to clamour intelligently over the next couple of years for a place at the top table, and then carefully spinning the introduction of a radical initiative like UBI (which to an eternally “sensible” voting public such as the British could be made to seem a perfect squaring of all these complex circles), the right would not only beat Jeremy Corbyn but would also knock the labour movement into a corner it had openly chosen to paint itself: the corner where coherence born of long-suffering frustration led to the nailing of flags to masts of unchanging political analysis.

Capitalism’s strength once more: to renew its appearance and potential desirability, even as its practice has been generating its ugliest moments.

So.  To summarise.

If I were a big clever capitalist, most of the above is how I’d be planning to beat a labour movement, and parliamentary opposition, led by the figure of Jeremy Corbyn.

But then since I’m not, who am I to say?

two stats – and a defence of ed miliband’s bathwater?

Two sets of stats to contextualise my thesis this evening.

In 2005 in England, Labour under Tony Blair – in Blair’s last election as leader, an election he and Labour won for the third time – the Party achieved 8,043,461 votes.

Meanwhile, in 2015 in England, Labour under Ed Miliband – in Miliband’s only election as leader, an election he and Labour proceeded to lose painfullythe Party achieved 8,087,684 votes.

Simultaneously, from 2005 to 2015 the Lib Dem vote collapsed from 5,201,286 to 2,098,404.  That’s over 3 million votes less.

And separately, only 901 votes needed to have changed for the Tories to have been deprived of an absolute majority.

I’ve seen people on the right-wing of the Party arguing over the past couple of days that Ed Miliband afforded himself the luxury of a massive political – read particularly wonkish – experiment on the progressive people of Britain.

Unlike, say, the experiments of austerity and trickle-down economics which have been committed over the past forty-odd years.

Yes.  I know.  You’ll be accusing me now of whataboutery.  What about this?  What about that?  But here, I do feel it’s relevant.

I’ve been speaking to people recently and watching what others say in public.  As I tweeted earlier in the day:

I’ve seen it beginning to happen, and it saddens me – it does.  As the grand Patrick Wintour piece in the Guardian quoted recently (the bold is mine):

“Just as it would have been foolish to trash everything about New Labour, it would be similarly foolish to throw away what was good about Ed’s leadership,” Tom Baldwin said. “At its best, it faced up to the big challenge of progressive politics in the 21st century, which is how to achieve the goals of social justice in an era when we can’t spend. Even Tony Blair said Ed had been right to put inequality back on the agenda. Ed’s leadership struggled with the tension between building a new offer of change while also trying not to define ourselves entirely against the preceding three terms of Labour government, in which he played a considerable part. This was a tough puzzle and, despite all our efforts, one we never really solved.”

So you know exactly where I stand, I’m still generous enough to say New Labour’s political and intellectual curiosity about the world was sufficiently ingenious and productive to be worth revisiting – even today, even in hindsight.  The decisions its leaders took – Iraq being a prime case of whataboutery I’m sure you’ll be expecting me to mention – would not be; indeed, are not.

PFI was also a desperate, cack-handed measure to put the roofs back on the schools and the hospitals after Thatcherite idiocy – a measure I’m not sure Blair & Co would have been terribly unhappy about, even if they had known (or, actually, did they?) that they would be crippling future public-sector provision, as they delivered it long-term into the hands of private profit.

In the context of the above two examples … yes, it’s easy hindsight of course.  But even as we accept it’s very easy, the decisions New Labour took were by far the easiest ones to take as well.  It didn’t stand up to Bush’s dreadful regime; it didn’t stand up to the social needs of higher education; it didn’t stand up to Murdoch or any of the other big media empires; it didn’t stand up to the regulatory soft-touch the financial-services sector demanded; for God’s sake, it didn’t even stand up to the fundamental interests of utility companies and the services none of us can avoid using.

What it did do was lay the ground rules and carefully tend to the playing-fields Cameron & Co would enjoy five years on.

From 2010, Labour did make a mistake.  In a sense, no one cared to value any part of New Labour.  Yet Blair was Blair I, II and III.  And whilst no one cared for Blair III, as reality slowly emerged and seeped out from Iraq et al, Blair I surely still – even today – should serve to maintain its charm, fascination and interest for anyone wishing to win British voters back for Labour.

Equally, I’d argue, as a self-confessed adherent of Ed Miliband, that early on he appeared to want something different in modern politics: the language of conversation and dialogue, not warring parties and machines and political engineering.  There was wisdom too in the motto of One Nation Labour, before it was abandoned out of weariness, incapacity or simply a wider lack of vision.

But just as we shouldn’t have discarded Blair I, so the promise maybe some of us saw in early Miliband – even when blessed hindsight indicates now that it was never to be – should not be ignored nor forgotten either.  Apart from anything else, we live in a different world from New Labour: in fact New Labour didn’t start in 1997 but, rather, at least five years before – perhaps a decade, perhaps as early as 1987 – as its prime movers began to cogitate their political theories, positions and strategies … and how exactly to implement them.

The world we live in lends itself less and less to the language of machines and political engineering; more and more to the technology of connectedness.  And connectedness means hundreds and thousands of disparate networks that only come together when people, wanting to, push them in the same direction.

If the old New Labourites, as well as those who – without any real understanding of what it all really meant – simply love the idea of winning again, think all they need to do is transplant the Tory view of life – its button-pressing message-drilling mechanisation of humanity – to the heart of the Labour psyche again … well, I honestly think you’re all very foolish in your intentions – and ultimately in your beliefs.

The networks we now lay down and form a part of need to be enabled and facilitated – not gathered close to one, imposed upon nor taken for granted.  Just as early Miliband was moving towards this, just as Blair I managed charismatically to make us believe was the case (even when it really wasn’t; even when sofa politicking & policy-making would soon take charge), so leadership at all levels – a leadership where people learn to act out of productive unity but not in vacuous uniformity – can be an experiment truly worth pursuing.

Yes.  To propose this is to run the risk of exhibiting a wonkish nature, it is true perhaps.  But, equally, in the right hands, and I sincerely believe it’s possible for them to exist, it can be a very humane, much needed and essentially election-winning process.

A process where the destination would be more than satisfactory for us all.

As well as, possibly, self-renewing.

No.  Ed’s Labour didn’t get the most important thing right.

But it did get many important things spot-on.  And it’s even arguable that what it got precisely right led to its ultimate downfall.

So let’s build on this – not forget it.


the purloined letter of british politics (or how the tories won the social argument)

Labour lost the last general election painfully.

This, from the Guardian‘s Patrick Wintour, indicates exactly by how much.  Brutally and perhaps unfairly sketched, the bubble that wonkish leaders of all parties acquire leads to a disconnect from reality.  Just because you have four million doorstep conversations with voters doesn’t mean the message you think you’re transmitting four million times is the one that’s being received.

Sadly, and despite all the social-media tech, Labour didn’t only continue politics’ age-old habit of broadcasting its positions (with some honourable exceptions – the trend-bucking constituency of Chester where I live being one interesting example worthy of further discussion and debate), it also stopped having conversations from scratch.

The script, the spiel, the positions were in fact set in #EdStone

In hindsight, quite despite my own equally filtered perception at the time, it was a revealing self-analysis of how monolithic Labour’s instincts really were.

So.  Where are we at today?  After the grieving of losing a generation-, maybe a quarter-of-a-century-, defining election, what must we do to be able to carry on?

Firstly, accept the Tories have won all of the arguments – even, in particular, most importantly perhaps for the gentler souls we progressives are, the social arguments.  Secondly, suspect they may only win them in practice if we decide to accept they have won them.

A little too oracle-like for your liking?

Let me try and explain.

Labour’s failure at the election has been primarily interpreted as one of leadership: Ed Miliband’s.  I think I agree.  That is to say, I think it was a matter of leadership – but not just Ed’s.  Ours, as supporters, members and voters as well.

In Chester, this was not the case.  Here we had a very strong candidate: personable, cross-political, decent, respectful, hard-working – above all, a man who shows he listens and actively acts on what he hears.  And such leadership as I describe from Chris Matheson helped both circumscribe and motivate & inspire – that is to say, open up – the leadership expressed by ordinary people at all levels during the campaigning.

Contrast the national experience with the local: whilst Chris’s success was due to a number of happy factors coinciding, where he did not sell us short was in his understanding of modern leadership: not declamatory, not 19th century kings-and-queens leadership; no, something else – he enabled our better instincts.

He encouraged us all to become leaders – in amongst our local and personal networks, in amongst our local and personal selves.

Ed, too, for me at least, was looking to be that enabling and facilitating 21st century politician.

The failure that took place, then, the dramatic disconnect, was his inability not to proclaim Blair-like his charismatic positions (Chris didn’t take that route either, interestingly) but, rather, to convince us it was worth our time and energy to follow him into the challenge of shared leadership.

Labour failed not only because of Ed’s leadership as traditionally understood but also because none of the rest of us found it in ourselves (for whatever reason) to show enough leadership alongside.

That’s how I see it anyhow.

That’s what I think went fundamentally wrong.

Now to the subject of today’s post: the Tories, and their winning of the social argument.

It’s analogous to the case of Labour and Ed.

As Wintour concludes (the bold is mine):

Miliband’s closest advisers are aware of how quickly, and dramatically, his own legacy will now be discarded. “Just as it would have been foolish to trash everything about New Labour, it would be similarly foolish to throw away what was good about Ed’s leadership,” Tom Baldwin said. “At its best, it faced up to the big challenge of progressive politics in the 21st century, which is how to achieve the goals of social justice in an era when we can’t spend. […]”

Yet, in reality, whilst seen as one undeniable plus of the Miliband era, whilst he framed the questions brilliantly, it was the Tories who were seen as providing the answers.

Take this story from today’s Independent:

Hailey Ford, a 9-year-old girl from Bremerton, Washington, is hard at work building 11 small homes for the homeless.

She has been putting in weeks of work on the shelters, drilling down bases, installing windows and cutting insulation.

“It just doesn’t seem right that there are homeless people,” Hailey told KING 5 News. “I think everyone should have a place to live.”

Yep.  It’s the blessed – or not so blessed – Big Society come to bite us in the bum again.

People who do, instead of just bewail.

People who act in the real world, instead of warn us – doomingly – of the evil consequences of this or that.

That’s what the Tories have been saying all along.

That’s been the subtext since 2010 – and maybe earlier.

It hasn’t changed.  Yet like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, it’s been sitting all this time on the mantelpiece of British politics – in complete full view of an unseeing, at least unbelieving, public.

And the reality we’ve refused to take onboard?

“There is no money available which those who own the world’s wealth are prepared to release for humanity: for community, for livelihoods, for ordinary men, women and children.”  This is the brutal, cruel, disgraceful reality.  And there’s little we can do about it.

Little realistically, anyhow.

Or is there?

I tweeted the following this morning:

And I wondered if:

To be honest, I think there’s something else.  I don’t really think I’ll ever be a small “c” conservative.  I think what’s happening here is that we’ve allowed “disruption” to become sexier than “collaborating”.  And I think it’s time we revised our opinions.

Just as much as Ed Miliband’s Labour needed our fairly non-existent leadership qualities in order to operate as it should’ve done, so Cameron’s future governance will heavily require our ability to work with him on his project of devolving local governance even further.

For that’s what his purloined letter is really all about: he’s not a Thatcherite in this either.

Thatcher didn’t believe in society, did believe in greed as a fundamental driver.

Cameron, meanwhile, whilst covering all his business-crony bases, nevertheless does see beyond the dirtiness of Thatcher’s rather more limited vision: in Cameron’s world, each of us, personally and individually, must take charge of our own duty to lead.

If we in Chester want to make a success of local governance, we cannot depend on anyone else to do it for us.

It will be the same across the country: cruelly so but truly so.

And the bitter pill we will have to swallow, barely into the jaws of a political defeat so hurtful, is that in order to be successful in our own radii of action, we have to accept that Cameron was right.