A facebook critique of the Corbyn project


“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.

It’s been a big week. As with many posts, I’m adapting this from a facebook comment, and hoping to preserve it so I can remember what the hell I was thinking. If you’re reading it, know that you are secondary, puny audience.

I wanted to put up a quick critique of the Corbyn political project which maps some of the arguments typically employed by supporters – I have lost track of what the professional part of the project itself is trying to get across, to be honest. At least this smokescreen/fog of war type approach has some kind of communicative value!

Just to explain the contest, a friend who is a Corbynite posted a link to this video, and criticised it for bowing to the frame of electability, where Corbyn should, according to said friend as I understand him, not have to justify himself, but instead confront the value of the argument used by Corbyn’s critics. It’s worth a watch.

I think whether people value the frame of ‘electability’ is a key conceptual divide and contradiction among Corbynites (for there are many of those). It is also the key ‘weapon’ of his critics on the right of the party who suspect he is vulnerable, and an important ‘concern’ for critics who comre from a soft left or Gramscian perspective.

From this angle (one I share), Corbynism represents a ‘primitive historic bloc’ – or to put it simply, something that represents a ‘good start’ for the left in terms of establishing its ideas and leadership, but only that. The real problem of the current juncture is that for some, this ‘good start’ has stalled, or started rolling down a hill with the handbrake on – a proper bloc can only be formed by building towards a social majority, but the project seems more concerned with holding support that it already has, to the extent that its ability to build seems crippled.

For those critics Corbyn has who are of the left rather than the centre, a failure of electability overlaps heavily with this concept, and is also conveniently wielded as a weapon by those who are fundamentally hostile to Corbyn’s ideology. If his backers were in a listening position over the last few months, this would have been taken on board and responded to. Instead however the response has been ultra defensive and has largely walled off the leader himself, behind a cotery of like-minded advisers and thousands of activists who don’t really do nuance.

For a sensible person, his actual electability can be gauged to an extent, via polls and the like. But whether he is electable is neither here nor there – it’s the fact that having banged on about non-voters during the leadership election, he now doesn’t seem to understand or discuss how. And this applies to ‘persuading the populace’ as much as getting them to vote for you – in other words finding outsiders a place in the ‘bloc’. And this is deemed acceptable, nay, noble by the project as a whole. Why, I cannot understand.

What’s the theory of change?


So there are two types of challenge that more thinky-type Corbynites identify within the ‘electability’ frame – the inside challenge (Corbyn actually is electable and you aren’t giving him a chance) and the outside challenge (elections aren’t very important / elections are not important at all). Continue reading

Planning objection to plans to close the Queensury pub

I and my Labour colleagues campaigning in Willesden Green ward, Bernard Collier and Cllr Lesley Jones, are strongly opposing the demolition of a local pub, the Queensbury. You can find out more about the campaign to save it here.

Let’s face it folks. If I’m objecting to the demolition of a Conservative Club, I must have a good reason!

My formal objection to the proposals is below.

I oppose the demolition of the current building and plans to replace it for the following reasons:

1) This is an Asset of Community Value which warrants protection. The pub is used by local community organisations that have no alternative venue.

2) It currently houses one of the safest and most welcoming pubs in the area and is a positive draw. It raises the socio-economic profile of the area. There is a continuing risk that the developer will downgrade from A4 to A3 use and we end up with yet another coffee shop, knocking out the local balance in the area.

3) The building that stands is a local landmark, and a positive one.

4) The current building is in fitting with surrounding styles, whereas that proposed is not, and is furthermore out of fitting with the adjacent Mapesbury Conservation Area.

5) The car parking area behind the present building provides plenty of room for housing – us of the whole site is not necessary either commercially or socially.

6) In my view, there is not sufficient social or affordable housing within the proposed development. This makes arguments around provision of housing need far less valid, as does the refusal to build in the car park but allow the pub to stand.

7) The development is too high for the local area.

8) The Willesden area including both the High Road and Walm Lane are undergoing some degree of private sector led regeneration. But constructing flats over the site of a key local pull factor for young professionals actually represents a backward move from this  trend rather than a forward one.

I believe that the loss of local amenity will actually impede efforts to diversify the tenancy profile in the area and create a more mixed profile. This will mean the denial of economic benefits in the area in terms of both new tenants and also to the surrounding food establishments and shops, and as a whole will have a negative economic impact for the area, whereas the main positive impact will be to the developers.

The development is a backwards step and is actively anti-social, in this respect.

8) There is a general negative trend of the removal of social spaces in our society. The closure of pubs nationwide is part of this negative trend, of which these plans are an example. Councillors should pay attention to the social as well as purely economic impacts when deciding to allow demolition of institutions such as these.

The decision to replace a rare local example of a well kept pub with the plans considered means a development that is out of place for our area, has a negative impact in both a social and economic sense, damages local identity, counters regeneration by making it unbalanced, and removes a vital asset from the local community.

This is my objection in full, thank you for taking the time to read it.

A not so quick thought on deals in politics

Anything to avoid using that picture with Bono…

This is a bit of an abstract thought process about being practical, but hear me out.

You get some interesting perspectives in the Socialist movement. I suspect that some of these go back a hundred years or more. Should social democrats join a bourgeois government, for example?

The automatic response of most people who accept the terminology tends to be ‘no’. While this is also my emotional inclination (and there is no way I would ever let myself get mugged off like Ramsay MacDonald), I am nevertheless opposed to automatic responses. Bad way of thinking. Or to rephrase, of not thinking.

I don’t agree with doing deals with Tories unless it stops Fascists or organised bigots of some kind. I don’t agree with doing deals with Nazis full stop. But apart from that, I pretty much feel that people in the labour movement should give others open consideration.

Deal, you say?

The biggest, toughest deal in politics has to be the Good Friday Agreement.

Consider how far ‘physical force’ Republicans in particular have some since the Easter Rising. A century of bitter conflict, most of which has been very local and community based to the North. But who seriously denies that in their weakened state and with the potential for a long-term strategic upswing, they should have avoided dialogue with unionist and the British Government, or that after this they should not have signed up to Good Friday? Should the IRA really still be bombing pubs?

In politics anyone at some point has to consider offers they are made by opponents.

I think this should be done in a way that weighs up the actual material case for and against, rather than simply relying on old slogans and the desire to fly a flag.

Often, having the maturity and emotional discipline to do this ends up being key to advancing their cause, or protecting those they seek to represent.

This stuff applies just as well to more banal decisions.

Do we trade slate places for an internal election? It’s amazing how differently people can feel over doing this just as a one off! Should Labour consider a coalition with, say, the Lib Dems, if we are eventually forced to? I think this would probably create an even more annoying split.

In my view, what your slogan or image is has some importance, but it’s normally a very bad idea to leave posturing and gesture as your sole or most important justifications for pretty much anything you do. Anyone can revert to type. Gaining by avoiding it is much more tricky, but much more rewarding.

What the circumstances are and how you can deal with them is usually a far more important question to consider on its own merit than by making it all about whether you have had a decent play to your gallery.

The simplicity of this truth means that your decision always has an arguable justification: whatever image you want to cultivate, in politics, good deals are worth taking, bad deals are not. Sometimes a deal can be good or bad for everyone involved.

This should all be fairly self evident.

In the most common deals (such as red-green coalitions in Nordic politics) there is a clear overlap of interest that mutual working can solve. Great.

Some deals (like the Good Friday agreement) can be good for multiple parties even if they are resolutely opposed, for example Good Friday. This is much rarer, but still possible when the outside circumstances are right.

In this example, both parties needed to end violence. Republicans, whose armed struggle had failed and were at a moment of historic weakness, gasping for breath. Unionists also had a big interest. They had come out better politically before Good Friday was agreed, but had also suffered greatly in the real world, particularly the working class elements of their national-political community.

This party to the agreement needed a period of consolidation for their community and freedom from the terror tactics which sucked their own young men into paramilitary organisations, and killed hundreds of civilians.

Nationalists and Republicans, on the other hand, wanted guaranteed human rights, and end to state oppression, and the long term possibility to realise their shared goal of a united Ireland democratically. They too suffered heavily from paramilitarism, sometimes in collusion with or carried out by the state (side point, but I would argue that the policies of the British state were ultimately responsible for beginning the process, and for exacerbating it on multiple occasions).

For many years within the armed groups on both sides, it was difficult to even steer through a tactical ceasefire, even if it was of clear benefit.

By the time of the deal the conflict itself had created conditions where a deal worked best for both sides.

That has subsequently been allowed to be tested and proven in practice, because both parties were open-minded and mature enough (most of the time) to actually work on the project in good faith. I think both parties were very brave. Being able to do this is an enormously important personal and political skill. It has also been pretty important for people who don’t want to live in a society where waking minutes are ruled by the gun.

Good Friday works. The only losers in that situation are dogmatists and posture politicians – people who don’t have a problem with using their own allies and constituents, regardless of the exigencies of their situation. Unfortunately, this is nothing special.

So, do you deal or not?

Surely it just depends.

MacDonald was a fool. Mitterand was noble but eventually unable. Gerry Adams, on the other hand, was both brave and successful. Same for Ian Paisley. None of these are even the temporary deals that often spring up, but at best semi-permanent ones.

I’m betting the gents in the Irish example felt pretty horrible doing it, on all sides. It was still right.

If you turned up to look like a person with great integrity, letting the appearance aspect (I’M SUCH A FIGHTER’) undermine a real opportunity for your politics is probably something that should be reconsidered. That’s the only way you know if you are doing a bad deal or not.

Political principle is not just about how you look, but about what you do, and even more, what the actual outcome is.

Sometimes, this means saying ‘yes’.

Predistribution and New Labour: a new hegemonic project?

I had many axes to grind with New Labour, which I thought fell short in a lot of areas. Most of all was the idea that being in office was all – a notion itself founded on the preconception that being in office meant that Labour, and perhaps by extension the movement it was born to express in parliamentary form, was in power.

Obviously the equation of office and power is not generally true (see Clegg, 2010), and was certainly not true when so much of New Labour was about fighting people who wanted often achievable and effective left policies.

In short, New Labour saw itself as being in government because it accepted the core premises of Thatcherism – in other words, it accepted the leadership and domination on policy of the conservative project and a conservative common sense. In other words, by its own admission, New Labour was an admission of conservative leadership of ideas, and domination of ideas – it accepted the hegemony, therefore, of the conservative project.

And if that is so, it cannot be that it had any kind of project to build or assert a hegemony of the left.

If you want to make the case that it did, it’s particularly hard to do, as many of the key politicians involved defined themselves as being in the ‘centre’ – rather than the ‘centre-left’ favoured by Kinnock/Smith era social democrats, ‘democratic left’ favoured by Gramscians and other ‘broad leftists’, and the ‘Labour left’ favoured by partisan traditionalists of both the Benn/Briefing and Foot/Tribune varieties.

It proudly accepted conservative hegemony in many senses, as well as defined itself as the centre (a centre, it must be remembered, forged by Thatcher). It thus opposed broad structural hegemony for the left on two separate but related grounds.

Part of the reason that it was necessary for parts of the thinking left to be on the left of the party in the first place, therefore, was to ditch the strategy of New Labour not for some abstract failure of general policy, but for strategic reasons. It was necessary to move the party leftwards to ditch a disciplined, top down and self interested project that was counter-hegemonic for the left in the long term. Whether it had the strategy right for winning elections is one debate, but whatever the outcome, it had no strategy for winning the country, and even if it did, it would for winning the country to the centre (i.e the general balance of how it is already) rather than any permutation of the left.

It was necessary to ditch New Labour because as well as leaving left voters with nowhere to go by appropriating their natural party, it was against the interests of the whole movement within the country in the long term. It was not strategic to any structural end shared by the left.

So, I’m glad we have Ed Miliband, and I was glad to vote for him at the time. It’s good to see that others are too.

And after a bit of a educational non-debate with a friend on facebook (we both agreed with each other), I was left thinking about ‘predistribution’ – and how well it fits into a more ambitious, hegemonic style of social democracy.

First things first. The name. People don’t like it, because it’s a wonk word. But I feel that around half of the people who say that should simply go away. Why? Because they spent years plugging something called ‘public service reform’, including such populist notions as ‘foundation hospitals’ and ‘internal markets’. Something you always hear from people down the pub, no doubt.

None of these names are good, and that is certainly important for an idea to gain currency. It is a wonk word, and hardly an everyday topic. But I can’t think of a better one that is as general. So for now, ‘predistribution’ will do.

An idea with hegemonic potential

There are several advantages from the point of view of hegemonic strategy (and note at this point that I am reproducing facebook)…

Like the Scandinavian social democracy admired by the soft left, it firstly offers a way to transpose the institutions of the left into the economy, thus providing a fundamental change to the temporally immediate class structure of local capitalism, and increasing hegemonic potential – a dual benefit. Cooperatives. Unions. Management board modifications. Shareholder transparency.

But secondly, I think it underscores rather than diminishes the role of redistribution as well as predistribution more strongly than redistribution can itself (via discourse)… predistribution implies that there is something wrong about how we are paid and treated in a way that is not immediately evident to people simply because they pay progressive tax rates or receive working family tax credit. As well as offering the organising and material base as per the paragraph above, it also pushes the argument that capitalism produces unjust and inadequate outcomes right into our everyday lives. It forces people, especially those reliant on wages, to question the equity and suitability of their situation. This leads to emphasis on collective redistribution as much as it does predistribution itself.

As such, it has the potential to actively attack the current common sense around distributive justice, as well as having two different ways to embed a new one.

So for me, leaving aside the impact on party politics, there are three cultural and organisational reasons to see this as a really exciting intellectual project.

And it’s free.

And it means that some of the huge pile of corporate savings might be released back into the real economy.

Stuff Blue Labour, this is where it’s at.

Price us in

The problem with property

One of the ideas that Tony Blair originally built his platform on is one that was quickly abandoned, but that I felt a profound empathy for – the stakeholder society. I think it’s something from Labour’s 1997-2001 term that really needs resurrecting as a notion.

So I was glad to read Laurie Penny’s latest NS blog post, in which she talks about the dearth of accommodation for young people.Being a young bloke of an overdraft persuasion, I have also seen a lot of the stuff she is talking about. I have luckily until this point just managed to escape it myself, though at one point this involved living in a guy’s loft, complete with spiders and old books. She is being accurate.

One of the commenters raises the point that house prices tend always to rise above inflation, and that property is concentrating in the hands of the older generation, but also in the hands of extortionist buy-to-let landlords, consolidating an ever greater number of properties and amount of space within an ever smaller group of hands.

In essence, these people are using Thatcher’s principle of freedom of exchange to the exact opposite of what Thatcher’s declared ends where. They are creating a no-property owning democracy in which few people have a stake in where they live, but landlords have ever greater power coupled with a disinclination to actually spend any money on providing decent accommodation for their tenants.

Some might see this as a throwback to a 1970s situation, where we all rent rather than buying. That’s OK, isn’t it?

This idea is very unhelpful. The system of rent as existed in the 1970s took place against a context, one of enormous investment in housing and urban planning, begun by Bevan in the late 1940s and continued by both Labour and Tory governments in their Butskellite, pro-Beveridge incarnations. This was capped with the often correctly derided brutalise tenement and tower block builds of the Wilson government – but it is worth remembering that these usually replaced slums or similar housing.

And the large amount of people living in council property at least had a democratic recourse – someone to take responsibility, whether they did it well or not.

These conditions mean that the situation now is actually quite different from a move back to 1970s style housing allocation. It is actually much more like the 19th century, and I don’t really need to explain why.

The point that I’m making is that the concentration of property in fewer hands is leading to higher pricing in both the rented and owned sectors, and that it is leading to worsening conditions in the rented sector, held back only when government regulates properly and efficiently – something that cuts to local authority grants and rate capping is going to severely impair. Ownership is important. The slums are gradually returning.

What for those of us who want to escape this by buying? Well, there is a general shortfall of supply, and a legacy of thirty years which makes things difficult. Take, for example, the fact that the government is now to look at CPI rather than RPI when making decisions on fiscal and monetary policy, excluding house prices. Their inflation will now make no difference to any judgements the government makes about wider economics. Gordon Brown was just as guilty of this particular convenience,  failing to allow the Bank of England to take house prices and rents into account when making decisions about interest rates.

Consequently, as a result of these benign political conditions set against the economic fact – that our country is highly dependent on property transactions – two classes are emerging outside the traditional distinctions we base on our relationships with production. We are building a rigid class system which is also based on our ownership of dwellings or tenures.

Potential answers

One of the things that impressed me about Ken Livingstone was his earlier commitment that all new build housing in London should be subject to a 50% affordability quota. I am glad that Oona King has also backed this commitment. That’s all very well to do locally, but there also needs to be market motivation for building houses, i.e. demand. If we’re talking about private builds, the demand has to be what I, being a pedant and non-economist, call ‘substantive demand’*.

Investment in the private sector is at historically low levels, and it was a long time prior to the crash that anyone influential realised or conceded that there wasn’t enough housing about. Cynically, I would suggest that perhaps the middle classes weren’t too hot on there being enough housing, as it would reduce desperation and leave the market at a natural balance, rather than inflating it. This would create a middle-class anti-feel-good factor.

If the conundrum is to be solved, at a certain level, public housing needs building, not just in London but in most towns, beyond the level of demand that those on lower income scales can realise.

Plenty of other things can be done to tackle rising house prices as evidenced by the new Priced Out campaign. Another excellent idea (yet again from Ken Livingstone) is that of local authorities or devolved bodies regulating limits to rents in certain properties. This could be done on the basis of council tax brackets or mosaic codes, as an example. It has to be admitted though that this is a remedy  and not a cure – the only cure is more houses. One of the things that has annoyed me about Oona King’s platform is that she seems to see no reason as to why public investment in housing is necessary. Perhaps she would need to be mayor to find out that very few firms are interested in investing at the moment, 50% affordability target or not. More would be great, and I would certainly not oppose it. But we live in the here and now.

The housing crisis in London would remain while she blankly stares on in illogical and profoundly ideological distaste for anything financed through democracy and taxation. Instead she should be fighting rate capping and seeking to provide managed public investment as an incentive for local building businesses to get something done while employing people at the same time. This also applies in other urban and suburban environments, not just London.

*Demand as conventionally understood by neoliberal/Chicago School economists, i.e. private demand backed up by capital, rather than actionable by social need or backed by state capital.

A way out? Price us in

Would middle class property owners be able to soak all this up?

Truth be told, not initially. But as Laurie’s article points out, there will only be so much their kids will put up with – people of my generation. And as for the parents themselves, it is surely they who suffer most from a generation of people who basically can’t afford to move out unless they can also afford to get married (also unlikely). With better wages for young people this would work out (i.e. if they kept up with house prices and rent). But I have already explained above why this won’t happen. Further, the coalition’s program of cuts will significantly cheapen Labour as the ration of jobs to people goes down, especially in the those economic areas where young people work.

The result?

A once in a century situation where many parents live comfortable in home ownership (especially if they work in the private sector), but they have to live with their 29 years old kids who won’t get off the Xbox or meet a nice young man.

Does that really work for anybody?

Despite being a left-winger, I see now problem with home ownership and think Margaret Thatcher was right to promote it. It is preferable for people of all social classes to own housing, take pride in it and maintain it themselves, not be subject to whims and evictions of landlords etc. etc.

I could go on for ever. I also see no problem with the thoroughly natural urge of all human beings to better their circumstances, and think this needs nurturing, not squashing.

My problem is that the current market operates without any regard to community responsibility, or sustainability. Many markets do this if natural, geographical or political conditions promote monopolisation or imbalance. Moreover, it is not the fault of markets, and essentially abstract entity, if they want to eat everything. By their very nature, they want more and better, as soon as possible.

But they want all this at the price of any consequence, like a bullying, obese child, who sees in his friends a lifetime supply of lunch money if he can only devour the entire contents of their shared canteen fast enough.

Politicians of both parties have felt trapped by aspirant middle class people, especially in the South East, into turning a blind eye to the kid. The kid needs regulating.

Many property owners’ sense of self-worth links heavily to the value of their properties. Their worries are at one with the market.

This is pessimistic, but there is a way out. By the time their kids are in their thirties, still live at home and still can’t afford anything, it will be time to think twice. These kids will also have essentially middle class morals, and will feel intensely frustrated by the collective political efforts of their parents’ generation to cut them out of aspiration.

Frustration is at the root of all progress.

Politicians might as well realise this now and get to work on the solutions. There was some good stuff talked about with regard to this when I was on the exec of the Young Fabians, but the truth is that nobody has turned it into a really big issue, and there is significant disagreement within the Labour movement about what needs to be done.

Like most solutions, the policies that end up being adopted by everybody, just like council housing, equal pay, the NHS, right through to gay marriage, will in all likelihood first be suggested by those people in the Labour Party who are widely regarded as nutters.

Disablist implications of that term not endorsed or encouraged, by the way.

Let’s start a conversation.