Vote Labour

If you’re even passingly familiar with my outpourings of left-wing bias, it should come as little surprise that, come June 8th, I shall be voting for the bearded, bike-riding vegetarian. I really think you should too. Of course, if you live in a Lib Dem-Tory marginal, do what you have to do. If you live in a truly safe seat of any stripe, do what you want to do. Scotland, also, offers its own set of choices. But most people face a decision between Red and Blue. You might not like that fact, but a fact it is. If you want electoral reform, lobby your MP, get involved with or donate to the Electoral Reform Society, but don’t waste your vote.

After a generation of being offered similar choices in different coloured rosettes, Britain is offered starkly contrasting visions for its future. The Conservatives offer, yet again, a shrinking state. Labour offers a vision of genuine social democracy. This is not socialism, far from it. It is a restoration of much-needed compassion to an increasingly heartless state.

A state which, we should remember, was shrunk for essentially no reason. The global financial crisis was not the fault of the New Labour government, or its spending policies, and the response from the Conservatives has probably slowed down the recovery rather than sped it up. The intellectual case for austerity, from Osborne’s favourite economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, has been revealed to lie somewhere between wishful thinking and academic fraud.

As detailed in this article, the pair omitted relevant data, and at every point weighted what they did use in favour of the conclusions they were promoting. One bad year from New Zealand, for example, had more influence than nineteen good years in the UK. The data supported the conclusion “sometimes austerity isn’t a disaster” and was manipulated until it said, “austerity is the only answer”.

The Conservatives offer only more of the same bitter, unneeded pill. After seven years, there is no fat to sensibly trim anymore. That is why ludicrous proposals like the dementia tax are cropping up: because there’s nothing left to cut. Homelessness, child poverty have increased, social services have been gutted. Sure Start centres have closed down, despite the evidence that early-years intervention is one of the most effective ways of breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty. None of this is good for the economy.

On defence, the arguments against him are well-known: he is a peacenik unilateralist. I don’t think it ridiculous, though, to point out that a “robust” defence policy sometimes resembles a drunk guy sticking up for his mates on a night out. Yeah, he’s trying to protect you, but ultimately throwing the first punch puts everyone in danger

A nuclear war could well spell the extinction of the entire human race, and that is not an exaggeration. A little caution with the big red button is to commended, not sneered at. Likewise, over-eagerness to bust out the Tornados has done little good in Libya, and the murderous folly of Iraq is well-known. On all these issues, Corbyn has been on the right side, while the chaos produced by our actions has made us less safe, not more.

With regards to Brexit, Labour’s position is pragmatic. I did not want to leave the EU, but now the vote has come in, there needs to be a sea change in public opinion to do anything but leave, and that simply hasn’t happened. The prospect of negotiating Brexit brings me onto the personal styles of the two leaders. Here, again, we face a stark choice. After years of media-trained smoothness, we have two leaders bucking that trend in their own particular ways.

If you are in doubt between the two, I ask you to consider who is more open to the moderating influences of party and civil service. Jeremy Corbyn seems to genuinely believe in party democracy, and by all accounts listens to those around him, even if he doesn’t always take their advice. Theresa May obviously does not like public dissent, and reports from her camp say aides, too, are afraid of speaking up.

So who would you rather have negotiating Brexit? Corbyn, who for all his flaws, will actually listen to advice or Theresa May, who sees enemies around every corner and in doing so makes more of them. The EU are not our enemies, but we could surely turn them into that if we tried hard enough. Corbyn’s bruising two summers have shown that he’s no pushover, and the same has been proven of his MPs. Say what you like about them, but they are certainly not averse to criticising their leader.

So for the economy, for society, for safety, for the environment, for a decent Brexit vote Labour on June 8th.

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Ranieri’s sacking

Claudio Ranieri has gone. It’s been held up as a decision that typifies the fickle nature of modern football. Nine months on from winning the league, he finds himself shuffling down to the job centre in Leicester. Well, maybe not. A holiday is perhaps more likely for the Italian, what with a cushy payout on top of an already-rather-nice salary.

I think the sentimentality regarding this sacking is a little over the top. Just last year Chelsea faced the same dilemma with José Mourinho, and look at them both now. Chelsea top the league with Antonio Conte, while José’s United charge seemingly unstoppably up the table. Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side.

Leicester’s Thai owners have been painted as absentee landlords who don’t understand football. It shouldn’t be forgotten, though, that their last managerial change seemed rash at the time but paid off handsomely. Sacking Nigel Pearson after Leicester’s great escape of 2015 was widely panned, but led to one of the greatest stories in sporting history as they won the league under Ranieri.

The real problem for Leicester is that they haven’t been unlucky. They’ve been frankly dire, and showing no signs of improving. Last season they built up a good lead early on as side after side underestimated them, pushing players forward only to have the Ngolo Kantes break up an attack, leaving Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to cut them into pieces.

Since around February last year, though, teams have learned to stop disrespecting Leicester. Rather than attack with abandon, they let Leicester have the ball a little more, and they were found wanting. With a healthy points cushion and a series of scrappy (bordering on lucky) 1-0s Leicester made it through to claim the title, but they haven’t been at their electrifying best for a long while.

Ranieri has had ample time to make the adjustments, to find the right combination of players and tactics to beat teams that give Leicester the ball and say “show us what you’ve got”, but he hasn’t been able to. Without the Kante twins they can’t absorb pressure so well, Robert Huth and Wes Morgan are still Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, and the side look disjointed and out of ideas at both ends of the pitch.

Not only this, but the players look unmotivated. We can’t know what’s gone on inside the Leicester camp, and allowing a sulky dressing room to fire their boss is a risky move, but to assume the players are automatically at fault just because Ranieri seems lovely makes no sense. Perhaps their frustration is rooted in the knowledge that Ranieri hasn’t done what’s needed to get them winning again. By his own account, Ranieri changed little from Pearson’s tactics, and spirit alone can only take you so far.

The romantic in me hates this decision, but last season is over now. Ranieri and his players overachieved, and won their medals. Nothing – not even relegation – can take that from them. The story is already written, and barring a Champion’s League miracle, this year could only ever be a footnote to one of football’s greatest ever tales. Leicester’s owners gave Ranieri time, but now they have to look to the future, not the past.

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Two-party systems are killing politics

The two-party system that has been the bedrock of both British and American democracy for centuries is beginning to burst at the seams. Socioeconomic stagnation and technological developments have made the concept of a big tent party virtually unworkable. It is ridiculous that one party is the most natural political home for both Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, but that is the world we live in.

Of the four major parties across the two countries, two are in open civil war and the other two are one electoral setback from it. As Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn energise party bases and horrify their colleagues, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton have only the promise of governance to hold together their quarrelsome parties. Brexit and the influence of corporate America, respectively, are proving nearly insurmountable obstacles to unity.

In the era of smartphones and social media, it is no longer possible for the same beast to show multiple faces. Parties, and politicians, must stay on message. One does not have the luxury of saying one thing at a meeting of party activists, another at a rally in the North, another at a rally in the South and another at a donor’s event. If the appearances are not officially recorded and up on a campaign’s Twitter feed in minutes, they will be unofficially recorded and shared. Not only that, but the internet era has allowed a diversity of views to flourish, one that is poorly reflected on the ground.

As Hillary Clinton noted, in some rather ironically leaked remarks, it is much more difficult now to have one policy in public and another in private. I think this should be read less as outright dishonesty, more a recognition of the above. What was once a delicate balancing game between activists, diverse groups of voters and donors has been blown apart. Instead of speaking with many voices, the party speaks with one or risks “disunity” and “infighting”.

When each party speaks with one voice and there are only two parties that really matter, this means that in terms of electoral politics, there are two voices for the whole country. This is not enough. It leads to people feeling like their voices aren’t being heard. It leads to an obsessive focus on control of the party structure (as with the disenfranchised British left’s Corbynite rebellion and the corresponding centre-left pushback), and this often comes at the expense of communicating clearly with the wider public.

The stark ideological divides produced by two-party politics mean that bipartisan cooperation is usually lauded. Even that has its pitfalls. Politicians are, almost by definition, members of the elite; one person’s “bipartisan cooperation” is another’s “elite collusion”. When you have a bugbear that is fairly common, but nobody within a sniff of power holds it, it’s hard not to feel pushed unfairly to the side. That bugbear can all-too-easily become a make-or-break issue if left to fester too long.

The route out of this is easier in the UK, which has a long tradition of minority parties achieving modest success. A coalition of centre-through-left parties could run together on this issue. They might even receive some backing from UKIP on it, too – their 4 million votes to one seat is a travesty that could turn electoral reform from a niche concern to a vote-winner. In the US, it’s harder to see a way out, but who knows what novelties the post-Trump soul search will throw up.

For the record, I’d prefer a single transferable vote system. 6 constituencies would be fused into one with 6 members, who would be elected through a system of preference voting. The mechanics are a little fiddly, but the demands on the voter are not: list the order of your preferences. It produces a more proportional result, while retaining the local aspect of a constituency MP.

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Donald Trump and his core beliefs

It’s hard not to read a lot about Donald Trump, and so as an easily distracted politics nerd, I have repeatedly succumbed. I think that – beyond the startling rhetoric – one of the striking things about the man is his amorality. Few, if any, other politicians are almost openly amoral in the way that Trump is. I’m sure there are amoral politicians, but most feel the need to conjure up a veneer of morality.

Trump does not. He almost wears it like a badge of honour – his businesslike denial of the existence of moral dilemmas serves as part of his general “I’ll do whatever it takes” aura. This feeds into another aspect of Trump – his repeated, almost pathological lying means that his “true beliefs” are somewhat difficult to ascertain. In lieu of working out what he thinks based on what he’s saying at any one time, people have tried to piece this together based on his actions over time.

This might be a bit of a mistake. In fact, I’m not sure Donald Trump has beliefs in the same way most people do. When he talks, he isn’t so much communicating fixed truths about society, or human nature, but treats every conversation as a zero-sum game that he is going to win. Perhaps even win so much he gets tired of it.

He has a long history of making degrading, misogynistic comments to women. He also employed women in senior positions in his company long before that was typical in the real estate business. These two things seem contradictory, but need not be.

The first, from most people, would reflect a belief that women should be subordinate to men. From him, it may reflect more a belief that everyone should be subordinate to Donald. In one situation, sexist rhetoric enabled him to “win” that conversation. In another, motivated, capable women excluded from employment elsewhere in the industry were probably better value than their male counterparts – they made more money for Trump, so he hired them.

Women in senior roles didn’t trouble some deeply held belief about gender relations in his head, because he just doesn’t have beliefs like that. It’s why he can lie so easily – truth is a fluid concept that changes as and when it suits him. His rhetoric is borne out of opportunism and amorality – normally someone would have to believe these things deeply to say them, as otherwise it would offend their sense of morality. Trump sees an advantage in doing so and does so.

It’s why we need to view him not as a uniquely awful individual, but the product of a system. In the businesslike logic that I imagine underpins every decision he makes, the Republican Party created the demand for this sexist, racist rhetoric and the Donald  simply stepped in to supply it. This makes him less predictable than a nasty ideologue, but potentially just as awful. It should give even his supporters pause for thought.

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Neoclassical, neoliberal, marginalist: what’s in a name?

“Neoclassical”, as it’s commonly used, refers to the orthodox school of economics. This first arose in the 1870s with W. S. Jevons, Karl Menger and Leon Walras, and has been the dominant school of thought in economics since it was revived in the 1970s by Milton Friedman. In short, this type of economics places great significance on prices and value, and devotes its energies to explaining the relative prices we see around us.

To do this, it studies economics at the margin: by looking at the points at which we are undecided, we can infer what the limits of our wants are. Only an individual can make a decision in this way, or be undecided, so this is an individualist theory that takes subjective wants as the ultimate cause of everything. As well, it makes great use of maths and must therefore make a number of assumptions about human nature and economics in order to produce neat results, rather than messy indeterminacy.

A number of economists, such as the great A. K. Dasgupta (mentor of Amartya Sen) and the economic sociologist Tony Lawson (a long-term critic of the school) think the term ‘neoclassical’ misleading: they prefer the term “marginalist”. Why? Well, in essence it just doesn’t revive the Classical Political Economy of Smith, Ricardo and Marx.

That school was focused on big questions: “Will the capitalism system continue to grow?”, “Will we produce enough to feed our population?”, “What are the underlying social relations of this system?”. Coming, as they did, at the very of capitalism, it’s pretty natural that they would want to focus on understanding the system as a whole, the age-old struggle between humans and nature.

A century later, and people had adapted somewhat; some thought it was brilliant, others found it problematic, but it was hard to deny that it had a certain stability. Scholars were less interested in the big, existential questions – nature, it seemed, had been conquered – and turned instead to understanding the minute relations between the parts of the system.

In essence, the classical school is dynamic – it is interested in the long term path of the economic system. The marginalist school takes this for granted, and gives up the ability to study the dynamic path of the economy, in exchange for managing to learn a lot more about a stationary economy. Neoclassical, in this sense, should refer exclusively to those such as Alfred Marshall who attempted to combine the two – a true resurrection of the classical school.

 

Finally neoliberalism is, in a sentence, a political movement centred on an acceptance of the conclusions of marginalist economics and a faith in free markets. It’s not a school of economics in its own right, but a political coalition around pro-market policies that holds that, essentially, big questions are resolved. The market is the route to our happiness, an interference with it leads to ruin, no matter how well-intentioned.

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Brexit

The economic case is firmly with Remain. Not by the ludicrous margin the treasury suggest, but it is with Remain nonetheless. Some of the EU is pretty wasteful – the CAP for example at once wastes money and harms farmers in the developing world. Overall, though, they represent pretty good value for money, when you consider they run an entire continent.

Britain will negotiate trade deals, but if we do so with the EU we’re gonna have to give in on budget and free movement anyway. Other trade deals are also possible, but they do take ages to sort out. Still, we and most other countries are in the WTO, so we have the bare bones of a trade agreement with most places anyway. It’s not gonna be a catastrophe, just a pointless expense.

What has been disappointingly lacking from this debate is a sincere economic analysis of the impact of Brexit on the worst off, the lowest paid. While migration has, in general, been good for the country economically (and, in my view, culturally) it’s not likely to have made things better for the lowest paid.

However, it’s not fully to blame, or even mostly. The last 30 years have seen a steady decline in wages and working conditions, and the principal beneficiaries have not been migrants. Instead of blaming each other, we need real resistance to this deliberate policy of putting profits before people.

We talk about democracy and sovereignty a lot. The UK has a very concentrated political system compared to most countries. We only have one elected House – the US has two elected Houses, a president, a powerful judiciary and states which each have two elected Houses and an elected governor. So the influence of another body, even if it’s not the best, can help democracy overall.

International agreements are hard to come by, and a (basically) working group of countries is something to be cherished. Put bluntly, in the latest round of climate change talks, we struggled to commit to a target that isn’t strong enough and will be broken anyway. The latest round of WTO negotiations started in 2001, and remain unfinished. That’s well over half of my lifetime.

Put 200 countries together like that and one bastard will always think they can ruin it for everyone (looking at you, America). Only by working together over the long term with a political structure that binds us can we workably produce the international response we need to these issues.

The EU isn’t perfect. I hate what it did to Greece. I hate what it’s doing with TTIP, and I hate its continued resistance to democratic reform. Yeah, a freedom from its more restrictive pro-market policies could open up the space for a socially beneficial reindustrialisation of the UK, but that is more a dream than a plan. So, with a heavy heart, I’ll be voting Remain.

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Brexit, identity and the post-truth media

For many people, Brexit is not a battle of facts, numbers and figures, and that goes for those on both sides of the debate. For many Brexiteers, this vote is about an expression of British identity. For many Remainers, the vote is, similarly, about an expression of a liberal, cosmopolitan identity. In fact, the people most passionate about the referendum on both sides are probably more enamoured with these ideas of identity than they are with the cold, hard facts of their case.

Those facts, in reality, are a secondary consideration. We are living, in some ways, in a post-truth media environment. The line between journalism and activism is often blurred. I think often those blurring the lines see themselves as doing a good deed – in presenting a single side of the story they see themselves not as spreading mistruth, but as correcting a flawed narrative.

After an incident of Islamist terrorism, many on the left will blame the attack on the West’s history of colonialism and war. This elicits a reaction from the right that people are in denial about “the nature” of Islam (insofar as a billion people can, collectively, have a nature) being violent. It’s not that people on the left don’t understand that passages of the Quran are used to justify these atrocities and that yes, there is some connection between Islam (not mainstream Islam, though) and them.

Rather, they see a regrettable reduction of these complex issues into “Islam = bad”, and worry about the effect that this reductionist view of the problem will have on ordinary, peaceful Muslims who don’t wish harm on anyone. Seeing the risk for each incident to provoke an Islamophobic reaction, they offer a counter-narrative that seeks to provoke reflection on the complexities of what’s going on. The internal truth of any one piece is secondary to the overarching truth of the narrative.

Of course, this form of narrative-focused journalism provokes an equal and opposite reaction from the right. Concerned about a namby-pamby PC-gone-mad narrative that they can read in leftist thinkpieces, they push back the other way, with rightist thinkpieces that are equally as narrative-focused, and assert that in fact Islam is “to blame” and that the left is too for being too afraid to criticise it. All this creates an atmosphere of shouty distrust, a vicious cycle of thinkpieces constantly reasserting the chosen side of the argument so as to try and create what they consider to be an overall balance.

The same is playing out with Brexit. Each side makes ever more ludicrous claims – both have invoked Hitler, for fucks sakes – and the only real loser is the public. George Osborne’s dismal treasury predictions were all worst-case scenarios – it seems to me that he massively overplayed his hand. Why not quote a smaller but more believable figure and say “look, this isn’t a huge amount, but would you rather have it in your pocket or not?”.

Trapped between two sides selling narratives, nobody knows who to trust. Back to the clash of identities. With the increasingly less believable claims emanating from both the Leave and Remain camps, people  can’t realistically assess “the facts” because the obvious question then is “which facts?”. Instead, when facts fail we retreat to identity. Am I a proud, down-to-earth Brit or a cosmopolitan European?

The endless panopoly of experts telling people to vote remain are associated, rightly or wrongly, with the liberal cosmopolitanism of Remain. So, their views are discounted immediately by those who see this vote in terms. Similarly anyone talking about the fact that, actually, free movement of labour might be good for those at the top but not for those in low-paid, insecure jobs can be discounted as a “little Englander”. I’m fucking sick of it all, and I can’t wait for it to be over.

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