by Martin Odoni

Tonight’s Motion of No Confidence in the Government, as expected, was defeated by 325 votes to 306. Not exactly a huge chasm, but reasonably decisive. It is noteworthy though that if the ten Democratic Unionists had voted against the Government, the motion would have passed by 1. Ironically, if Theresa May’s Brexit deal had passed the Commons last night, the DUP would have supported tonight’s motion and the Government would have fallen.

The atmosphere in the House of Commons tonight was as childish and yobbish as I have ever heard it, and never worse than during the Tories’ closing statement, delivered by the obnoxious Michael Gove. The bleating, the drunk-sounding chants and the juvenile bellowing were more reminiscent of brawling rugby players than intelligent, considered debate. I have written more than once of my suspicion that the alienation of so many of the public from politics in modern Britain is partly a result of the horrendous ‘lager-lout’-style of behaviour in the Commons. Tonight will probably have made that even worse.

However, I mainly wish to offer observations on Gove’s speech itself. While it was, as one might expect, a disgraceful tissue of distortions that he would not dare repeat outside the House, where he would be subject to the law of the land, more noticeable was the theme of it. It was largely about Jeremy Corbyn.

Michael Gove

Gove’s speech in ‘defence’ of his Prime Minister was largely just an uncivilised hatchet job on the Opposition leader instead.

Interestingly, early in the speech he mocked Tom Watson’s closing speech on behalf of the Opposition on the grounds that Watson did not mention Corbyn at all. Why Gove imagines that Watson should have to do so is quite inexplicable; the debate was a Motion of No Confidence in the Government, not in Corbyn, and to an extent, it really had nothing to do with Corbyn, at least directly.

But having mocked Watson for not mentioning his leader, Gove made a similar mistake; he scarcely mentioned Theresa May throughout the speech, even though the Motion was about her and her Government. Instead, Gove just spent minutes on end ranting out a malicious hatchet job on Corbyn, regurgitating various tired and debunked myths from the last couple of years about ‘anti-Semitism’ and his supposed lack of credentials for defending the country .

Whether you agreed with all of this, or any of this, or none of this, there is a fundamental flaw in the speech. Hardly any of it had anything to do with whether the present administration is fit to govern. And yet it made up a good three-quarters of what Gove had to say. (My brother has described it as “the Parliamentary equivalent of Kryten’s legal defence of Rimmer” from Red Dwarf.)

Is it just that no one had actually explained to Gove beforehand what the subject of the debate was?

Or was Gove keeping his praise for May to an absolute minimum because he plans to make a new bid for the leadership at her expense in the near future?

Or is it just – and this I suspect is the likeliest answer – that the performance of Theresa May and her administration since 2016 has been so shambolic, so destructive, and so mired in inertia and non-achievement that Gove simply ran out of good things to say in its defence after the first couple of minutes?

These are the only explanations I can think of, and all of them are bad.

230 – wow.

January 15, 2019

by Martin Odoni

Not exactly a shock that Theresa May’s Brexit deal was voted down in the House of Commons tonight, but good grief, did anyone picture such an annihilation? Just 202 MPs voted in favour – and May can count herself lucky that three Labour MPs rebelled to support the deal and get the ‘Ayes’ past 200 – and 432 voted against.

brexit vote in parliament - breakdown

The way they voted, 15th January 2019

This is unprecedented. The size of the Government’s support was comfortably less than half its total opponents. With 118 on the Government benches rebelling, the total number of Tories favouring May’s deal was substantially less than two-thirds. Every Liberal Democrat, every Scottish National Party member, every Plaid Cymru member, every Democratic Unionist, and the sole Green MP, all voted against the deal.

Most of us have known since the details were published that May’s deal was dead in the water – many of us suspected it back in June 2017 come to that – but surely none of us thought that it would be beaten this decisively? My personal projection was that May would lose by about 80 votes, which would still have been a powerful blow, and I thought anything near 200 was on the barest fringe of the possible. But two hundred-and-thirty? That is absolutely extraordinary, and the biggest defeat in the Commons for an incumbent Government ever.

Since the catastrophic Conservative backfire of the 2017 General Election, this administration has been a zombie Government. Now it is not even that. It is no Government at all, it is just a giant hole in the air of Westminster and Whitehall. It has no right to exist, and no function left except to keep itself in office. Having suffered the humiliation of the biggest defeat any Prime Minister has ever conceded, Theresa May, if she truly had any honour at all, would accept that she has to resign. But of course she does not, and so of course, she will not.

This is yet another victory for Jeremy Corbyn of course – he scores a surprisingly large number of them for a supposedly ‘useless’ Leader of the Opposition – and a victory that, had it been achieved by Tony Blair in the 1990s, would have been hailed as one of the greatest in the history of Opposition Leaders. Which of course it is, but as usual, Corbyn is being damned with faint praise at best in the media. He has at last tabled the expected motion-of-no-confidence in the Government, judging rightly that now is the likeliest time for it to succeed – certainly likelier than it was before Christmas. The odds are still against it, especially as Tory rebels and DUP MPs have reaffirmed that they will continue to oppose it. But if nothing else, this move keeps the Government on the defensive at a time when it is reeling.

As for Brexit, where can we go from here? I think the UK now has to apply for an extension to Article-50. We are basically back at the metaphorical ‘drawing board’ in terms of a withdrawal agreement, and that means we need a lot more time than the two-and-a-half months that are left before we have departed the European Union. But even then, the EU are less-than-sympathetic about the idea of renegotiating, after the enormous amount of time May has wasted, and they are now pushing for the UK to abandon Brexit once and for all.

I am as pro-democracy as they come, and I have done my best to accept the outcome of the 2016 referendum. But still, it is getting more and more difficult to argue with the idea of calling the whole wretched business off, is it not?

Oh well. “Coalition of chaos”, and all that.

12th doctor 1st doctor and strong & stable may

More of a joke than ever, isn’t it?

by Martin Odoni

The Tories are clearly gearing up for a General Election. Theresa May probably sees it, however reluctantly, as the likeliest way out of the unending Brexit logjam at Westminster, as others have been warning since the last Election that it would be. I will not waste time going into the reasons why an Election is so necessary, as I imagine anyone who has not spent the last three years in seclusion on the moons of Neptune will have a more-than-passing familiarity with why. However, I wish to point out that the Tories are engaged in a form of Election cheating once again.

The indicators that a snap Election is imminent are three-fold.

Firstly, returning officers up and down the country have been put on standby.

Secondly, the Conservative Party has released a (very disingenuous) Party Political Broadcast (PPB).

Thirdly, Tory campaigners have started leafleting their constituencies.

Tory leafleting

Even in safe seats, the Tories are campaigning, a clear sign that a General Election is in the offing.

It is possible that if, by some miracle, May’s Brexit deal is not voted down next week (presumably while Tim Henman comes out of retirement to win Wimbledon later this year…), the dissolution of Parliament will not be called. But for the moment, these are the obvious clues that the Tories are ‘gearing up’.

But they are also clues that the Tories are trying to get around Election Expenses laws, which they have of course been in trouble for transgressing before. By campaigning before the Election is even announced, the leafleting and the PPB will not, they hope, be counted against the amount they officially invest as a party in the Election, allowing them to invest more than other parties while staying under the spending ‘cap’. The money counting only starts from the moment the Election is called.

This is yet another example therefore of the Tories using dirty tricks to get an unfair advantage on rival parties. Even though it is not, to the best of my knowledge, against the letter of electoral laws in this country, it is undoubtedly against the spirit of them.

The degree to which the Conservative Party resorts to these kinds of behaviours is amazing. Sure, other parties are guilty of dirty trickery from time-to-time as well. But the Tories do it so routinely and so instinctively that it belongs in a different world. It even gives the impression that the Tories are powerless to grasp that such conduct is wrong. They imagine that, so long as it helps them succeed and they do not get caught, cheating is justified.

They really should be called the Psychopaths’ Party.

by Martin Odoni

The idea that the ‘Old Labour‘ of the years before Tony Blair became its leader was a hard-left political party is, as I have pointed out before, quite a stretch. That Blair took the party to the right is irrefutable, but it was never left-wing under predecessors like Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson or James Callaghan either. (Callaghan’s Government, thanks to the harsh expenditure-cutting program of Denis Healey as his Chancellor of the Exchequer, was really an Austerity Government, arguably even more so than David Cameron’s.)

Similarly, the Democratic Party in the USA has never had a noticeable history of Marxism or socialism, even though it has, since the 1930s, tended towards business regulation, a welfare state, and support for Trade Unions. (Bizarrely, up until that point, the Democrats were actually the right-wing party in US politics, and generally less liberal than the Republican Party.) The Democratic Party was effectively a coalition of liberals predominantly in the north-east of the USA, and moderate conservatives south of the old ‘Mason-Dixon line‘ (the boundary between the northern Federalist and southern Confederate territories in the era of the US Civil War).

With the ascendancy of Bill Clinton in the 1990s, the Democrats also moved away from the left, in an attempt to appeal to moderate Republican voters. As President, Clinton cut spending programs, continued Ronald Reagan’s agenda of deregulation in banking (thus playing a major role in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008), restored religious protections attractive to the Christian Radical Right, and took an increasing ‘no-tolerance’ approach to law enforcement.

The response of leading Republicans to this encroachment onto ‘their’ territory by their archenemies was interesting. The task of opposing Clintonite policy without contradicting many of their own policy positions proved confusing, while co-operating with the Democrats was too much for many of them to stomach. The Republicans thus pushed even further to the right, with uncompromising conservative fanatics like Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, adopting such harsh positions of intransigence that they forced several totally unnecessary Government shutdowns.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party struggled in the late-1990s to find a way of combating the success of ‘New Labour’. William Hague, the Tory leader from 1997 to 2001, found he could offer little policy appeal beyond crude appeals to jingoism. Hague’s notorious and completely contrived Save The Pound campaign was frequently embarrassing, and noticeably right-wing in its appeal to blatant xenophobia. While it probably was for the best that the UK did not join the Single European Currency, for reasons of controlling the Public Sector Debt, those were not the grounds on which Hague was arguing. Instead, it was largely just silly hostility to ‘outsiders’. It was hard-right, irresponsible, and racist-in-all-but-name.

With all this movement to the right in both Britain and the USA, with several right-leaning mainstream parties now treading on ground quite extreme and borderline-racist as a matter of course, while the left now deserted its old social democratic/Keynesian position, the ‘Overton Window’ shifted a long way to the right. Its left edge slid almost entirely out of the left half of the political/economic spectrum, while its right edge also crept deeper into the right wing. Ideas that had become unacceptable since the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust became (somewhat) tolerable again.

This was in part because the extreme right no longer seemed that far-removed from what was now thought of as the ‘moderate’ left, giving the half-conscious impression therefore that it was not all that extreme after all. Even though the identity politics of the Clintonite/Blairite philosophy were held in higher regard, and fought for with more passion, than ever before, the economic ideas of the two ‘wings’ of politics were now a lot harder to distinguish. The Democrats and the Labour Party were both now passionate about the free market, and maintained close, friendly ties with big business power-brokers that were usually devoted to the Republicans and the Conservative Party. Although ‘New Labour’ did make creditable efforts to strengthen the safety nets for the poor at the bottom of society’s pyramid, their leaders were no longer prepared to make the slightest effort to reduce inequality. On the contrary, income at the top of UK society surged upwards dramatically under Tony Blair, especially after 2001.

Income growth at the top

Income growth in UK society since the turn-of-the-1990s. Note that wealth increased for the richest far MORE under Tony Blair’s Labour, prior to the Credit Crunch, than it did under John Major’s Conservative Party.

‘Insane extremism’ became a pet-label for post-war social democracy, which was now routinely and very wrongly presented as inseparable from Marxian Stalinism. Any ideas from further to the left than the Social Democratic Party of the 1980s was now treated as being as intolerable as Nazism. Selfish, egomaniacal career-MPs like Dr David Owen were, as centrists, being treated as preferable to kinder-hearted altruists like Tony Benn or Jeremy Corbyn. Again, as a careerist politician is liable to bear more of a resemblance to a hard-right member of extremist parties like the UK Independence Party, or even the British National Party, than a doctrinaire socialist will, this gave the extreme-right an extra grain of legitimacy.

This taste for right-wing reactionism was made all-too-obvious by the dire extremism of ‘New Labour’ Home Secretaries, Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid. All four of them adopted very aggressive, hard-line, intolerant attitudes to law-and-order issues, viewing punishment and arrests as ends in themselves, and prisons as blunt objects to beat prospective criminals over the heads with, instead of as places of rehabilitation. They were behaving, in short, exactly as Conservative Home Secretaries had done for decades beyond counting.

In the USA, the Republican moves to the extreme right were driven in large part by a growing alliance between the neoconservative movement and the Church, begun under Reagan. Unable to combat Bill Clinton on economic grounds, extreme social conservatism became the Republicans’ only outlet, demanding a return to the very obsolete moral standards in day-to-day life of the post-war age. This led to the much-mocked ‘Monica Lewinsky Scandal’ of the late-1990s, in which Clinton was found to have had an affair with a young White House intern. It caused much embarrassment, and put considerable strain on Clinton’s family life, with the Republicans attempting to have Clinton impeached over his spurious denials of the affair ever happening. But by and large, at least so long as the economy continued functioning fairly smoothly, there was a recognition among the wider US public that Clinton’s private life really was none of their business. Impeachment attempts failed dismally. Social conservatism did not have enough appeal on its own. It was in the late-2000’s that the Republican leaders drifted into open racial conservatism too, and found that, far from being unacceptable, it was now an attitude that was popular again with many Americans.

With the Global Financial Crisis from 2007-9, partly caused by President George W Bush’s deregulation of the banking industry, Democrat Barack Obama was elected the first non-white President, on a platform of reforming the banking sector and bringing it properly to account. There was considerable hostility to Obama, usually on scarcely-concealed racial grounds. The popular accusation against him was that he was really a Kenyan Muslim – as a non-American by birth that would have de-legitimised his right to be President – and was accompanied by absurd claims that his Birth Certificate was fake. Those who made these silly assertions, led by the present President, Donald Trump, became known as ‘The Birther Movement‘. It was part of a wider network of growing right-wing activist groups, the largest of which was effectively a Republican party fringe organisation calling itself, ‘The Tea Party‘. (It was named in tribute to the so-called ‘Boston Tea Party‘, in which rebels in the then-British colonies stole over three hundred chests of tea imported by the East India Company, and hurled them all into the sea off Boston Harbor, foreshadowing the start of the US War of Independence two years later.) The Tea Party was a large pressure group of small-government-low-taxation-libertarian reactionaries dedicated to removing Obama and attacking Government expenditure. Much of its support however came from racists who interpreted Obama’s every move in the worst possible way, even when his policies and actions were little-distinguishable from those of other Presidents before him, who never drew such nasty responses.

Racism, even if the name was not acceptable, had become a mainstream attitude again. It became commonplace to express racist views while denying they were racist. As long as the label did not stick, extreme-right xenophobic language became easier to express than it had been since the 1970s.

This has granted legitimacy to such disturbing horrors as Donald Trump – a psychopathic narcissist and white supremacist – becoming US President, and the UK Government embarking on a scandalous policy program that deported the Windrush Generation.

The role that the severe recession of the late 2000’s played in feeding modern right-wing reactionism must not be overlooked, but the role that ‘Third Way politics’ played in pushing popular discourse to the right is not often considered. By pushing to the right, Clinton, Blair, and others normalised hard-right conservatism, by reducing the distance society could move away from it, while also taking up so much traditional conservative ground that rival parties had nowhere else to retreat to bar the extremes, if they wished to offer an alternative. This was always a risk, because if the time ever came that the ‘Third Way’ failed, people were bound to look for alternatives, even extreme ones. If the only extremes available were the extreme right, than those were the ones that would be adopted.

And the ‘Third Way’ did fail. Both the Clinton and Blair/Gordon Brown administrations chose to co-operate with the same neoliberal, unchecked market power that their conservative opponents had usually favoured. Deregulation of banks in both countries played the central role in the financial crisis that gave rise to reactionism. Both Clintonites and Bush-ites in the USA, and Tories and ‘New Labour’ in the UK, endorsed that same program and helped advance it.

That the watered-down left gets the blame for the crisis in both countries is not altogether unfair. That the right wing parties get so little of the blame is a gross injustice, but be that as it may, it is difficult to argue that the Clintonites or the Blairites deserve much better. No one should under-estimate the consequences of the ‘Third Way’ being experienced today. The ultra-aggressive hostility to the poor, to women, to immigrants, to the sick and to the disabled was made almost inevitable by the rightward moves of the Democrats and the Labour Party. By becoming ‘centrist’ the parties were so similar to the conservatives on so many levels that their willingness actually to oppose conservative policies became intermittent and half-hearted, which only increased the legitimacy of conservative extremism; if the traditional opponents of these ideas no longer oppose them, became the unconscious reasoning, obviously they are accepting that they have lost the argument. And if even they accepted that, then it must have been true, right?

In the UK, the left wing of the Labour Party has re-emerged in the form of old campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, and is struggling to re-take control of the whole movement from a party-right that is far more concerned with suppressing them than it is with fighting Tory malice – underlining the above point. In the USA, the usually-independent Bernie Sanders has taken up the mantle of leading a new left in the Democratic Party. Young left wing talents on both sides of the Atlantic are joining both parties, so there is hope for the future of consolidating a real and much-needed move to the left.

But the damage of a quarter-century of queasy-conscience neoliberalism will take a long, long time to repair, and far more work lies ahead of them than is already behind them. Not only do the bitter battles for the souls of their parties continue, but the harm inflicted on the populace by the extremist right wing Governments of both countries is grinding them into the dirt to such an extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult for popular discontent to mobilise.

Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and various other architects of ‘Third Way’ politics have very much to answer for directly. But the worst crime they have to answer for indirectly is making it okay to be an extreme right-wing hatemonger all over again – because they made it unacceptable to be the opposite.