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Archive for the ‘UK’ Category

A Brief Thought on Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage, by far the most extreme of the mainstream cheerleaders for Brexit and certainly the political leader most comfortable with brushing shoulders with actual racism and fascism in his utterances, has resigned from the leadership of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party. In UKIP’s moment of triumph, pyrrhic though it may be, Farage has stepped down from the party with which he is synonymous. It’s the latest in a series of resignations and retreats which have claimed the man who called the referendum, David Cameron, the man who led the Conservatives campaigning to Leave, Boris Johnson, and now the man who led the only political party to campaign in its entirety for Leave.

Where will Farage go? With Farage having met with media baron Rupert Murdoch the day before his resignation, speculation has inevitably turned to the possibility that his incredibly high media profile over the past few years (far outstripping anything justified by UKIP’s actual political representation) will now translate into a media job. It would make sense in many ways. Farage is nothing if not intensely egotistical (he’s dramatically stepped down as UKIP leader in the past, only to return to the job within days) and it’s hard to imagine that at this, the moment of his triumph, he would disappear from public life. A media role would let him maintain his profile and do what he loves best – lobbing grenades from the sidelines as Britain’s political establishment tries to sort out the mess (whenever they stop making new messes and get around to actually sorting anything out).

Regardless of what Farage does next – and it is also possible (if a little out of character) that he’ll fade away for a little while to spend more time with his £80,000 MEP salary – he won’t be gone for long. His departure now is a calculated one. Unlike Boris Johnson, who never intended for a Leave victory and whose best-laid plans were thrown into disarray by it (and by Michael Gove stabbing him in the back), Farage likely believed that Leave could win the referendum all along. He’s got a plan, not for Brexit – nobody had a plan for Brexit – but for himself and his future career.

Farage is a rabble-rouser, and he knows that the rabble he has roused is going to stay roused. Brexit isn’t going to deliver what Leave voters want, not least because what many Leave voters actually want is impossible by any means short of a full embrace of fascist authoritarianism. Britain will muddle through somehow – economically and politically damaged, perhaps outside the EU, and perhaps with the UK no longer intact. Migrants will still be there, though. Businesses owned and staffed by non-white people will still be there. EU regulations will mostly still be there. The people who have been left behind by successive waves of neoliberal policymaking over the past 35 years will, if anything, be even worse off than before. Their vote to leave the EU won’t have changed their economic misery or removed the visible manifestations of the immigration which they blame for that misery. Their anger with politics, with governments, with elites and with all of the institutions which make up the British state will only intensify and curdle as they come around to the belief that the politicians have screwed them again. They voted to leave, and the politicians found a mealy-mouthed way to wriggle out of it. The people, the real people, the proper English people, spoke, and all those lying experts and self-serving intellectuals and greedy politicians just found a way to ignore it.

Nigel Farage will be right there to nod, to listen and to focus that outrage, fear and fury – just like he did prior to the referendum. He wants to be out of politics for now, because he doesn’t want to be seen to have anything to do with the stitch-up that’s inevitably coming. In his absence, UKIP will likely fall into a terminal decline. It’s never truly been more than the Nigel Farage Party, with other senior figures like Douglas Carswell and Neil Hamilton having none of his profile, his charisma, or his political nous. It doesn’t matter; UKIP was a vehicle and has served its purpose for now. Farage gets to play the tired, noble statesman who has achieved his purpose, slide out of politics (whether into the media or into temporary obscurity is a moot point) and ready himself to step back in down the line. He’ll be just as outraged as the Leave voters. He worked so hard for this result, to secure the UK’s independence, and those grasping, sleazy politicians in Westminster have undermined it all and ignored the voice of the real English people. He will be the perfect chalice to hold their anger, their frustration and their hate, and they will power him onwards to whatever his next political goal may be.

We’re not done with Nigel Farage. The people currently scorning him for running away from his responsibilities as the UK falls asunder aren’t the people who matter; they’ve never understood or been in thrall to the cult of Farage the Everyman, Farage the Proper Englishman, Farage Who Only Says What Everyone Is Thinking. Those who have believed in him this far won’t see his resignation now as any kind of cowardice or betrayal – hasn’t he earned a rest, after putting it to those smug Eurocrats and Westminster slimeballs for so long? – and will embrace him with open arms and ample spittle-flecked fury when he returns.

Needless to say, it’s not exactly reassuring that the politician who has most openly flirted with fascism is the only one who actually seems to have a game plan…

Labour’s Badly Planned, Graceless Coup

Corbyn Labour Coup

The attempts of Labour’s parliamentary party to defenestrate their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, rumble on – but this coup has become an aimless, witless and utterly artless thing that threatens to damage the Labour Party far more than Corbyn’s leadership ever could. What began as a calculated and focused attempt to quickly remove Corbyn ahead of a likely 2016 General Election rapidly turned out to have no Plan B and no exit strategy. The party’s MPs now find themselves in a bitter and destructive struggle against their leader which threatens a complete implosion of the UK’s official opposition at one of the most crucial junctures in the nation’s political history.

I don’t think that Jeremy Corbyn is the right leader for the Labour party at this point in time. I think that many of the MPs who voted No Confidence in him last week did so in good faith – not from disloyalty or ambition, but from concern for the party and for those it represents. What has happened since the No Confidence vote, however, represents the most bone-headed act of self-destruction I think I’ve ever seen a political party commit.

Whatever your view of Corbyn’s leadership or his policies, the general sense of the man himself is that he’s a fundamentally decent guy – stubborn perhaps, even to the point of intransigence, but a decent human being nonetheless. It was this sense of being honest, decent and unpolished that led to his election in the first place. Years of slick candidates moulded by spin doctors to match target demographic preferences, yawning ideological emptiness concealed behind dazzling white smiles, left Labour supporters fatigued, disenchanted and desperate for something different. Corbyn doesn’t look like a modern political leader; he doesn’t talk like one; he doesn’t act like one. A bit frumpy, grizzled and utterly sincere, his appearances across the despatch box from former PR man David Cameron (a PR man being elevated to Prime Minister being the most worrying real-world instance of lunatics taking over an asylum that I can imagine) have only emphasised how different he is from everything else on offer.

Since Corbyn refused to step down following the vote of No Confidence, we’ve been presented with the gruesome spectacle of Labour MPs launching attacks on him in the press which have veered towards the intensely nasty and personal. There’s been a resurrection of the smear campaign attempting to link him to anti-semitism (he is a long-standing supporter of Palestine, a firmly mainstream political position in the UK and not one that implies any link to anti-semitism). There have been accusations that he is a bully, that he has ignored or sidelined MPs, that he runs some kind of “secret police” within the Labour party. There have even been claims that he might have voted Leave in the EU referendum or that he failed to campaign effectively for Remain. The former claim is baseless; the latter seems rather unfair given that Remain was ultimately supported by a larger proportion of Labour voters than even SNP voters. Corbyn is at heart suspicious of the EU – it has, after all, demonstrated radically neoliberal tendencies and its financial institutions in particular have supported brutally damaging, economically hawkish austerity policies. His speeches in support of the Remain campaign did take account of those concerns rather than being bombastically pro-Remain – but that’s exactly the sort of thing Corbyn’s supporters expect of him. Nuance rather than soundbite; honesty rather than spin.

Aside from the outright unpleasantness of resorting to (often anonymous) press attacks on Corbyn’s character when the main gambit of the coup had failed, these claims are politically naive to the point of astounding stupidity. They don’t make Corbyn look bad; to a public who generally see Corbyn as a nice, genuine old chap (if perhaps not a potential Prime Minister), they make him look embattled and set-upon, not by concerned Labour MPs but by bitter, grasping plotters. They make the Labour Party look like a nest of vipers, and nobody votes for nests of vipers.

Whether his MPs like him or not, whether they respect his leadership or not, Jeremy Corbyn is the most popular Labour politician in a generation. With Tony Blair’s reputation permanently ruined by the perception of gross dishonesty over the Iraq War, and Tony Benn sadly no longer with us, Corbyn is the closest thing Labour has right now to a populist figure. This is the second facet to the political stupidity of those continuing to push a coup against Corbyn; any future Labour leader needs Jeremy Corbyn on board. Any future leader will need Corbyn’s blessing, because they will need Corbyn’s movement – the tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who have joined Labour because of him. These people are the party’s best hope for being able to effectively run the kind of grass-roots campaign that might raise turnout and put them back in power some day. Labour’s MPs may not realise this, but local Labour parties who actually have to engage in on-the-ground campaigning do, and have overwhelmingly backed Corbyn. Unions recognise it too, and have also backed Corbyn. The MPs seem increasingly isolated.

The original coup plan wasn’t a bad one, and I maintain that many of the MPs who went along with it signed up in good faith. A vote of No Confidence would see Corbyn recognising that he no longer had the faith of the MPs he leads, and stepping down to make way for Tom Watson as interim leader and a new leadership election – which would hopefully deliver a unity candidate who could earn the support of both the parliamentary party and of Corbyn and his faction. Job done, Labour unified. The coup itself was planned because the alternative – a leadership challenge – would just see Corbyn’s huge grassroots support returning him to the leadership again. Thus, a way had to be found to get him to leave voluntarily, or at least with a semblance of voluntary choice.

That’s not what happened. Corbyn refused to step down – he’s stubborn, remember, that’s one of the qualities people elected him for in the first place – and while I personally think that was a mistake on his part, what followed after that from the most strident of Corbyn’s foes was not just a mistake, it was disgraceful and stupid. Labour’s MPs find themselves now in open, aggressive conflict with Labour’s most popular and well-liked political figure. Whatever electoral benefit might have followed from replacing Corbyn has been thrown away; by failing to back down from their failed coup, Labour’s MPs have dumped the party into a petty, nasty civil war, played out on a public stage in front of an electorate who need a competent opposition now more than ever.

Corbyn isn’t the right person to lead Labour today, but the coup has failed, and should have been abandoned the moment this became clear; if Labour MPs want Corbyn gone, they need to show the party membership a better alternative rather than trying quick and dirty measures to force a resignation. The only hope for the party is that those MPs who signed on to the No Confidence motion in genuinely good faith will reverse course before any further damage can be done. I remain hopeful that those MPs are in the majority. To believe otherwise would be to believe that 172 Labour MPs, the vast majority of the parliamentary party, are conniving traitors and schemers. Perhaps that’s true, but to believe so is to believe that the Labour party is utterly finished. I’d rather proceed on a somewhat more hopeful basis – an alternative to Labour will take many years to build, and many years without strong opposition to Conservative rule is not something Britain’s working classes or minority communities can contend with.

(Hat tip to @RichStanton, with whom a brief Twitter exchange helped to clarify my own thoughts on the coup and Corbyn’s position.)

No Confidence – and not just in Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

Five days after Brexit, the impact of the UK’s vote to leave the EU is becoming clearer. Nowhere is that impact being felt more keenly than at the top of the country’s major political parties. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has quit – declining to trigger the Article 50 negotiations on EU exit, stating that this would be a decision for his successor, and reportedly saying to aides in Number 10, “why should I have to do the hard shit?” For a move being hailed in some quarters as a scheming act of political calculation deserving of a sub-plot on Game of Thrones, it looks remarkably like a surly table-flip from a man who had just lost a very foolish bet. The Conservative party finds itself in disarray. People like George Osbourne and Boris Johnson, whose support for Leave was entirely designed to undermine Cameron and vacate the Prime Minister’s job for himself, have recognised the the land-mine that Cameron chucked underneath the chair as he departed and are backing rapidly away from the top job. Meanwhile, political lightweights barely deserving of the term “mediocrity”, like fatuous NHS hatchet-man Jeremy Hunt, witlessly toss their hats into the ring.

While the Tories were fractured throughout the campaign and now find themselves split more deeply than ever before, Labour backed the Remain campaign with fairly solid party unity. My former MP, serial dissenter Kate Hoey, was one of only a handful of Labour MPs to rebel and support Leave; 99.2% of Labour MPs supported Remain. Given the anger, fear and upset over the Leave vote, the disorganisation of the leaderless and rudderless Conservatives, and the potential for striking strong alliances with strongly pro-remain local parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland, you’d think that Labour would be out there making plenty of hay in the bright sunshine, wouldn’t you?

Well, you’d think that. Instead, most of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet has resigned, and a vote of no confidence in the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been passed by a huge margin. 172 MPs voted no confidence, to 40 who supported Corbyn (13 abstained, and 4 MPs spoiled their ballots, which I hope was a slightly pointless protest and not an indication that Labour has four elected MPs who don’t know how ballot papers work). Corbyn says he won’t resign. There’ll probably be a leadership challenge. Just as the Conservatives find themselves in crisis, Labour has found a way to sink into an even deeper crisis.

Of course they have. We’re talking about Labour, a party riven right down the middle by a deeper divide than Tory Euroskeptics could ever create; the divide between the shiny-faced, PR-groomed New Labour generation, and the frumpy, stubborn and sincere old socialists. The former group are career politicians who, though often possessed of fine qualities and beliefs, fundamentally pursue little other than re-election, and believe fervently in the pursuit of politics through opinion polling, focus groups and post-modern campaign methods. The latter are generally drawn from activist or trade union backgrounds and see their socialist beliefs as a hill worth dying on; hardened by Labour’s years in the electoral wilderness in the 80s and 90s, they regard electoral failure as a price worth paying for staying true to their principles.

Right now, one of the old socialists is in charge of the Labour party for the first time in a generation. Corbyn was voted in by a huge margin by a combination of long-term rank-and-file Labour members and a wave of newcomers shocked by the Conservatives’ 2015 election victory and enthused by Corbyn’s sincere, unpolished approach. The party loves Corbyn – polls of Labour members suggest he’s actually grown in popularity since his landslide election. Labour MPs, on the other hand, hate him. They’re mostly drawn from the ranks of New Labour and remain starry-eyed over the success of the Blair era, thus innately suspicious of the resurrected spectre of 80s and 90s Old Labour – but even among those who aren’t, their immediate concerns and motivations are simple; they want to keep their jobs. They want to be re-elected. To the MPs who make up the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the principles and policies of the Labour leadership play second fiddle to the leadership’s ability to retain its seats in parliament.

Ever since Corbyn took the helm of the Labour party, he’s struggled to maintain control of the PLP. Some MPs are loyal to him because they genuinely believe in him and his principles. Others are loyal because they respect the position of leader and the decision of the party members. On the other side, some are intrinsically, vehemently opposed to him because they disagree with his principles and positions. In the middle rests the majority of the PLP – who fear that Corbyn can’t win an election, but were willing to hold their peace and give him a shot at the leadership, since the next election wasn’t scheduled until 2020.

It’s now extremely unlikely that the next election will be in 2020. Brexit has upended all political calculations. By far the most likely outcome is a general election before the end of this year. The new Conservative leader will not only face an impossible decision regarding the EU exit trigger, he or she will also be seen to lack a mandate to govern. That will be even more the case if, as is likely, it’s one of the party’s rather less impressive specimens at the helm, with “big beasts” like Boris Johnson, George Osbourne and Theresa May keeping their distance from the poisoned chalice.

When Jeremy Corbyn took over Labour and the centrist / right-leaning sides of the party and the media brayed with horror about his consigning the party to electoral purgatory, I argued that Corbyn’s job was not, for now, to win elections. With five years to the next election, his job was to move the Overton Window of Britain’s political conversation; to shift the range of “acceptable” policies and positions, which has drifted inexorably rightwards since the late 1970s, back towards the centre-left. He needed to make it possible to discuss economic inequality, workers’ rights, trade unions, the social compact and redistributive justice without being automatically labelled a “loony leftie” – so a leader, himself or another, championing those things in 2020 could actually stand to win an election. The only way to do that is to keep discussing those things, to be called a “loony leftie” and far worse so many times that the words lose their meaning and your views start to become not crazy, or wild-eyed, but a regular part of political discourse.

That approach takes time. Labour has run out of time. An election in 2016 could, some argue, see Labour wiped out in northern seats that voted strongly to leave the EU. Even with the Tories crisis-struck and infighting, Labour hasn’t had the time or opportunity required to shunt the national debate to the left; Labour MPs fear for their seats even in the most favourable electoral climate for them in a generation. So they want Corbyn gone; they want someone more traditionally “electable”, more slick in presentation, more willing to listen to focus groups and do what’s needed to win an election today, not to change a national conversation in five years’ time.

They’re not wrong. I believe that Britain’s political debate has been utterly poisoned by a shift to the right that has made voices of fascism and authoritarianism more valid and credible than voices calling for centre-leftist redistribution and justice. I believe that the only way Labour reclaims its heartland districts and the trust of the British working classes is by re-embracing social democracy and being willing to grit its teeth and champion unpopular things like trade unions and workers’ rights, fighting through the scorn until they’re re-established as a pillar of British society. I believe that a leader like Corbyn, for all his failings, could play a vital role in that slow, difficult and necessary process.

I also believe in political realities, though, and the political reality is that Corbyn lacks authority within his own party and has yet to make significant headway on making his arguments sound valid to the electorate. Those plotting against Corbyn are despicable opportunists in many regards, but even while finding their nakedly careerist ambitions contemptible (Hilary Benn, a profoundly unimpressive politician who owes his entire career to the fact that his father was Labour stalwart Tony Benn, is a particularly egregious example) it’s hard to deny that they have a point. Labour going into a 2016 election under Corbyn poses a profound risk not only to the Labour Party and their seats, but to the people they are meant to represent.

Consider; whatever Conservative party emerges from its current mess will almost certainly be more right-wing and illiberal than its current incarnation. It’s unlikely to win many extra seats in the election – it’s more likely to slide backwards, and Labour may even win some seats from them. However, emboldened by Brexit, the even more aggressively far-right UKIP could win several seats, granting the far-right party more MPs from traditional Labour heartlands. The Tories, losing their slim majority, would face another coalition – either with their old partners, the Liberal Democrats, whom Cameron used effectively to hold back the right-wingers in his own party during the last coalition government, or with UKIP. With the right wing in control of the Conservative party, unleashed by Brexit and Cameron’s resignation, they’re unlikely to countenance another coalition with the Lib Dems; a nightmare coalition of a right-leaning Conservative party, the borderline fascist UKIP and the Ulster Unionists seems perhaps the most likely outcome of a Labour stumble in the 2016 General Election.

That would spell catastrophe for the UK as a whole, but even more so for the British working classes whom Labour is tasked, often thanklessly, to represent. The further austerity and erosion of rights for workers, tenants and consumers that would result would be nothing short of obscene; the damage to Britain’s hard-won and fragile social cohesion between diverse ethnic groups would be absolute, and absolutely heart-breaking.

Corbyn was the right leader for Labour when the task was to drag the party, and then the British people, back to firm centre-left ground – when stubbornness and a willingness to shrug off unpopularity were the key requirements for the role. Corbyn hasn’t changed, but the job has. The job now is to mitigate the damage of Brexit and to avoid plunging Britain into an even deeper crisis at the likely impending election. Corbyn isn’t the man for that job. While the disloyalty and scheming of those who have plotted against him from the outset should never be forgotten (we can hope that several of them will be de-selected by their local parties in retribution), many of the 172 who voted against him this week have done so out of genuine fear not just for their own jobs but for the future of the UK. Corbyn is the right man, but this is the wrong time.

Sadly, the very stubbornness that made him perfect for the job of changing the Labour party is now preventing him from doing the decent thing and stepping down. Labour’s best hope is a quick challenge, a decent new leader (Angela Eagle wouldn’t be a bad choice, all things considered) and a rapid healing process allowing them to get this behind them before the Conservatives get their house sufficiently in order to consider a general election. The Corbyn “project” will have to be paused – but the alternative is so very much worse.

Brexit Stage Right: What Now?

As of a few hours ago, the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. The BBC reports that the final result is around 52% to 48% in favour of Leave – or, to give it its catchy/annoying portmanteau, Brexit.

I’m writing this post largely because I’ve been asked pretty often by friends from outside the UK what this actually means, why it’s happened and what the next steps will be. If you’re a UK resident, you’re probably very well informed about what’s going on, and won’t find this terribly useful.

The Brexit Referendum was called by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who campaigned for a Remain vote. History isn’t going to judge Cameron very kindly; he promised the referendum for purely party political reasons, because he felt that the only way to keep anti-EU rebels in the Conservative party from tearing the party apart ahead of the 2015 General Election was to mollify them with the promise of in “in-out referendum”. Cameron also calculated that this would reduce the threat to his party’s seats from UKIP (the UK Independence Party), a niche right-wing party which campaigned on anti-EU sentiment and threatened to overtake the Conservatives in a handful of seats.

Cameron, and much of the political establishment, assumed that a Remain vote would prevail. Polling suggested that voters actively opposed to Britain’s membership of the European Union were a vocal minority. Every major political party, business organisation and economic expert backed a Remain vote. Moreover, history suggests that voters in the UK are cautious when it comes to major change, ultimately preferring stability to uncertainty at the polls – in recent years, the UK voted to keep its existing (rather terrible) electoral system and Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom, both votes which skewed towards the status quo.

That assumption, that Leave was an outside chance, may explain why what happens next is so unclear. No country has ever left the European Union, just as no state has ever seceded from the United States of America. Procedures exist – Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty outlines how a nation may leave the EU, and makes slightly grim reading for the UK, as it’s fairly clear that the terms of departure will be decided upon by the other member states in negotiations which do not involve the departing state. The EU, anxious to preserve its stability, isn’t going to be inclined to show the UK special favour in these negotiations. However, it’s not even clear whether this vote actually triggers Article 50 negotiations; the referendum was not legally binding, and the decision to leave the EU still needs to be voted upon by Parliament and formally announced to the EU authorities. Could the UK Parliament ignore the results of the referendum and stay in the EU? Legally, yes. Socially, politically; god knows. The ramifications of simply ignoring a referendum result are impossible to calculate.

Here’s what we can calculate. Firstly, David Cameron is toast. There is simply no way that a prime minister can survive losing a referendum such as this one, especially when the primary opposition he faced was from members of his own party. The Leave campaigners in his party, notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, may well negotiate to allow Cameron to remain for a while in order to let him soak up some of the flak that will inevitably come as a result of the chaotic days and weeks ahead. He is, however, now a lame duck and will have to leave soon. George Osborne may be gone even sooner; the Leave team will want a scalp, and while Cameron is useful to them for a little while yet, Osborne is not, and will be seen as a possible threat in a future leadership race. (Equally, both Cameron and Osborne could be defenestrated by the end of the day – it would be wise to keep Cameron on to maintain some continuity while things are figured out, but the Leave team are little if not impulsive.)

(Update: David Cameron has just announced that he will resign, but will remain in place as Prime Minister for a few months while the Conservative party selects a replacement. This does essentially allow him to absorb flak over the referendum – but he’s pushed the toughest part of the whole affair, the actual triggering of EU withdrawal, out into the long grass, saying it will have to be handled by the next Prime Minister. That leaves several months for Parliament to weigh its options and figure out if it really has the brass neck to simply ignore the referendum result and refuse to exit the EU. As for Osborne, no idea, but Cameron’s legislation probably protects him to an extent, and he’s a likely candidate for the Tory leadership from the pro-Europe side of the party.)

Secondly, the United Kingdom is toast. Of the four nations which comprise the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – only two voted to leave the EU. Every single district in Scotland was firmly in the Remain camp, and the country’s political leadership has been very clear about the need for another independence referendum should the UK leave the EU. A second referendum so soon after the first may seem crazy, but the notion that Scotland would not be permitted to remain in the EU should it leave the UK was one of the major arguments of the anti-independence campaigners last time around. With the UK now departing the EU, the landscape has changed dramatically; Scotland swallowed its pride and voted for stability, which England has now abandoned.

Northern Ireland also voted to remain in the EU, but that’s a far trickier situation – one which creates a political and constitutional mess that it’s going to take very delicate work to untangle safely. Voting in Northern Ireland was to some degree along old sectarian lines; nationalists voted to remain in the EU (of which the Republic of Ireland is also a member, of course), while unionists voted to leave. As soon as the results became apparent, Sinn Fein demanded that the UK leaving the EU should trigger a referendum on the reunification of Ireland – which Sinn Fein believes should count votes on the entire island of Ireland, Republic and Northern alike. The details will need negotiation (a plebiscite simply of the people of Northern Ireland seems more reasonable at first glance), but with Scotland likely winning its independence, it will be incredibly hard to deny Northern Ireland a referendum on its future – and that would represent a change to a status quo which remains very delicately balanced. The Good Friday Agreement which largely ended terrorist violence in Northern Ireland is almost 20 years old, and that period of peace has hopefully been long enough to endure through fresh political unrest; but whatever happens next in Northern Ireland, whether it’s a referendum (likely to be won by the Nationalists) or the denial of a referendum, it’s going to seriously upset one side of what used to be a very bloody conflict. So yes, David Cameron could end up going down in history as the prime minister who accidentally withdrew the UK from the European Union, broke up the United Kingdom and destabilised Northern Ireland after nearly 20 years of peace. I suppose at least he can console himself that with all that to discuss, most history books won’t have room to address the whole “intercourse with a dead pig” issue.

Thirdly, the impact on immigration will be minimal. While much of the Leave campaign has been focused on controlling immigration or “taking back control of the UK’s borders”, the reality is that the UK’s membership of the EU makes zero difference to its ability to control migration from outside the EU; and freedom of movement within the EU is a condition of membership of the single market. Non-EU members like Norway have to accept freedom of movement (along with most EU laws and regulations) as a condition of participation in the single market, and there is absolutely no way that the EU will permit the UK to enter the single market without also continuing to honour those rules.

There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that for EU citizens living in the UK, and UK citizens living in the EU, the impact of Brexit is likely to be minimal – at least in terms of their right to live and work. The nightmare scenario of EU citizens being deported from the UK in droves while the millions of British people who live in the EU are forced to return will not come to pass; access to the single market is simply non-negotiable for Britain’s economy, and Britain’s exit from the EU will of necessity include making whatever concessions are required to retain this. In practice, this will be humiliating for the UK; it will essentially be forced to accept whatever rules the EU passes in future, without having a place in the negotiation or the ability to veto proposals. Dressing up the EU exit as a triumph for sovereignty and nationalism will be a fig leaf for this, but the truth of the new arrangement will hit home eventually.

Fourth, this will cause a serious economic shock. Already we’ve seen an enormous loss to Sterling’s value, trading ceased on stock markets in the USA and Japan, a collapse in the value of several commodities and a rise in the value of gold as investors run for the world’s oldest safe haven. Whether this is just a short sharp shock, or the beginning of a loss of confidence that turns into another slump comparable to the one triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, nobody really knows. We’ll find out soon enough.

Either way, these things seem abstract, but they have real world consequences. People are going to lose their jobs, and they’re going to see their spending power seriously eroded. A weaker pound has some benefits – it’ll mean British exports are more competitive – but it’ll also mean that imports are much more expensive and that British consumers’ buying power is much lower. Moreover, pulling out of the EU will end EU subsidies for many regions of the UK and for many sectors including agriculture. Remaining in the single market will probably mean that not many companies actually leave the UK en masse, but many deprived regions of the UK will likely be surprised to discover just how much of their industry and infrastructure has been backed by funding from the European Union, not from the UK itself.

Fifth and finally, this isn’t just about the UK. Brexit has come about as a consequence not so much of the European Union or its policies, but as an expression of a general anger and dissatisfaction that has also reared its head across much of the developed world. It’s not unreasonable to compare the UK’s Leave campaign with Donald Trump in the USA, Le Pen in France or Wilders in Holland. Voting for Brexit was characterised by nationalist sentiment and a strong desire to “take back” Britain’s sovereignty from the ill-defined others who have appropriated it. It thrived in communities that have seen widening inequality and economic malaise even as they watched political leaders turn up on TV night after night to talk about economic recovery; communities that may have been delivered a mortal blow by the 2008 recession and the austerity policies which followed, but which had already been suffering from neglect and economic abuse for decades before that, as successive governments tore up more and more pages of the post-war social contract in favour of the shiny new religion of markets and efficiency. There was a time when those communities turned to left-wing movements for their salvation, to unions and to the Labour party; with much of the power of the unions broken and the Labour party pursuing aspirational middle class voters, opportunities have been opened for new and far less savoury political movements to take root. At their core is a deep dissatisfaction and anger not just with individual political actors but with the very institutions of democracy and representative government; a deep conviction that it is not merely that specific parties or policies that have caused people’s quality of life to decline, but that the whole system is stacked against them. Thus, anything that’s seen as part of the system – be it politicians, the media, or even academics and independent experts – is suspect. It is not an attitude that calls for political change, for a new party in power or a new prime minister; it is an attitude that calls for the tearing down of everything, and offers nothing with which to replace it. It is frightening precisely because, in its absolute conviction that the institutions of democracy themselves are a vast conspiracy against the common man, it ends up being insatiable; even if today’s Brexit leaders become Britain’s leaders, in doing so they will become part of “the system” and face the anger of the same people who now cheer them on. The cycle will continue until someone turns up with the capacity to tame the monster that has been conjured up by economic hardship, inequality and unthinking nationalism. Unfortunately, the lessons of the past tell us that such a person is unlikely to be benevolent.

None of this is unique to Britain, and none of it can be fixed by anything less than a fundamental rethink of how we have chosen to structure our society and our economies. Even as market capitalism and globalisation have done wonders at lifting the world’s poorest people out of poverty – an achievement for which capitalism does not get remotely enough credit – it has begun to run out of rope in the developed world. In nations from Japan to Western Europe to North America, inequality is growing and standards of living are slipping. Labour market reforms have turned whole generations into disposable people; I can’t blame British people for laughing off the notion that the EU has protected them in the workplace, when companies like Sports Direct have based their business model off exploiting every loophole, legal and otherwise, no matter how desperately cruel and inhumane, that might allow them to wring more money, more profitability out of their vulnerable, poorly paid staff. “If you leave the EU, you’ll lose your workers rights!” is no argument at all to someone whose zero-hours contract leaves them in desperate financial instability, or whose exploitation by an avaricious, unscrupulous employer has been rubber-stamped by the government itself in the form of a Workfare deal.

The Brexit vote wasn’t just a rejection of the EU; it was a rejection of the whole system, of the whole establishment, of the whole set of institutions and practices that make up the developed world. It was, in ways, a rejection of modernity – a demand to turn back the clock. Turning back the clock isn’t in anyone’s power to deliver. If we want to break this dangerous cycle of economic inequality, social cleavage and political extremism before it rolls out of control, though, it’s beholden upon our countries and institutions to start paying attention to inequality, to public services, to quality of life and to the huge swathe of the electorate for whom every mention of the phrase “economic recovery” in the past two decades has just been salt in the wound.

Syria: A Triumph of Action over Intelligence

Insanity, we are so often told, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Quotes to that effect are regularly attributed to both Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, though there’s no evidence that either man ever said it. Even shorn of the weight of authority that comes from being uttered by men of genius, the concept sticks with you because it makes obvious, intuitive sense. You don’t stick your hand into the fire a second time to see if it burns again; “once bitten, twice shy” is a powerful instinctive behaviour for good reason.

The comparisons between Tony Blair committing the UK to war in Iraq in 2003 and David Cameron committing the country to bombing Syria, as passed by Parliament yesterday, have often referenced this convenient definition of insanity. Blair’s misadventure in Iraq, its horrific consequences and the calculatedly dishonest “intelligence” which supported it remain a millstone around the neck of the Labour party. The strides the country made under Blair’s premiership are forgotten under the weight of opprobrium heaped upon his arrogance and egotism over the war and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge, even now, the awful mistake it represented. Twelve years later, Cameron’s insistence that Britain must join in raining bombs on Syria certainly feels like deja vu, and has left many wondering out loud if another Prime Minister will find himself so despised over another committment to another hopeless war.

There are key differences, of course. Cameron has not committed troops to Syria, as Blair did to Iraq; there will be no British soldiers returning in coffins on carrier planes, at least not yet. Cameron has also, bluntly, made little or no effort to make or manufacture a case for war. Blair and his spin doctors burned the midnight oil to create a compelling, if almost entirely dishonest, case for the invasion of Iraq; Cameron, perhaps recognising that the lies supporting the Iraq War were the very petard upon which Blair was hoist, has instead chosen to justify the bombing of Syria in only the most broad, rhetorical strokes. It’s a cynical masterstroke; opponents of the war find themselves grasping at thin air, because there’s no case for war to rebut, no intelligence to question. The logic is as ephemeral as mist; ISIS may back attacks in the UK, as they did in France (though the extent to which ISIS in Syria actually aided or participated in the organisation of the Paris attacks, as opposed to merely lending their name to an attack from domestic extremists, is entirely unclear), so Syria must be bombed, not because bombing will reduce the risk of terrorism – the government isn’t getting pinned down into claiming that, oh no sir – but because something must be done, and suddenly we’re off into the realms of pure rhetoric, where anyone daring to question whether dropping more high explosives on a volatile region that’s already essentially hosting a proxy war between NATO and Russia might be a bad idea is a “terrorist sympathiser”.

You can’t argue with that; you can say it’s mad, or offensive, or grotesquely stupid, but you can’t argue with it because it isn’t a coherent argument in itself. In the absence of a case for war, counter-arguments are like tilting at windmills; Cameron has won the debate by refusing to participate in it, instead sitting back and letting the British media work itself into a froth over the internal politics of the opposition, leaving the position of the government nigh-on unquestioned. What few facts have been permitted to enter the debate are so nebulous as to be almost laughable; 70,000 moderate rebels are ready to liberate the ISIS positions Britain will weaken with bombing, apparently, but who those rebels might be, where they’ve been up until now, and why British bombs are going to accomplish what could not be accomplished already by American bombs, Jordanian bombs, Canadian bombs, Australian bombs, French bombs, by a veritable fusion cuisine nightmare of international high explosive flavours; these things could not be explained, to the exasperation of even many in Cameron’s own party.

Do David Cameron or his closest advisors honestly believe that British bombs falling on Raqqa are going to make the slightest positive difference to the situation in Syria, or to the security situation in the UK and around Europe? I wouldn’t dare to judge – I’d note that for all his dishonesty, one thing that’s clear about Blair’s intervention in Iraq is that he genuinely, truly believed that it was the right thing to do, his failure not being hypocrisy but rather an egotistical belief that the facts should adapt themselves to his gut feelings. Perhaps Cameron, too, is possessed of a genuine and fervent belief that bombing Syria is the correct course of action; but if so, what a terrible indictment of Britain that a man who graduated from its finest university and now resides in 10 Downing Street is unable to articulate or explain his belief to the people he is meant to represent and lead.

It’s hard to escape the notion that what Cameron is actually bowing to here is the powerful one-two punch of the domestic urge to Be Seen To Do Something, and the international need to Be Involved. The former urge is found in every political system; no matter how intelligent or advisable the “do nothing” course of action may be, conventional wisdom and opinion polls alike prefer politicians to be people of action – even if the action is awful. I compare and contrast the UK with Japan a lot in my research work, and here I’d note that in Japan, Prime Minister Abe’s policies are disliked by the majority of Japanese voters – but the same voters seem to like the fact that he’s doing something, even if they don’t like the actual thing he’s doing. Inaction earns you no brownie points, and no votes, it seems.

As to the international need to Be Involved, this is also a strong drive in some countries, but Britain suffers from it particularly; it seems intolerable to some parts of the British public, and to a much larger swathe of its political classes, for the likes of France and Australia to participate in a military operation alongside the United States while Britain abstains. Is this a legacy of empire? A deep-seated desire to confirm and reconfirm the “specialness” of the US-UK “special relationship”? It’s impossible to say for certain; perhaps a little from Column A, a little from Column B, but the effects are easy to see. Britain, which since bailing out its financial sector has been aggressively tightening the belts of all the children, disabled people, low-paid nursing staff and single mothers who caused the global financial meltdown with their wanton investments in high-risk financial instruments, is never short a few billion quid to throw at putting Union Jacks alongside the Stars and Stripes while the bombs rain down.

Britain is committed now; the first strikes on Syrian targets begin today, though one wonders how many of them will turn back, as bombing flights from some other nations have, upon finding that there isn’t anything but rubble and civilian homes left at their target coordinates to drop ordinance upon. The origins of ISIS are complex and varied – I don’t buy the simplistic account of their creation being a direct consequence of the invasion of Iraq, though that was clearly a major contributing factor. A catastrophic drought in Syria; the malign influence of Saudi Arabian wahabbism; the machinations of embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who nurtured the rise of ISIS as a “common enemy” in hope of restoring Western support for his rule; the violent melting pot of the Syrian conflict itself, in which a rapid evolution towards more and more extreme, aggressive tactics occurred as more moderate leaders were killed off; all of these things have fuelled ISIS’ rise. If you want to go right back to basics, the very borders of the Middle Eastern states, drawn for the convenience of the departing Imperial powers and the puppet governments they left behind, and entirely ignoring religious and ethnic divides across the region, arguably made for a volatile group of states effectively ungovernable by anything but strongmen. The bottom line; it’s complicated, and I struggle to think of an instance in history when a complex Gordian knot of politics, economics, religion, identity and history has ever been cleanly cut by bombing it from the sky.

What, then, should Britain do? This question is the trump card of the pro-bombing argument, one that plays directly into the Be Seen To Do Something urge of the political system. If not bombing, then what? If not attacking the vicious, medieval state that is ISIS, then what would you do about them? (And it’s about here that anyone saying “maybe we shouldn’t be doing anything at all” gets called a terrorist sympathiser.)

Well, maybe Britain shouldn’t be doing anything at all. Maybe, bluntly, it’s not Britain’s place to do anything at all; maybe the share of the responsibility for the godawful mess in Syria which is borne by the UK (for some of it most certainly is) is not best assuaged with high explosives, or bullets, or terrifying close encounters with Russian jets in foreign skies. Maybe what Britain should be doing instead is helping those who need help – providing support to refugees in the region, and finding the moral courage and backbone to assist those who have come to Europe fleeing the very Islamist terror it claims to be so committed to defying. Maybe, instead of sending British bombs plummetting after the American ones already raining on Syria, Britain could do far, far more to secure itself and help the Middle East by bringing its diplomatic and economic strengths to bear – by putting actual pressure on Saudi Arabia to pick a damned side and pull its weight against ISIS; helping the embattled Kurds could be accomplished by convincing the UK’s supposed NATO ally, Turkey, to stop attacking them.

Doing these things would require a long overdue reconsideration of Britain’s role in the world, and its relationships with some deeply unsavoury countries (particularly Saudi Arabia) with which it’s altogether too cosy. Far easier, then, to Be Seen To Do Something; to be the Prime Minister who set his jaw, Took The Tough Decisions and decided to drop bombs on some people in Syria. After all, any grumbling in the media will be easily eclipsed by their ongoing hounding of Jeremy Corbyn, whose role in the vote on bombing has been discussed in far more depth than Cameron’s own. There will be a legion of armchair war experts to mumble adages about eggs and omelettes in the event of any unfortunate images of dead civilians being circulated. Finally, should this all go terribly wrong, as Iraq did, and merely spread further extremism across the region and put more lives in the UK and Europe at risk, the proponents of war can always suck at their teeth, shake their heads and wonder out loud why some Muslims are so violent. The utility calculation is a no-brainer. Cameron has Done Something, and for now, at least, he’ll be rewarded for that – even if there’s no sense or reason to what’s actually been done.

Neoliberalism’s triumph: claiming the word “realistic”

Get Real. That’s the message being sent in almost every piece of media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s one-month-old leadership of the Labour Party, a message which has intensified and become ever more shrill as his speech to the party conference approached. Hyperbolic attacks on Corbyn’s history and political stances (he’s a danger to Britain, he hangs out with people we don’t like, and if you take some of his words out of context, turn them upside down and squint at them through an alcoholic haze, it looks like he once said something tasty about Osama Bin Laden) have done their job, but are limited in their broad efficacy; the segment of the population who lap up this kind of material and internalise its messages are people who were already inclined that way in the first place, and delight in such stories simply because they confirm their pre-existing notions. For the majority of the rest of the UK electorate, who do not wake up in cold sweats at the thought of Reds under their Beds, or simmer with horrified outrage at the slightest departure from the government’s fairytale security narrative, such breathless tales of villainy have a short half-life; they would not survive prolonged contact with the reality of Corbyn’s personality and policies.

What’s much, much more damaging with that group of the electorate – the group Corbyn’s Labour actually needs to care about if it’s to have a hope of winning in 2020 – is the broader base of the Malthusian pyramid of anti-Corbyn media messaging. In the hierarchy of what you need to take down a populist left-wing leader, allegations of shocking Commie wrong-doing are merely the sharp tip of the pyramid; the broad base needs to be made up of a heady mixture of concern trolling and tooth-sucking that can be lumped together under a single headline; Get Real.

Corbyn isn’t realistic. Even if you accept that the ideals proposed by the veteran MP are lovely in theory – a Britain without weapons of mass destruction, with health, education and transport back in public hands, a more robust and caring system of welfare for the sick and the needy, and so on – you are exhorted to accept that they are not realistic in practice. This prong of attack is vital to undermining a return to the left by the Labour party, because survey after survey (with the caveat that I still think that British opinion polling methodology is broken and must be taken with a pinch of salt) shows that a fairly solid majority of the British public actually agrees with Corbyn’s policy prescriptions and stances. These people may be temporarily swayed against New-Again Old Labour (what are we to call the party now?) by personal attacks on Corbyn, but that’s not going to keep them off-side until 2020; there’s a real chance that a Labour party united behind its new leader and with four and a half years to reinforce and market its policy positions could turn enough of those preferences into votes to make a big difference on the political landscape. Heading off that possibility is a matter of convincing those voters to ignore their policy preferences, and thus convincing the Labour party to split and infight, convinced that it cannot win with Corbyn at the helm.

How do you convince voters to ignore their policy preferences when making their political choices? You suck at your teeth, shake your head sadly, and tell them that their preferences would be lovely in an ideal world, but that they are not realistic. The electorate responds strongly to this notion of realism; if you want a dramatic example of that in progress today, look to Japan, where the support rating of the cabinet of prime minister Shinzo Abe has consistently been far above the (vanishingly low) support rating for any of its headline policies. The electorate don’t like the policies, but they have been sold on the notion that they are realistic, or rather, that the alternatives (supporting opposition parties or otherwise demanding change) are unrealistic. Poll after poll confirms that a very significant portion of the Japanese electorate supports Abe’s government despite disliking everything it does. This is much to do with the fragmented and disorganised nature of opposition parties in Japan, but that’s the point, in a sense; the electorate prefers the “realistic” option of the organised, successful, tough-talking LDP, despite disliking its policies, over the “unrealistic” option of the fragmented, bickering opposition parties whose policies they actually like.

That’s what the Get Real message aims to do to Corbyn – to push the electorate into seeing him as a dreamer and a fantasist, someone with ideas that are nice but unrealistic and unsuited to government. This isn’t a new idea, nor is it unique to the UK’s situation; such rhetorical spin is a standard ingredient of neoliberalism everywhere in the world. The great triumph of neoliberalism since the 1980s has been to position its stances as being realistic, essentially coining or laying claim to a whole swathe of phrases which have become commonplace in political discourse. Aside from “realistic”, consider phrases like “taking tough decisions” or “fit for government” – neoliberal spin points baked into our conventional political rhetoric, whose seemingly innocent neutrality disguises the power to put anyone expressing a non-neoliberal point onto the back foot. Discussing a left-wing policy idea almost immediately invites a demand to prove that it is “realistic”, putting the discussant on the defensive; the same demand is almost never made of neoliberal policy ideas, and can be laughed off with ease when it is made – rhetorical weapons, once established, are not easily turned against their creators. Why should proponents of neoliberal policy have to prove that their ideas are “realistic”, when we all know that neoliberalism is realistic?

This is the unspoken assumption at the core of every article telling Jeremy Corbyn (or Bernie Sanders, or Pablo Iglesias, or Alex Tsipras, etc. etc.) to Get Real – an assumption that our current system, the neoliberal economy and society which have been built since the early 1980s, is realistic. Moreover, it is an assumption that the neoliberal institutions and structures of today define the limits of what can “realistically” work. Every idea outside that sphere must justify itself and demonstrate its “realistic” credentials; but the game is rigged, because “realism” is defined in terms of the very neoliberal institutions that the New Left seeks to challenge. If you’re not neo-liberal, you have to prove that you’re realistic, but if you’re realistic, you’re neo-liberal; Catch-22. Thus, “realistic” becomes twisted in its very meaning; it is imbued with innate ideology, becoming a herder’s whip used to drive political thought back towards the present status quo, all the while claiming in wide-eyed innocence that it is free of ideology and merely talking about cold hard facts regarding what is and is not possible.

The hand-wringing authors of articles demanding realism from Corbyn and his shadow cabinet would no doubt bristle at the accusation that they are doing little more than writing in support of a neoliberal status quo – to their minds, they’re just talking about what’s realistic, which is surely, surely, a fixed term whose meaning cannot be subverted or altered through political will? Yet truly it has been subverted, in a way that is most dramatic if viewed across the span of decades. Little by little, neoliberals on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere besides, have pushed further and further to the right – digging in and establishing the boundaries of the “realistic” around their current positions before advancing a little further rightwards, dismantling a little more of the state, introducing a little more of the market, or a distortion of the market, then digging in for long enough for this to become the new “realistic” status quo before moving again. Compare 2015 to 2010 and the movement is apparent (look at how the debate over the NHS has shifted from “no privatisation” to “which bits is it okay to privatise”) but minor. Compare 2015 to 1995 or earlier, though, and it is hugely dramatic; the complete destruction of social housing, the dramatic attacks on support for the sick and disabled, the sweeping privatisation of health, education and even some parts of the nation’s security forces, the extraordinary subsidising of for-profit industries through in-work benefits for underpaid workers; these are all policies which would have been extreme, radical and unrealistic in earlier decades. Today they are government policy, and nobody challenges their realism. The centre has moved; what is realistic has kept pace with where the neoliberal movement has brought us. Today’s neoliberalism is an extreme version of the doctrine of Thatcher or Reagan, yet its grand triumph is in managing to align the political meaning of “realistic” with its own extremism.

Language is important. Hijacking a word like “realism” is an incredibly tricky thing to do (it helps when the owners of most of a nation’s media are on board with your ideology, though), but it affords a huge advantage, one presently being brought to bear on crushing Jeremy Corbyn. Coining your own terms is also a powerful tool; think of terms like “trickle-down”, “personal responsibility”, “wealth creators”, “hard-working families” or on the negative side of the equation, “scroungers”, “benefit cheats” and “something-for-nothing culture”. Once established in the public imagination through constant media repetition, such phrases encapsulate neo-liberal ideologies in bite-sized pieces of daily vocabulary, which are powerful rhetorical tools that are extremely hard to challenge in the popular imagination. Language is how we define the world around us, so creating widely adopted language which defines it according to your ideology is a huge success for any political movement. (It doesn’t always work, of course; look no further than “Big Society” for an example of a neo-liberal catchphrase which never managed to effectively penetrate the popular consciousness and vocabulary, but swam around, unloved and unwanted, in Conservative talking points and speeches for several years before finally being taken out to the back of the woodshed and put out of its misery.)

Is Jeremy Corbyn’s policy platform “realistic”, then? The answer depends largely on how you define “realism” and to what ideological mast you are pinning your colours. Ian Dunt wrote an excellent piece for Politics.co.uk this week about how the Labour conference’s decision to back a like-for-like replacement of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system (which Corbyn had opposed) was taken on the grounds of being “realistic”, yet is, taken on its own merits, a crazy stance which actually risks putting Britain in contravention of its supposedly firmly-held support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Here, “realism” has been taken both within and without the Labour Party to mean something ideological, not something actually “real” in a sense that anyone with an empirical view of the world would recognise. The same can be seen in responses to economic, social and geopolitical policies proposed by left-wing leaders the world over. The only thing “realistic” is what we’ve got now – yet what a depressing and bleak world-view that must be to inhabit, since what we’ve got now is failing so many of the country’s inhabitants (and indeed the world’s inhabitants) in such dramatic and harmful ways. Neoliberalism, like its twin deity Globalisation, has had its upsides and its good points, some of them dramatic; but to pretend that it is the only “realistic” game in town is an intellectual dishonesty, one which those genuinely concerned with the future of the left (as distinct from those merely concern-trolling) would do well to abandon.

The PM, the Pig and musings on Power

I’m going to try to do something perhaps unwise, perhaps impossible; I’m going to try to write something serious about David Cameron and “pig-gate”. I’m even going to abstain from porcine puns – because for all that this story is gleeful tabloid filth, I think that at its beating heart there is an important story about control, about authority and about the nature of power in modern Britain.

(If you’re in the dark regarding “pig-gate”, the details are relatively simple; billionaire tax exile and former Conservative party deputy chairman Lord Michael Ashcroft has co-written, with journalist Isabel Oakeshott, an unauthorised biography of David Cameron. It is not flattering, and includes allegations of drug-taking among other things, but the attention-grabbing assertion is that during an initiation ceremony for an Oxford student society, Cameron “put a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig – and that photographic proof of this deed exists.)

Previous revelations about Cameron’s behaviour as a student at Oxford – such as his participation in the restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club, whose initiation rituals include burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person – have not harmed Cameron’s career much. Such antics are undoubtedly odious but are largely the kind of thing lapped up by those already ideologically opposed to him rather than the sort of story which hurts his base of support. How this latest revelation will play out, though, is tough to predict; it should not need to be said that cases of bestial necrophilia among leaders of major nations are uncharted territory.

The danger to Cameron’s career is that this makes him a laughing-stock, his public seriousness as a political leader forever deflated by the cat-calls and innuendos which will, undoubtedly, follow him for the rest of his life. A leader who becomes a political liability to their party is not long for their job; up until now, the security of Cameron’s position has been based on being the most likeable and statesmanlike of the Conservative front bench. For how long can a leader be followed around every public engagement by snorting noises, pig-related heckling and constant mockery before his party decides that he’s no longer suited to being its public face? This calculation is no doubt being pored over and debated at length by the Conservatives today. There will be those who point to sexual scandals of the past and point out that they blow over eventually, but I don’t know that those models can be applied to something so utterly visceral, so profoundly embarrassing and so downright grotesque. I don’t know if this kind of story, once attached to the person of a politician, ever goes away.

I suspect that David Cameron will limp on in 10 Downing Street, not least because he will understand the historic shame of being the Prime Minister who resigned over the thing with the pig, but his authority will be weakened to the point where a leadership challenge over a rather less intimate issue in the relatively near future will give him an opportunity to bow out with some grace. Whether this scandal is ultimately his undoing or not, it is clearly a calculated attack. Lord Ashcroft feels snubbed and sidelined by Cameron, who seemingly declined to offer him the cabinet position to which he felt entitled; the billionaire’s revenge is to dig up this singularly humiliating moment from the prime minister’s past and ensure that it is splashed on the front page of the Daily Mail, the preferred scurrilous tabloid rag of the very heartland of Conservative voters.

Lord Ashcroft, pollster and political guru in his own right, knows as well as anyone else what this will do. This is not a playful aside in a fun little unauthorised biography that he’s putting together as a hobby with his journalist pal, Oakeshott; this is a carefully targeted, focused attack designed to wreak career havoc upon, and cause huge personal embarrassment for, a man whom Ashcroft sees as disloyal, or as having stepped out of line. And here, I think, is something much bigger and more interesting than the scurrilous details of Cameron’s vivid indiscretion; here is a rare public example of how power is wielded by Britain’s elite, of how control is exerted over those they wish to manipulate, and of how those groomed for success from a young age can be destroyed should they be seen to diverge from the steps they’re told to dance.

Initiation ceremonies or “hazing” rituals, often of a painful, humiliating, transgressive or sexual nature, are a well-documented part of the culture of many organisations run by and for young men, especially those from positions of privilege or in elite institutions. Hazing is a fixture, albeit usually in less extreme form than many might imagine, of “greek life” at US colleges; initiation rituals of some description are relatively common in elite societies at top educational institutions elsewhere. Such rituals seem to be an especially important part of extremely disciplined groups such as certain military units. The primary social function served by these rituals is to accelerate and deepen the bonds shared by members of the group, and the sense of loyalty to the group each person holds. By committing transgressive acts together, members develop a sense of sharing in a mutual secret, thus instantly creating trust; by overcoming some humiliation or pain, new members deepen their commitment to the group, as their internal logic reasons that if they are willing to endure such an ordeal, it must mean that the group is important and deserving of loyalty (otherwise, they would have made a terrible mistake and gone through all of that suffering for nothing). Through these acts bonds are forged, networks established; the “old school tie”, used as a metaphor for Britain’s elite networks, is also a metaphor for the actions and rituals, transgressive or otherwise, which created those networks during the formative years of their members.

That much is somewhat understandable; in truth, few of us are not part of a “network” based in some way on the same psychology, even if our networks are perhaps less likely to involve prime ministers and billionaires. Bearing witness to one another doing embarrassing things, usually if not always under the influence of alcohol, is a fairly standard part of the socialisation process, especially for young men; it may not be quite as ritualised or organised as ceremonial events which require very specific orders from local butchers, but moments of embarrassment or transgression shared with close friends are a basic building block of many of our relationships.

The ritualised, sexually grotesque nature of Cameron’s initiation sets it apart somewhat, of course; but what’s also different about this kind of ritual in elite circles is the calculation behind it, the power and control it affords, and the self-perpetuating network of influence it creates. Consider this scenario; at elite institutions, those earmarked – by wealth, by title, by connections – for future leadership roles are forced, as impressionable young people, to carry out humiliating acts in order to gain acceptance by an in-group. That same in-group will, over the course of their lives, help advance their career massively in ways both overt and covert; membership of that group essentially secures their success in life. The cost of entry, paid by all members of the group, is participation in humiliating acts; acts which will forever wed them to the group, because should they later act in a way contrary to the group’s interests or desires, their “indiscretions” can be brought back to destroy their careers or personal lives.

Precisely this kind of model of control is sometimes operated by groups with a clear hierarchy – one could argue that Catholic confession is a variation on the model, and Scientology’s “auditing” is a very clear case of a system designed to ensure compliance by extracting humiliating personal information from its subjects and then holding that information over them in case of disobedience. Political and business elite networks are different; there’s no evidence of a shadowy cabal or secret Illuminati who run this kind of scheme among the elite of Britain (or the USA for that matter). There is no need for such conspiracy theories; this system is self-sustaining and decentralised. It’s in the interest of people in the group to promote the careers of their fellow group members, precisely because they have control through their knowledge of that person’s transgressive acts; similarly, it’s in the interest of that person to promote the careers of the other members for the same reason. It’s a community of mutual self-interest and reliance, bonded together by a Mexican stand-off of embarrassing private information. The structure survives and is passed down to successive generations of elite young men precisely because it is self-policing, self-sustaining and remarkably effective.

How serious are the acts we’re talking about here? Who knows, honestly; the punishment unleashed on Cameron for his “betrayal” of Ashcroft includes allegations of drug-taking, along with the lurid story about the pig, but nothing of terrible legal gravity; for all that conservative commentators like Louise Mensch look terrible for trying to defend Cameron today, there is some extent to which this behaviour is “youthful indiscretion”. Certainly it’s far less reprehensible than the “rituals” of other groups of elite young men which have included, among other vile things, the drugging and gang-rape of young women. Is this the most humiliating or illegal thing Cameron has done? I have no idea; I hope so, but regardless of his personal behaviour, it’s clear from other accounts of hazing, ritual intituation and in-group behaviour that the limits to the behaviour of young men desperate to cement their inclusion in a desirable social group are often shockingly low, and lowered even further by alcohol and drugs. The more transgressive, horrifying and illegal the act committed, the more the network “owns” its members. There’s a vast difference between distasteful student hijinks and truly horrible acts like rape, but the underlying logic of the network of control would only be strengthened, not undermined, by the increasing severity of the acts involved.

“Follow the money” is one of the most important exhortations to bear in mind for those investigating political power and influence, but not all control is financial. The control exerted by elite networks is based on long-standing trust and loyalty, but also, in some cases at least, by a black and rotten heart of what is, in effect, life-long blackmail. Britain’s establishment, at least in part, can be visualised (for those of strong stomach) as a group of powerful men standing close together, each with the balls of the man next to him held in a powerful grip. Michael Ashcroft just squeezed, very publicly indeed; yet his relevations, though tremendously damaging, may be tame indeed compared to what the friends and compatriots of some of our other political, media and business leaders just so happen to know about one another.

“Unelectable”: the most meaningless word in Britain

Jeremy Corbyn is the new leader of the Labour party. He was elected in the first round of the STV-style race by a thumping margin over his three rivals, each of them a New Labour type of some flavour or another, none of whom ever really threatened his lead. At the outset of the campaign he was seen as a “token leftie”, his candidacy a matter of lip service to the party’s left-wing, just as Diane Abbott’s candidacy in 2010 had been. As his lead in the race became clear, Corbyn found himself denounced both within and without the party as a loony leftie, a communist, a friend of terrorists, a throwback, a threat to national security and plenty else besides. Labour’s membership, perhaps convinced of the need for major change by their surprise defeat in the general election, elected him anyway, handing him the greatest mandate a leader of a British political party has ever enjoyed.

The preferred buzzword of Corbyn’s detractors now is a simple, one-word argument; “unelectable”. From New Labourites watching “their” party dance from their grasp, to Tories perturbed by a leftward shift in the political landscape, via a news media largely sympathetic to right-wing framing, the word on Corbyn is that he cannot win an election (apart, presumably, from the one he just won). To the New Labour faithful, Corbyn’s presumed unelectability is a matter of bitter despair, which may yet play out in splits or defections. To the Conservatives and the media, “unelectable” is a word spoken half in jeering mockery and half in self-reassurance.

I’d like to dissect that word and its meaning a little. The implication is that Labour’s supporters (almost a quarter of a million of whom voted for Corbyn) are entirely out of touch with the nation and have elected a leader who will only serve to further alienate the broader electorate. This assumes that the British electorate as a whole is on the political right of Corbyn, are closer ideologically to the Tories’ position, and will therefore reject Labour outright at the next election in 2020. This assumption is based on the Downs model of political decision-making; there are some problems with applying that to the UK which I’ll go into momentarily, but first I’d like to address the elephant in the room.

The elephant in question is this; those arguing that Corbyn is “unelectable” today were incapable of predicting the outcome of this year’s general election only hours before it was held. Political opinion polling in the UK is in a state of unimaginable crisis. Its methodologies are broken and the data it produces is junk. This does not mean that in the absence of data we may assume the preferences of the British people to be whatever we feel like; but it does mean that anyone throwing around terms like “unelectable” is uninformed at best, and at worst, an outright charlatan. If predictions of electability in the UK actually held even as much water as a sieve, Ed Miliband would be Prime Minister and you’d never even have heard of Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps, in time, opinion polling in the UK may elevate itself back to a position of trust, but for now, organisations haughtily proclaiming the likely outcomes of Corbyn’s leadership (or anything else, for that matter) based upon hastily-conducted polls are to be treated with no more respect or gravity than tin-pot prophets, mystic oracles, and grannies with a knack for interpreting tea-leaves.

Coming back to the Downs model, then; the reason some people think Corbyn is unelectable is because the Downs model predicts that in a two-party system, both parties will veer towards a centrist position and their policies will become increasingly similar. This is based on an assumption that two-party systems emerge in nations where the electorate’s political preferences fall roughly on a bell-curve, so that the country is broadly politically homogenous and there’s a big swell of voters in the centre of the graph, for whose votes both parties compete. Supporters of this model would point to New Labour’s abandonment of various Old Labour principles (e.g. Clause IV, its commitment to socialism) and the Conservatives’ move away from core tenets of social conservatism (e.g. dropping support for the homophobic Section 28 and instead supporting equal marriage) as evidence for this process in the United Kingdom.

The Downs model, however, is a massive simplification – Downs himself acknowledged that the two-party system he described was an ideal, and that it would never be stable in a country which was not extremely homogenous in political preferences. That’s clearly the case in the UK; the share of the vote enjoyed by the two main parties has fallen steadily in recent decades, and parties such as the Greens, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats (though the latter has been laid low, at least temporarily, by their unpopular participation in coalition government) have seen their vote share rise, even if gains of actual seats have been held back by the archaic First Past the Post electoral system. Turnout in general elections is also fairly disappointing; a third of registered voters don’t bother to cast a vote, implying either apathy or a sense of being poorly represented by the candidates on offer, or most likely, a bit of both. The overall picture is of precisely the lack of homogeneity that Downs predicted would cause instability in the two-party model; so boldly basing the claim of Corbyn’s unelectability upon an assumption of a stable two-party system is foolish at best.

Besides; are we truly expected to accept that Jeremy Corbyn’s economic ideas, which are broadly centre-left and would not raise eyebrows in any developed social democracy, are a radical departure from the British political norm, while simultaneously accepting that the present Conservative government’s policies are just business as usual? Those policies include the privatisation of the National Health Service and of major parts of the police, military and education systems, relentless attacks on disability benefit and in-work benefits for low income earners, and the marketisation of third-level education such that higher-ranked universities may charge significantly higher fees to students, none of which seem remotely in line with the post-war political consensus of the UK. Shorn of the millstone around their necks that the Liberal Democrats became in the last parliament, the Conservatives have lurched sharply to the right. In fact, based on a comparison to the centreline of British economic policy in the post-war era, Corbyn’s policies are no more radical, “loopy”, or “crazy” than those currently pursued by the Conservatives; if anything, they are more centrist.

So Labour goes left; the Conservatives go right. One might equally shout “unelectable” at either one of those parties, for all the valid data we have to go upon. In truth, though, the question of electability is neither here nor there, because there isn’t going to be an election until 2020. Rather, the question that’s playing across the minds of more tactical thinkers in Westminster, I suspect, has everything to do with another political concept – the Overton Window. This is a political communications theory which essentially says that the general public, as a consequence of public and media discourse, develops a “window of acceptabilty”; any idea or policy which falls outside this window is crazy, insane and dangerous. Crucially, this window moves; people change their minds, often surprisingly rapidly. Supporting equal marriage in the USA would have been outside the Overton Window a decade ago; today it’s firmly in the middle. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees with it, but nobody in the mainstream of politics will brand you a radical, insane threat to the nation for supporting it any more.

The triumph of the Tories since the financial crisis of 2008 has been in hauling the Overton Window of UK politics firmly to the right. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been complicit in this; both parties essentially supported, or did not challenge, Conservative narratives about overspending prior to 2008 being somehow responsible for the financial crisis, about immigration being a “problem”, about people on benefits being “scroungers” (an amazingly successful and utterly depressing neo-liberal coinage), and so on. Even with the somewhat left-liberal Ed Miliband in charge, Labour seemed to think that its best chance at returning to government was to align itself broadly with Conservative policy. This caused two problems; firstly, as George Monbiot would have it, many voters seemingly reasoned “why vote for the echo when you can vote for the shout?”; secondly, it meant there was no pressure on the Overton Window, which rapidly slid rightwards, supported by the majority of the British news media, which is largely owned and controlled by offshore billionaires with a clear vested interest in right-wing economic policy.

For Corbyn to bring Labour left as the Tories continue to swing right creates, for the first time this millenium, a genuine battle over the direction of the Overton Window. The only way to move that window, after all, is to get out and pull; only by proposing, supporting and defending policies in the “loony” space at the edges do you haul the window of political acceptability into your court. Corbyn won’t face election for nearly five years; he has at least three years to drag Britain’s perception of what is acceptable, sane policy back onto ground that is more comfortable for Labour. In the process he will, I hope, ignite genuine debate and give the electorate some sense that there is a genuine choice emerging in British politics. Where we go from there is anyone’s guess; but until we see the results of that process (which will be messy, and bloody, and will get very, very nasty along the way), anything we say about 2020 really is nothing more than a guess. “Unelectable”? Come back and talk about that when there’s an actual election on the way. Until then, Corbyn’s job isn’t to win an election; it’s to change the landscape of British politics so that future elections have any hope of being won from the left again.