Friday, 15 December 2017

Local Council By-Elections December 2017

This month saw 15,448 votes cast over 12 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Four council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with November's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Dec 16

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were two Independent clashes this month
**** No Others this month

It's December, it's near Christmas, it's been snowing, and that can only mean something of a thin month as far as by-elections are concerned. While Labour power to a commanding lead in terms of the popular vote, seven of the contests took place in seats held by the party. Though, of course, the 41% mark is more or less where we're knocking about in a good selection of the national polls ... Also, unusually, despite being about five times larger than the Tories December is one of those rare months the latter was out-organised, albeit thanks to Labour fielding a candidate in a City of London by-election. For their part, the Tories respect the "neutrality" of the corporation. Remember, this is the one municipal authority in the land that allows businesses to vote. Fun fact, institutional voters outnumber actual humans in the overall electorate.

Whatever. Not much movement in terms of seats. The Tories picked up a seat from Labour in nearby Newcastle-under-Lyme, while dropping one each to the LibDems and an Independent. In all the year finishes with the LibDems back on a mini-by-election roll, though we'll see if that persists into 2018. And the Tories fall back from a very healthy November to a weak December, though this seems to have more to do with the vagaries of the contests than anything more substantial vis a vis national politics.

7th December
North Devon Newport Lib gain from Con
Enfield, Enfield Highway Lab hold

13th and 14th December
Barnsley, Rockingham Lab hold
City of London, Portsoken Ind gain from Ind
Exeter, Newtown St Leonards Lab hold
Newcastle-under-Lyme, Bradwell Lab hold
Newcastle-under-Lyme, Whitechapel Con gain from Lab
Salford, Langworthy Lab hold
Torbay, Watcombe Lib hold
Torridge, Westward Ind gain from Con
Welwyn Hatfield, Handside Lib hold
Wigan, Shevington Lab hold

Top 100 Tweeting Politics Commentators 2017

The end of the year just isn't the end of the year without huge lists taking stock of all and sundry. And as per tradition, well, since 2009 anyway, here's the list no one pines for nor cares about: the most popular commentators on UK politics by number of followers on that there Twitter.

I recognise you might be among those who haven't encountered this annual festivity before, so let's get the basics down. This list is not a best of. I repeat, this list is not a best of. There are loads of people listed below who range from mediocre to off-the-scale bammery, but that matters not. The folks are known for political comment and coverage, and are arranged by the numbers of Twitter users they pull in their train. Needless to say, it can't be as simple as that - and indeed, it isn't. Sitting politicians are excluded, in case you were wondering where Nigel Farage or Dan Hannan was. The inclusion criteria also demands they cover UK politics, hence the disappearance of Louise Mensch and Mehdi Hasan from this year's list, as well as the non-inclusion of that Prison Planet moron. I've also got more stringent in terms of what people do: they have to regularly produce content outside of Twitter (so long Katie Hopkins, Eoin Clarke and Alan Rusbridger). And, as this is a list of tweeters, they've got to, well, tweet. It's been over a month since Janan Ganesh, for instance, last tossed 140 or so characters into the void, and so off he goes. Also 2016's top two, Russell Brand and Piers Morgan have been banished as politics ain't their mojo for the time being. Which is okay, because it leaves room for whom that is the case. Lastly, if you or your favorite tweeting politics sleb has fewer than 52,200 followers, your name's not down and you're not coming in.

Naturally, I do it for the clickbait. At least, that's how it started. But then it evolved into something else, a tracking of the gradual decline of the independent blogger and a total take over of mainstream comment by journalists and/or other comment professionals, if such a thing can ever be the right term. I mean, even I was on there in the beginning. Anyway, that's enough from me - analysis of the list comes further down. Here are the goods. How did you/your favourite(s) do?

1. (3) Jon Snow (1.28m followers)
2. (4) Robert Peston (890k followers)
3. (5) Nick Robinson (826k followers)
4. (8) Laura Kuenssberg (753k followers)
5. (7) Andrew Neil (744k followers)
6. (9) Owen Jones (724k followers)
7. (14) Paul Mason (571k followers)
8. (11) Krishnan Guru-Murthy (510k followers)
9. (10) Evan Davis (487k followers)
10. (12) Alastair Campbell (422k followers)
11. (13) Kay Burley (393k followers)
12. (15) Andrew Rawnsley (386k followers)
13. (NE) George Galloway (274k followers)
14. (28) James O'Brien (253k followers)
15. (18) Guido Fawkes (242k followers)
16. (20) Faisal Islam (236k followers)
17. (NE) George Osborne (228k followers)
18. (53) Jamie Ross (213k followers)
19. (21) George Monbiot (200k followers)
20. (72) Jim Waterson (199k followers)
21. (23) Fraser Nelson (185k followers)
22. (29) Maajid Nawaz (177k followers)
23. (22) Laurie Penny (173k followers)
24. (30) Mary Beard (167k followers)
25. (25) Michael Crick (165k followers)
26. (41) Britain Elects (164k followers)
27. (NE) Marina Hyde (158k followers)
28. (27) Cathy Newman (157k followers)
29. (24) Polly Toynbee (154k followers)
30. (NE) Harry Leslie Smith (150k followers)
31. (26) Mark Steel (150k followers)
32. (31) Kevin Maguire (145k followers)
33. (33) Tim Montgomerie (136k followers)
34. (40) Hadley Freeman (131k followers)
35. (34) Paul Waugh (124k followers)
36. (NE) David Allen Green (123k followers)
37. (36) Adam Boulton (123k followers)
38. (39) Isabel Hardman (122k followers)
39. (46) Hugo Rifkind (119k followers)
40. (42) Jack Monroe (117k followers)
41. (37) David Aaronovitch (111k followers)
42. (59) Douglas Murray (109k followers)
43. (43) Iain Dale (106k followers)
44. (38) Aditya Chakrabortty (101k followers)
45. (50) Sophy Ridge (101k followers)
46. (45) John Rentoul (101k followers)
47. (51) Emily Maitlis (99.9k followers)
48. (49) Dan Hodges (96.3k followers)
49. (NE) Andrew Marr (96k followers)
50. (55) Nick Ferrari (95.7k followers)
51. (44) Will Black (91.5k followers)
52. (69) Artist Taxi Driver (90.5k followers)
53. (66) Julia Hartley-Brewer (90.1k followers)
54. (47) Jonathan Freedland (89.8k followers)
55. (NE) The Conversation (88.7k followers)
56. (NE) Scientists for EU (86.1k followers)
57. (89) Tom Newton Dunn (85.6k followers)
58. (71) Isabel Oakeshott (83.5k followers)
59. (61) Nick Cohen (81.9k followers)
60. (76) Tim Shipman (80.4k followers)
61. (48) Fleet Street Fox (80.2k followers)
62. (68) Helen Lewis (78.7k followers)
63. (NE) The Media Blog (76.5k followers)
64. (52) Peter Tatchell (76.4k followers)
65. (63) Harry Cole (72.9k followers)
66. (57) Patrick Wintour (72.1k followers)
67. (85) Gary Younge (71.7k followers)
68. (54) Sunny Hundal (70.6k followers)
69. (58) 38 Degrees (70.4k followers)
70. (79) Conservative Home (69.8k followers)
71. (NE) Jolyon Maugham (68.7k followers)
72. (88) George Eaton (68.5k followers)
73. (62) Zoe Williams (66k followers)
74. (56) Will Self (65.9k followers)
75. (67) Andrew Sparrow (65.6k followers)
76. (60) Left Foot Forward (65.5k followers)
77. (91) Sam Coates (65.3k followers)
78. (NE) hrtbps (64.9k followers)
79. (73) Gideon Rachman (64.3k followers)
80. (70) Suzanne Moore (64.3k followers)
81. (74) Toby Young (64.3k followers)
82. (77) British Politics and Policy at LSE (63.9k followers)
83. (80) James Landale (63.6k followers)
84. (81) John Pienaar (62.1k followers)
85. (78) LabourList (60.7k followers)
86. (94) Danny Blanchflower (60.7k followers)
87. (NE) Abi Wilkinson (60.4k followers)
88. (82) Gaby Hinsliff (60.2k followers)
89. (75) New Economics Foundation (59.9k followers)
90. (86) Open Democracy (58.2k followers)
91. (93) Bonnie Greer (56.6k followers)
92. (83) Janet Street-Porter (56.2k followers)
93. (96) Iain Martin (55.5k followers)
94. (84) Allegra Stratton (54.7k followers)
95. (99) Chris Mason (54.4k followers)
96. (90) Wings Over Scotland (53.6k followers)
97. (NE) The Canary (53.3k followers)
98. (NE) Stephen Bush (52.6k followers)
99. (87) Michael White (52.3k followers)
100. (98) The Spectator Coffee House (52.2k followers)

Phew! Now, what can we say? How about 14 new entries for our pains? That compares with nine on last year's chart, but let's not pretend we're seeing a dynamically shifting group of people here. There is an establishment in political comment, and they're largely untouched by insurgents. For instance, despite the panic attending the rise of the so-called alt-left blogs, only one of them squeezes onto the list (our friends The Canary are perched at 96). The only others to buck the trend are representatives from previous disruptors Buzzfeed. Jamie Ross powers 34 places up the chart while Jim Waterson climbs an incredible 51 slots. Stephen Bush and Abi Wilkinson are deserved new arrivals, but notable in the upper fifth are the crashing in of George Osborne and George Galloway. Who needs a seat in Parliament when a prize such as getting included here awaits outside?

Previous years have proved an occasion for checking how representative our leading commentators are, and they have often been found wanting. This year sees 22 women, one non-binary person, 63 men, and 14 group efforts comprising the chart. The figures last year were 22 women, one non-binary person, 63 gents and 14 groups. Stasis! How are we looking at the ethnicity splits? Excluding group blogs, nine of our list have a BME background, down by one on last year's figures. For LGBT, again excluding groups, I make it six - just like last time. You might say the latter two tallies are proportional(ish) with the wider population, but the gender balance is off by a country mile. And progress is painfully slow. In 2009 this list had a looser criterion, but even in the "golden age" of blogging only 13 women were on the original list. Clearly more needs to be done and it behooves media organisations to start pushing more women to the fore.

The points made last year still stand. Permit me the indulgence of quoting myself because I can't be arsed to paraphrase: "it is not and cannot be a good thing that politics commentary is dominated by a narrow range of people with broadly similar backgrounds and broadly similar life experiences. It means discussion and debate across our media is framed in particular ways, its preoccupations conditioned by shared values and stakes of an increasingly narrowly circumscribed field. News stories outside the experience of most are seldom accorded the importance they deserve. It also follows the kinds of biases exercising the Faragists and Corbynists are not systematic conspiracy, but a consequence of a narrow media that's incredibly difficult for outsiders to break into."

Twitter therefore stands as an imperfect, crude but nevertheless useful way of measuring standing among the commentary pantheon, at least where audiences are concerned. It is no accident the people who dominate this list are people enjoying huge platforms provided by the established broadcast and print media.

Okay, there's your comment list for the year. List mania returns on New Year's Day with the top 100 independent tweeting politics bloggers, assuming there are enough indies left! If there is anyone missing do let me know in the comments and I'll update it. But remember, it's not a best of list!

Update: Jim observed that Danny Finkelstein, or Lord Finkelstein to us mortals had somehow survived the no-sitting-politician rule. Well, no longer, he's off the list. As we bid him adieu, two more make their presence felt - The Conversation and Scientists for EU, which clamber aboard at 55 and 56 respectively. Not only does this please me as a completionist, it also means Toby Young is forced down a further place. Sadly, it does mean Bella Caledonia takes the tumble. Perhaps they'll be back this time next year?

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

An Aside on Bourdieu

While you're going to be scoffing some mince pies, I'll be mulling over a learned reply to this piece, 'Bourdieu's Class Theory: The Academic as Revolutionary' by Dylan Riley in this summer's edition of Catalyst. You can read the piece here. In the mean time, here's the abstract:
What explains the enormous popularity of Bourdieu's critical theory in US academia and particularly in sociology? This paper considers two answers. One is that Bourdieu offers a compelling macrosociological account of contemporary society similar in scale to those of Marx, Weber, or Durkheim. However, a close examination shows that Bourdieu fails in this task. His work offers neither an empirically supported class analysis nor an account of social reproduction or social change. Thus, I conclude that Bourdieu's popularity cannot be a result of the power of his explanations.

There is, however, a second answer: that Bourdieu's sociology is popular because of the specific social conditions in US academia today. In this context, where intellectuals win rewards by pursuing a strategy of distinction, where they lack much organizational connection to popular movements, and where their material interests lie in a defense of their privileges, Bourdieu's sociology is highly attractive. It effectively resonates with academics' lived experience and serves to articulate their most fundamental political interests.
I'm a critical friend of Bourdieu and thinks he has a great deal to offer, so I look forward to going through this piece. Though I will note there is nothing new to the substitutionist claims made of professorial purveyours of social theory. When I were a lad the same was said of the linguistic turn in the social sciences, and the volumes of works thrown out on deconstruction, the decentred subject, the collapse of class and metanarratives, and the destabilisation of knowledge. Before that, 'twas ditto for Althusser's disciples, their attacks on empiricism and their attempt to reconstruct Marx sans Hegelian residues. Therefore I expect some elements of this argument will be persuasive.

I'll also note there's a certain implication of naivete in Dylan's abstract. The power of truth, the compelling qualities of an argument and so on do not have an efficacy of their own. There are sociological reasons for the prominence of Bourdieu in sociology, just as we have to look to the institutional and power assemblages producing economics as a discipline to explain the dominance of the neoclassical view. If truth, evidence and rigour were independent determinants then this blog, along with the doings of the left would have a much wider audience than bullshit peddlers like Dan Hannan and Nigel Farage.

Anyway, once it's done and if it gets accepted I'll let you all know.

Monday, 11 December 2017

The Intellectual Collapse of the Labour Right

Social being conditions consciousness, so they say. What's going on in your life, for good or ill, will impact on your thinking and opinions about it. When people live out similar circumstances, their views tend to have a certain homogeneity on particular issues. Take our beloved ruling class, for instance. Wherever they sit on the political spectrum they have the not-at-all-surprising tendency to think British capitalism is fundamentally fine. That these views are entirely congruent with their being the beneficiaries of this set up is not coincidental, and is simultaneously the great unsaid and unsayable of British politics. The collective fear gripping these people of Jeremy Corbyn is an anxiety that some of them are set to lose out, and the Labour leader is opening a Pandora's Box of demands set on eroding their power and privilege further. Rational to worry, yes. But they cannot say this. Which is why you have Toby Young likening Momentum to Britain First, and assorted hyperbole about gulaging Tories.

We find this refracted inside the Labour Party as well. For example, we find moaning in The Sunday Times NEC hopeful Gurinder Singh Josan, who argues, totally disingenuously, "many members are only concerned with the question 'do they support Momentum?' This coupled with the fact the influx of new members is disproportionately white and middle class, has resulted in the influence of minority groups being diluted." There are a few things worth noting here. First, Labour is more a working class organisation than it ever was when Gurinder's Progress and Labour First chums were in charge. Then we were told to forget about the working class as times had a-changed. Our traditional conceptions were out of date so we had to target all those white-collared folks. Now the boot's on the other foot, cloth caps, whippets and "real concerns about immigration" are clung to like the most pathetic fetish. Second, as the majority of Labour's councillors are white and male, highlighting the odd gay or black councillor who finds themselves deselected for political reasons while insinuating, non-too-subtly, that Momentum are a bunch of homophobes and racists says more about Gurinder and chums than anything else. Third, if getting more women and minorities into politics regardless of politics is the game, we're still waiting for Progress to undertake an auto-critique for backing David Miliband over Diane Abbott in 2010.

Another example is Nick Cohen's most recent regurgitation. And the up chuck metaphor is spot on, because there's nothing here our Nick hasn't made a meal out of before. In this universe, we are expected to believe the doddery and dozy Communist Party of Britain is a lean, mean, liquidatin' machine, and Corbyn's Britain promises something out of 1930s Stalinism. He simultaneously and somewhat confusingly casts our would-be totalitarians as "hyper-liberal"(!), and attacks the young left for its humourlessness and suspicion of complexity. A more open and shut case of projection is seldom found.

And there was dear old Roy Hattersley's feeble bombardment last week. Get a clue, Roy, and make sure you've not loaded duds before firing. Published hours before Survation gave Labour an eight point lead, Roy argued the party was in its greatest ever danger. The hard left are steering it onto the rocks and horror of horrors, they plan on changing the party's rules. Like so many others who know everything and understand nothing, Roy observes Labour's modest poll leads and confidently claims Labour should be 20 points in the lead. As someone who twice went up against a Tory government presiding over mass unemployment and lost, he really should know better: politics is never simple.

What do all these adventures in right wing factionalising have in common? It's their intellectual vacuity, a studied refusal to look the real world in the face and learn from it. A dishonest argument here, a demonstrable untruth there, these are the Labourist iterations of the shades summoned by what passes for Tory thought. But where does this utter aversion to thinking and indifference to looking stupid come from? It's part historical, and part conjunctural.

As argued on many occasions on this blog, at its origin the Labour Party was (and remains) a proletarian party. Banish the images of the working class you find hanging around today's Progress Magazine editorials and look at the coalition of interests the Labour Representation Committee brought together: the massed battalions organised labour via the trade unions, and the professional middle class organised through socialist societies and interest groups. A disparate constituency on the one hand, but on the other a condensation of millions of people with one thing in common: the necessity of selling their labour in return for a wage or a salary. The sorts of tensions Lenin and co wrote about in Western Labour and Social Democratic policies which they put down to the super profits of imperialism shared out among labour aristocracies who, in their turn, kept the rest of the movement under their heel, are not required. While Labour and similar parties founded around the same time were proletarian, they reflected (rather than challenged) pre-existing divisions within the wider labour-selling class. It meant workers from the white collar trades and professions had a tendency to dominate from the beginning. Perversely, this domination of the more intellectual strata guaranteed Labour's intellectual poverty.

Professional intellectuals at the time of Labour's foundation were much more privileged than their equivalents today. Standing above the mass, they could - and did - participate in polite, bourgeois society up and down the land. They formed close relationships with business as the purveyors of personal services, and saw their role as improving the working class comrades they rubbed shoulders with in the movement. Ethical socialism, which has deep roots in British politics, has a close if understated relationship with one nation patricianism of classical Toryism - as Ed Miliband helped remind us in more recent times. Their eyes were then fixed on pragmatism, of seeking an improvement here and there, of hobnobbing and persuading the powers that be to see sense and temper their capricious natures. They were Labourism's establishment insiders, trying to manage the aspirations the party drew together without exploding the system.

This isn't to deny organised labour any agency. Throughout the 19th century, the arc of history bent toward the growing strength, self-organisation, and latterly influence of our movement. Despite severe setbacks and reversals along that road, by the time Labour was founded the habits of mind forged in the workshop of the world favoured pragmatic consideration. The betterment of the working class wasn't achieved through utopian scheming and grand plans, but came by mobilising people in and out of work around easily recognised and tangible demands such as wages, safety, the length of the working day, women at work, and so on. Our movement's outlook was conditioned by its practice, of the guerrilla struggle that took place daily on the factory floor. Converted to a politics, you can see where Labourism's and Social Democracy's preoccupation with slow, reforming change come from. Again, you don't need super profits from the colonies to explain the preference for gradualism, of getting elected and making things better through one Act of Parliament at a time. Compromise and negotiation between representatives of organised labour and the boss class maps directly onto the constitutional parlour games of the elected chamber.

Where does this leave the intellectuals? Here, at least where Labourism was concerned, there are narrow slivers of permitted activity. Take policy, for example. Anyone familiar with the output of the Fabian Society will know what I'm talking about. Its regular publications are entirely policy focused and are about what Labour should do when it's in power. There is nothing wrong with being interested in this, but it is stultifying and comes packaged with a whole lot of preconceptions. The first and most foremost is the essential neutrality of the state. i.e. Government is an apparatus to be wielded for whatever ends and ensures the smooth implementation of the desires of the policy makers. Likewise, the other permissible intellectual is the pundit. They write in the press in support for Labour, proselytise party policies, attack and condemn the Tories, and may occasionally produce books highlighting a particular inequity. All good, useful fodder, but it fades into the background buzz surrounding the party. What is missing in both cases is politics. That is the job of excavating, pulling apart, descrying, and closely monitoring how politics works, whose interests they work in, the constellations of people they pull in and spit out, and what this says about the character of the society we live in. This is theory with a purpose, theory as a critique of all that exists so society can be remade. Labourism is therefore simultaneously technical and moral without being fused into a coherent whole. Injustice comes in for episodic condemnation, and technical solutions are proposed for complex problems. Nowhere is the question asked why they keep cropping up, nowhere is there even a recognition that Labourism itself is a collective response to the systemic conflict at the heart of British capitalism. However, the twin poles of the technical and the moral blinds are and are not theoretical errors: they're the outlook conditioned by the lived realities of Labourist intellectuals, wedged in and borne along by the weight of the party's investment in the day-to-day battles of constitutional democracy. Anything that isn't immediately tangible and requires a bit of abstract thought, like neoliberalism as a set of economic policies, a technology of governmentality, and the practice of class rule, is dismissed and disparaged.

Take the intellectual justifications of Blairism, for example. Drawing on bastardised spatial theories of voting, and with the collapse of Major's Tories into infighting and sleaze, Blair and his team reasoned the only way to win was to compete for the key marginal seats the Tories held onto. Therefore it was necessary to triangulate, that is ditch the kinds of traditional Labourist policies they think would scare off the horses, and pose as a moderate centre party that offered little more than a more competent pair of hands. As for the core loyal support, well, there was nowhere else for them to go. This was justified in terms of electoral pragmatism and has been repeated ever since (even though the facts have changed). However, there was need for some sort of pseudo-philosophical puff to make Blairism look more than naked electoral opportunism, and so Anthony Giddens coughed up the Third Way: an anemic bundle of insights chaining together the death of class politics, the emergence of individuated "life politics", and a big hell yeah for markets. Reportedly Blair and Brown used to waste time with Bill Clinton holding third way seminars at the White House, not that they should have bothered: no one now takes it remotely seriously as a body of political thought. Nevertheless, what it demonstrated was the development of theory on-the-hoof, not to explain anything but to justify the direction travelled. And as per the theory-lite tradition of Labourism, Blair more or less took it off the peg.

And so the intellectual culture of Labour has never been peachy. Pretty much anything and everything interesting to have emerged from the British left for the last 40 years, save Corbynism, has happened outside its ranks. Things then are bad. But compounding the difficulty and bringing into sharp relief the paucity of right-wing Labourism is its collapse. As we have seen before, one of the consequences of Blair's tenure was to hollow out the party. As he pitched the party to the right and treated the organised labour movement as embarrassing relatives, so the myriad relationships between it and the party were put under strain. Labour, which was set up to aggregate the interests of working people did, under Blair and Brown, go about disaggregating them. Yes, all Labour governments have done this to a degree, but here it became systematic. The pursuit of market fundamentalism via privatisations and the introduction of markets into public services, the gutting of occupational pensions, the retention of Tory trade union laws save a sop on balloting, and the imposition of neoliberal governmentality across every sphere of governmental endeavour ate away at the bonds of solidarity that made the movement/party relationship possible. Blairism was a symptom of labour movement weakness, going on to become its catalyst. This is important here because in so doing Blairism started consuming itself. The old Labour right, which made the New Labour right possible, were similarly dispersed by the chill winds of market fundamentalism. By the time the 2010 general election came around, Labour was rotting from the inside. Meanwhile, thanks to Blairist contempt for the unions, the left had been returned and/or were strong across all the major unions and slowly, tentatively, began reasserting themselves during the reign of the blessed Ed while the right carried on decomposing. When Corbynism caught them on the hop, the right found their institutional power had massively declined. What they once knew was destroyed as hundreds of thousands of new members poured into the party, followed by millions of new voters at this year's election. As surely as night follows day, this organisational collapse and their sudden thrusting into a situation they never expected or dreamed possible has occasioned their intellectual implosion.

Whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad. Except the madness (and badness) of the Labour right is symptomatic of their slowmo destruction. If there is a way for them to turn themselves around, they're showing scant sense of how to do so.