Wednesday, 9 November 2016

I am Daniel Blake

Watching I, Daniel Blake I am not ashamed to say I was moved to tears. I left the cinema still welling up inside. It does take a lot to make me cry, but an overwhelming sadness was not the only thing I felt. The other feeling can only be described as white-hot fury. I can still feel the heat of that burning anger now.
It’s not that the film shows us what we didn’t know, it’s that the film conveys the reality some of us know all too well. Dan embodies the suffering and humiliation of benefit claimants. Katie and her children stands for the single-mums and their plight in these dark times. I thought of my mother as I watched Katie go hungry to feed her children — as my mum so often did.
We know what it was like to live in damp houses without proper heating or appliances. We know what it was like to live from hand to mouth with the fear of not being able to make the rent and the bills. We know how to fill a bath with water boiled in a kettle because there is no hot water. We know how to get to sleep on bare floorboards.
Truly morally-stunted people will dismiss I, Daniel Blake as just a work of fiction from an old left-wing filmmaker. These people are irredeemable. You can’t expect people like Toby Young and Kwasi Kwarteng to see the truth that they are paid not to see. There is no point trying to persuade these people of the scale of misery in this country. It is no accident the degradation of poor people escapes their purview.
It’s not like it is common for a film to take the side of the benefit claimant, one of the most demonised figures in British society. We live with Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle, where the unemployed are presented as a bunch of free-loading scumbags. People who need a dose of tough love. By contrast,I, Daniel Blake has been criticised for showing us an unemployed man, who is not dysfunctional and struggling with addiction.
Daniel Blake is out of work because of no fault of his own. His bad heart means he can’t work, yet he is found fit for work by the job centre. He comes across Katie and her kids, who have been sent to live in Newcastle having been evicted by a landlord in London. We follow Dan and Katie through hungry queues at food banks and the bureaucracy of the benefits system. Yes, people do live like this in real life.
This is not a saccharine depiction of working-class life. It is not ‘sentimental’ to portray an unemployed man with a moral compass. Middle-class people are often shown on film as upstanding, moral citizens with few problems (except maybe a break-up or the odd murder). Meanwhile the only problem facing the super-rich is what to do with all their ill-gotten gains, as we see in movies like Wolf Of Wall Street.
In this regard, Ken Loach has succeeded in capturing the travails of working-class people without concessions to the gutter press and its view of poor people. It would be inappropriate to show Dan smoking dozens fags and drinking his way through six packs of cheap lager every night. Not to mention the fact that the man suffered a major heart attack.
So we’re meant to expect an irresponsible feckless stereotype as a representative of the out-of-work poor. Shell suits, Burberry caps and roll-ups are in order. Cans of watered down lager, obligatory. Anything short of this tabloid image is ‘unrealistic’. This is what we’re led to believe by the chattering classes. It’s almost as if working-class pride has been erased from public life.
Working-class people are regularly stripped of their dignity. You can see this whenever you turn on daytime television or open a red-top newspaper.I, Daniel Blake covers the form this humiliation takes at the job centre. Ken Loach and Paul Laverty are not obliged to play to the middle-classes and how they view less privileged people.
The critics who deny the film’s accuracy confirm its truth in doing so. The media response shows you why I, Daniel Blake is accurate and why it had to be made. It is a fictional account of what happens to ordinary people, both good and bad. The point is that if you are a respectable member of the ‘deserving’ poor, the system will not spare you. There are no exceptions and the odds are stacked against a happy ending.
If there weren’t thousands of Daniel Blakes across Britain, this film would have never been made and it would not be dismissed if it weren’t true. Too many people don’t like the truth. It’s inconvenient and often painful to accept. Like many great film makers Ken Loach raises a mirror and demands that we look at ourselves. So he should. And we are obliged to do so.
This article was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

How to get your Universal Credit raised

In case you don’t know, Universal Credit is the greatest achievement of Iain Duncan Smith. It is the only thing IDS achieved in government. It is his crucible. His life’s work, and his life’s worth. And it is utterly shit. But this should surprise no one.
In theory, Universal Credit encompasses all the benefits you’re eligible to claim. It’s relatively simple when it comes to Jobseekers and housing benefit, but it becomes more complex when it comes to other claims. The idea is to reduce bureaucracy by combining claims into one simple process. In practice, it just means the claimant has to go through an arduous process of filing out forms, providing evidence and chasing up the payments (and back-payments).
A friend of mine living with their parents in deepest, darkest Kent was set just over £251 a month under Universal Credit. This is the standard allowance for someone under 25. It would take into account housing benefit on top of this sum. It may not sound bad, if you’re living at home. But the system is highly punitive. You can have your benefits cut or suspended for several months for just missing an appointment.
If you live in London, where your rent is likely exorbitant you may still be expected to get by on a pitiful amount. Even if you’re lucky to have very cheap rent, say £400 a month, the system might give you this or it could dole out the bare minimum — just £117 a month. This is on top of any living allowance. That’s just £368 a month. If you’re 25 or over, it will be £434 a month. Could you get by on £8.50 a week? Would that cover your bills?
What’s the impact? You’re gradually forced backwards, sinking deeper into debt. You’re either drowning in your overdraft, or lending money from friends and family. You could end up homeless, or coach-surfing. However, the answer is simple, it’s just not widely known. If you call up the Scottish office (that’s 0345 600 0723, by the way) and question the payments, you can get your benefits fixed. Be politely annoying, it’s usually the way forward.
I’ve done this myself (I was expected to live off of £21 a week, incidentally) after getting advice from a friend, who works as a support worker. If you’re set a pitiful amount of money to live on, the worst thing to do is nothing. Universal Credit was devised, not to provide a safety-net for people who fall through the cracks, but to force people to accept low-pay for long hours of shitty work. Perhaps this is why wages have fallen by 10% in recent years.
This article was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Getting Paid (Late)

Originally, the payment was due on the first day of September. It didn’t come through. All the documents were already handed in. All ‘the evidence’ was in Scottish hands. So, I was perplexed to find myself slipping into my overdraft. When I went to see my work coach — that’s Dick, to you — he told me to call up Scotland, again. A few minutes of Vivaldi followed.
This time the phone was answered by a chirpy Scotswoman. A welcome change from the dour voices of past calls. She couldn’t find a reason why the payment hadn’t been made, but she reassured me that I would get my money that very day. I would get a text message, apparently. This was surprising good news from Scotland.
On my way out, I passed Dick at his desk and explained. Dick surmised that “they probably forgot to push the button”. For a moment, I imagined the dour office types being thrown out of a plane and skydiving towards a huge red button with PAYMENT across it in black letters. Sadly, the parachutes never work, but the splatter does send the money.
Just over an hour later, I got the text: “Mr White We will make a Universal Credit payment of approx £XXX.XX to your usual account. It should arrive by the end of today. DWP Universal Credit”.
Bear in mind, I was made redundant on July 15 and I went into the job centre four days later. The first week was taken out of the assessment, you don’t get anything for that time. Overall, my first round of Universal Credit was almost two months late. That’s how it goes, I suppose.
This was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

It's very expensive being poor!

I was meant to get my first payment of Universal Credit today. I checked my account online with some anticipation (though not much) only to find nothing there. I’ll be calling Scotland soon, listen to canned Vivaldi once again. Eventually I’ll get a dour voice telling me something. But even if I got the money, it wouldn’t be the answer.
Some have no idea what it’s like. Try paying your rent without a job. Try covering your travel costs. Try paying your Council Tax too. Try eating healthily. Try saving up for anything without disposable income. Try paying your bills. Try all of this on just £57 a week. That plus housing benefit, if you get it in time. Try it. Go on.
All of these things are hard enough when you’re working a minimum wage job. You will be lucky if you’re getting by with £100 leftover in your bank account. If you’re a recent graduate, you might be lucky enough to still have an overdraft without the charges. Feel free to dip in and go for a swim. You can sink in for days, before resurfacing at the end of the month.
That’s if you have a pay day, a monthly wage, an annual salary, with the taxes taken out by your employer. An existence as an intern or free-lancer can be highly stressful. In any case, life on what used to be called ‘the dole’ is much less simple. You can find yourself trapped financially. It’s supposed to make you “get off your arse, get on a bike and get a job”. It is true, after all the system is so shit it does give you an incentive to work.
Nevertheless, if you live on benefits — you can barely travel and eat properly. The propensity to depression is natural. You’ll soon find yourself waist-deep in despair, and sinking fast. Once you’re there, you’ll find it hard to motivate yourself to apply for jobs. Fortunately, the job centre may sanctionyou for this, so you have fear to motivate you and, I’m sure, you will apply to the best of your abilities under such intolerable conditions.
Wages have been stagnant since the 1970s. That’s why we’ve had a huge explosion of private debt — the only way to raise demand without high wages — as people relied more and more on credit cards, mortgages and loans, to stay afloat. The credit crunch and the subsequent financial crisis did not end this trend, but rather entrenched it further. We can thank ourpolitical leaders for a low-wage, low-growth economy with huge amounts of debt and unaffordable, lousy housing.
Since the credit crunch in 2007 the UK has seen wages continue to fall, in real times, putting us next to Greece. Real earnings have fallen by over 10% between 2007 and 2015 in Britain. According to the OECD, the average wage rate has risen by 6.7% in Europe — but not in Great Britain — as we find in France (11%), Germany (14%) and Poland (23%). This is what the Conservatives mean when they say they are “making work pay”.
Meanwhile the UK’s top bosses have taken home a 10% raise — on an average salary of £5.5 million a year. Wages for the average worker rose by just 2% in 2015. That’s after years of falling wages. The highest paid CEO isSir Martin Sorrell at WPP, taking home over £70 million quid last year. It may sound good for aspirational types, who stupidly imagine they could earn that much one day. The brutal truth is the poor works so these people don’t have to.
Profits are what you make when you don’t work. Except, if you’re in a dole queue — that’s scrounging! If you can digest this thought, ask yourself: How did that taste? Was it disgusting? It should be.
This article was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.

'The Evidence', Part II: Still Unproven! Or, am I?

Opening a new letter from the Mail Handling Site B in Wolverhampton is always a special moment. First, I received a letter demanding ‘the evidence’, which was perplexing because it did not explain what exactly I needed to send to them. The robots at Site B assumed I would already know.
So I went into my job centre, saw my work coach and called the number on the letter. Just so you know, that’s 03456000723. It doesn’t work (at least not in the job centre) unless you throw a 9 in first. If not, you’ll get the automated voice telling you: “The call cannot be completed as dialed…” Once you get past this, you get to listen to Vivaldi’s Spring for several minutes more than you’d like.
Finally, someone in Scotland picks up. Except this time, there is no voice. Instead, you get the white noise of office life. The sound of a fan in the distance, of photo-copying, of muffled chit-chat. Suddenly, you get a dour voice asking for proof of your identity, then they can help you. Or, not. He did confirm that my first payment is due on September 1st (having first applied on July 19th) and it should be backdated.
I managed to confirm they had received the signed copy of my tenancy agreement. That’s the only thing I can think they may have missed. I’m told they will write to me if they find anything is missing. In short, I still don’t know what ‘the evidence’ is meant to be.
Meanwhile the soulless factory floor in Wolverhampton, with its dead-eyed staff and a conveyor belt, is still hard at work feeding countless letters to waiting vans. A new letter is already on its way. Could it contain precise details of ‘the evidence’? Sadly not.
“You must provide evidence to support your claim to Universal Credit,” the letter reads. “We asked you to provide some evidence to support your Universal Credit claim but we have not received it… It is important that you provide this evidence as your payments may be delayed or your Universal Credit claim closed.”
This was August 20th. The exact same letter was first sent on July 30th. Is there is a code in the letter I’m meant to decipher? Then I received a second letter from the wholesome, hard-working robots of Mail Handling Site B. It read as follows: “You told us about a change to your Universal Credit”. That’s in bold, for good measure.
It goes on: “You recently told us about a change in your circumstances. If this change affects your Universal Credit we will write to you and let you know before your next payment.” This was sent out on August 24th.
Let’s revisit the process behind these letters:
Clear sheets of paper are passed through row after row of printing machines, the same words pressed onto them in unison, to be sorted into envelopes and neatly stacked. Every letter requires a different address, so the paper is filtered by a set of robots armed with ink and the right details, before heading facing human eyes.
I like to think the main task for the human staff is to check for typos and provide the necessary saliva to seal each envelope. I feel for them. At least the machines can’t get sad. It’s an assembly-line of bad news just for the people trying to claim benefits, but especially for the people who forgot to include a bank statement. It is meant to be efficient, but it’s just not.
Perhaps there is a special conveyor belt to carry all the angry tirades directly into the mouth of a blazing furnace.
This would surely keep Site B going all night long. Imagine it: A public building powered entirely by despair. It would befit the benefits system devised by sadistic politicians and their half-witted and cretinous bureaucrats.
Maybe this is the answer to climate change.
I should get my first payment on Thursday.
To be continued…
This was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.

Friday, 19 August 2016

New Project: Notes from the Underclass

Hold onto your nuts, I have started a new blog on Medium called 'Notes from the Underclass'. Pretension and procrastination continue to be my main skills. I intend to rejuvenate this platform too, and generally refocus my efforts.

As I am unemployed for the time being, I thought I would blog about the arduous task of applying for universal credit and chart the process (which could take up to six weeks). I also intend to interview people who have been living on benefits for far longer than I have. The point being to get the insights of ordinary people completely overlooked, marginalised and vilified by the media and political class.

This is not meant to be a long-term project, as I intend to get hired soon, but it is meant to provide some illumination and humour on unemployment. It's not enough to be morose about the state of affairs in the world. Though it is certainly understandable.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

'The Evidence': Unemployed? Prove it!

If you’re unemployed, can you prove it? Actually, can you even prove you exist? And, if you do exist, can you prove you’re you? Apparently, I can’t. Not according to Universal Credit’s Mail Handling Site B in Wolverhampton. This must be a common problem because Site B felt the need to send me one of the standardised letters. You know, the kind of letter typed up by a robot.
“You must provide evidence to support your claim to Universal Credit,” the letter goes. “We asked you to provide some evidence to support your Universal Credit claim, please contact us on the number above. It is important that you provide this evidence as your payments may be delayed or your Universal Credit claim closed.”
So I could have to restart my entire application because I have no idea what they want from me. The letter does not specify anything. I received this letter after a week out of town. It was sent out on the day after the last timeI went into the job centre.
As requested, I provided copies of my passport, tenancy agreement, bank account, birth certificate, change of name deeds and my national insurance number. What could the evidence be? I suppose I’d best call them, and sit through Vivaldi’s Spring once more, to play it safe.
Of course, there is no name on the letter, just the title ‘Office Manager’ to sign off with. Although the letters are churned out en masse, I do like to imagine Site B as a soulless factory floor, complete with dead-eyed staff and a conveyor belt, feeding countless letters to waiting vans.
Clear sheets of paper are passed through row after row of printing machines, the same words pressed onto them in unison, to be sorted into envelopes and neatly stacked. Every letter requires a different address, so the paper is filtered by a set of robots armed with ink and the right details, before heading facing human eyes.
I like to think the main task for the human staff is to check for typos and provide the necessary saliva to seal each envelope. I feel for them. At least the machines can’t get sad. It’s an assembly-line of bad news just for the people trying to claim benefits, but especially for the people who forgot to include a bank statement. It is meant to be efficient, but it’s just not.
How many addresses do they get wrong? What happens if one of the robots breaks down? Is there a vast sorting machine for hate mail sent back? Perhaps there is a special conveyor belt to carry all the angry tirades directly into the mouth of a blazing furnace.
This would surely keep Site B going all night long. Imagine it: A public building powered entirely by despair. It would befit the benefits system devised by sadistic politicians and their half-witted and cretinous bureaucrats. Maybe this is the answer to climate change.
Woe to the people who work in such places. What truly miserable lives they must lead. The machines can’t cry for them, but they should.
This article was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.

Brexit as Class War

In the wake of Brexit, we were told the vote was a great revolt by the white working-class. We were told it was grounded in racist discontent with an out-of-touch metropolitan elite. The Leave vote was entirely composed of ill-educated, poor racists living anywhere between the progressive bastions of London and Scotland. It's worth asking what's wrong with this view.

Too much bile has been directed towards the working-class for voting the wrong way. It's as if europhilic liberals cannot bring themselves to look in the mirror and examine the Remain campaigns for any failing. And the EU is left beyond scrutiny. Instead the working-class is supposed to play the scapegoat for an incoherent and lacklustre campaign strategy.

There are no legitimate reasons to advocate Brexit, in this view, the vote is simply an expression of racism and ignorance. Importantly, the European political terrain is increasingly split between liberalism and nationalism with each side helping to constitute the other. This basic antagonism has dominated the entire EU debate and, in turn, shaped the way the working-class has been tarred by middle-class journalists.

My first reaction was to characterise Brexit as a "fuck you" vote. I still think it was, but not necessarily by people who have been left behind by globalisation. As Zoe Williams has pointed out, it was the Southern English middle-class that tipped the balance – not working-class Northerners. This should not be a surprise. Middle-class and elite votes play a major role in all elections, as they dominate the whole discourse, the media and political agenda.

No War Like Class War

By holding a vote, David Cameron hoped to resolve the tension within the ruling-class and his own party. He did not believe he could lose the referendum because he was so accustomed to winning on every occasion. There was no game plan for an exit. So when the men who had always won everything finally lost, they had no idea what to do – and they still don't. But this is not the fullest account of the character of the vote.

Although the ruling-class was thinking of its own interests, the middle-classes and the working poor were significant actors. The breakdown of the Leave vote in ABC terms of class, not necessarily the best analysis, it must be said, shows 10 million upper/middle-class votes and seven million working-class votes cast for Brexit. By contrast, the Remain vote was made up of 12 million upper/middle-class votes with around four million working-class votes.

Similarly, the base of UKIP is often wrongly described as working-class and eating into the Labour vote. Actually UKIP has primarily threatened the Conservative Party, and often overtook it in Labour constituencies because so few locals would vote Tory. The UKIP base is petty-bourgeois with some elements of the poor and the rich backing them. Nigel Farage may be the first ultra-rightist to lead a party based on a cross-class alliance.

So we find the narrative of a working-class revolt is somewhat inaccurate. As in most votes, the working-class was present, but key roles were played by elite interests and middle-class votes. This is not to diminish the role of the votes cast by working-class people. Certainly, the grievances of the working-class were a significant factor. But the fact that the Leave vote was a convergence of different class forces should not surprise us.

Likewise, the vote was not a case of total white flight, though it is mostly. Around 33% of Asian voters opted for Brexit, alongside 27% of black voters. Again, this is not to explain away the role of the racism. After all, you can still cast a vote to limit EU migration on the grounds that the system privileges EU nationals over migrants from other parts of the world. This is why multiculturalism did not prevent Birmingham from voting for exit.

In fact, Nigel Farage often made this Commonwealth argument against EU membership. The basic idea goes that the UK should become closer to its former colonies and not the small cluster of European states. This reveals more than a scintilla of colonial nostalgia is present in the kind of nationalism invoked by Brexit campaigners. The wish to "get my country back" can take a variety of forms. It harks back to a dead empire.

The Left and Brexit

Still, the key question for the Left is the role of the working-class. There are those on the radical Left, who made the progressive case for British withdrawal from the EU. Veteran agitators such as Tariq Ali and George Galloway rank in the Lexit camp. Many other socialists found themselves sympathetic to this argument thanks to the EU's austerity programme. Ultimately, the prospect of siding with Farage may have been too much to stomach.

Economist Paul Mason warned against a Lexit vote on pragmatic grounds: the timing was wrong, as the Left lacked a mass movement and leadership, to overhaul the status quo. One might wonder if the time is ever right. Others like John Pilger framed the Brexit vote as an "act of raw democracy" by millions of ordinary people. This repeats the idea that the working-class was in the driving seat and this vote was a "fuck you" to the ruling-class.

Not only is the working-class not in the driving seat, the sections of the poor which supported Brexit may well have done so out of nationalism. This does not mean there was no left-wing element in the Leave vote, though it is a fact that the Left was divided over the EU – which, at once, stands for freedom of movement and neoliberalism. Poor people fell on both sides of the debate too.

Yet the Lexit crowd wants to pretend that the working-class is vote was devoid of racism. This brings us to one of the classic fixations of the Left: if the working-class as a revolutionary agent, how is it that capitalism has not been overthrown? The easy answer is that it is deficient leadership on the part of trade unions and parties. While this may well be true, it does not rule out the possibility that the working-class is open to demobilisation, as well as reformist and reactionary politics.

If liberals are guilty of presupposing the inherent backwardness of the working-class, then a number of leftists can be criticised for claiming the working-class is inherently revolutionary or even communist already. The working-class has agency, and the potential for revolutionary agency, which means the choice is not between a unwashed xenophobic rabble and a red flag-waving proletariat.

Revolutionary Ideals

Obviously, class interests are not self-evident axioms. Classes are alive, they are not subject to test conditions, as they engage in the world and face changing social conditions. If working-class agency means anything, it means the ability to disagree and make independent choices. But this does not extend to the terms of the choice itself.

Even if the proletariat is not on the cusp of a great revolt, it is the Left that needs the working-class and, likewise, class politics is the only way forward for ordinary people. Left-wing ideals without class is a form of anti-politics. If a section of working people, or even a majority for that matter, are not mobilised by the Left, this would not vindicate those who say the poor are backward.

It is worth acknowledging that the main demand of Leave voters was national sovereignty, whereas immigration controls was a secondary concern. Not that this changes the fact that the dominant character of the vote was nationalist. Sovereignty is one of those few ambiguous demands backed by radical elements across the spectrum.

Nevertheless, the Left should not try to externalise racism from the working-class in a bid to save its own romantic view of the workers. The problem here is that it presupposes that the poor ought to have the right set of ideas in order for socialists to stand with them. In this sense, the constant yearning for a revolutionary agent collapses into its opposite.

This article was originally published at Souciant.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The Joy of the Job Centre

Four days into my workless life, I head to the job centre early and ask to apply for Jobseekers Allowance. They tell me I can’t speak to someone, so I should use the computer instead. The computer tells me I’m eligible for Universal Credit, but not JSA. I apply for Universal Credit. At first, it tells me I am not eligible for Universal Credit before suggesting I apply for JSA, and call the following number… So I decided to go home and try again.
This time the virtual form worked. I filled out everything for Universal Credit and the ball appeared to be rolling. Pleased with this, I went about my workless daily life. I was out drinking with a friend the next day when I got the phone call: the job centre has penciled me in for 9.15am on Friday. On the surface, the process was fairly efficient. Rolling all benefits into one may have resolved the bureaucratic logjam after all. No, not quite!
On Friday, I go back with all my papers (IDs, bank statements, passport, tenancy etc.) for my 9.15am appointment. I’ve been assigned a work coach, but he’s nowhere to be found. Let’s call him Dick for the sake of anonymity. Dick is late, and, for whatever reason, there is no one else around. So I sit around until 10 when I finally get to talk to Dick about joblessness. But he can’t find one set of forms I filled out online. Apparently, the form went ‘missing’ in transit somewhere between the internet and the job centre.
The centre itself is a long corridor of desks, which you descend into by a short set of stairs, each little unit with its own phone and computer — and a camera watching over the work coach. The decor is bland, even the brightest fabrics of blue and red have been discoloured with age. The walls carry notices for recruitment drives and adverts proclaiming the virtues of the DWP: ‘Making work pay’. One notice is from the local council and it lists the attributes of a suitable candidate: 1) professional, 2) ambitious, 3) responsible and 4) human. I wonder what life must be like for an unemployed amphibian.
The job centre would be Kafkaesque if it were more intelligent. I’m told to call a new number, and after five minutes of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons I get to talk to a dour Scotswoman — who has all the warmth of a death march. I’m given an appointment for next Friday. I might get my money in 4–5 weeks. Or, I can ask for an advance… if I can make it past the endless recording of the Four Seasons. This is why the job centre has a camera at every desk, just in case one of the claimants decides to tear a chunk out of someone’s head!
The good news is that the payments will be backdated to when I first made my claim. Unlike most benefit claimants, I have savings and enough money in my account to make it through the next few weeks. As I’ve got two years of experience as a journalist, I’m also more likely to find work again. Even still, this new project isn’t really about me — it’s about the experiences of people living on benefits long-term.
Over the coming days and weeks, I aim to compile just some of the experiences of people getting by on so-called ‘hand-outs’. The system needs unemployment and poverty. This is the so-called ‘underclass’, those who live on virtually nothing. These are the people spat on by middle-class journalists and career politicians. I hope not to do them a disservice in what I write here on Medium.
This was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Corbyn Coup: Jeremy Fights Back!

The coup against Jeremy Corbyn has now fully transmuted into a leadership election. But the key challengers are unlikely to win over the membership: whether it is lacklustre Angela Eagle, or the mediocre Owen Smith. Corbyn is officially on the ballot, albeit with new barriers to his supporters. Sadly the contest may take until September to conclude, while the Conservative government is busy regrouping.

Things are moving very quickly. Not long ago, there was a great deal of anxiety over the NEC vote on whether or not to allow Corbyn to remain on the ballot paper. Many feared Labour would deny the incumbent the right to defend his position from Angela Eagle. The Blairites are cynical enough to take this decision. It would have been a transparent move to overthrow the leader and close the democratic opening within the party. But we shouldn't forget this almost happened.

Much like the no-confidence motion, the NEC held the ballot in secret. The point being to embolden the anti-Corbyn vote, as it had done with the no-confidence motion. This same method allowed 80% of the PLP to fall into line with the Blairite coup. Yet even with the secret ballot, the Corbyn camp won the NEC vote by a modest margin (18:14) and now NEC elections may see the balance of votes turn in the Left's favour.

However, the NEC rammed through new measures, once Corbyn and his allies were out of the room, to deny 128,000 members the right to vote and suspend all branch meetings until after the election. This should not surprise anyone. The Labour Party has a long tradition of rigging its internal contests for the sake of 'unity' and 'stability'. Democracy and contestation is a threat to this Tammany Hall system.

The enemy revealed

First, Angela Eagle emerged to take on Corbyn, but now Owen Smith has entered the field. Smith represents a division in the anti-Corbyn faction, where Eagle is not seen as necessarily the best candidate to take on the leader. He is now positioning himself to be the single challenger to face Jeremy Corbyn. He has called for a second EU referendum, appealing to the liberal europhiles so easily disenchanted with Corbynism. It's an appeal to the muesli belt.

Overall, the Smith campaign looks like a serious bid for power. The Pontypridd MP vows to refocus efforts on inequality. He has proposed a £200 billion investment programme to build housing, colleges, hospitals and improve existing infrastructure. Smith was self-aware enough to outmatch Stephen Crabb's call for a £100 billion plan. He's even pledged to bring in a war powers act to ensure no future government can take the country to war without parliamentary support.

This coming from a man, who was not in Parliament to vote for the Iraq war, surely strengthens his bid for the leadership. But it's not entirely accurate to say Smith is anti-war. In the past, Owen Smith has expressed support for the occupation of Iraq on Eustonite grounds – going as far as to compare the conflict to the Spanish civil war. This was long before Hilary Benn used the same analogy to support the invasion of Syria.

Meanwhile the Eagle campaign has been markedly lukewarm. So far Angela Eagle has succeeded in winning over sympathy with questionable claims of intimidation by leftists. Her debut was spoiled by Theresa May's victory after Andrea Leadsom pulled out of the Tory leadership race. The journalists rushed out of the room to cover the real news. But even when Eagle gets airtime, she fails to inspire. It looks like a kamikaze candidacy.

The aim is victory through destruction. The Blairites and the 'soft left' are trying to use Angela Eagle as a front to slam the Labour leadership. The election will be dragged out over the summer to guarantee maximum damage. The Labour Right would prefer to see Corbyn fail than see him challenge the Tory government. This is just as the government is largely rudderless. A united opposition could have serious impact right now.

Perilous terrain

Faced with Smith, the Corbyn camp has returned to its own take on quantitative easing. John McDonnell has laid out plans for a national investment bank and £500 billion programme for infrastructure. It would be coupled with regional banks to increase the level of investment to the North and the Midlands. This not only tops Smith's position, it is a return to Corbynomics – a radical mix of heterodox Keynesian and post-socialist economic policies.

If Corbyn combines a well thought out platform with a social media strategy and grass-roots organising, the leader should be able to win with a landslide. Victory has to be total here, or it will embolden the anti-Corbyn faction to draw their knives later. It's not just a matter of having the right ideas and decency. The extreme centrists want to recapture the party leadership, and they are willing to ruin its electoral chances to do so.

Not surprisingly, Jeremy Corbyn has fallen back on tried and tested social media networks. This allows Corbyn to connect with his base in a much more direct way than his competitors. It does have limits, though it is the best option. The real battle is how Corbyn can assert influence in the media and reach a mass audience. He recently gave a pretty relaxed interview to the BBC in Finsbury Park. But the press is still overwhelmingly hostile to the Left.

The main problem is not the right-wing press, but the lack of a left-wing press. The Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the New Statesman have led the herd of independent minds. This herd includes liberals and leftists who take issue with Corbyn's idealism. Even the Daily Mirror, the only Labour red-top newspaper, called for Corbyn to let the coup plotters win. So there is no progressive commentariat backing the Labour leader.

The Corbyn leadership faces the difficulty of getting the word out in a hostile media environment. At the same time, the party is locked into a crisis which predates the last nine months and goes back to the compromises of Blairism and even before. The redistribution of power and wealth was always offset to secure gains within the system. Now there is the real struggle to transform the party in order to change the country.

This article was originally published at Souciant.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Thatcher 2.0

So, the heir to Blair is gone, Theresa May has come to power, George Osborne has been replaced with Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson is now in charge of MI6. It's plausible that the Tory Party may be returning to its wilderness period in opposition to New Labour. Cameron's Blair-style of leadership is now over. All that's left is the mess of party politics before Cameron took over in 2005: fools, creeps, lightweights and nobodies.

Yet inevitably, the new British prime minister will be compared to Margaret Thatcher. Not that May has a substantive political agenda. If Andrea was going to play Thatcher 2.0, she would have faired no better than Theresa. Love her or loathe her, Thatcher was a seizmic figure in UK politics. She redefined the conversation and changed society in a little over a decade. We have remained on the same track ever since, while the political class has changed in style and tactics.

The truth is the Conservatives never got over Thatcher. The Iron Lady's fall from power left behind a vacuum, which has never really been closed. John Major and David Cameron are passing, managerial figures. Unusually for a Conservative, Thatcher was a formidable ideologue. But let's pull back for a moment. It's worth reflecting on the events of recent weeks. Despite appearances the Conservative establishment was hit hard by the Brexit shockwave. The dust has yet to settle.

Electorus interruptus

Once Brexit hit, David Cameron was forced to resign – a decision which clearly stung. By contrast, George Osborne disappeared into the shadows for the weekend. He finally resurfaced to provide reassurances to the business community, after three days in hiding. The look of complete devastation on Osborne's face must have been very reassuring. Both men – a duo of the major league – were physically shaken by defeat. The Cameron legacy died on June 23, and Osborne's hopes of taking over died with it.

The Tory government has been rudderless since the leadership contest ensued. At first, everyone thought that the favourite candidate, Boris Johnson, would easily swoop in and become prime minister. Then Johnson committed electorus interruptus with no warning. The Boris campaign was dead before the man could even announce his candidacy. Michael Gove delivered the fatal blow and quickly usurped the candidacy.

This was great drama for political junkies. Boris has been lurking on the sidelines for years – clearly in preparation of a bid for the premiership. He wanted his birthright. Far from a conviction politician, or even a responsible human being, Johnson bet everything on the Leave vote. In actuality, the former London mayor was hoping for a slight Remain vote, which would create the pre-conditions for a hard-right Tory revolt against Cameron. Such a situation would be favourable for a prominent (and opportunistic) figure to seize power.

The chancer got exactly what he didn't want. Johnson was quick to cleave to the centre-ground in the hope of salvaging a position as a 'unifying figure'. But this strategy was doomed to fail. The parliamentarians would want a Remain candidate, whereas the members might prefer a Leave campaigner. Boris was seen as a gamble. He had himself stabbed Cameron in the back over the EU debate, giving him just 10 minutes to adjust before he announced his support for Leave.

It was obvious, for some of us from the start. The favourite candidate has lost every Conservative leadership election in the last 60 years. In other words, the commentators get it wrong regularly. The real battle for the ruling party is to reproduce itself as the establishment. If the next leader tries to backtrack from EU withdrawal, the party could well split. It's even possible that the negotiations could lead to a bloody schism.

The death of the centre

Theresa May was clearly the strongest contender from the outset. Soon she was the last candidate standing, and then the last woman standing. May has a tough reputation on immigration, which plays to her advantage right now. However, it is also clear May is a pragmatist and a centre-right politician more than anything else. She is, no doubt, favoured by establishment figures because she is seen as a "safe pair of hands". Quietly pro-Remain, May is inoffensive to the party loyalists, but she's also capable of difficult policies – e.g. the reform of the police.

The problem for Prime Minister May will be walking the thin line necessary to keep both wings of the Conservative Party contented. The eurosceptics will be looking for any sign of compromise, any whiff of retreat or hesitation in the negotiating room. At the same time, there are still strong europhiles in the Tory hierarchy. The former will want red meat on immigration, the latter will recognise the practicalities of free movement.

The UK has had freedom of movement with Ireland on and off since the 1920s. If the new administration wants to control EU migration, the Irish border will have to be patrolled and the symbolism of British troops on the Irish border should not be taken lightly. Likewise, there are over 2 million British emigrants in EU countries. Meanwhile the UK economy has a structural need for migrant labour, and this goes to the heart of the matter.

If it is to reproduce itself, British capitalism has to be reinvigorated. Right-wing eurosceptics want to revitalise the system by tipping further towards the American empire, while turning to the former colonies for trade, as an alternative to the continental European bloc. The centre basically want to extend the current system as it is – propped up by finance and hocked up with debt. But the Left could also push for a new social democratic turn.

Coming out with 'One Nation' rhetoric, May hopes she can differentiate herself from the Cameron era. She acknowledged disparities of race, class and gender in her first speech. But the 'One Nation' has a nasty side – namely cultural nationalism. This is somewhat different to so-called 'compassionate' conservatism popularised by George W Bush. May will look to forge unity by exclusion. It's just a question of who gets excluded.

This article was originally published at Souciant.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Corbyn Coup: Britain At Its Best

Two weeks after the UK voted to leave the EU and the country is still reeling from the impact. Economic disarray, as the pound has crashed and the financial markets have taken a $2 trillion hit. Reports of racist violence are surging to new heights. Infighting has ensued across the political class, and the government itself is paralysed. Fear and anger can be detected almost everywhere. This is Britain at its best.

The opposition has declared war on itself. The Blairites have moved to oust Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing Labour leader in the party's history, rather than allow him to face-off the government at its weakest moment. Crises are an opportunity for the Left, not just the Right. It looks like the Blairites were plotting for a long time, and may have waited another year or so, to launch the coup. The Brexit vote just hit the accelerator.

No doubt, the bid to overthrow Corbyn took months of planning. Hilary Benn's challenge and mass resignations were planned on WhatsApp. Reportedly, the plotters typed to each other as part of 'the Birthday Group'. This may explain why the resignations were not all in one go, but staggered across two days to guarantee maximum press coverage. Beyond media stunts, however, the Blairites had little plan.

How to botch a coup

It looks like the putsch is dead, but it's worth asking why it failed. We know a coup was being planned in which Margaret Hodge would fire the first shot, the Telegraph reported in May. Notably, Hodge initiated the no-confidence motion against Corbyn. The plan was clearly drawn with conventional politics in mind: If your entire cabinet resigns, and you lose a no-confidence motion, you are supposed to step down!

Bristled with overconfidence, the Labour Right moved to deliver the first and final blow. The domain name for Angela Eagle's leadership bid was already bought. The Right would recapture the leadership and begin the process of purging the inconvenient members. Once done, the party could get back to business as usual. But the plotters completely misread the situation. They moved too quickly, and missed their target.

It soon became apparent that the plan had a fatal flaw, it relied on Corbyn willfully resigning. The no-confidence motion was technically an extra-constitutional measure, as Labour (unlike the Conservatives and the Liberals) was formed by trade unions and grass-roots members. Officially, the party is governed by conference, not by its elected representatives. Jeremy Corbyn could just dig his heels in.

Some would argue the 172 Labour MPs have a greater mandate than Jeremy Corbyn because they were elected by millions of people. But it is worth asking, where were these "millions" of enthusiastic supporters of Blairism? If New Labour was such a success story, why couldn't they get their "millions" of supporters to swamp the election? The argument does not stand up to scrutiny, even if it were not unconstitutional.

Of course, if these people really believed they had the support they would allow Labour supporters to take part in the no-confidence motion. Likewise, the Blairites would launch a new leadership election, or they would put themselves up for re-election to affirm their position. Yet there are no such efforts. Instead what we have is a media coup without the means of a serious political wager. It was doomed, even if it were to succeed.

Not only was the no-confidence not legally binding, the resignations just cleared the shadow cabinet of opponents. At the same time, the Blairites had no real alternative to Corbyn and they know they will lose an open election with the leader on the ballot. Right-winger Peter Mandelson wanted to use Angela Eagle as a front to reintroduce the New Labour agenda. The soft-left were on board with the coup, but they didn't care much for the candidate.

People began clambering over one another to find an alternative. Heads turned to Tom Watson, but he ruled himself out. Owen Smith became the great hope, and we still don't know who he is or what he looks like. People continued to fantasise about Keir Starmer, or David Miliband being flown into a parliamentary seat over night. In short, the anti-Corbyn faction wanted to bring down the leader, but could not agree on anything else.

Angela Eagle was left making absurd statements. "Jeremy Corbyn still has time to do the right thing," one of her inner-circle told the BBC. Officially, Eagle was giving Corbyn more time to resign. Of course, the hesitancy to launch the leadership bid revealed that the Blairites knew the candidacy would fail with the incumbent in the race. By this point, 60,000 new members had rushed into the party ranks.

This figure would soon climb to 100,000. The total membership may be set to reach 600,000 peoplefar higher than the halcyon days of New Labour platitudes. This is just as all other political parties are shrinking rapidly. The tension is between the party base and the leadership on one side, the elected representatives and the entire political and media class on the other.

Where next?

There has been talk of a split in the Labour Party between Blairites and Corbynistas. The problem with this view is that there is no obvious form it would take. The lack of leadership would still hold the project back. It's also likely that there are less than 50 MPs – maybe as few as 20 – who would actually go ahead with it. This doesn't mean the so-called 'big hitters', like Tom Watson, would defect.

Some of the Blairites have been looking into legal claims to the Labour brand because they understand they are nothing without it. But a split would be a radical change in itself. You could imagine the Conservatives breaking up into a hard-right eurosceptic wing and a pragmatic neoliberal wing. It's conceivable that the Blairites could find common cause with market liberals across the isle.

However, the worse case scenario may not be the prospect of a split, or even the putsch itself, but the continued unity with New Labour apparatchiks. People like Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson may not be able to engage in political trench warfare, yet they still have a great deal of influence in mass-media. The Blairites could just bunker down and cause havoc to prevent the Left from making any gains.

Despite appearances, the Left has some advantages over its right-wing opponents in the party. The membership is energised and the trade unions are on side (that's 50% of the party's funding). Even in terms of political talent and innovation, the Blairites are much weaker at this point, the extreme centre lacks credibility and a strong base. This could well be the death of the party as we've known it.

The failures of the coup should embolden the Left. Members should capture the party infrastructure and embed themselves in committees, councils and prepare to put forward left-wing candidates for Parliament. This is the only way to reinvent the Labour Party. Corbyn represents the start of a shift towards class politics. Pasokification is still on the cards, and a left turn is necessary to save the party.

This article was originally published at Souciant.