Timequake(Vonnegut)Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut’s last novel, is an odd thing. The story is ostensibly about the world having to relive the years from 1991 to 2001 all over again, with full memory of everything we did during that time but unable to change any of it because we don’t possess free will. The book itself is about that story, but also about Vonnegut’s attempts to tell that story and ends up folding in on itself to become as much a story of his life as it is a fiction. It’s an understandable mess because why the concept is a good one – and people being doomed to make and repeat mistakes while pretending they have free will is a recurring theme of Vonnegut’s works – actually depicting it is hard work.

I’m reminded of Timequake this week because it feels like we’re staggering through a replay of the events of the build-up to war in 2003 and at least one side is being portrayed as possessing no free will in the matter. So, we get coverage like this

and posts like this where the decision to start bombing Syria is taken as an unavoidable fact. Only those opposed to bombing appear to be deemed as possessing the free will required to have to come up with justifications for their actions, while those proposing it act as though they’re prisoners of destiny, lurching towards war because there’s no way to change their course of action and do something else. A whole army of keyboard Clausewitzes appear ready to blame those arguing against bombing for it happening while there own arguments in favour are little more than Something Must Be Done.

There’s a concept in chess (and wider game theory) called ‘zugzwang’ where a player finds themselves in a position where whatever move they make leaves them in a worse position. It feels an apt description for Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with the media where whatever he does, it’s wrong: trying to get Labour to oppose air strikes is an attempt at loony lefty dictatorship, conceding a free vote is weak leadership that allows bombing to happen. Beyond that, it also seems apt for describing the global situation where every potential course of action appears to lead inextricably to the good intentions road to hell, the only question how we get there and which sub-district of the inferno we arrive in.

The problem seems to be that we’ve got a whole lot of tactics available to us, but none of them in themselves appear to add up to a strategy. Just like in 2003, we spend almost all our time arguing over what we should or shouldn’t be doing with the tools we have at hand without pausing to think about any long-term aims and goals. The overriding principle appears to be feeling that because we must Do Something, we have to choose from a variety of bad options and decide which is least worst. We’re not in a game, though, and we don’t have rules that say we must Do Something. Pretending that we must act, and expecting those advocating other courses of action to be the only ones who need to come up with a convincing argument why not is confusing tactics for strategy, repeating the mistakes we’ve made before and just confirming that we’re going to keep making them again and again.

So it goes.

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citymetric-logoMy post from last week on devolution got some attention, and a rewritten version of is now available on CityMetric.


englandjigsawOver on CityMetric, Jonn Elledge writes that devolution is meant to be about practicality and delivery, and wonders why questions of identity are mixed up in it. I think there’s a problem with phrasing the debate in that way because both sides of it are ignoring a key third factor in delivering workable devolution: accountability.

Both sides of the practicality vs identity debate have strong cases through looking at different sets of existing facts. The economic case points out that the way regional and local economies work rarely pays much heed to existing political and cultural boundaries and if you’re creating structures to enhance those existing economies you need to take account of that. The identity case argues that the cultural and political links that have developed outside of the economic sphere are just as important as the economic links and need to be recognised too. As Jonn points out, existing devolution in Britain has been based primarily on those cultural boundaries rather than the economic ones, which has led to an expectation that further devolution (particularly within England) should follow the same course.

This isn’t actually a new argument, but one that flares up continually whenever local government structures are tinkered with. The Redcliffe-Maud proposals for local and regional government were based on similar ideas of economic practicality and foundered on questions of identity and even the more modest reforms of the 70s faced opposition to the movement of borders to reflect economic reality. This is why I live in Essex now, not Suffolk as was proposed back then.

As I’ve argued before, one of the key problems facing local government in England is the confusing mess of accountability and responsibility built into the current system. Even people who’ve worked in local government for years have problems keeping track of which acronymic organisation covering which patch of geography is responsible for which issue, which means that any attempt to do something often disappears into a mass of conflicting bureaucracies. The current proposals for devolution are doing very little to resolve this mess, and are even adding to it by adding another organisation (the city region) into the equation.

This leads us to a situation where we have some institutions and organisations that are based on practicality, while others are based on identity, but none of them end up being very accountable to the people they’re supposed to be serving. The arguments from the two sides (practicality and identity) end up sailing past each other because they’re both referring to different things and basing their arguments on different sets of facts.

That’s why I think accountability needs to be an important part of any devolution proposal. It is possible to create new institutions that work over historic cultural boundaries, but the people have to be part of the process and the drawing of boundaries has to reflect cultural links as well as economic ones. The technocratic practicality argument of ‘this is what is best for you’ has to yield to some local realities, but the identity counter-argument also has to accept that identities can change over time and people can have multiple ones.

Expecting cultural, economic and governmental boundaries to match perfectly is foolish, and any devolution solution is always going to anger somebody. Demanding that identity or practicality alone should be the sole consideration is going to lead to problems, and any solution that’s going to be successful in the long-term needs to balance the two through ensuring it’s accountable. Accountability isn’t just about the practical structures of the system but also recognising and creating shared expectations and culture amongst the people that system is representing and serving. That may be the common ground that enough of the two sides can come together on to create something that pleases enough (if not all) of them.

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labourlogoI should say at the start that this will be a post with a lot of questions and not many answers. Sometimes it can be easy to get an idea of where a party will go by looking at their history and the history of similar parties (as well as the theories derived from those histories) and extrapolating. The problem with doing that for Labour right now is that the situation they’re currently in doesn’t really have any precedents so everyone – no matter how much they try to tell you they can make an expert prediction – is stumbling in the dark.

There’ve been situations where parties have had leaders who are popular with the party memberships but not with the Parliamentary party (and vice versa) but never to this extreme. Even Iain Duncan Smith (an often-used parallel for Corbyn) had the support of around a third of Tory MPs when he was elected (and only lost his no confidence vote 90-75) while Jeremy Corbyn appears to have the active support of 10% or less of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In any large and factionalised party, you’d expect an IDS situation to come about occasionally, where a leader isn’t backed by a majority, but has a sizeable group behind them and is also the second choice (better IDS than Porillo, as some thought) of others. Corbyn had the other factions agreeing an ‘anyone but him’ line even before he was elected.

The exact opposite situation applies within the Labour membership. Here, Corbyn has wide support which continues to regard him as doing a good job and is actively mobilising to make that support meaningful. This isn’t just the usual ‘he’s popular with the membership, and we don’t want to anger them too much’ but a membership that’s almost pre-emptively angry and working to prevent their choice of leader from being removed. That contrasts markedly with those members who aren’t Corby supporters though, where he’s regarded as doing poorly.

The most interesting thing in both the Parliamentary Party and the membership is the absence of much in the way of middle ground. There’s very little in the way of a ‘wait and see’ faction, more two polarised groups gazing warily at each other, neither wanting to take the first move because they’re not entirely sure what weapons they have to fight with. There seems little chance of the two sides coming to a mutually acceptable agreement on how the party should proceed, and even the prospect of the party stumbling on for a while appears to be lessening daily as the prospect of military action in Syria increases.

The prospect of Labour splitting is often raised, but the one thing I’ve found about splits is that even when people within a party agree there should be splits, they invariably suggest that it’s the other side that should leave the party. Looking at the history of the SDP for examples ignores that it was a one-off in British politics and most parties stick together even when factions openly hate each other because no one wants to give up the potential power of the party infrastructure and institutions. The SDP split occurred because the splitters assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that they could never regain control of the party.

Under normal circumstances, this is a conflict that would likely play out over years, fought through lots of small challenges as backbenchers challenge the leadership at PLP meetings while Corbyn-supporting members push for positions of power in local party meetings, threatening reselections and deselections. There wouldn’t be one event that brought everything to a head, just a series of little feuds that coalesce together into a final position about who was in charge of the party.

As it is, though, we’re likely to get that denouement in a much more sudden and dramatic form. What happens to Labour when Parliament has to vote on any military action in Syria? No matter what way he chooses to vote, a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party is likely to disagree with him, and the pro- and anti-Corbyn wings of the membership are likely to be diametrically opposed too. That could be the signal for the Parliamentary party to attempt to dethrone Corbyn, at the very time when he’s just reinforced his support amongst the membership. The question then might not be whether the party will tear itself apart, but just how it’s going to go about doing it and what remains when the process is finished. When factions can’t find a common cause with each other, the party doesn’t become something to rally around, but something to be fought over regardless of the consequences.

Like I said at the start, I can’t predict what will happen to Labour, but I’m struggling to see any way in which this ends well for them.

This is the blogging equivalent of me standing in the middle of the street dressed as a book and/or holding a big sign with BOOK SALE and an arrow on it.

Anyway, I have some books I no longer have the space for which I’m selling. Some of them are on eBay, some of them will be on eBay in the future when I’m allowed more than ten items on there at a time. Some of you may want to buy some, none, or all of these books (click on the image for a more details view):

If you do, just click on this eBay link to see if they’re up for sale there, and make a bid if they are. If they’re not, just get in touch with me and they can be yours for a very reasonable price. For a fuller list, look below the cut.

Read the rest of this entry

TheWestWingLabour Uncut is always a good place to go to for outlandish claims that bear no relationship to reality, and the opening of this piece is no exception:

Probably the greatest hour in modern television history is the magisterial finale of the second season of The West Wing: Two Cathedrals.

I’m not convinced it’s even the best episode of The West Wing, and the idea of it being the greatest piece of modern television feels somewhat akin to stating that Liz Kendall would be a popular choice for leader amongst Labour party members. I can think of a dozen Breaking Bad or The Wire episodes that are better than Two Cathedrals, and I’m sure people reading this can come up with lists of episodes from other series just as easily.

However, I’m not intending this to be a post about favourite TV episodes. It’s very common to see politicos and aspiring politicos cite The West Wing (and its hipster equivalent, Borgen) as being amongst their favourite TV. It’s an interesting phenomenon, given that it’s rare for people in any other profession to look upon depictions of their jobs in the same way. Indeed, the most common reaction of most people is to point out that dramas tend to hyper-idealise their profession and depict everyone involved as being way more competent than reality. In reality, we see things like the ‘CSI effect‘ where forensic scientists are seen as being able to achieve much more than they can, or that doctors and nurses complain how people see defibrilators as near-magic. Meanwhile, politicos are gazing on an obviously idealised portrayal of themselves and their abilities and are choosing to praise it rather than point out the flaws in it.

I’ve written before about how people – especially those in politics – think that ‘political drama’ and ‘drama about politicians’ are the same thing. It’s a building block in the idea that politics is just about the games white men (and the occasional woman) in suits play, while they walk up and down corridors being very clever at each other. The actual effects of the policies they’re talking about, and especially the people affected by them, rarely feature in them. Politics as depicted by The West Wing is all about the process, making big meaningful speeches (sometimes in Latin) and beating the other team, when the real thing is a lot more complicated than that. The trouble is that we have a generation of young politicos who think that’s all it is about, and it’s having the same effect as if we had a generation of A&E doctors basing their treatment plans on what they’d seen on Casualty.

What makes for good drama – and The West Wing is good drama, even if better has been made since – isn’t the compromises, muddled resolutions, and unclear endings that characterise reality. When there are so many people involved in politics who think that a drama about politics encapsulates all they need to know about it, it’s no wonder that we have such a shallow political culture that sees the main focus of politics as being the men at the top having showy disagreements instead of the effects their arguments have on the people at the bottom. You can keep watching it, but don’t imagine it teaches you anything about actual politics and what’s really important.


liberatorcoverI got the latest edition of Liberator in the post this morning, and was delighted to see that my article in it is mentioned on the cover. It’s based on the research I did for my Masters dissertation on the links between equidistance, tactical voting and Liberal Democrats winning seats and hopefully will prompt some thinking and discussion within the party. If you’re not a Liberator subscriber (still only £25 a year!) you’ll be able to read it when the edition is available online in the New Year, or you can read the blog post I wrote on the same subject a couple of months ago. You can also read Nick Harvey’s article from this issue on how the party lost seats because we believed our own propaganda too much)

If you have read my article, I’d appreciate any comments or thoughts people have, and I’m open to suggestions on topics to write about for future issues of the magazine if you liked this one.

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