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Archive for February, 2010

Sunday reading and something to look forward to

February 28, 2010 12 comments

I don’t normally do lists of posts or blogs which people should read, outside of the awesome Carnival of Socialism, but I’ve been feeling ridiculously unproductive for the last few days. On the other hand, there’s been some interesting material posted around the blogosphere, and everyone needs all the links and comments they can get.

Before we get to that, however, I’ve spent Sunday compiling my own reading list for the next while; a different kind of Sunday reading, I grant you, but Sunday reading nonetheless. Prizes for spotting the theme running through what I’ve chosen to order from the local library:

Benjamin Farrington, the Faith of Epicurus and Greek Science; Richard Levin and Richard Lewontin, the Dialectical Biologist; James Gleick, Chaos; Nick Herbert, Quantum Reality; Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, the Evolution of Physics; Edward Grant, Physical Science in the Middle Ages; Nikolai Bukharin (ed), Science at the Crossroads and G.W.F. Hegel’s Logic.

In a few weeks, readers should begin to notice some of this filter through into the oeuvre offered on the blog. I’m continually reminded that there’s so much to know and nowhere near enough time to learn it, and the history and philosophy of science is one I’ve never mastered outside of the usual tracts on Aristotle and Plato which classicists are expected to write for ungraduate degrees.

On the blogs, for more immediate reading, there’s some good articles demonstrating the ignorance of various parts of the commentariat. Paul Sagar has good stuff on Barbara Ellen, who has written the most patronising and ignorant article ever on the subject of interns who want to be well treated. Meanwhile, Reuben at the Third Estate writes of Tamsin Omond’s political ineptitude in her decision to stand against Glenda Jackson.

There’s an article at Socialist Unity outlining why the Falkland Islands should be part of Argentina regardless of what the locals think, which I think is complete rubbish. The proper orientation of the Left should not be towards attempting to coerce people to pick and choose their national allegiance, but to render to those locals, rather than corporations, the proceeds of the new natural mineral wealth of their islands.

Closer to the usual fare of this blog, Jack Graves has an article up about the problems of the rigidity of party structures that may restrict the rise of party members from outside certain backgrounds (which I think is an epiphenomenon of the key issue of undemocratic structures). Regarding LP structure, Peter Kenyon justifies a media appearance on the subject of Jack Dromey’s gaining a seat in Birmingham – judge for yourself whether you think it hurts Labour more than it helps.

Lenin discusses polls – and Paul is close behind, with part one of a two part series. Raincoat Optimism carries a personal addendum to my piece on Orwell and nationalism. Splintered Sunrise has an excellent account of recent struggles in Greece. Bleeding Heart Show’s Neil Robertson and Left Outside issue a call to arms; musically-orientated politicos of the world, unite!

Next Left has a recent article on the launch by Tory MEP Dan Hannan and co of the British Tea Party, an attempt to copy the anti-tax movement in the USA. I think Next Left is unduly dismissive, and I have said before that the Left is missing a trick in this regard – that we are seen to be generally pro-tax at a time when most people are not awash with money at our peril, but that the structure of tax can be disputed.

Chris Dillow has a must-read article on the feasibility of a post-war Keynesian solution to the current crisis; Laurie Penny seems on good form with a tirade against the misplacing by the media of female agency in the debate on over-sexualisation; lastly River’s Edge from Lancashire has a report about a North-West meeting of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition electoral group set up by the Socialist Party, which seems to be benefitting by a lot of good will in places like Cambridge, where independent activists have come on board.

This is despite worrying reports from Southampton Itchen and some sniping by other groups in Manchester (which may or may not be justified).

And that’s your lot. Hopefully I’ll actually have something interesting to say tomorrow. Even if I don’t, stay tuned; 8th of March is International Women’s Day and in the run-up TCF will be proud to showcase original work by some of our favourite female bloggers, who we think should have a wider audience.

Categories: Miscellaneous

The Conservative Campaign Crisis (part 1): 1992 doorsteps revisited

February 28, 2010 5 comments

TCF doesn’t usually get to hung up with opinion polling, but heh, it’s election time, so here’s my tuppence (in two parts) on what’s going on in the polls.

The weekend papers are full of analysis about why the Conservative poll lead is slipping, with most of it even before the latest poll giving them just a 2% lead

No need to link to them, you know where to find all the stuff, though if you want an explanation focused almost entirely on the personal and working relationship between four men, try the Financial Times. It’s wrong mind.

In blogoland Tom Harris makes a start by comparing principally with what went on in 1997:

I’ve always maintained….that there isn’t anywhere near the same levels of enthusiasm in the country for Cameron’s new Tories as there was in 1997 for Blair’s New Labour. I’m sure we can all at least agree that that much is true.

True enough, but 1997 is not the best comparison because it’s conceived in (understandable Blair loyalist) terms of election victory.  Whatever you may think of New Labour under Blair, Labour won that election. 

This time around no-one’s going to win the election; someone’s going to lose it.

My ‘doorstep sense’ suggests a much better comparison for 2010 is the 1992 Conservative victory.  That election was decided to a large extent by votes who voted Conservative with reluctance, and who even denied to pollsters that they were going to do so; it was the election when people were a little ashamed to vote Conservative but did so anyway because they saw no better offer.  As UK Polling report put it:

In 1992 the British polls famously got it wrong. All the polls showed Labour ahead or the parties neck and neck. In fact the Conservatives had a solid lead. In the post-mortem that followed one of the problems that was identified was the “spiral of silence” or “shy Tories”. In short, given the unpopularity of the government some people were embarrassed to admit to a pollster that they would vote Conservative.

The sense I’m getting on the doorstep is it’s happening in reverse this time around.  People are almost ashamed to say they’re considering voting for a Labour government – a party which did, after all, conduct an illegal war, amongst other things. 

 Plenty of people are still undecided, but I sense that as polling day nears, more are headed to the relative safety of Labour than to what may lie in store for them under the Tories.

 And I do understand what voters tell me.  I did win a quite surprising election victory once.

 But why this reluctance to go all the way to the polling both with the Tories?  Why does it look like voters will jilt them at the last? 

 More in part 2, when I’ll talk about 1979, oh and that election in 2008 too.  

Of course, none of these elections had Ashcroft’s millions, and the idea that the election will simply be bought by the Tories can’t be ruled out.

Nation and Nationalism in Orwell

February 27, 2010 23 comments

Orwell’s ‘Notes on Nationalism‘ is one of his most interesting, most confused, essays. It attempts to assert the existence of a phenomenon in English society of 1945, “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’”.

Specific ideologies are identified as exhibiting this trait: “Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.” Orwell goes on to separate these fanatic nationalisms from ‘patriotism’, love of place and way of life, unrelated to the morality of a people, and purely defensive in sentiment.

“Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception,” remarks Orwell, and nationalists will decide every question prima facie, in the interests of a competitive prestige for the entity into which they have sunk their individuality, rather than on the basis of evidence gathered by the disinterested, which should prove more accurate.

It should be obvious that Orwell’s methodology is confused and bears its own ideological connotations. The conflation of all these ideologies, ignoring their material context or aims, establishes by elimination a ‘normal’ world where everyone is rational and not prepared to die or kill in the name of ideas, rather than cold hard facts.

The ‘normal’ man exists in a value-free world where ideology is not ingrained into the very practices which make up one’s daily routine – not to mention the more obvious kind contained in the written word. Far from his consciousness being impacted by the conditions in which he lives, making him more or less amenable to certain facts and political ideas, man, in this vacuum-world, can stand apart, tally up all facts and select a political view accordingly. It is philosophical idealism.

Needless to say, of course, that ‘normal’ man doesn’t exist except in Orwell’s head. Nor, I would contend, does that pure “way of life” that Orwell argues can sustain a non-nationalistic ‘patriotism’. There is no borough, city, county, region, nation, federation or continent in the world which can draw a line around itself and declare that all the people on one side of the line share a “way of life” and all the people outside it do not share that way of life.

This is contrary to many of Orwell’s claims in ‘the Lion and the Unicorn‘, about the differences between nations. But cultures, national or otherwise, like religions or any body of shared ideas, traditions and practices, are syncretic – and in any one geographical location, there will be a polyglot of ideas and practices, some shared with people to the north of the dividing line, some with people to the south and so on. This polyglot cannot itself be defined as a “way of life”, for many reasons.

Seeing as it does not exist in a vacuum, no culture is stable. It changes over time. Seeing as it is subject to real, material pressures which limit or extend the capacity to engage in certain practices, no culture is shared universally in a society that permits inequality. Seeing as a culture is a combination of ideas and practices, and that these ideas and practices are unlikely to have set or shared boundaries, no culture escapes geographic amorphism.

I’ve dealt with this essay before, as it was once approvingly quoted to me over at Labour Members’ Net, but my views on the subject appear to have been deleted and, moreover, I have recently read Raymond Williams’ excellent short account of Orwell’s life and politics, particularly this patriotism, which deserves to be reproduced.

“England, whose England? In the Road to Wigan Pier…Orwell is describing the ‘two nations’, discovering how (in that middle class phrase) the ‘other half’ lives. He is at once compassionate and indignant, drawn and repelled. He is describing a country in which two-thirds of the population are working class people at a time of depression and wide-spread unemployment. All his active arguments and images are of contrasts, intolerable contrasts.

“‘England’, as any simple idea, has been destroyed by these contrasts. The single image of his childhood has been replaced by the particularities, the variations, the inequalities, of mine and mill, slum and council house, caravan site and slagshop, teashop and Tudor villa. This is an active England, an England to move through.

“The England of the later essays, written in wartime is different…leading to a particular climax which comes ‘as near as one can…to describing England in a phrase': a family with the wrong members in control. Now Orwell was neither the first nor the last to say something like this. The statement’s interest is in where it comes on the scale of his development.

“There is not much sense of a family or of emotional unity in the depressed and suffering England of The Road to Wigan Pier. The emphasis there is on the realities and consequences of a class society. What happens, I think, is that Orwell first moves through two phases of response to ‘England': the myth of his boyhood – the special people, the ‘family’ – is succeeded by the observations of his return – a scene of bitter and bleak contradictions.

“But then, in a third phase, he creates a new myth which until quite recently has remained effective. Qualifying the original image with the facts of the economic and social inequality, he creates the sense of an England of basic ordinariness and decency, a ‘real England’, ‘an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past’, in which it can be seen almost as an accident, or at least as an archaism, that the ‘wrong members’ of the family are in control.”

This is an image obviously lacking in historicity. It is easy to mine a selective past for features exhibited in the present, and to weave them into a narrative that sets up the present context in a way that recommends itself. This is what writers from the Levellers to Tom Paine did with the ‘Norman Yoke’, to embed a theory of lost rights into English history, and grant the commonweal an equally ancient lineage to the divine right of kings.

In reality, evidence for the ‘Norman Yoke’ is hotly contested, and even when the term was first coined in 1642, citations of biblical precedent were more often heard for the equality of man, than was a Saxon golden age. Christopher Hill reminds us of John Ball’s words from the 1381 Peasant Revolt, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?” This mining of the past – any past, real or imagined – is a recurrent motif.

Orwell’s monolithic England, of past, present and future, is no less unhistorical, no less unable to accept a dynamic model of society – subject to all sorts of pressures and consisting of all sorts of processes, which themselves change over time, some of which are exerted or expressed in contradiction to one another.

Raymond Williams is more gentle than I:

“Orwell’s great influence since the 1940’s owes as much to this powerful image [of a family with the wrong members in control] as to any other single achievement. And it would not be so powerful if it did not contain some truth. Orwell’s emphasis on the depth of civil liberties in Britain and on the feelings that support them is, in the world as he knew it, and as we continue to know it, justified.

“His furtherness of the gentleness and mildness of much ordinary English life, on these qualities being positive achievements in a world of much killing and anger, is again reasonable. Certain kinds of informality, friendliness and tolerance in much of every day English life support his emphasis on ‘decency’ as a virtue. But it is possible to know and acknowledge all these things and still, in analysis, go either way.

“Orwell is nearest to what I believe to be the truth when he describes these characteristics as part of a genuinely popular culture that ‘must live to some extent against the existing order’ (CEJL, II, 59). Or again when he speaks of a ‘subtle network of compromises’, of adjustments through which certain virtues, certain achievements, are maintained alongside certain evident and radical injustices. (…)

“It can never be enough to say that certain virtues exist alongside certain injustices, as if they were contrasting facts of the natural world (on which, in his social imagery, Orwell so commonly draws). In a society, these facts are relationships of an active, historical, developing kind. And it is this kind of reality which Orwell’s image of England obscures.”

I don’t necessarily agree with Williams that Orwell’s views must contain some degree of truth in order to be powerful, or at least they need not necessarily be true in the ‘patriotic’ way in which Orwell understood them.

Rather I think Orwell’s views were and are socially acceptable, and it is no accident that Orwell’s later, less radical work, garnered more publicity than his earlier writings. Here Orwell identified traits which some people like to see in themselves and in their country, certifying these as in some way English much in the way that the English character is often cited as the reason for England’s relative passivity in the face of tumult and revolution in Europe.

We should remember that Britain, at this time, had just fought a war for its own independence and the freedom of other nations from the tyranny of Nazism. The order of the day – which firmly tied one end of the mainstream Left to the national Establishment – was national unity in the face of opposition. The election of a Labour government belied the national unity a little, ditching the face of that unity with indecent haste.

Yet it should come as no surprise that, with ‘nations’ very firmly a part of national discourse, people liked to feel that theirs had been worth defending; that it had consistently stood up for civil liberties at home and abroad, that the war had been a principled opposition to Nazism, rather than an opportunistic war brought on by inability of the British ruling class to reconcile their interests with the ruling class of Germany, Italy and Japan.

In reality, that is to say in documented history, civil liberties in this country have ebbed and flowed. From the days of the militias, when habeas corpus could be suspended, to the Official Secrets Act to the emergency war powers used by governments in the inter war years while the country was nowhere close to being involved in a war, civil liberties have fallen and risen and fallen again, and popular sentiment has often had other things to think about.

Similarly the gentleness and mildness of the English character, and the contrast with other nations. I’m sure much gentleness and mildness did and does exist in the English character – civility and kindness and generosity of spirit in the most unlooked for places. But that is not to say that one can separate these off from other, less admirable qualities, which are evident throughout the shared history of these islands. This is Williams’ key point.

Nor, a point which Williams misses, is it to say that these qualities or even a certain combination of them, is exclusively English and therefore something which makes England an actual entity rather than an ideological rallying call to a self-selecting group of people, a group much smaller than the sum of all the English. The overall point at stake is the validity of nation as a useful analytical category and on all counts, I think it fails the test.

Sir, Massie’s been copying again, sir

February 27, 2010 3 comments

Alex Massie in the Spectator today:

[T]here’s at least one terrible promise here that contradicts the Tories’ interesting, promising, commitment to localism and decentralisation. That’s the commitment to freeze council tax……How serious can the Tories be about decentralisation when they seem to want to make local government more not less dependent upon central government? Where’s the accountability and transparency in that? Nowhere, that’s where.

Paul Cotterill in Though Cowards Flinch, the day before yesterday:

No wonder Conservative Central Office, in a move not entirely compatible with the supposed spirit of localism, has already instructed from on high council tax freezes not for one but for two years, irrespective of local conditions, local needs, local people, local jobs. 

Localism, my arse.

Very suspicious. 

His loathsome mate Liddle’s already been caught copying TCF’s work, but I really thought better of Alex.  Very naughty boy.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tories and the concept of reality

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

I don’t cross-post much from my local blog to Though Cowards Flinch, but I thought a wider readership might be interested in how my local Tories have adopted a quite interesting approach to dealing with reality.

Imagine, if you will, a school receiving an Ofsted report in 2007 and receiving a report grading them as an ‘excellent’ school.  Imagine then that the same school is revisited by Ofsted, who inspect the school using a somewhat different but also more rigorous process, and decide that the school is only in fact worth a ‘fair’ rating.

Would it be legitimate for the school to decide that it would maintain the old ‘excellent’ rating on the basis that the way the inspection was conducted differed somewhat?

I don’t think so.  I think the headteacher and governing body might quite quickly come in for quite a lot of flack.

Astonishingly, though, this is precisely what my local Conservative-run council has done. 

I kid you not.

Look at the top left of the West Lancashire Borough Council website homepage (and also at the bottom of all the emails from the council), and what do you see?

“Excellent” as rated by the Audit Commission.

Erm, no it’s not.

It was indeed scored as excellent back in mid-2007, in a ‘Comprehensive Performance Assessment’ which (in the Audit Commission’s own words) did ‘not include diagnostic assessments of service areas.’  

The rating then was excellent because the Tories had by that stage not managed to destroy all of the previous Labour administration’s achievements (Labour was in control until 2002).  It’s finished the job now.

In the Audit Commission’s Comprehensive Area Assessment, however, published on published 09 December 2009, the council scored 3 out of 4 for ‘Managing performance’ an 2 out of 4 for ‘Use of resources’.

You need to get 4 out of 4 to be said to be performing ‘excellently’.  They did not.

The 2009 Organisational Assessment looks more closely at service delivery than the 2007 assessment, which focused on ‘capacity’.  The new assessment  finds a number of faults with the council. 

In any reasonable interpretation, the 2009 assessment supersedes the earlier report.

But the Tories in West Lancashire do not go in for such things as reasonable interpretation. 

This is what the council has to say in the local newspaper when I raised the matter (report not yet online):

Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) is a new test that has replaced Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) and is very different from the CPA……In the organisational part of the assessment the criteria used are different from those used previously in CPA in many respects so that both the system and the scores are not comparable.

Oh well, that’s alright then. 

The Tories of West Lancs say they’re still excellent, so we’ll just have to believe them.  And of course an assessment focused on capacity to deliver is much more relevant than an assessment of what’s actually delivered!

The council makes no offer to remove the misleading information on its website or its emails, and it will presumably be left there until the next external assessment.  And if that external assessment is not carried out on exactly the same basis as the 2007 assessment, it will presumably be left in place again. 

Perfect logic. If you’re a Tory with a reality problem.

Even more astonishingly though, this is the second time in  just over a year that the council’s been caught red-handed inflating its own performance rating. 

In December 2008,  the council spent taxpayer money having five stars added to the livery on its vehicles alongside the ‘excellent’ from its 2007 Audit Commission. 

Unfortunately, the 2007 Audit Commission system only had four different ratings.

(You can trust me on this, I’m a trained nurse.  Well, when I  say ‘trained’, I mean I qualified in 1988 and haven’t practised for a new years.  But the assessment methods to see if I am still competent are somewhat different from what they were 23 years ago.  So that means I’m still competent to practise, I think.)

Categories: Terrible Tories

Localism and blind faith

February 25, 2010 14 comments

Matthew Taylor is an intelligent liberal commentator, so I was interested in what he might have to say about the virtues of ‘localism’.

And in pointing out what’s wrong with the centralizing tendencies under New Labour (itself a continuation of Thatcherite and Majorite doctrine) he talks good sense. 

 In particular, I like his point that:

 The messages sent by the centre (especially if there are lots of them) are very different to the messages eventually heard at the front line.’

This reflects my own earlier contentions, around the Welfare Reform bill, that the intentions of that bill might actually have been good ones, at least in a naive communitarian sense, but that by the time it has all fed through into implementation all of the good intentions will have been lost at the expense of a bureaucratic hounding of the poor.

Matthew is less good, though, on what to do about this over-centralizing tendency in UK governance.

He has, it seems, been seduced by the superficial attractions of the Conservatives’ ‘localism’ agenda, to the extent that, in the absence of Labour willingness to confront the problem, and sclerosis within Whitehall:

 [I]t may have to be a different administration that makes the shift.

Sorry.  That’s utter, utter bollox, however briefly set out.

In offering up this bollox, it has to be said, Matthew’s not alone.  Many public policy wonks have been taken in, including the New Local Government Network, who, with someone as good a natural leftie as Anna Turley to guide them (see para. 54) really should know better; perhaps they are unable or unwilling to judge what’s actually going on at the front-line.

So let’s just be very clear about what the Conservative localism agenda is all about.  Beneath the veneer of ‘power to the people’, the Conservative localism agenda is all about creating an environment for massive cuts in public service delivery.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Dave has so ably shown that the Conservatives’ sudden new enthusiasm for co-ops is nothing more than a smokescreen for service reductions and the start of a race to the competitive bottom.

I have  (perhaps less ably) provided ample evidence that Cameron’s eagerness to sign off ‘General Powers of Competence’ legislation ‘within weeks’ of coming into government, simply provides local authorities with absolute freedom to do what they want, and creates  a back door way of enabling them to do as little as they can now get away with, and then outsource the rest in a Ridley-ite orgasm of contracting skeleton services to the lowest bidder; this will generally be the bidder most able and willing to exploit a reduced number of workers most effectively. 

We know what will happen, because under the most ideologically driven Conservative councils, it’s already happening.  

Kate Belgrave has been reporting for two years on what’s been happing in Barnet, even before it gained its EasyCouncil title.   Lord Hanningfield, leader of Essex county council until thrown out of office for alleged theft, has already driven through a massive sale of every service under the Essex sun to IBM, and Lancashire County Council is embarking on the same scheme, without even bothering to tell either councillors or unions what they’re up to, leaving it the guys at Computer Weekly to bring us the news of a contract notice worth £1.9 billion for all IT-related services, including services there’s very little IT involved, not just in their own council but all the second tier councils in their area as well. 

How is that localism, exactly?

No wonder Conservative Central Office, in a move not entirely compatible with the supposed spirit of localism, has already instructed from on high council tax freezes not for one but for two years, irrespective of local conditions, local needs, local people, local jobs. 

Localism, my arse.

 The Tory agenda is clear, and I’m just a bit surprised at how people are being taken in by the rhetoric, though at least Dan Drillsa-Milgrom gets it right.

(Hat tip to Anthony Painter via twitter for the link to Matthew’s post.)

Categories: Terrible Tories

And on the matter of apologies

February 25, 2010 1 comment

And while I’m busy on apologies, I’ll take the opportunity to apologise to David Simister, of the Simantics blog, for not linking to him earlier, like I promised.

David is a local (to me) journalist and his blog offers up some interesting views from a journalist perspective, not least about changes in local and regional media. 

He says he’s not got many readers at the moment, which is a shame, because of course getting readers means you’re encouraged to write more stuff, and he’s got stuff to say.

As I’ve set out here, I’m increasingly interested in the shape of local media to come in the context of declining reader numbers amongst the more traditional city papers (the Liverpool Echo excluded), but also the way in which titles like David’s Ormskirk and Skelmersdale Champion are still able to expand into other areas (they’ve just started up in nearby Litherland and Crosby, as well as being in Southport). 

More particuarly, I’m interested in how leftwing blogs might either supersede or complement the varying quantity and quality of local political and economic coverage, and will soon be devoting quite a lot of time and whatever remains of my energies around this.  Insa’allah.

For that reason alone, I’m interested in what people like David have to say from the local journo coal face, even though it’s not leftwing stuff, and I’d be interested in any links readers have for local journo blogs elsewhere in the country, which they think offer up interesting stuff about how local media is changing/can be developed.

In David’s case, I think Paul Sagar from Bad Conscience, who comes frmo Southport and was until recently the LibDem MP’s researcher/constituency manager, might also be interested (and David interested in Paul’s blog). David, meet Paul.  Paul, meet David.

There you go, apology made, introductions done.  I try to be of service.

Categories: Uncategorized
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