Author Archive

HM Drucker on the decline of Labour in Scotland

December 15, 2014 Leave a comment

On Facebook, Dave Osler poses the question about Labour’s plummeting support in Scotland:

Generations of international relations students have studied the ‘who lost China?’ debate that took place in the US under the Truman administration. I think pol sci majors in future will equally argue about ‘who lost Scotland’ for the Labour Party. Does the blame lie with Labour’s Westminster leadership, largely oblivious to social trends beyond north London? Or is it the fault of the management team at the branch office itself?

I don’t currently (though I will presently) have much to add to conventional wisdom here, but I think HM Drucker’s warning from 1979, in his Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party may be instructive:

Since Labour’s ethos emanates from a specific past one may ask what the implications of this task are for the future…….Labour cannot be simpliciter a party of the future.  Such a possibility may be available to a radical social democratic party.  It is not possible for the historic Labour party.  The attempt by Crosland in his The Future of Socialism (happy title) (1956) to condemn Labour’s tendency to cling to the principles of its past is futile.  Any attempt to redefine goals for future action must always be seen to be strictly consonant with the past.

A second implication is that Labour’s support can be eroded by a general change of consciousness.  If the ties of class-consciousness are weakened, then Labour is threatened.  If Labour comes to be seen as an increasingly middle-class organisation, it could lose its support even if its supporters remained class-conscious. ….Class consciousness, as a historical fact, is obviously endangered by changes external to it.    Gaitskell saw prosperity as one such threat. Nationalism is another – one whose power is more real in the 1970s than would have been foreseen in the late 1950s.  As Scottish and Welsh working people have come to identify themselves as Scots or Welshmen first and workers second, Labour loses their support to nationalist parties.  As this happens, one witnesses an exchange of one past for another as the new choice comes to appear more vivid.  If in future elections Labour loses parliamentary seats as a result. it will be paying a high price for the loss of class-identity (p.39, my emphasis).

More to come from me on what this means for Scottish Labour’s response to this now seemingly inevitable loss.


Scotland’s new borrowing powers: a danger for all of us

November 27, 2014 1 comment

Under the proposals set out by the Smith Commission today (pdf), Scotland gets powers to borrow money when it wants either to not do austerity, or invest (or both, these being the same thing):

[T]o reflect the additional economic risks, including volatility of tax revenues, that the Scottish Government will have to manage when further financial responsibilities are devolved, Scotland’s fiscal framework should provide sufficient, additional borrowing powers to ensure budgetary stability and provide safeguards to smooth Scottish public spending in the event of economic
shocks, consistent with a sustainable overall UK fiscal framework. The Scottish Government should also have sufficient borrowing powers to support capital investment consistent with a sustainable overall UK fiscal framework. (para. 95 /5).

Great news for Keynesians.

The only slight drawback is that Scotland won’t actually get to implement any of these new borrowing powers, because they will only be accorded:

subject to fiscal rules agreed by the Scottish and UK Governments based on clear economic principles, supporting evidence and thorough assessment of the relevant economic situation (para. 95 5b).

So Smith accordeth powers with the one handeth, and removeth them with the other, given the chances of Westminster agreeing to additional Scottish borrowing will be close to zero (especially if the Barnett formula remains in place as Smith recommends).

No huge surprise there, but for me the really interesting and worrying this is that, as the legislation is drawn up to set out in law the now agreed-by-all principles of the Commission, it will be necessary to establish some kind of arms-length institution which dictates, from the outset, what these “clear economic principles” around “sustainability” are, since the Commission is also clear that the fiscal framework “should not require frequent ongoing [political] negotiation” (para 95/6).

The danger, then, is that this goes beyond even Ed Balls’ proposals for a supposedly “objective” review of the parties’ fiscal plans, and entrenches constitutionally – both for Scotland and for rUK – a definition of fiscal sustainability.

That is, deficit fetishism could be given at least a semi-permanent constitutional basis, and all because of the panicked rush to be seen to fulfil the panicked Devo Max vow.

Not a great way to run either country.

I’ll be watching what panicked legislation emerges closely, as I hope will at least a few MPs on both sides of the border, given that it makes no sense for the SNP to buy into a cutely struck deal which emasculates any real fiscal power.

Categories: General Politics

Metaphors of immigration: taking Lakoff seriously

November 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Owen Jones notes that facts count for little when it comes to immigration.  Says Owen:

As the political linguist George Lakoff puts it, the right get all this far better than the left. “Conservatives understand that communication has to do with the moral basis,” he argues. Using statistics can be useful within reason, but in his view, only if they comfortably sit with a broader frame of argument.

This is true as far as it goes: framing what the issue is all about, and having it connect up in people’s minds to a moral certainty, more or less guarantees success.  It’s also pretty handy when you have the media power you need to keep on framing it to suit your ends.

So what is Owen’s solution?  The left might start to win the argument, he says, if we tell good stories, and if we ‘reframe’ the debate:

We surely need to talk far more about stories: like our own personal experiences, or those of relatives being cared for by Lithuanian nurses or Nigerian careworkers. But we have to shift the debate, too. Our economy was trashed by a financial elite.

The problem here, it seems to me, is the disconnect between Owen’s Lakoffian analysis of the problem, and the entirely non-Lakoffian solution he promotes.

First and foremost, let’s be clear who Lakoff is. He is not, as Owen suggests, a political linguist (for which maybe read ‘speechwriter’?).  He is a cognitive linguist, in the Jakobson tradition, who analyses political discourse through that lens.  This is an important distinction; as Lakoff himself has said, his work has started to influence speechwriters, but a deeper understanding is needed before the left can really start to the challenge the right on the level of “moral politics”.

First, it requires the knowledge that most thought is unconscious. This finding is just beginning to permeate into the pop science press, but hasn’t made it into the political media. Thus, the fact that all politics is moral and that political framing uses largely unconscious moral framing is not widely recognized.  Second, it requires some knowledge about unconscious metaphorical thought. Though I and other cognitive linguists around the world have made deep discoveries about how metaphorical thought works, it has still barely made it into the pop science press.

The concept of metaphor as the key framing device is at the heart of Lakoff’s work, from his (and Johnson’s) seminal Metaphors We Live By (1980) onwards. Lakoff’s claim is that the whole way in which we relate to the world is by way of metaphor, because language has evolved such that basic physical experience is used to ‘denote’ intellectual experience. So depression is expressed as an orientational metaphor of ‘being down’, for example.

From this relatively simple premise comes Lakoff’s argument that whoever controls the most powerful metaphors is most likely to win out politically. Nowhere is this clearer than with the immigration debate, in which those opposed to immigration use two powerful metaphors – flood/ wave and containment. Of these two metaphors Jonathan Charteris Black writes:

[They] are related through the notion of a bounded area protecting what is within from external danger. The container metaphor is persuasive in political communication because it merges a fourth
dimension of time with spatially based concepts of two or three dimensions. It implies that controlling immigration through maintaining the security of borders (a spatially-based concept) will ensure control over the rate of social change in Britain (a time-based concept). It also heightens emotional fears associated with the penetration of a container.[1]

In the face of such powerful metaphor deployment,  Owen’s proposal for ‘stories’ – about how useful some immigrants are seems –  a noble but inadequate response.  In Lakoff/Jakobson terms are towards the metonymic pole of the rhetorical register.  That is, they demand of the listener  that s/he see the whole reflected in one part of that whole.   But metonym is for the most part only effective as a device when there is already a willingness on the part of that listener to take on board the message [2].  Thus, while stories of Lithuanian nurses do not lead to a wider appreciation of the upside of immigration, stories of immigrants doing a disservice to their ‘host’ nation are easily enough taken as evidence that all immigration is bad for us.

So where does that leave pro-immigrationists?  I think there are three broad choices, though they are not mutually exclusive.

First, we can continue as before, seeking to sell the benefits of immigration in the way proposed here, for example.  This is unlikely to be effective as a sole strategy, and indeed risks making things worse in the way Owen suggests (pro-immigrationist painted as an uncaring, neoliberal elite).

Second, we can – as Owen suggest – seek to deflect the anti-immigration metaphor by building other ‘frames’ around the financial elite and the other capitalist forces who create the material conditions then exploited by UKIP and the like.  Such a strategy fits with what I refer to for as ease as non-linguistic discourse theories of articulation and social antagonism e.g Laclau & Mouffe, but they will still require a coalition building in the ‘strategic action fields’ of choice/design, and they still need the metaphor construction to help build those coalitions. [3]

Third, and most directly in relation to the immigration strategic action field itself, perhaps we need to counter the effective flood and container metaphors with one of our own, even to the extent that we try to engineer a shift away from the term ‘immigrant’ [4], given that this has within it an orientational metaphor linked to the broad containment metaphor.  Perhaps a shift towards an orientational metaphor of (calm) settlement may be the way forward, though this may be open to more negative interpretation (settlement -Lebensraum-invasion) than we might want.  Alernatively, there may be physcally-sourced language around ‘boosting’ and ‘lifting’ which might be adopted by a strategic coalition of business and the education sector, who in terms both labour market need and effect on overall skill and knowledge level, already need little convincing [5] about the benefits of immigration.

None of this is easy, given the material inequalities in the media, and the now deeply entrenched sense for many people that immigration is something to be feared.   A good first step though, is surely to recognise that if we’re going to take Lakoff and cognitive linguistics seriously then, well, we need to take it all seriously, not just the political framing bit.


[1] While Charteris-Black doesn’t draw it out, I would suggest that the flood/wave metaphor is particular effective in Britain because of our island status.  This reflects Lakoff’s findings that the effectiveness of metahpors is always contingent on culture.

[2] Roman Jakobson, a key influence on Lakoff sets out how poetry and literature moved from the metaphoric pole in 19th century Romantisicm towards the use of metonym under the Realists.  Thus as Stenbock-Fermor points out in her history of the writing of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy redrafted the suicide chapter to enhance the ‘role’ of Anna’s red handbag, metonymic symbol of her Westernised elegance, which she must cast aside before she throws herself to her death.  This is metahpor, arguably (the casting away?), but with more than a hint of metonym;  it demands of the reader an active, intellectual connection, where a metaphor of physical movement is more easily embraced.  Perhaps, more generally, this is why realist literature and poetry often feels less immediately accessible than the Romantic genre, because the latter appeals to an ever-present congitive funtion of connecting the physical senses to language by way of metaphor.

[3] Perhaps we might learn here from the relative success in building a strategic coalition against loan sharks, and the importance of the ‘shark’ metaphor.

[4] Here I am reminded of Bourdieu, who argues that the word ‘immigrant’ is a logical nonsense, since anyone who has finished the act of migration can no longer properly be described as someone who is immigrating.

[5] Clearly I’m heartened by the findings of research into the impact of ethnicity on London’s educational success, but I think Simon may be wrong to state that “There is nothing inherently different about the ability of pupils from different ethnic backgrounds”.  In fact, as I set out here and elsewhere, there is at least some evidence to suggest that new immigrants are ‘inherently’ different by virtue of the enhanced cognitive function that biculturalism and bilingualism brings.


Categories: General Politics

The Rise of the SNP: a warning from history

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

As Labour unravels in Scotland and Glasgow slides SNPwards, a note from fairly recent history:

It seems likely that if, or when, Nationalism becomes powerful in the large cities of Scotland or Wales it will have to face problems similar to those faced by the Labour party at the moment. Thus, while Nationalist parties may bring many of the working classes back into political activity in the short-run, the long term effects may be even greater disillusion (p.135)

Barry Hindess (1971), The Decline of Working Class Politics, Granada Publishing Ltd: London

A left-liberal approach to restricting workers’ freedom (and outflanking UKIP)

October 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Cameron and his team are looking to outflank UKIP by restricting access to National Insurance numbers as a way of capping lower skilled worker entry to the UK labour market.  This, as Barroso says, is illegal under EU law, and it just isn’t going to happen, though Cameron will be hoping to keep up the pretence that it might until the other side of the Rochester byelection.

For Labour (and the liberal-left in general), there’s a positive in this.  There’s a short window in which it might set out its own more coherent proposals for restricting freedom of movement, and a legal mechanism to do so.

Let’s start with the legal mechanism, which requires an initial bit of myth-busting about what can and can’t be done under EU law.

Just about anyone in the commentariat or UK politics who claims to understand the EU will tell you that freedom of movement is ‘sacrosanct’, and a basic principle of the Single Market.  They may also tell you that if a EU state restricts freedom movement for citizens of other EU states, then it’s in breach of the Lisbon Treaty.

This, though, is incorrect.

This is what Article 45 of the Lisbon Treaty actually says (my emphasis)

1. Freedom of movement for workers shall be secured within the Union.

2. Such freedom of movement shall entail the abolition of any discrimination based on nationality between workers of the Member States as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of work and employment.

3. It shall entail the right, subject to limitations justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health:

(a) to accept offers of employment actually made;

(b) to move freely within the territory of Member States for this purpose;

(c) to stay in a Member State for the purpose of employment in accordance with the provisions governing the employment of nationals of that State laid down by law, regulation or administrative action;

(d) to remain in the territory of a Member State after having been employed in that State, subject to conditions which shall be embodied in regulations to be drawn up by the Commission.

The limiting clause is there for a reason.  It is there because early formulators of the legislation (and the limitations date from Clause 48, para 3 of the 1957 Treaties of Rome) understood that total freedom of movement might be difficult to implement, and that there might be occasions when it is best to take a step back.

Now, it’s not quite as easy to invoke the limiting clause as it might once have been.  This is because in 2004, EU Directive 2004/38/EC tightened up the process for curtailing freedom of movement by requiring that any person whose movement is curtailed has to be named, and specific  reasons provided for the curtailment.    Thus, if freedom of movement were to be restricted on a large scale, including for whole states, that Directive would need to be repealed.  But the point is that, with political willing from all states, this repeal could take place through the ordinary legislative procedures of the EU, and would not require treaty change.

There are two questions that arise from this.  First, why on earth would Southern and accession states voluntarily accede to the repeal of Directive 2004/38/EC when their citizens stand to lose freedom of movement and therefore earning power?   Second, what good would it do Labour to engage in such a process (or set out promises for same in its manifesto.

The answer lies in another section of the Lisbon treaty. Article 30 states that “customs duties on imports and exports and charges having equivalent effect shall be prohibited between Member States. This prohibition shall also apply to customs duties of a fiscal nature.”  but article 32 clear the way for exceptions to the rule:

In carrying out the tasks entrusted to it under this Chapter the Commission shall be guided by………the need to avoid serious disturbances in the economies of Member States and to ensure rational development of production and an expansion of consumption within the Union.

Invocation of this aspect of the Lisbon treaty as part of the overall deal between richer and poorer  states would create the room for  temporary suspension of the single market, and the creation of export subsidy/import substitution mechanisms, such that convergence can occur at a much quicker pace than might otherwise happen.   It would effectively, give the newer EU states the space they need to catch up, as long as they agree to their side of the bargain – keeping and feeding their own citizens, especially if it were to go hand in hand with a redistribution of EU structural funds** towards the poorer states:

1.  It hoists Farage by his own petard.  He has claimed that slower economic growth in Britain is a price worth paying for reduced immigration, and what is proposed here is a route to just that, not just because in the real world immigration into the UK is an economic good, but because UK companies stand to lose business through temporary tariffs.   Farage can hardly object to concrete proposals to put into practice what he adovcates.

2. It allows Labour to argue, correctly, that the root cause of EU immigration is the failure of the free market within the EU; economic convergence between rich and poor states has simply not taken place through free trade, and policy intervention by the EU is now needed to help convergence along the way.

3.  Labour has no choice. Trying to outdo UKIP or the Tories on toughness is just a non-starter given the very low levels of trust the party suffers on immigration generally, which stem both from a hostile media and from the party’s failure to be clearer about the benefits of EU immigration back in the early 2000s – when it did enjoy considerable trust.   Similarly, a late attempt to win over the electorate to the economic benefits of such immigration are doomed to failure, given the evidence that any form of redistributive policy, seen as demanding some form of self-sacrifice, is almost certain to get a hostile reception when political trust is low.

In these circumstances, the only realistic way forward for Labour is to be seen to accede to the expressed demands of much of the British population, and seek to reduce immigration from the EU in the short to medium term, irrespective of the fact that this may actually damage the economy (though in the longer term real economic convergence will benefit all EU states, of course).



*I use the term liberal-left purposely in order to distinguish it from the Marxist left. As a fairly gross generality, the Marxism-inspired left would see what I propose here as an accommodation with nationalism and xenohpobia, that the left’s efforts are better directed at collective action against the real enemy, capitalism, and that the desire of a large part of the population to reduce immigration is one rooted in false consciousness. I have some sympathy with this analysis, however crudely I express it, but I am also a democratic socialist who believes that people do have the right to express preferences, and that telling them their preferences are a product of ignirance is not productive for the most part

**Jacek Rostowski, ex-finance minister for Poland, said recently:

No Polish government could agree to Cameron’s renegotiation proposals except in return for a mountain of gold.

He, of course, recognises that there is a deal to be done. even if Cameron doesn’t.

As for why and how Labour would gain from setting out these proposals, there are three points to make.




Why Labour nearly lost in Heywood & Middleton, and why I’m maybe leaving Labour

October 10, 2014 8 comments

Labour is busy internalising and responding to last night’s near miss in Heywood & Middleton. It’s the usual stuff: we did alright because our vote share went up; we didn’t do alright because we didn’t connect; we must talk about immigration; we must DO SOMETHING.

In all of this, there’s been little mention of the most important bit of any campaign: the candidate.

So let’s focus on Liz McInnes MP, and on how and why she was selected for this safe Labour seat which, had it not been for a superb organising job from the North west regional office, and a lot of activist who smelt the danger and got stuck in on securing just enough turnout, she would have lost.

Liz, who I am sure is a perfectly decent person and with whom I have no truck whatsoever, was selected as part of a stitch-up operation that went wrong, in which Harriet Harman’s chum Miriam O’Reilly was supposed to land the selection. Miriam, if you don’t know, is a television presenter.  I know nothing of her other than that she tweets about having tea with Ed and Justine.

The plan was that Miriam should stand against three relative no-hopers, of whom one had to be fairly local in order to ensure some credibility (perhaps mindful of being caught out in Erith & Thamesmead) This local-but-not-too-local was Liz.  The other two candidates were a councillor from the South of England and a doctor from the other side of Manchester, neither of whom stood an earthly and were shortlisted for that very reason.  Unfortunately for the pro-Miriam plotters, the local party voted for Liz.

This is the tip of the iceberg.

The NEC broke its own rules, by abandoning the normal process for byelections.  These rules require a longlisting process, with a first interview held (in London) to create a shortlist to go forward to the local party.  This was the process set out on the Labour party website until after the selection was complete – with close of application Friday 19th 9am, longlist interviews Monday 22nd, shortlist hustings and selection Tues 23rd.  In fatc, the NEC met on the afternoon of Friday 19th and decided to cut out the longlisting process.

It did so in order to exclude a good number of very strong candidates, who would have presented a big challenge to Miriam in terms of both their track record and what distinctiveness they would bring to the campaign.  Amongst this number were at least two Labour members who are experts in combatting Child Sexual Exploitation, highly relevant to the campaign given the fact that UKIP were bound to, and did, run hard with an overtly racist campaign about the Labour party allowing the rape of white girls by Asian men.

In summary, the NEC colluded in a clear attempt by the party hierarchy to parachute in ‘one of their own’.  In so doing, they exposed the local party and the regional organisers to a campaign fronted by a solid but unspectacular candidate around whom only a weak and locally irrelevant ”save our NHS’ could be generated, and which then relied in sheer doorstep muscle power to squeak home.   This was at the expense of a campaign which could have been distinctive in addressing key issues.

The result might still have been close, whoever the candidate was, but the main point here is that the Labour hierarchy, with NEC collusion, deliberately hijacked the selection process, utterly complacent about the possible disaster that faced them.

This kind of action has no place in our party, and I am – as an associationalist who believe in the development of parallel legitimacy of state and civil organisation, but understands that this is only valid if the rule of law is applied in non-sate organisations –  for the first time seriously considering whether I can remain  a member, especially as this is not the first time in the last 12 months that the NEC has broken the party rules as set down for it by conference, just because it made it easy for the hierarchy.  I have to balance this (Bernard Williams-based) ethical standpoint with my enduring and countervailing utilitarianist leaning, and decide whether the utility of remaining on the party* still outweighs my ‘agential integrity’.

I will decide in the next month or so whether I remain a member.



* I will know within a month as there is one specific project I’m working on which has undoubted social utility and could be enhanced by my ongoing membership.  There ar other projects where not being a member would be an advantage, though less clearly so.


Categories: Labour Party News

Managerialism laid bare

October 8, 2014 1 comment

The government is consulting till tomorrow on what knowledge and skills a modern children’s social worker needs to have to be effective. The draft four page document seeking to summarise what is needed, in a way which is intended inform social work training and professional development in the long term, has been drafted by the Chief Social Worker for Children & Families.

While there is a clear gap around community development skills (the need for which I address here), most of the document is not too bad.  This proposed requirement, though, is very bad:

Operate successfully in a wide range of organisational contexts, including settings undertaking statutory activity, understanding that the success or failure of the social worker depends on the operation of organisations and also in spite of it;

This is the early 21st century spirit of managerialism, par excellence.  The Chief Social Worker* is effectively saying that she recognises that in some/many circumstances the organisation of the whole child protection and family support system militates against effective social work, but that she just doesn’t care; social workers are just going to have to get on with, seeking to do the impossible, sinking or swimming.

Little wonder, when managers abrogate responsibility for the ‘organisational context’ in which workers work in favour of a vague aspiration that somehow, magically, superworkers will allow them to meet their supertargets, that the workers either vote with their feet (as in the 43% social worker vacancy rate in Rotherham), or stick to ticking the boxes.   As Michael Lipsky set out 30 odd years ago:

[W]hat about those who originally aspire to work with a degree of service orientation and are unable to maintain that direction? Whether they drift away from a service ideal or abandon it after a protracted struggle with themsleves or others, the careers of idealistic professional recruits are usually abandoned to processes that insure their socialization to the dominant professional values (p.202-203)

In this case, the dominant professional value seems to be: “I’m Chief Social Worker, and I’m ordering you to succeed.  If you fail, it’s your fault.”  And this, of course, is what many vulnerable families say they experience (pdf) from frontline social workers.  Is it really any wonder?


* I realise it’s a little bit mean to pick on the Chief Social Worker, who is actually a pretty decent person, at least judging by the rest of the skills and knowledge document, but then that’s really the point.  At this point in her text, her basic decency, and real feel for what social workers do, has been overtaken by an decency-consuming managerialist ethos, in which exhortation to agency is at the expense of actually managing the structure.



Categories: General Politics

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