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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Labour's meaningless election

As the only Labour leadership candidate with a spark of personality and emotional verve has pulled out, I’m inclined to switch off until another tiresome Labour leadership contest is over. Jess Phillips last week exited a race that ever since Blair was chosen as party leader in 1994 has been marketed by the Party as about putting power in the hands of the members. Yet Phillips departed not because she had failed to convince Labour Party members, or the wider public, but because she knew she couldn’t be confident of the support of enough Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) (or the support of two big trade unions) to ensure that she’d get through to the next round. It is only when these hurdles are jumped by candidates that the much vaunted ‘one member, one vote’ process will actually kick in and the real leadership election will start as ordinary members get to decide for themselves who to vote for.

Well, them and registered party ‘supporters’, a cheapo membership scheme introduced, in his perverse wisdom, by Ed Miliband for those people who (understandably) can’t endure going to members’ meetings. And among these ‘Labour supporters’ who in April will be determining who the next Labour Prime Minister might be, will be those who bought themselves a vote by registering as supporters as recently as mid-January. All’s fair then.

The absurdities of Labour’s leadership electoral system are a reflection of its spatchcock compromise between Labour’s historical roots as a parliamentary-orientated party paid for by organised labour, and the bizarre contemporary influence of US primaries. This has produced a corrupt charade where all party members are potential voters but some voters aren’t party members (and some of these have simply paid £25 to vote). Success in the election depends on garnering the backing of enough MPs and then the approval of enough CLP meetings or, proving that in the Labour Party the past is always present, a couple of trade union barons.

The actual leadership election this April was always going to include the candidate who wrote Labour’s least successful manifesto since George Lansbury’s poor performance paved the way for the takeover of the party in 1935 by that masterfully bland public school boy, Mr Clement Attlee. Rebecca Long Bailey’s skilled authorship of Labour’s most recent ‘longest suicide note in its history’ was facilitated by the man who had already blessed her prospective leadership. In December Mr Corbyn’s reverse Midas touch meant that party volunteers like me had to knock on doors with an unsellable message from an unconscionable leader. Long Bailey is likely to be among the final two thanks to the imprimatur of the man who led Labour to a defeat markedly worse in seat terms than Michael Foot’s in 1983.

Like the other, current, front runner, Sir Keir Starmer, Rebecca has been in parliament for all of five years. If I am not mistaken, this is the same depth of parliamentary experience enjoyed by Lisa Nandy too. Emily Thornberry though has been traipsing round the Westminster corridors for an incredible decade. Gosh. Better perhaps than Corbyn who’s been there since 1983 but who not only lacks ministerial experience – like every single Labour leadership candidate this time round – but hasn’t even previously shadowed the government minister for office stationery.

Sir Keir Starmer was anointed at birth with the name of Labour’s second most popular leader, and is eager to emphasise that he too has a (relatively) proletarian background in order to offset the knighthood he secured for an indifferent performance as the head of Public Prosecutions.

Thornberry’s disadvantaged Oxford graduate and high-paid lawyer routine probably won’t impress. Lisa Nandy genuinely understands that Labour’s disconnect with its onetime (white) working-class base is almost terminal, but this message is too difficult for the party’s liberal middle class chauvinists to process. Therefore it’ll be down to either Starmer or Long Bailey to bore the electorate over the next five years.

Long Bailey’s seismically dull campaign launch - head down, droning on from a tiresome text - suggests that she will only inspire those for whom having a politically ‘correct’ (i.e. leftist) message is what matters. Not the fact that it’s delivered, like the current leadership incumbent, with all the charisma, style and authority of a deputy borough council leader. 

She told the Party that being a working-class woman means that she’s doubly-disadvantaged. This cynical little routine comes from yet another former lawyer, but one who thinks that the way to reach the working-class is affecting to sound like them. 

So we’ll presumably end up with Keir Starmer. A onetime student Trotskyist with little hope of reaching those parts of the country that began being lost by Labour more than 40 years ago and which now vote Johnson. Still, the brave knight will be good at the dispatch box cut and thrust. And that’s what will convince on the door step, isn't it? 

Labour will never get out of this mess until it restores the election of the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party solely to Labour politicians elected to Parliament. Historically this method didn't always produce the most plausible leaders to contest a national election. However it usually had the virtue of producing someone who not only understood what contesting a national election entailed, but who could authoritatively articulate an inclusive message to the whole of the nation. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Bobby Womack: God, mental health and Walthamstow

Bobby Womack’s final album, ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’, contains one of the most emotionally honest and powerful vocal performances I have ever heard. Right off the bat ‘Please Forgive my Heart’ overwhelmed me, and it still does every time I hear it. “Please forgive my heart,” sings Womack, “It's not that the problem lies anywhere in there.” When he follows that by confessing “I’m a liar, I’m in a dream, Goin’ on my way, Nothing to rely on”, you know you’re witnessing a very private moment. I guess that not all will relate “the problem” he refers to as about mental health, but I think it’s an admittance that there are things that prevent us from loving because we cannot trust, or rely on, ourselves, let alone others. As Bobby sings in the song's second verse: "Oh, it feels like the sky is falling, And the clouds, clouds are closing in, Where did I lose control? Where did it all begin?"

I hope to God that I am not cheapening his divinely honest confessional by attempting such commonplace analysis. I somehow though need to express how it feels, thank God, to still be overwhelmed, to be brought literally to my knees, by playing such songs. I used to think that there were only a handful of singers, all white contemporaries of Mr Womack, who could, on occasion, work this kind of earthly divinity, this sacred and profane magic. It’s there in Dylan’s testament, ‘Every Grain of Sand’; Van Morrison had it on ‘Listen to the Lion’; and you can feel it when John Martyn preached ‘One World’. 

But Bobby Womack lived the religious emotion of the everyday right from childhood. He was no latter-day convert. Nearly four decades before Bobby Womack died he sang that “Love is the emblem of eternity.” You’ve got to believe that if you’re hurting big time. And the fact that he included that line on a funky number entitled ‘Jealous Love’ (from ‘What is the World Coming To?’) showed that he was a person, and an artist, who didn’t believe in siloing his emotions or his motivations.

Bobby Womack is a man very aware of his mortality on ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ (released 2012), but he sounded as alive and as exciting as ever. Credit is also due to former Blur front-man Damon Albarn, who wrote most of its songs including ‘Please Forgive My Heart’. However it’s plain on listening to the album’s carefully crafted retrospective but ultra-modern feel (Albarn also co-produced the album with XL Records founder Richard Russell) that the words were written with Womack in mind. The songs catalogue the singer’s belief in forgiveness ('The bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first'), love, and, yes when necessary, serving yourself. 

Bobby Womack died in June 2014, two weeks or so before he’d been scheduled, implausibly, to headline that year's Walthamstow Garden Party. I still went, marvelling at the incredibly empty experience of hearing last minute replacements, the Brand New Heavies, trying to enliven the audience. Bobby Womack had had more than five decades in the business, as both a songwriter whose songs were popularised by many black (and some white) stars, and as a soul singer who had been (musically) born again several times over. If he’d had the strength to perform ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ with the feeling he conveys on the original, and to a field of Walthamstow revellers, would they have understood? Or would they have run screaming for the exits, as was once said of Laurence Olivier if he’d really turned up the acting volume. We shall never know. However I am grateful for Bobby Womack’s wonderful songs and for his wondrous voice. But I am most grateful for ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ because today it made me cry as I was reminded of the God-given gift of those artists who can use our tenderest feelings to lift us up from the floor and take us to the heavens. If only for a while.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Ummagumma live at The Piper St Leonard’s

The Necessary Animals sonically rocked The Piper in St Leonard’s last night. Shame that there were only a few old farts like me and a handful of trilby wearers present to enjoy the blast. Upstairs at the re-imagined Norman Arms is an interesting experience. You could almost think you were at a happening decades ago, what with the day’s psychedelic wig-out residing under the title Ummagumma.

The N.Animals had teamed up with The Big Believe for the night, creating a crowded stage but a totally in-synch sound. They lived up to the psych billing, treating us to an inspired take on The Floyd’s 'Lucifer Sam' and a reworking of a Zappa Hot Rats’ cut that I’m choosing to call 'Sin of Mr Green Genes' and which included the innovative admonition to ‘eat up your greens.’ 'How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat..'. eh ...your greens.

Earlier a psych-surf band (The Somnians maybe?) had wigged out for just a little too long. Preceding them had been a Glasgow Govan ‘60s style troubadour with the musical vibe of Davie Graham, the attitude of Alex Harvey, and a hairdo that looked like he’d lost a bet down at the barbers. I think he was called CK Smith.

After the Necessary Animals had completed an impressive set that included a few takes from their excellent eponymous debut LP, we split, before the skinniest young guitar-slingers imaginable had had time to storm the stage.

What we’d witnessed of Ummagumma’s music was fine. The problem was that this apparent showcase of local talent didn’t do anything to promote or even explain WTF was going on. I wasn’t aware of anyone’s name, no one was announced, and no one had brought any info, merch or anything with them. I don’t think I’d have been the only one interested in an Ummagumma t-shirt or a CD by The Necessaries.

There was an air among what passed for organisation at this event of we’re too cool for school. This was a shame as what was needed was a square to take the mike and explain a little. You don’t have to be Harvey Goldsmith or a proto-capitalist bread-head, just encourage people to talk about the acts by giving them a bit of a big-up (and maybe get them to sell a t-shirt)

Anyway, thanks and love to all (especially Keith of The Necessaries).

Friday, September 13, 2019

DSEI: Arms not for hugging

The first thing that I noticed upon arriving at DSEI was a young mother and baby protesting one of the world’s biggest defence and security exhibitions, or ‘arms fairs’, depending on your point of view. The Excel Centre in London’s Docklands – Newham if you actually live there - played host this week to the biennial defence industry jamboree. The mother and a friend – there were surely many more at a safer distance – chanted ‘arms are for hugging,’ which made the policemen and security guards standing nearby smile.

Taking the fight to DSEI (note also the baby's t-shirt)

I entered DSEI in record time, thanks to a very efficient media registration operation, and soon settled in to my usual people and kit-watching mode. It wasn’t long before I wondered what the hell I was doing at this almost absurd spectacle. This was my fourth time of attending; I’ve also been to IDEX in Abu Dhabi and similar events. At the latter, some 20 years ago, I was however speaking at an associated Gulf security conference. At DSEI I was, as ever, unsure of what my role was.

The Excel Centre - care of ADNEC, a UAE exhibitions company
I typically wander around either trying to hook up with existing contacts or just talking to stall-holders about their wares. However there were some undoubted sights to marvel at too. Whether the classic British Centurion tank (see below) or a chance for the boys (me included) to play with some guns (see below), there was much spectacle.

Rear-end of a Centurion tank replete with cacti

Admiring the hardware
I noted that past in-theatre deployments of Russian ultra-babes had been forsaken for more conventional ways of promoting the goods. I gawped at the sheer scale of the UK’s state of the art ‘Tempest’ aircraft (see picture below), which had a steady queue of both men and women wishing to clamber aboard. I stepped outside and admired the huge naval ships in the former London canal-way and the small aircraft or unmanned drones taking to the skies above Docklands. Across the way two huge abandoned warehouses stood as stark reminders of what the area used to be.

Dockland dereliction

'Team Tempest'

Ship's inspection

Having a Gulf interest, I scoured in vain the DSEI guide for any sign that the Saudis’ much-vaunted planned expansion of their limited defence production capacity was reflected at DSEI. The DSEI website did have a brief about SAMI: the ‘Saudi Arabian Military Industries’ company set up as part of the Kingdom’s ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 (SV2030). But there was no DSEI stall number. SAMI, in partnership with GAMI, the overarching ‘General Authority’ for Saudi military industries is tasked with ensuring that 50% of all new Saudi arms are produced in-country within 11 years and that SAMI becomes a significant arms exporter.

More prosaically, earlier this year a former UK official told me that SAMI was making progress because it was producing small and, he admitted, basic engineering components. ‘Widgets’ was the word that came to my mind. Either way, this is seemingly not enough to warrant hiring a DSEI stand.

The contrast with the UAE was striking. Perhaps having a ‘UAE Pavilion’ wasn’t that surprising as the Emiratis own the Excel Centre in which DSEI is held. However the UAE seems more serious than the Saudis about developing a domestic defence industry. This effort essentially revolves around Tawazun, the state-founded company that since the early 1990s has been promoting in-country defence industry capacity. EDIC, the ‘Emirates Defence Industry Company’, was founded more recently as the country’s overall defence industry platform, but Tawazun has the majority stake in it. Someone on the Tawazun Economic Council (TEC) stall told me that TEC’s focus since 2017 has been on using ‘offsets’ (a de facto Gulf tax on western defence companies who commit to developing local know-how as part of an arms deal) to assist defence and non-defence industry development. TEC is also using its remit to develop local capacity in order to shepherd ostensibly private Emirati companies such as Halcon (part of the Al-Yas Group), who were right next door in the Pavilion. In February 2019 Halcon got a large TEC soft loan as part of the TEC policy to either fund or co-opt local defence businesses[i]. I was told that Halcon employs about 150 people, over half of whom are Emirati and are typically engineers who come to the UK for a post-graduate education. About 30-40% of the components in Halcon’s missile guidance and control systems are imported apparently. This is the all-important electronics component; the rest is done in-country. 

On the other side of Halcon’s stand was one belonging to ‘Al-Hamra’, whose smart promo publication boasted of them “Addressing Tomorrow’s Threats, Today”. Their emphasis it seems is on assisting private and public organisations with counter-terrorism and ‘intelligence’ work, something they do across the Middle East and Africa according to their glossy brochure. Sadly there was no one on the Al-Hamra stall to comment further. In fact this was a depressingly familiar experience from past such encounters of mine. It belies the UAE's go-ahead attitude that seeks to match its regional and extra-regional military ambitions with a greatly expanded supply of domestically produced kit that by definition isn't beholden to western political sensitivities or technology embargoes. I spoke to the former Tawazun press spokesman who told me that his successor, Mohammed Ahmed, was the only one who could make any comment to me, whether on or off the record. However Mohammed Ahmed had been called away from DSEI on business and would, I was assured, contact me when he returned. He didn’t.

I am ambiguous about missiles. However one that caught my eye was QinetiQ’s ‘Banshee’, which is actually an aerial practice target. Perhaps it was the name that appealed to me, making me think of Siouxsie Sioux’s band, or perhaps it was its attractively bright red colour-scheme (see below) and the free key ring.
A Banshee minus Siouxsie

Oxford space miniaturists
I wandered into a talk by a representative of Oxford Space Systems who addressed punters on her company's contribution to the 'miniaturisation' of space communication (see above). She mentioned that her company had a UK Ministry of Defence contract for aspects of this work. On my way out I noted that the use of canines in war zones was taking on a very hi-tech dimension (see below).

A dog of war
Oman was out in force at DSEI, commanded by Sheikh Badr bin Saud Al-Busaidi, officially known as ‘the minister responsible for defence affairs’. When I spotted him and his large retinue of uniformed Sultanate officers, they were surrounded by UK military and defence industry people. He went on after DSEI to meet with the UK’s new defence secretary Ben Wallace, and to visit Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre.

Oman hosts a new UK naval base and, separately, an army training base. The former, located on the Arabian Sea, is designed to accommodate the UK’s one and only aircraft carrier which is still undergoing operational trials before being scheduled to form a ‘carrier group’, with a still to be trialled second carrier, sometime in 2021[ii]. This intimate British role in Oman’s security was arguably unaffected by our ‘pull-out’ East of Suez in 1971. However its stepping up in recent years has made the UK even more central to the Sultanate’s security, including the highly tense Gulf littoral [i].

Before leaving DSEI, I met with an ex-British military friend. He told me that coming in to DSEI on the DLR that morning he had felt disconcerted by a  man who sat right next to him. The man in question started wheezing before my friend asked if he was ok. He noted that the man was wearing a ‘Veterans for Peace’ t-shirt and was obviously about to join a protest outside DSEI. An understanding passed between them. ‘Have a peaceful day,’ my friend said at their parting.

[i] February 19 2019, Dania Saadi,
[ii] ‘UK carrier begins ‘Westlant 19’ operational trials’, Richard Scott, Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 4, 2019.
[i] See my article for the University of Kingston's History Department blog contrasting Harold Wilson’s decision to end the UK’s formal defence presence in the Gulf and commitment to defend the Gulf rulers, with the so-called return ‘East of Suez’ under PMs Cameron and May 

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Are Corbyn and some of his allies anti-Semites?

n     I wrote this as a private email on 27 February 2019 when Chris Williamson MP first had the Labour Party whip withdrawn from him in the UK House of Commons:

      Anti-Semitism is not as big a problem in the Labour Party as it may, at times, appear to be given the amount of media coverage, nor is it as widespread as some allege. It is true that the accusation of it that is made against some on the pro-Corbyn left of the Labour Party, coming most strongly from the Party's anti-Corbyn wing and by those Labour MPs who’ve just joined 'The Independent Group', is in part a politically-motivated attempt to damage Mr Corbyn and his leadership. This can have the effect on the Corbynite Left of encouraging them to defensively kick against the hostility of the Labour ‘Right’, and maybe, just maybe....repeat, maybe....this explains the comments of pro-Corbyn MP Chris Williamson, for which he has today partially apologised. Maybe. 

      To some it might seem that anti-Semitism is simply being confused with anti-Zionism. Sometimes it is, and that I too have a problem with. However it is actually, and increasingly, hard to separate the two issues. If Zionism is always unacceptable, in any form, to some on the Left, then it should be no more a concern to them than any kind of nationalism/national aspiration that is ethnically or religiously exclusive e.g. the aspiration for ethnic Kurdish nationhood (very popular among Kurds in parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and supported by some in the west); the agitation for, creation of and maintenance of Pakistan, a self-defined exclusivist Muslim state. Or Arab nationalism, a banner that Nasser and others got behind in the ambition to mobilise one ethnicity, ostensibly on behalf of the Palestinians, against Israel (or rather ‘the Jews’ as their propaganda referred to) and in the process disregarding a whole host of Middle Eastern, non-Arab, minorities. The same could be said of the official 'Arab Ba'ath’ ideology of present day Syria and of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: Arab chauvinism expressed via an ethnically exclusivist politics i.e. ethno-nationalism. The Muslim Brotherhood – recently in power in Egypt and still popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including in Palestine – is committed solely to establishing a form of political rule that unites Muslims under Islamic law (regardless of Christian Arabs et al). However I never hear people on the Far Left, or Jeremy Corbyn specifically, talk critically about them. In fact he has praised and shared platforms with the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas (whose charter still contains reference to the widely recognised anti-Semitic forgery, ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’), and shared platforms and praised Hizbollah (a Lebanese pro-Iranian group solely interested in advancing the interests of Shia Muslims, in Lebanon, Syria etc).   

      OK maybe this is just inconsistency, or (wilful) ignorance, or both. Maybe this isn’t cast iron proof of anti-Semitism. I really cannot see Jeremy Corbyn going home at night and sticking pins in a doll depicting a pot-bellied, bespectacled, gold chain-wearing, big-bearded, big-nosed, archetypal ‘Yid’. Yet he praised and defended an infamous mural with more or less this exact depiction of a Jew on it, even when this specific aspect was pointed out to him. In response to criticism of some young Leftist Labour activists who had referred to the power of ‘Jewish capitalists’/’Jewish capital’, he said that they’d let their anti-capitalist enthusiasm run away with them. Perhaps he would be as indulgent of Ernst Rohm and his anti-capitalist Nazi Brownshirts whom Hitler had purged. In a fairly recently unearthed clip of Jeremy speaking (prior to him becoming party leader) on a pro-Palestinian platform about Israel, he was found to respond to a critical question put to him by a British Jew, whom he presumably recognised, by saying that ‘they’ should have more of a sense of humour, and that ‘by now’ ‘they’ should know this country better. When some his followers in the party target anti-Corbyn Labour Jewish MPs and councillors with strongly pro-Palestinian messages on social media, they are choosing to focus on their ethnicity and to link that to a foreign issue. In doing so they are in effect portraying these British politicians as foreigners in their own country, just as Corbyn did when responding to an audience member in the clip I refer to above. Would they - do they - ever target non-Jewish political opponents (who’ve sympathised with Israel) in this manner?

      The hostility to Israel easily overlaps on the left with hostility to US foreign policy and perceived disproportionate US armed action on Arab/Muslim states/targets. If Israel and the US are deemed to be wrong, then some on the Left find it hard to be critical of a Middle Eastern enemy of Israel and the US, Iran (which institutionalises in one office the exclusive exercise of Shia political and spiritual authority) even when the Iranian working class are striking over pay and conditions. It should also be noted that the Labour Party has long had significant representation among Muslim Asians in the UK, usually, but not exclusively, those of Pakistani heritage, among whom strong and sometimes highly conservative Islamic assertions can sometimes be found that hardly fit with the politics of middle class socialists enthused about Corbyn.

      Anti-Semitism, perhaps ironically, literally means to be an anti-Semite, a loose ethnic term, using perhaps spurious ethno-genetic classifications, that includes Arabs as well as Jews. In common and widespread parlance however, it means to be anti-Jewish. What is it to be ‘Jewish’? It is ostensibly an adherent of a particular monotheistic religion. However Jewishness plainly has a wide set of cultural identifiers, and to some extent ethnic identifiers, that apply to Jewish atheists too. It obviously isn’t the same thing as being ‘Israeli’, which is actually not a totally ethnically exclusive nationality, even if political and constitutional realities mean that it comes pretty close to being so.

      So, are Jeremy Corbyn and some of his allies anti-Semites? Well, the blithe and knowing disregard for causing collective offence, the prioritisation of factional political advantage over addressing any such offence, and hostility to any territorial expression of Jewish national identity, but acceptance of other ethno or religious nationalisms, comes pretty close.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Tom Cole Live at The King’s Head in Battle

I have raved about this singer-songwriter before and will no doubt do so again. Tom Cole recently played to a mostly disinterested bunch of revellers and eaters in The King’s Head pub in Battle in East Sussex. You had to strain a bit to hear Tom, who sings confidently but was only accompanied by himself on acoustic guitar. But if you got up close (by propping up the bar nearest to him, as we did), there were thrills aplenty.

The first part of his two-set show had some intended crowd-pleasers: ‘Cecilia’ (Simon and Garfunkel) for example, and more surprisingly, the excellent ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel. Tom’s performance of the Joel song was doubly ironic as it's about the kind of gig that Tom would have been playing if the punters were more interested (or drunk enough), while the song’s knowing take on what it’s like to be the man behind the mic applies whether people are ‘in the mood for a melody’ or not.

Mr Cole is a deft purveyor of Americana but without the preciousness that some performers of the 'genre' have (especially when they’re from the UK-side of the pond). He includes pre-'Americana' Americana in his repertoire and performed a nice version of ‘Early Morning Rain’ by the God-like genius that is Gordon Lightfoot (a Canadian). Tom went on to splice a Dylan song with one of his own. I cannot read my notes which were scrawled the morning after, but I think the Dylan number was‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’. Regardless, Tom’s part blended well with His Bobness.

To cover the tortured Jackson C Frank - ‘Blues Runs The Game’ - emphasises Tom’s confidence and musical maturity. Tom's latest EP, ‘Ramblin’ Man’, contains only self-penned songs (on sale via his website The title track went down well live but, like all of the versions on the EP, benefits from a deft fiddle accompaniment.

Tom did a stellar cover of a Townes Van Zandt song, whose title I cannot remember either. (Suggestions on a postcard please). My friend and me were impressed enough that Tom would cover an artist whose songs deal in pain without having to shout about his suffering. The fact that Tom did one so well was a wonderful bonus.

One of the best things I have ever heard Tom do is ‘In My Time of Dyin’’, which he performs closer to its original Gospel style than Led Zeppelin shooting their bolt all over it. This was the undoubted highlight of the night (as it was the first time I saw him play). I don’t know if he’s considered getting the tapes rolling for a live release of this and other numbers, but he certainly should.

‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ isn’t perhaps an obvious choice for the beery boys of Battle, but its time-honoured folk protest verities have their place. By this point the ale was kicking in with me too and we (I think) danced a bit to something Tom played before his finale: ‘Oh Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz’ (co-written, and made famous, by Janis Joplin). This did entice the revellers from the other side of the bar into the gig. Or at least one of them. A lady stepped up, grabbed the mic and performed a more than passable interpretation. (I hope she doesn't mind me including this shot (below) of her enjoying the applause). 

Way to go Tom Cole. And hats off to The King’s Head in Battle for hosting this talented performer.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Labour's class coalition coming unstuck over Europe

Labour’s pragmatism (or waffle/procrastination) over Brexit, argues writer Nick Cohen, is both psephologically illiterate and ideologically motivated. Of course trying to bridge different interests has a very long tradition in the party. A compromise among Labour’s class and ideological broad church brought majority Labour governments for at least some of the period from 1945-2010. On Europe, Labour has never been enthusiastic, preferring to try on this, as on many other major issues, to manage (or obfuscate) the deep divisions within its electoral and parliamentary coalition.

Gaitskell feigned ‘little Englander’ anger at a prospective ‘end of a thousand years of history,’ while Wilson only tentatively sought to get beyond De Gaulle’s ‘Non’ in response to Macmillan's speculative application. It was Tory PM Heath who forced through the UK’s membership of the then Common Market (with the backing of some dissident Labour MPs) in an exercise in executive chutzpah. Three years later Wilson foreshadowed Cameron by putting political convenience before national interest and held the UK’s first referendum on whether to leave the European project. In the 1950s and early 1960s Jim Callaghan had reflected the Labourite conservatism of the Party’s trade union base in being instinctively unenthusiastic about the Common Market. However, as foreign secretary and then Prime Minister in the 1970s, Callaghan understood that as a middle-ranking post-imperial power, the UK was either in the club or it was irrelevant. 

Labour leader Michael Foot had to swallow many of the ideological stances of a hard left that - as a parliamentary socialist, intellect and pragmatist - he usually had little time for. However Foot tried his best to manage the then intra-party coalition that was rupturing over Europe – and over much else. Kinnock and Smith took Labour back to its broad church position on Europe, defence, and the economy. Blair in turn maintained that traditional Labour pragmatism on Europe. However the desperation of party that, in Austin Mitchell’s famous words, was ‘prepared to eat shit to get a Labour government,’ meant that Blair and Brown could get away with upholding the neo-liberal abdication of national interest they inherited from Margaret Thatcher, even if much of the country baulked at their unprecedentedly supine and ill-considered Iraq policy. Blair was arguably an outlier in Labour’s tradition, although on much social and welfare policy, and on Europe, he was pragmatic. 

Corbyn though is the first ever Labour leader who's not a genuine managerial pragmatist. He’s also the first Labour leader since George Lansbury to have little interest in leading. Corbyn is rooted in the late 1970s and early 1980s hard left Labour ‘activist’ myopia that favoured ideological correctness over class compromise. Back in the day, a half-baked perversion of cod Marxist theory led the polytechnocrats and bourgeois militants of the Bennite left to believe that, from the ashes of the dialectical clash of the differing class interests that have characterised the Party from birth to government, a truly socialist (ruling) class could emerge to finally deliver socialism.

The spectacle of a Labour Party, a Labour Party, run by middle class activists purporting, Leninist-style, to lead the proletariat into the light, didn’t convince many of the working class, then or now. Nor did it attract many of the middle class: the support of sufficient white-collar workers has always been a necessary and important part of Labour’s coalition. 

Today, the ideological heirs of Labour’s early 1980s deviation into political irrelevance are prioritising their own version of the party’s historic pragmatic alliance. In their case however it’s a very unholy union of bourgeois leftist disdain for a ‘capitalist club’ (the EU) with the appeasement of Labour’s disappearing white working class voting base who are angry over immigration and the loss of national sovereignty.  

Labour might now decide that the middle class electoral swing to the pro-EU Lib-Dem centre (and the Green left) is so out-stripping the loss of (white) working class Labour voters to the Brexit Party, that it can no longer maintain the party’s historic fudge on Europe. However a firm Labour embrace of another referendum – because Tories aren’t going to vote for an early electoral Christmas, to paraphrase aspirant Labour Party leader McDonnell – could mean JC jettisoning his misguided version of Labour class pragmatism in favour of a stance that hardly convinces anybody.

Corbyn cannot seek to persuade 'decent moderate Tories' (to paraphrase Baroness Chakrabarti on the ‘Marr’ show) to back another national referendum if he doesn’t make clear how he wants actual or prospective Labour voters to vote. Likewise, he cannot present himself as the nation’s prospective PM in the event of a short-notice general election if he can’t say whether he wants Britain to be in or out of the EU. So, unless Corbyn intends to approach the next fork in the road with the response he’s maintained ever since the last EU referendum, he will be forced to break the Party’s historic class coalition and to prioritise the winning back of liberal middle class voters. However unless they are convinced by Corbyn's 11th hour decisiveness, then Labour might have kissed goodbye to the white working class and to the prospect of ever returning to power.