Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Stoke-on-Trent Central Selection Timetable

The timetable for the selection of the Labour candidate for Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election has been agreed by the NEC and was posted up on Membersnet earlier on today. And what a shocker it is. Most of the time, the Labour Party is a sclerotic beast that ambles about slowly. The selection demonstrates it can move lightning fast when occasion demands. Hold on to your hats ...

Applications have to be received by party headquarters by 10am Monday 23rd January.

Longlisted candidates will be notified later that day and invited to an interview by the NEC shortlisting panel on Tuesday 24th January.

Once the interviews are completed, they will make a shortlist and notify the candidates of the outcome.

The selection meeting by the good comrades of Stoke-on-Trent Central Labour Party takes place on Wednesday 25th January.

Shiver me timbers, I've seen long selections, short selections, and stitched selections, but never one married to such a tight timetable. This time next week we will have a Labour candidate in place who will (hopefully) go on to be the next MP for Stoke Central!

Why the hurry? The Christian People's Alliance caught everyone on the hop by announcing their by-election candidate on Tuesday. Of slightly more significance, UKIP are due to select on Friday. The papers are convinced it's Nuttall, but the kipper skipper is staying mum. I can't imagine local UKIP supremo Mick Harold would be too happy. Here he is, years of hard work and gruelling campaigning only for the leader to parachute onto his turf to tell him to bugger off. Could history repeat itself? I for one would welcome Nuttall's decision to stand, because it provides Labour a fantastic opportunity to give him the drubbing he so thoroughly deserves. We have the means. If we select the right candidate and carefully choose our platform, we'll have the ways.

While we're talking about internal competitive elections for the Labour Party, I might as well announce my candidacy ... for the chair of City Centre Branch of Stoke Central CLP. If you're a member of the branch, I hope you can make the meeting at 6.30 on Friday and that I can count on your support.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Previewing the Stoke-on-Trent Central By-Election

Finally, here's the third installment on the Stoke-on-Trent politics special. We've spoken about Tristram Hunt's career in The Potteries, and we've turned our attention to the local scene. Now it's time to go all Mystic Meg and break out the politics astrology charts. For which party do the stars align?

Labour have got to be the favourites. Stoke-on-Trent Central was born a Labour seat, and the party will be stretching every sinew to ensure it stays that way until the Boundary Commission kills it. Labour has some very strong cards to play. Firstly, the membership. All the Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire parties are active, campaigning organisations in-between elections. The bad old days of nothing happening unless we were asking for votes are long gone. Additionally, the combined membership of these parties are huge. Stoke Central itself is pushing 500, the other Stoke parties are more or less the same and nearby parties are, if anything, even larger. And we know people are going to travel from far and wide to help out. In short, a tsunami of Labour activists are poised to swamp the constituency, and none of the other parties will come close to matching it.

Second, that large membership means Labour is deeply rooted. It means there are thousands of people in the constituency who know a party member, a number high enough that the party's organisational weight becomes a factor in the by-election. On top of that, the party has incomparable local knowledge of the city and its problems. The MP's office, the seven seats held by Labour councillors in the constituency, and party members themselves - some of whom are at the sharp end of the difficulties our city faces - know what's happening, they have a feeling for the mood of the constituency which will inform the campaign. But truly, the only way this can be properly harnessed is if the party selects a local candidate. In my previous post, I joked about how we drew up a list of 30 people who were likely to apply. That is increasingly looking like a conservative estimate. There is enough talent in the Labour parties of North Staffordshire to defend the seat and serve the constituency well in Parliament. I understand this is the preference of people higher up the chain too. For instance, at the PLP meeting on Monday night both Ruth Smeeth and Jack Dromey argued for a local candidate. We shall see once the NEC selection panel meets and sifts through the applications. To be sure, shortlisting candidates with weak to no ties to Stoke would be a serious mistake and selecting one would make the job of defending the seat that much harder.

Labour also needs to pitch its messaging just right. I think a Labour Plan for Stoke is a good core to arrange the rest of our platform around, but we cannot ignore the bigger issues. Brexit will be a theme, and it's a drum UKIP are sure to beat early and often. The by-election represents an opportunity to boil Labour's position down to things we can take on the doorstep and win sceptical voters around. A touch of populism might go a long way. And there are key local issues too. Theresa May might think the NHS suffered a few scattered incidents over recent weeks, but people who visit and work at Royal Stoke Hospital know a pack of lies when they hear them. With Stoke's higher rates of morbidity, the health service is more of an issue than most other places. Addressing the NHS crisis must be part of the package. Likewise, using our campaign to highlight City Council cuts to Sure Start centres is essential. Labour ring-fenced and protected them during its time as the city's administration, while the ruling coalition can't wait to take an axe to them. And there is the matter of the council acquiring wallpaper at £70 a roll to prettify the Civic Centre. Not that big in the grand scheme of things, but overpriced decorating at a time of severe budgetary pressure demonstrates a certain arrogance and insensitivity. At least Labour's spending was about spurring regeneration. With this kind of approach, I believe Labour can consolidate and build on its vote as we saw in pre-Brexit by-elections in "safe" Labour seats.

What of the challengers? Too many London-based commentators remain obsessed with UKIP and the unique danger it allegedly poses to Labour strongholds, despite their by-election fortunes sliding since before the referendum took place. They will bang on about the EU and immigration because they're the only catchy (read irritating) tunes they know. Also, despite speculation about Paul Nuttall or someone "famous" standing, I would be surprised if their Friday night selection meeting picked a candidate other than local chair Mick Harold. They are not stupid. Just as Labour's vulnerability increases with its candidate's originating distance from the city, this too applies to UKIP. If Nuttall has any nous, he'd keep well away. Nevertheless, the pressure is on. He staked his leadership on hammering Labour in the north (Stoke isn't the north, but bear with me). If UKIP doesn't improve significantly on 2015 or, gasp, even falls into reverse him, his strategy and his party are in trouble.

There are perfectly good reasons to believe UKIP will fall back. As observed elsewhere, voters are moving in different directions again. UKIP, their Brexit purpose served, has lost some of their edge. The none-of-the-above'ers are starting to shrivel up and return their votes once more to the LibDems. Leave voters who have EU-related issues at the forefront of their mind appear to be moving back to the Tories - one can only assume that trend is strengthened by Theresa May's hard Brexit speech. Another problem is what their City Independent partners decide to do. During the 2015 local elections some of the council votes you might describe as "naturally UKIP" went instead to the indies. Without a doubt, had the CIndies not bothered the city would probably groan under a Conservative/UKIP coalition, and Labour would have lost more seats. They may not stand in deference to their purple friends (and their Tory boss in the deputy leader's office), but we shall see. And lastly, as part of the coalition UKIP are responsible for the cuts made on their watch. How can they profess to care for the city's future when their SureStart cuts hobble our kids before they get out of the gate?

The Conservatives are feeling bullish about their chances, and they have every right to be so. It is a long shot, but they probably have a better chance of taking the seat than UKIP - and if they do the political fallout would be harsher than a purple people bleater victory. They know their vote is recomposing itself and will become, again, the preferred choice of right-wing, anti-Labour working class voters. Presently, Theresa May's undeserved image as a serious grown-up one nation politician is an asset. And, according to the polls, Labour are floundering and the leader is trailing May by a hefty margin on nearly every metric going. If they can't win in a place like Stoke now, when can they win? Going for them are the recent successes in the city - the big improvements to Hanley, the presence of thousands more students with cash to spend and the securing of a new shopping district are all welcome, and all harvested from the seeds Labour ploughed in when it controlled the council. Not that it will stop them from taking the credit. Their difficulties arise with the NHS and SureStart cuts and, if Labour can exploit May's Wrexit nonsense, perhaps break them on what they regard as their strongest suit. There also remains a residual anti-Tory feeling in enough areas of the city thanks to what they did to the mines and manufacturing, and it's difficult to see how this could be overcome.

What of the Liberal Democrats? What indeed. Just like Copeland, when it's Labour who are defending and/or are in the best position to take a parliamentary seat, all talk of a progressive alliance falls out of the usual suspects' heads. But we have seen some extremely impressive by-election gains from them over the last year, and particularly in Sunderland last week where they came from nowhere to take a safe Labour seat. Could a stream of yellow voters pass water all over Labour's prospects? The LibDems do have historic support in Northwood & Birches Head (as was) and what is now Springfields & Trent Vale. The three seats from these wards are held by the CIndies. Of note here is Cllr Jean Bowers, who was once a leading LibDem light until opportunism knocked in 2015 and that membership was exchanged for the CIndies. Not the first time she's changed her political clothing for the sake of electoral convenience. Perhaps what you might expect to be the most LibDemmy bit of the constituency is Penkhull, which is effectively a village on top of a hill in the city. This is as middle class as Stoke Central gets, and here you find living medical professionals and managers from the hospital, academics from Staffs and Keele Universities, and other relatively well paid clerical workers. However, they have consistently returned a leftish CIndie councillor, and went Brexit along with all of Central's other wards. The only one resisting the Leave sweep was the student-heavy Hanley Park & Shelton, and they're not likely to return to fluffy, friendly, tuition fee pledge-abandoning Tim Farron. From where the LibDems can draw their votes is the question their party strategists will be wrestling with, assuming they have any left who know anything about Stoke.

And there then closes the preview. Labour can win, we have most of the advantages. A local candidate with a locally focused programme and short, smart points on Brexit and local cuts will be very difficult for the other parties to beat. UKIP are hampered by their long-term tendency to decline and they, along with the Tories, will be on the hook over their local records. And it's hard to see how the LibDems can field enough votes to put a serious dent on the outcome, though politics this last year has shown the most considered forecasts can look ridiculous after the event. The great imponderable is if the City Independents stand. Several of their councillors are relatively well known, and some have ambitions beyond providing a package tour. It will be interesting and stressful for all concerned should they enter the fray.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

A Political Guide to Stoke-on-Trent Central

This is the second post I promised about Stoke-on-Trent Central, Stoke Labour, and all things Stoke. If you want to read a short, potted political biography of Tristram Hunt's time in The Potteries, here's where you need to go. There's going to be a third part too. This will address the prospects of the parties (a la this reflection on Copeland), and should make an appearance tomorrow evening.

First things first, to pre-empt all the articles and reports due to clutter up column inches and the schedules, let's get the tropes out the way. Stoke is going to be portrayed as a proud place, but a down-at-heel place. Words are going to be expended on the boarded up shops, the derelict potteries, the brown field sites gagging for new developments. Statistics will be dredged up on educational attainment, morbidity rates, car ownership, average wages, unemployment. Journalists are going to seek out - and find - people whose views are not the stuff of polite dinner party conversation, but are taken as typical of the Stokie view of the world.

Let's kick this into touch right now. Stoke has its problems. It has some very serious problems. But interestingly, things are slowly beginning to get better. This year, there were fewer brown field sites than last year. More people are in work. Staffordshire University is completing its consolidation in the city, bringing students and jobs from Stafford to the Potteries. And Hanley - the city centre for those unfamiliar with Stoke's six towns - is undergoing a renaissance with more shops, more eateries, and more attractions locals previously had to go out of the city for. This is symptomatic of a turnaround in Stoke's fortunes, and vindicates Labour's local regeneration strategy that identified the city centre as key to improving its general economic wellbeing. There's a lot to do, but Stoke is on the up.

Labour, however, are no longer in power in the city. While all three MPs are from the party, Stoke is governed by a coalition of the Tories, UKIP and the City Independents. The Council Leader is Dave Conway, a man who made his reputation as an old-Labourish community champion against alleged failings and council cuts, and is now presiding over the gutting of the city's Children's Centres, centres that Labour ring fenced and protected from government cuts during its 2011-15 tenure. In truth, Conway is the coalition's figurehead. The real brains, if they can be described as such, belong to the three leading Tories - Abi Brown, Conservative group leader and deputy council leader (at least officially), Jack Brereton, deputy group leader and cabinet member for regeneration, and Dan Jellyman - Cllr Brereton's bag carrier and holder of the heritage brief. Between them, they run the council. When the regular Council Leader's meeting comes around with the local MPs, it's Cllr Brown who takes them. In nearly two years, the nominal council leader has attended one. Just one. It's also Brown who goes to the meetings with officers, liaises with Tory-controlled Staffordshire, does all the sexy economics stuff. If there's a positive announcement to be made, on new housing for instance, Brereton fronts it up. Meanwhile they made sure the City Independents took the cabinet positions where the coalition's going to take political hits for the cuts. Smart politics. The Tories are also ambitious - it's my understanding that the Jellyman worm has turned and is jostling with Jack for the Stoke Central Tory nomination as a step toward better things. Abi on the other hand is keeping her powder dry. She's seen the first draft of the redrawn boundaries and is said to find one of the new Staffordshire seats a tantalising prospect.

The City Independents are a manifestation of the anti-politics culture that has taken root in Stoke over a number of years. They're against a lot of things, but politically they're all over the place. Their 2015 local election manifesto was truly a classic of the genre, and included gems like building a tramway system running from north to south at the cost of billions, the production and marketing of a tea set based on the Staffordshire Hoard, and a package tour of Stoke-on-Trent that went right down to the detail of the breakfast menu. It is small wonder the Tories have rode roughshod all over them and are pinching the glory for Stoke's economic regeneration while the CIndies cop the flak for everything else. Among their varied ranks, they can count a name-dropping "friend of the stars", an unapologetic ex-BNP councillor, someone who thinks the NHS should be scrapped - but has the temerity to call themselves a socialist when it suits, a fool removed from UKIP for an anti-refugee quip too gross even for them and, yes, it has to be said, a bearer of a child sex offences conviction. The CIndies are a crew ranging from the befuddled and harmless to the downright inappropriate. And yet CCHQ is absolutely fine for Stoke-on-Trent Conservatives to break bread with these people. Oh yes, and all this is footnoted by Cllr Mick Bell of UKIP, who's there to make up the numbers and keep Labour out of office.

Naturally, it's one of those fine ironies of which politics is fond that all the measures Labour took to turn the city's economy around only bore fruit once it left office, and now is something the current administration is keen to capitalise on. And, politically, if you follow Stoke politics askance, the image that comes across is the coalition appears to be doing okay. This is because the local paper, the beloved Sentinel, covers the current council with less of a critical eye than it did when Labour was in charge. And because they haven't made any serious missteps (yet), most people remain favourably disposed or indifferent. For example, last year they dipped into reserves to forestall £15.5m worth of cuts. It might have sent finance officers into a bit of a sweat, but the sky didn't fall in and they reaped some kudos for doing so. This year, however, they can't repeat the feat and so the axe is going to fall on more services, including the aforementioned Children's Centres. Now they have to do unpopular things, we'll see how the coalition manages.

Unfortunately, and as much as it pains me to say it, while all this was and is going on, it sometimes feels the local Labour Party has gone to sleep. This doesn't means it has grown inactive. For example, every week sees campaigning activity in Stoke North constituency and each of the three MPs have the causes they champion. What's lacking there is an overarching citywide view, no - to use a horrible phrase - "global critique" of the council and its works. Or rather it exists, but is has yet to be drawn together as a basis of a campaign. For ultimately, this is where the by-election will be won or lost. And that presents a difficulty for the party. After two years of not getting much of a hearing, preceded by a council tenure marked by unpopular decisions and (in my view) an undeserved reputation for arrogance and authoritarianism, Labour has a hill (or, seeing as we're talking about Stoke, a bank) to climb. Thankfully, a Labour Plan for Stoke in the shape of a local industrial strategy is in the works - but that will be revealed in due course. And, crucially, by-election-wise, as far as I'm concerned Labour needs to select a candidate that either lives in Stoke-on-Trent, works in the city, or has very strong connections to the city. A parachutist from any party will not do seeing as locals feel they've been used as a stepping stone for someone who just passed through. This appetite is shared by the local party too.

Interest in the vacancy so far is what you might call "healthy". Folk who've shown an interest are Staffs County Council candidate for Cannock and 2015 Moorlands PPC Trudie McGuinness, 2005-09 Stoke mayor and former Northwood and Birches Head councillor Mark Meredith, ex-Momentum organiser Cllr Chris Spence, Cllr Steve Funnell for Bentilee, Cllr Darren Price (and 2015 Congleton PPC), Newcastle-under-Lyme CLP chair Allison Gardner, and many more. Brainstorming in the curry house last night, we came up with 30 names that would likely put in. But there's one name that definitely won't be entering the mix - mine. I've had nice messages on social media and in real life encouraging me to run. Having seen a MP close up, I think I could do it and, channelling David Cameron, be rather good at it. The truth is I'm not interested. Putting in would mean going through the motions for something my heart is not set on, and we've just bid farewell to someone who had their eye on other things. My mind could change in the future, but there's other stuff I want to do first.

There then is your rough field guide to local politics in Stoke-on-Trent Central. There's more, but I'm sure it will all come tumbling out during the course of the next few months.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Untangling Theresa May's Attack on GPs

It's not like the perennially slow and ultra-cautious Theresa May to take a risk. After all, her plodding leadership makes Gordon Brown look like Flashman. But that is what she's doing with her attack on GPs in response to the NHS crisis. It seems rash as government confrontations with medical professionals never end well for said government, so it's worth pausing for a moment to consider what's going on. Is this panic stations by a PM desperate to wriggle off the NHS hook, or something more calculating?

1. Theresa May is lucky at the moment. Her image as a grown up, calm professional politician remains the case for large numbers of people. She's not in control, her government is beset by crisis and paralysis, and those backbenchers retain their potential for trouble, but appearances assume a reality of their own if cultivated by enough outlets. May, understandably, would like to extend her honeymoon period indefinitely. Apart from the weekly drubbing at Prime Minister's Questions, the polls consistently show she hasn't got too much to worry about at the moment but she's been in the game long enough to know things can change, and however implausible it might seem presently Labour will close in on the government eventually. The NHS crisis has that potential to erode the Tory lead. Time and again, hospital winter beds crises follows Conservative governments as night follows day, and as they don't see it as a problem to be solved but rather managed. After all, taking the health service to the edge of crisis makes to argument that we can no longer afford to fully fund appear that bit more plausible.

2. May's announcement that the GPs will be expected to stay open for longer is entirely in this mould. Rather than release more money or undo the market mechanisms strangling the NHS, the Tories are looking for a way out, something or someone apart from themselves that are to blame. We know from repeat research, press reports and the like that the proximate cause of the problems is demand. Demand driven by the cutting of adult care services, the closure of GP surgeries thanks to an ongoing recruitment deficit, and the shutting down of NHS Walk-in centres. The Tories know this very well: their refusal to act on it isn't a matter of ignorance. Indeed, for them the fact that somehow the entire system hasn't collapsed and is treating record numbers is something to be celebrated. Nevertheless, singling out the GPs is about deflecting blame. The BMA are entirely correct that the government is casting around for a scapegoat.

3. Political ideas and arguments are powerful if they chime with enough people's experiences. The singling out of GP's services is no accident. Everyone knows, thanks to targets introduced under the blessed Blair that getting a doctor's appointment is bloody difficult. How many people have waited until the moment a surgery opens to try and blag an emergency consultation? It's not so much GP services are overstretched, but the rules by which they operate reduce the efficiency of the service and make for worse, more stressful experiences for patients. Because of this, lengthening opening hours appears to make sense. Dialing in to beat the engaged tone would become a thing of the past if only services were available for longer, and you wouldn't have to nip along to A&E. It therefore follows that GPs are the ones to blame for the NHS crisis because they're not doing their jobs properly. The political logic from the Tories' point of view is sound, because their argument might rub against a kernel of some patients' experiences. But we know this isn't a serious solution to a serious problem because the directive comes without the release of any extra money to fund the new opening hours, and that means reduced services, albeit available throughout the day.

It's almost as if the Tories are willing to run down the NHS further to avoid embarrassing headlines.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Goodbye to Tristram

It was nice for Stoke-on-Trent to make the news for something other than footy and the BNP. Less nice that it was my constituency party and my MP at the centre of it. Yes, as the world and its uncle now knows, Tristram Hunt is resigning the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat to take up the leadership of the Victoria & Albert in London. He can now spend more time with his young family, and it's a role he's temperamentally and culturally suited to. This then is going to be the first of two posts - the second will look at Stoke-on-Trent Central, the state of the local party, potential candidates and Labour's chances of holding on to the seat. This one is all about Tristram.

First things first, Tristram's announcement was greeted with the crows of his opponents, and the commiseration of his friends. For those identifying with the Corbynist left, this proves he was a careerist with no interest beyond self-advancement. For those arrayed against the leadership, Tristram's resignation is a loss of talent that reflects badly on Corbyn's prospects. There is no attempt to analyse or understand. Pigeonholing is the order of the day. The truth lies between these two poles, and I know. Because not only do I know him, have shared the local party with him for almost seven years, I used to work for him too. So if you came here hoping for a denunciation, you will be disappointed.

Readers with long memories might recall the circumstances in which Tristram became the Labour MP for Stoke Central. The fag end of Gordon Brown's short tenure saw a scramble for seats as the 2010 general election loomed. Coincidentally, a long-running factional battle in this constituency centered around the local directly-elected mayor reached its climax. Early that year, the NEC intervened and put the CLP into special measures - in effect, the Labour Party's version of direct rule. Letters were issued to members ruling the upcoming AGM out of order and attendees were threatened with suspension and sanction. Said meeting went ahead and the whole constituency party was placed on the naughty step. The ruling on this came very quickly on the heels of the incumbent MP - Mark Fisher - unexpectedly announcing his retirement. Two months from the election and Labour was without a candidate.

Because of the special measures and because of the proximity to D-Day, longlisting and shortlisting was the province of a NEC panel. It was at this point that Tristram's name first surfaced, with the FT getting the scoop. Being foolish I didn't believe he stood much of a chance - little did I appreciate the dark arts of Peter Mandelson and how brazen the party can be when sorting sinecure for the favoured. I then thought selections were a meritorious affair. Pah. The longlist was a varied field of local folks and people from outside Stoke. And then came the shortlist: it was basically Tristram and two also-rans cynically tacked on so the local party had no choice but to rubber stamp the NEC's favoured choice. Seriously, I've interviewed dozens of candidates for the local government panel and I struggle to remember anyone worse than this pair. But as stitching goes, this isn't the most egregious. I digress. Tristram was duly selected and the Potteries moved into the light of a new dawn.

Locally, Tristram made a bit of a splash. The sort of plaudits getting heaped on him now echo those greeting his arrival in Stoke. Tristram had glamour, had connections, had ambition. He was going places and that made him a good catch for Stoke-on-Trent. He was lauded by local notables as a future Prime Minister, or at the very least someone who could open doors for the city in The City. As I was unemployed and despairing of ever finding work, Tristram was kind enough to offer me a job as a caseworker in the constituency office. Given the political distance between us it did give me pause, but in the end making a living came first. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. In addition to the casework, each of us in the office had a number of projects that aimed to define the shiny new MP in some way. For example, I was charged with putting together the 'Stoke Stories' conference in conjunction with the RSA to strengthen relationships between local third sector organisations, and lend any assistance and support the office could give them. Others over the last seven years included the backstamping campaign, the annual get together of local business leaders, the Maths Excellence Partnership, a campaign to save nursery provision, and securing an exemption for beleagured potteries from the renewables obligation. There were more! In addition to this, Tristram and his office got through a heavy caseload and secured some notable victories at the local council, with the DWP and sometimes (sometimes!) the government. Small shifts in policy or getting back monies owed isn't Bastille storming stuff, but it is important and makes a difference to those affected by them.

Meanwhile, Tristram was something of an object of fascination for the left. As one of the best known Blairites in the PLP, and being one of the few unafraid to (occasionally) avow himself a disciple, I always found it strange why he had a weird fan club. Was it the glamour? The proximity to Mandelson? His book on Engels? Far from getting a hostile reception, trade unionists in Stoke couldn't wait to meet him. I had self-identified Trots from elsewhere always asking after him. And even after that picket line crossing episode to deliver a lecture on Victorian civic culture and not, as per received myth, to speak on Marxism, he remained the left's favourite Blairite. Even if to hate and troll.

The mystery didn't end there. In person, Tristram is pleasant and funny, isn't overly posh and doesn't come across as a snob. But he remained an enigma both to his staff and the local party. Hand on my heart, despite working closely with him I cannot say why he decided to become a Member of Parliament. Nor, unlike Liz Kendall and her liberalism can I honestly say what his politics are. There would be many times he got up in front of the CLP to defend the Blairite commonsense about winning elections, of securing the southern marginals so we can help best Stoke-on-Trent, but there was never a sense of vision. For someone heralded as an ideas man, there were no ideas. For someone who was and remains passionate about education, I never understood where that sprang from. There was no patrician concern for the poor, which some might have expected. Nor a desire to get into power and reform our way to the New Jerusalem. Absent too was the obsession with power for its own sake - he never struck me as someone who had a personal hunger for government. On a number of occasions when asked about Tristram, I often likened him to the gentlemanly Victorian who was passing through Parliament on his way to other things.

The absence of politics was also the root of his mistakes as a politician. In the days following the 2015 defeat, he was shocked to find his opponents had laid the groundwork for their leadership challenges among PLP colleagues well before election day. As a result, the MPs not already signed up for others and happy to back him were quite modest. This absence of nous touched on other areas of work. As I wrote previously, one of the benefits of having Tristram as a boss was that he'd leave you to use your own initiative. He was not the kind of Member who took the correspondence home to check the spellings and tone. This also meant he didn't take as much of an interest in local politics as an MP should. Meetings with councillors were ad hoc and infrequent, local party strategy was something he fought shy of, and keeping the CLP happy wasn't a high priority. The latter undoubtedly helped contribute to it near-unanimously voting to endorse Jeremy Corbyn last summer. Unfortunately, like many Labour MPs, Tristram doesn't and didn't understand much the party or movement of which he is part, and didn't show interest in advice from staff and other local Labour people about how to navigate these choppy waters. He might have avoided the embarrassment of picket-linegate if he had, for instance.

Lastly, I was not surprised to learn of Tristram's departure this morning. Even before the election, local comrades knew my belief that if we didn't win in 2015, he wouldn't contest 2020. That became increasingly obvious after the Boundary Commission slated Stoke-on-Trent Central for deletion in the great Tory gerrymander. And there was the summer's grumblings that saw a local branch take a vote of no confidence against him. If Tristram wanted to hang on he would have had a torrid time, and not in a good way. The V&A position with its reported £300k salary has saved him from all that. Other Labour MPs in similar pickles are no doubt looking for gilded exits and hoping something like this will fall from the sky.

I don't bear Tristram any ill will. I shall always be grateful for the two-and-a-half years I carried bags. It was a fantastic job and, bleeding heart that I am, I helped a lot of people out in shit situations. We all did. But like him or not, the politics of his departure leaves the party in a weakened position and a by-election that is going to be difficult. Legacies should be celebrated. It just saddens me that Tristram's is something Stoke Labour is going to have to overcome.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Obituary: Zygmunt Bauman

I was sorry to hear leading social theorist Zygmunt Bauman passed away on Sunday. For a generation of sociologists who came of age between the late 80s and, well, now, Bauman was a permanent presence in the specialist journals and book catalogues. From around his important Modernity and the Holocaust in 1989, Bauman churned out one or two books a year and came to be regarded as one of Britain's A-list thinkers. As a Polish exile and a Jew, he was eventually reviled among the nationalist right back home - for a reactionary politics premised on nostalgia and essential national characteristics, Bauman's social thought treated nationalism of all stripes as a contingent phenomenon that waxes and wanes with the movement of what he eventually termed 'liquid modernity'. This metaphor denoting the runny, viscous, impermanent state of the modern condition.

I came across Bauman as an undergrad student. In our second year, we were introduced to the debates around modernity and postmodernity, and it was fair to say my mind was well and truly blown. For someone hitherto schooled in A-Level sociology's holy trinity of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim (with a little bit of feminism squeezed in around the sides), the debates around postmodernism and the existence of postmodern social theory came like a revelation. What the hell did it mean? Is it something that exists? Where did it come from? Can we speak about the truth any more? Is class and socialism dead? It captured my imagination and for months my crammed but tiny desk was piled high with texts. Some legible and straightforward, others symptomatic of social theory's tendency to disappear up its backside - especially if it's not grounded in some way. One of the books that did make sense was Bauman's collection of papers on this very topic, Intimations of Postmodernity.

This was interesting because it introduced themes that would preoccupy Bauman for the rest of his life. In one part, he located the favourable reception and the dissemination of postmodernism among sociologists as a result of the changing status of intellectuals in late 20th century capitalism more generally. This shift was a result of the modified functions discharged by professional intellectuals - it had gone from a strata that legislated and become a layer that interpreted. In classical, or what he would later call "solid" modernity, which you might describe the period 1871-1979, states played the leading role in nation building. Huge national bureaucracies were erected to undertake public works, manage populations, perform the general duties of the state and, after the Second World War, assume responsibility for economic performance. This was the golden age of the intellectual. As a strata it oversaw plans and drew up new ones, guided the hand of government by monopolising specialist knowledge, and enjoyed the benefits of professional status. Then, as the post-war social order came unstuck and a sense of crisis set in, so the status of intellectuals were steadily undermined. This accelerated in the 1980s in Britain under a Prime Minister famously distasteful of intellectuals and experts. For Bauman then, postmodernism articulated this professional angst. If, in Lyotard's famous words, postmodernism was an incredulity toward metanarratives (in plainspeak, cynicism toward big ideas), then what role for the custodians of these discourses? This was as yet undetermined - clearly, complex societies require intellectuals to acquit specialist roles, but not with the same privileges and power they enjoyed previously. 20-odd years on from this book, we now have a good idea: professions everywhere subordinated to the anarchy of markets and the tyranny of managers, as well as punchbags for successive governments.

This was just one aspect of the shift from modernity to postmodernity. The cultural and linguistic turn in 1980s and 1990s philosophy and social theory was accompanied by a keen focus on consumption and consumption practices. In his preface to the English translation of Baudrillard's The Consumer Society, George Ritzer argued that postmodern societies were organised around consumption rather than production. And this sentiment is certainly something Bauman largely brought into. It's not the ludicrous idea that production isn't important, but rather the axes of social integration, of meaning generation and subjectivity construction had been displaced for the workplace and was now found in the designs of life we are all pretty much inculcated into. Class identities were comprehensively fractured, and that meant radical politics premised on the industrial worker would have declining purchase and could never again form the locus for a universal project of socialist transformation.

Also, like all good social theorists, Bauman was ambivalent about modernity. Modern civilisation has unlocked the world and provided us with undreamt of abundance and opportunity, but it is not without its dark side. This was the topic of Modernity and the Holocaust. At the time of publication, in many ways the Holocaust was regarded as a unique evil and awful aberration, a black spot in modernity's journey toward the better life. Bauman disagreed. In his book, he made the argument that the Holocaust was made possible because of the means of industry and the organisation of modern bureaucracy. The victims that poured through the gates to Auschwitz were delivered there by the timetables of a modern transportation system. Their belongings systematically sorted, arranged and recorded by modern administrative systems. And their ends met by a method of execution and disposal planned out by architects, delivered by the German chemical industry, and all according to the clock. Just as Max Weber spoke gloomily about the illiberal, freedom-sapping tendencies of instrumental rationality and the bureaucratic imaginary, for Bauman genocide could also be counted among its dreadful potential. He also, controversially, made the point that how the Nazis arrived at the Final Solution was entirely according to bureaucratic logic. The Jews were identified as a problem that must be removed, and gradually the Nazis came to the solution of industrialised mass murder as deportation, resettling, ghettoisation and so on were regarded as cost-prohibitive and impractical. This isn't to take away from their brutality and murderous intent. It rather underlined their complete moral bankruptcy and inhumanity.

From the Millennium onwards, Bauman discarded the postmodern vocabulary and diagnosed ours as liquid times. Liquid modernity still possessed the same features attributed to postmodern society - the centrality of consumption, the indeterminacy of meaning and truth, the cult of the individual - and was interested in tracking how these were affecting and bedding down in social life. Bauman was, for instance, very interested in the transformation of intimacy and relationships, and how this was conditioned by the ceaseless invention and reinvention of identity and personhood as well as the angst of living an uncertain, liquid life. All these undermine capacities for long-term commitments but simultaneously multiply the possible points of connection we can make with others, especially in the age of the internet and social media. And because this risky, uncertain world lends itself to a generalised lack, that missing something, politics drawing from the well of community have a nostalgic appeal. That Polish nationalists, for instance, are crippled with insecurity is probably a diagnosis they'd rather not know.

Bauman's work is incredibly broad, and touches on a much wider range of material than that discussed here. His books and papers are accessible to a lay audience, and you can pick up his general thesis by starting anywhere - particularly among his liquid-themed books, of which there are a fair few. That isn't to say there aren't problems with his work. In a number of ways, Bauman styled himself as a Post-Marxist. In Poland and then in exile in Britain, he turned out a number of books in the Marxist mode looking at class and capitalism, and gradually came to leave Marxism alone (without ever repudiating it). He argued that Marxist categories had come to be empty and reified into models that distorted rather than describe the phenomena they were supposed to make sense of. Needless to say I'm not convinced. For instance, he argued that the passage from solid to liquid modernity requires an approach to social investigation that is sensitive to human experience and teases out the tendencies and trends running through society's currents. Theory has to be as dynamic and fluidic as the stuff it seeks to describe. I would probably accept this argument if he was talking about Weberian sociology and its mania to classify and model things, but we're talking Marx and Marxism here, a body of thought founded on the movement and impermanence of things. Marx's method and Marx's concepts come to life in situations like these, where society is undergoing profound change, where capitalism's contradictions are coming to a head.

By making this criticism, Bauman lapses into idealism. Ideas do not have lives of their own, they're practices and as practices their implementation and use is conditioned everywhere and always by relations of forces and material circumstances. Christianity as a doctrine of universal love and non-violence has never prevented it from being the credo of murderous organisations and regimes. Marxism, as a tool of social investigation and theory of revolution didn't stop it from being the alibi of stupidly brutal bureaucracies and dictatorships. There is nothing essential in Marxism that prevents it from being used to analyse the passage from modernity to postmodernity, or from the solid to the liquid, nor make sense of the eclipsing of class politics by consumption, individuation and risk. What does change, coming back to Bauman's discussion of legislators and interpreters, is what Marxism can command and prescribe. Like it or not, as Marxism ekes out a subterranean existence in Western intellectual life post-1989, its adherents are one trend among many jostling for position. It can issue the kinds of proclamations previous generations of socialist revolutionaries and communist parties did, but the audience is small and without influence. Marxists now have the status of interpreters not dissimilar in manner to this blog vis a vis all the other daily hottakes in internet land.

Bauman will not just be missed because of his influence on British sociology and his ubiquity, but because he focused the sociological gaze on pressing problems and emergent phenomena. To retain its standing and build up new audiences for the sociological enterprise, more of us could do a lot worse than follow his example.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Jeremy Corbyn's Populist Turn

I love me some ironies, and one is doing the rounds about Jeremy Corbyn. Whether you're a fully paid up admirer or critic of his leadership, we can all agree on one thing: we know where he stands. It was his simple anti-austerity message that powered him into Labour's top job and saw it confirmed amid one of the biggest shit storms ever seen in British politics. And yet on a number of pressing problems and Westminster hobby horses, there is uncertainty about his positions. Everyone knows where Jeremy stands, but no one knows where Jeremy stands - a political quantum state worthy of Schrödinger himself.

This is perhaps a touch unfair as the two respectively denote principles and detail. It's the latter, not the former that's hazy. Nevertheless, if Corbynism is to have a lasting impact on the party and politics long after the leader's departure from the scene we need detail now. And a bit of detail is what we got with today's first policy speech since the populist turn was mooted. Unfortunately, Corbyn 2.0 didn't get off to a flying start. An about-turn on EU free movement post-Brexit was widely trailed overnight. What? Apparently, Labour is not "wedded" to it. This was immediately spun as a change in Jeremy's long-held and principled views on immigration, while in fact he was just speaking a truth about Labour's position: while his leadership is comfortable with an opposition to immigration controls, the party as a whole has only recently adopted this position and would lurch back to pandering rather than challenging the bullshit said and written about newcomers. In other words, it's a hint that the policy could change at some point even though his views haven't.

As readers know, I'm all for nuanced discussion of issues and policy, but a major announcement is probably not the place for it. I can understand why Jeremy and his team are trying to square the circle. We all know about those "genuine concerns" fanned by assorted papers and politicians for decades, and a large number of people in the party - not just the PLP, not just "the Blairites" - support border controls too, albeit for a number of reasons. This convoluted fuss is about facing both ways, of being principled and trying to manage the party but not satisfying partisans of either camp. Jeremy has repeatedly defined himself as someone who argues for the cultural, social and economic benefits of immigration and he has an opportunity to go all out and challenge received wisdom on this issue. And he should - Labour under his leadership cannot hope to make much headway unless it lances the immigration boil, and in no uncertain terms he must abandon the liberal position and take up a class position, such as attacking anti-immigration rhetoric as a tactic of divide and rule. It's what a good populist would do.

What a mess, eh? Yet Labour still carried the day. The populist turn has given us the high pay cap, and this is exactly the sort of thing Corbyn's leadership needs to do more of. Not just because I agree with it (which I do), but because a) it's eye catching, and b) it puts the government on the back foot. Eye-catching isn't a good in and of itself, after all being noticeable didn't make Nigel Farage anything but repugnant for the vast majority of voters. But it's clear, connotes a system rigged for the rich, taps into a deep sense of unfairness that has hitherto been exploited successfully by the right, and is the sort of thing that might fire the latent Labourist imaginations of voters that have drifted from the party. Or at least cause them to take another look.

Second, as May is making a play for some of Labour's rhetorical ground with the shared society wheeze, Corbyn's counter-stroke immediately puts her on the defensive. How can one be for fairness if she's not willing to tackle a very visible manifestation of inequality? What is also of interest is attaching "progressive" conditions to government contracts, and making sure workers have representation on remuneration committees - an idea so bolshevist that it's common practice on the continent. But again, there was some confusion in the presentation. Is the cap compulsory or voluntary? Is it required of public sector contracts only? How can it be implemented? Yet the populist power of the message is such that these were drowned out by the principle of the thing. On Channel 4 News this evening, for instance, Telegraph deputy editor Allister Heath was forced to indulge a bit of post-truth bullshittery of his own to defend the indefensible salaries and perks of our most handsomely remunerated, predict disaster if it ever came to pass, and so on.

If this is what the new left populism is going to look like, then good. Tilting the centre of political gravity in a socialist direction will later put Labour in a better political place. In fact, we can only hope to win if we make the political weather. Today, however, the leadership got lucky. The high pay cap was the take home and the confusion around it and immigration will be forgotten, but this cannot be counted on again. A clear message demands clear and consistent messaging. If this doesn't get sorted, then the populist experiment is doomed before it properly begins.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Westminster's Non-Interest in Northern Ireland

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigns and the Northern Ireland Executive tumbles into chaos, again. Though I suppose it's a measure of progress given the history that it was an old-fashioned political scandal leading up to this, and not something bound up with the entrenched sectarian divide. What we have is a tawdry tale. A tale of money and the most incredible incompetence.

While First Minister Arlene Foster held the enterprise portfolio, the Executive introduced the Renewable Heat Scheme, a system of subsidies to encourage the take up of renewable sources of heating. So far, so banal. The problem was this scheme was generous, extremely generous. For example, according to the BBC, a business using a renewable-fuelled boiler over 20 years under the equivalent scheme in Britain could look forward to a government bung of £192,000. The Northern Irish scheme would have paid out £860,000. And so a scheme that had a £15m underspend in 2015 jumped to a budget-busting £400m overspend by the time it was closed around this time last year. If that wasn't bad enough, there is some evidence that it was being gamed by unscrupulous sorts. Thanks to a whistleblower, there were reports of "entrepreneurs" setting up boilers in previously unheated sheds, warehouses and garages and putting in claims. Ouch.

There is absolutely no suggestion that Foster is embroiled with crooked applicants, but there are claims of inept arse-covering. When the improper use of the scheme first came to light to senior civil servants, it is claimed Foster was uninterested in the allegations and fought to keep it open. And when it became too prohibitive, there is a suggestion that her subordinates tried to cover it up and make it look as though she was unaware of the problems. Are there any truth to the rumours? The evidence suggests so, but that's for the inquiry to unearth and, yes, McGuinness and Sinn Fein are right to argue that the DUP arm of government can't pretend business-as-usual. Especially when it's not the first time the party's leading figures have got into trouble with public money. But also, SF aren't entirely masters of their own fortunes here - as 'Cash for Ash' has rumbled on, they too have come in for criticism for appearing aloof from the whole affair. No amount of absurdist Gerry Adams tweets can alibi their quietude.

As the province gears up for an election, it's worth making a couple of points about Northern Ireland's relationship to wider politics. Or, should we say, non-relationship. Coverage of its affairs can be found in the broadsheets, but apart from the occasional trip across the Irish Sea by Question Time, it's not even a sideshow to Westminster's big top. The sad truth is that since SF and the DUP sorted out their power sharing arrangements, leading to the utterly surreal double act of Martin McGuinness and the Rev Ian Paisley, the rest of politics isn't that interested. The Northern Irish office, once one of the toughest briefs in front line politics is now considered a backwater. Small wonder Dave was content to leave it in the hands of Theresa Villiers. For example, back in summer 2015 there were two paramilitary murders - one an alleged commander of the Provisional IRA, and another an ex-member in what was widely seen as a tit-for-tat attack. The Provos, of course, weren't supposed to exist any more and so Stormont was plunged into crisis. The Ulster Unionists withdrew from the executive and Foster came in as a caretaker after the resignation of Peter Robinson. And yet this barely ruffled a Westminster engrossed in the drama of Labour's first leadership election.

Where mainstream politics is concerned, Northern Ireland is considered a settled issue. The bombs have stopped, sectarianism doesn't appear to be as ugly or violent as per The Troubles, so just leave them to it. They're a long way from London, nothing much happens there now and it only becomes useful for EU argument fodder or as a stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn with. But distance is only part of it. For the political establishment, whether its conservative or liberal variants, Northern Ireland is something to be feared and something to be ashamed of. Feared, because from their point of view the intractable sectarian division is primeval and tribal, and that irrationality could spill over into renewed violence on the mainland. And ashamed because Northern Ireland is out of step with the story official Britain likes to tell itself. The idea that not only does religious hatred scar one of the four components of the United Kingdom, but that the sectarian divide is institutionalised in its official politics. It embarrasses and offends a sense of (liberal) British self prided on inclusivity and tolerance. The best way is not to try and understand what's happened and happening in Ireland, but ignore it.

As long as there's no violence, out of sight, out of mind.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Theresa May and the Shared Society

When you're a leading politician and especially a Prime Minister, the pressure is on to stand for something. And as the real choices in politics truncated to who could best run the Thatcherite/neoliberal settlement, necessity and expediency dictated that one must pretend to be something more than a manager of that consensus. John Major had his Back to Basics campaign, married to the Citizen's Charter and Cones' Hotline wheeze. His Blairness got no less a figure than Anthony Giddens to cook up "The Third Way", the impossibility of marrying market fundamentalism to half-recognisable social democratic objectives. Even Bill Clinton bought into that one. Dave had his Big Society, a convenient celebration of volunteering just as the Tories committed themselves to butchering public services and replacing them with philanthropy and a committed citizenry. Ed Miliband had One Nation. The exception is Jeremy Corbyn, who is yet to fully define himself despite offering a politics that decisively breaks with received wisdom.

In her own way, at least at the rhetorical level, Theresa May also defined herself differently, and now her philosophy has a name: the Shared Society. Looking forward to a major speech on the matter, we know this is so much guff because of her record. In the six months May has been in power she's prevaricated, delayed, prevaricated, and delayed some more. With a dose of control freakery, as noted by Andrew Rawnsley, she's carried on flogging off strategic industry, and has overseen a budget that barely differed from an Osborne effort. May's shared society isn't looking that different from late period Dave, truth be told. And that's before we start talking about the NHS and the declaration of a humanitarian crisis by the crazed militants of the Red Cross. Her talk of dealing with "the shorter life expectancy for those born poor, the harsher treatment of black people in the criminal justice system, the lower chances of white working-class boys going to university, and ... the despicable stigma and inadequate help for those with mental health conditions" remains just talk as long as these crises carry on without the government appearing to care too much about them.

Still, her original address from the steps of Downing Street was perceived as a master stroke from within the Westminster circus. Talk of dealing with everyday injustices, including economic anxiety and security came like a revelation to folks who rub shoulders with working class people only when ordering a latte. But it would be churlish to deny May's speech had significant cut through. Unlike Dave and Osborne who only pretended concern, May sounded like she meant it, that she understood something about the difficulties of modern life. In an uncertain world, she crafted a message pledging certainty, of a national community that has everyone doing their bit and getting their just rewards. This is where the shared society comes in. She defines it as,
A society that doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another; a society that respects the bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions that we share as a union of people and nations; a society with a commitment to fairness at its heart ... it goes to the heart of my belief that there is more to life than individualism and self-interest. The social and cultural unions represented by families, communities, towns, cities, counties and nations are the things that define us and make us strong. And it is the job of government to encourage and nurture these relationships and institutions where it can, and to correct the injustice and unfairness that divides us wherever it is found.
Had Ed Miliband defined his One Nationism thus, the Tory press would have dubbed him a proto-totalitarian. Yet, from an ideas perspective, the shared society is interesting for three reasons. We know from her long stint in the Home Office that May is a petty-minded authoritarian who, like her predecessors, happily ramped up the government's snooping powers in the name of terror prevention. All throughout her career, May has never been one to celebrate individual sovereignty. Second, she is riding the wave of (English) nationalism. As Wolfgang Streeck has argued, societies that have seen labour movements broken and discourses of resistance buried turn instead to whatever ideological resources are to hand. In this case, nationalism is resurgent because the nation appears eternal vis a vis cultural, political and economic turbulence. Farage exploited noisy, entitled, frightened English nationalism to his advantage, and now May is doing the same - albeit in calmer, more measured (and respectable) tones. And thirdly, her "active government" promises social reform that will build a "great meritocracy". Forget your Ed Miliband, she's channeling Clem Attlee. Again, we'll wait and see about that as there's been nothing beyond a slight smoothing of social security policy.

It's bollocks, but unlike the wonky visions of days gone by it has a certain simplicity to it, one that even newspaper columnists will be able to understand. It promises justice and security, mainstays that should be Labour's, but have proven difficult to meld together and "own" in recent times - the fact May freely speaks this language and is treated seriously goes to show how far our party still has to go. Yes, May suffers from the triple vices of incompetence, dithering and control-freakery, and Brexit could undo her leadership. But her undeserved reputation as a serious grown up rests on this rhetoric, of knowing and understanding the problems of, shock horror, the working class. And most importantly, her apparent no fuss willingness to do something about them.

The Left Unity Masturbation at Work Debate

We've had the Trotskyism vs BDSM debate and split, but in truth that is small beer compared to the finest sectariana below. This was a debate that took place on a public Facebook forum of Left Unity, the sort of Ken Loach vehicle that has since largely dissolved itself into Labour. Many thanks to @ursusocculta for unearthing it. All further comment is superfluous.