Conflicting narratives

Last night saw the first set-piece event of the election campaign, as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn squared off in the initial leaders’ debate.

Most commentators have scored the contest an uninspiring draw; certainly neither man landed a significant blow, nor made a major blunder. There was nothing to surprise potential voters who have paid even scant attention to political developments over the last few months, but the outlines of the respective campaigns were clarified; Johnson is determined to keep the focus on Brexit, while Corbyn wants to fight on the broader front of opposition to Tory austerity.

How this will all play out is still very uncertain. Johnson’s strategy hinges on winning support from Labour leavers in the north of England, while hoping that Tory remainers in the south are put off defecting to the Liberals by fear of a Corbyn administration. Labour’s hopes rest on their traditional heartlands staying loyal, while Johnson’s lurch to the right drains his support among moderate conservatives.

Add in the wildcard of the Brexit party, the national question in Scotland and Wales, and doubts about turnout in the middle of winter, and it all looks quite bewildering. The polls are suggesting that Johnson’s gamble might pay off, but the polls were badly wrong in 2017, so I’m sticking to my forecast of a minority Labour government before the end of the year.

Questionable things

It’s November 2019, which, as all sci-fi fans and film buffs know, is the month when the events of Blade Runner take place.

We wrote about Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece back in the early days of this blog, when 2019 still seemed like the semi-distant future, and, while I did have an inkling that the decade to come was going to be a bit grim, the way things have turned out in reality makes Rick Deckard’s neo-noir Los Angeles look quite attractive in comparison, despite the perpetual rain, and the homicidal robots.

Interestingly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel which provides the source material for Blade Runner, is in many ways a more accurate portrait of 21st century life. It envisages San Francisco in 2021 (or 1992 in the earlier editions); the elite have long fled to off-world colonies, leaving ordinary citizens struggling to survive in a world overtaken by ecological catastrophe and drowning in the detritus of a collapsing civilisation, their lives ruled by unaccountable corporations in a brutal police state, finding solace only in technological simulation of lost nature, and bogus virtual-reality religion.

The book and the movie do share a common theme about the nature of humanity, but the former is significantly darker, and much more downbeat in its conclusion. Dick died shortly before the film came out, but he did see a pre-release version, and apparently liked it, though he felt it complemented his story rather than directly reproducing it.

While android technology may not have advanced as far as Dick imagined, the cleverness of today’s Artificial Intelligence does seem to exceed that displayed by the replicants in the story. Roy Batty may trick his way into Tyrell’s residence with an unexpected chess move (though he’s actually just reproducing a game played out by humans back in 1851), but chess is old hat for modern AI; just last month it was reported that Google’s Deep Mind program had mastered that most advanced of intellectual pursuits, the online real-time strategy game.

Some people warn that AI is approaching the Singularity; the point where it can improve itself faster than humans can keep up. This is generally followed, in classic science fiction at least, by the newly-conscious super-computer taking over the world, though this does depend on humans doing something stupid, like handing it control of all the nuclear weapons, and it usually all works out well in the end, once we manage to teach the machines the power of love or something.

I do sometimes worry that AI will kill us all eventually, though not with an army of cyborgs; it will just get us to do the job ourselves, by using social media algorithms to divide us into mutually destructive tribes, or, failing that, to convince enough of us to eschew vaccination that we all die of measles.

At heart though, I’m still enough of a techno-utopian to believe that humankind is sufficiently smart to stay in control of the technology we create, and that our social organisation will evolve to allow the whole population to benefit from the advances that, at the moment, are just enriching a few. All going well, the future will be less like Blade Runner, and more like … actually I can’t think of a sci-fi film where the utopia doesn’t turn out to be a dystopia before the second reel. Maybe Logan’s Run, for the under-30s?

All I want for Christmas

So, we finally have a date for an election, which feels waking up from a nightmare, for the moment at least. I suspect the sense of relief will be short-lived though, since the campaign that will now ensue is likely to be ill-tempered and divisive.

The final result may turn on the degree to which Boris Johnson is able to keep the focus on his preferred narrative – the one that casts him, an absurdly privileged toff, as the unlikely tribune of the common man – and away from where he actually wants to lead the country, which is not a destination likely to appeal to the working-class voters he needs to win over. Conversely, Jeremy Corbyn will be hoping that the electorate can look beyond the immediate question of Brexit, and buy into the progressive Labour programme that proved popular in 2017.

Whatever plans the parties may have are unlike to survive first contact with the population, so predicting the outcome is a fool’s game, but I’ll go for it anyway – Johnson’s gamble won’t pay off, and our Yuletide present will be a Labour government.

 

Time to vote

So, are we to have an election before the end of the year? One might think, after yet another week of parliamentary manoeuvring, we would have an answer to that question, especially since all the major parties are, in theory, in favour of an early poll, but uncertainty persists. Boris Johnson’s latest attempt to dissolve parliament, which came to a vote this evening, was unsuccessful, as, unsurprisingly, the opposition was reluctant to take him at his word when he promised not to try to push through his Withdrawal Bill before election day.

He’s going to try again tomorrow, with a motion that ties him down to a definite date, which would make it all but impossible for him to engineer an exit in the meantime. This time he might get it over the line, since the EU have granted another extension until the end of January, providing reassurance for the opposition parties with most to gain from an election, the SNP and the Liberals, who between them have enough votes to give Johnson a majority, assuming he can keep his own party on board. Labour remain ambivalent, but may have to accept that the numbers are stacking up against a further delay.

The Tories are ahead in the polls, but even so, an election is a major gamble for Johnson. He would be banking on picking up enough seats from Labour in the north of England to offset what will probably be a total Conservative wipeout in Scotland, and heavy losses to the Liberals in the south. He would need to keep the campaign focused on Brexit, and hope that Labour leave voters were prepared to overlook a decade of austerity, and the promise of more to come, and give him the mandate to finally carry through a departure. This seems unlikely, to say the least.

My view is that an election can’t come soon enough. A win for the left is more than possible, and while a Johnson victory would be a nightmare, at least we would know where we stood, and could get on with the class struggle, instead of prolonging the current paralysis.

My predictions? There will be an election in the week beginning 9th December, Labour will win enough seats to form a minority government with the loose support of the SNP, and Johnson will take his rightful place as a footnote to history.

Delayed disgratification

Not for the first time, what promised to be a decisive day in the Brexit saga has turned out to be anything but. For reasons that I can’t summon the energy to summarise, the meaningful vote on Boris Johnson’s deal has been delayed, perhaps until next week, but possibly longer.

Theoretically, Johnson should now be required to request a further postponement of the departure date, which, reports suggest, the EU will grudgingly grant. Johnson is still insisting that he will do no such thing, but he is probably just waiting until his hand is forced by the courts, so that he can burnish his populist credentials by claiming that he is the victim of an establishment plot.

As someone who wants to see the whole Brexit project consigned to the dustbin of history, I should be feeling pleased by this development, but I can’t help feeling that the continual deferment of the day of reckoning is just allowing the left to avoid facing up to the fact that we have lost this particular battle, and we need to be getting ready for the rest of the war. If the right want to use Brexit to ramp up the class struggle – which they do – then we should tell them to bring it on, because, history tells us, when it comes to that fight, we will fuck them up.

Back on the brink

So, against expectations, Boris Johnson has managed to cobble together a deal acceptable to the EU, though to get it over the line he has been obliged to completely cave in on the Irish border question, essentially accepting that Northern Ireland will stay in the single market indefinitely and that the customs line will run down the Irish Sea. To balance this climbdown he is able to point to the freedom to significantly loosen regulations in the rest of the UK, which Brexit enthusiasts have always promoted as the main benefit of the process.

However… there is still the small matter of getting this deal approved by Westminster, with a vote scheduled the day after tomorrow. The right of the Tory party seem to be on board, convinced by the promise of unfettered capitalism, while the DUP are steadfastly opposed, which is unsurprising given that Johnson has comprehensively betrayed their core principles. The Labour leadership and the other opposition parties have pledged to vote no, leaving Johnson dependent on twenty or so Labour rebels, who were previously in favour of Theresa May’s abortive deal. Johnson’s plan is much more hostile to workers’ rights though, which is likely to put off most if not all of the potential waverers, who will also be reluctant to hand Johnson a boost immediately ahead of the coming election. All things considered, it looks like a long shot.

If Johnson’s deal falls, where does that leave the nation? There was a hint today that the EU would lose patience, and just kick us out at the end of the month, but they seem to be backtracking on that threat, so a further extension, to give time for an election and/or another referendum, appears likely. We’re more or less back where we were this time last year; I’d be reluctant to bet that things will be any different by next October…

Criminally inept

There was a brief spell last week when it seemed like a resolution to the Brexit impasse might be in sight; while Boris Johnson’s long-awaited proposal for a deal was clearly inadequate, he had ditched the take-it-or-leave-it rhetoric, and it was just about possible to imagine that he had lured the ultras in his own party into supporting his strategy, with the intention of caving in to the EU at the last moment. The outcome of this would have been an unlikely resurrection of Theresa May’s deal, which, given what has happened in the months since that was last presented to parliament, might have garnered enough cross-party support to squeeze through.

Alas, this rosy scenario required crediting Johnson with more guile than he actually possesses; it has since become clear that he has no secret plan, and really does believe that his brinkmanship will compel Brussels to back down. Unsurprisingly there is no sign that will happen, so the crisis is set to rumble on.

Johnson has promised the nation that Brexit will definitely occur at the end of the month, while simultaneously assuring a court that he will abide by the Benn act and request a further postponement when, inevitably, no deal is finalised in the next two weeks. His cunning ploy to get out of this bind is to ask the Hungarians to veto an extension, though what might motivate them to piss off their EU partners for his sake is unexplained.

Adding a slightly surreal aspect to the whole business is the fact that Johnson is also on the hook for petty graft, with allegations that he steered relatively trivial sums of public money towards the business of a woman he may or may not have been having an affair with at the time.

I guess we get the leaders we deserve; an incompetent crook seems about right for a has-been power with lingering delusions of grandeur. It would be amusing, were it not that Johnson’s imminent collision with reality is going to take the rest of us down with him.

Polarising opposition

As we noted yesterday, both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are experiencing some political turbulence, and both are responding in the same way, by doubling down on the rhetoric that they know will enrage their liberal adversaries.

Trump, faced with the allegation that he put pressure on a foreign government to smear a domestic political opponent, released evidence that all but confirms his guilt, effectively daring Nancy Pelosi to do something about it. Faced with such a blatant provocation, the Democratic leadership had little choice but to launch an impeachment process, even though there is practically no chance of Trump being convicted by the GOP-controlled Senate.

Similarly, Johnson flew back to London to explain himself to the reassembled House of Commons, only to deliver a statement completely lacking in humility or contrition, and instead loaded with the aggressively populist accusation that Parliament and the courts were frustrating the will of the people.

I cannot believe that either of these would-be strongmen are unaware of the effect talk like this will have upon their respective countries; it seems much more likely that this is a deliberate attempt to sow discord and agitate their base, in the hope that the resulting anger and chaos will carry them to electoral victory.

Will liberal democracy be able to withstand this storm? Probably; this isn’t the 1930s. Trump and Johnson will discover that it’s difficult to keep a coalition of angry people together; the more you rile them up the more they demand even greater extremes, until the whole project implodes. That said, the strategy of division has the potential to cause a lot of unpleasantness, and it would be a brave commentator who would bet against Johnson or Trump prevailing in the short term. Polarisation works both ways though; a swing to the right creates the conditions that can convince people of the value of progressive principles. I’m still just about confident that we’ll win out in the end.

Supreme optimism

Left-leaning Britain is feeling pretty chipper tonight, after a day which saw the Supreme Court hand down a unanimous and unexpectedly severe condemnation of Boris Johnson’s attempt to forestall opposition to his Brexit policy by suspending parliament. The Prime Minister’s transparent dishonesty in attempting to justify his actions, and his insistence that it was none of their business, seems to have particularly irked the judges, who ruled that the prorogation was invalid, clearing the way for MPs to reassemble tomorrow and renew their attempts to stymie Johnson’s plan to leave at the end of October.

While this is clearly a setback for the right, I’m reluctant to celebrate too soon. It does look likely now that Johnson will be forced into a humiliating climbdown, and we will still be in the EU when an election is eventually held, probably in November. The best-case scenario would see the resulting recriminations split the leave vote between the Tories and the Brexit Party, leaving the way clear for a Labour administration. On the other hand, it’s possible that Johnson will be able to spin today’s events into his populist narrative, positioning himself as a tribune of the people standing up to a corrupt elite, effectively enough to win a majority when the votes are counted.

Then again, perhaps I should stop over-thinking this, and just enjoy the sight of the tide of reaction, seemingly unstoppable in recent years, starting to turn, both here and in the US, where it looks like the Democrats might finally be getting around to impeaching Donald Trump. There’s still plenty work to be done, and the outcome remains uncertain, but at least we can dream.

Courting disaster

The attention of the country, or at least that part of it not yet entirely alienated from the political process, focused this morning on the Supreme Court, which convened to hear the thorny case of Johnson v Democracy.

Of course the government would prefer us to view the divide as The People v The Establishment, with Johnson identifying himself as the champion of the former. He has abandoned the pretence that the suspension of parliament was not intended to suppress opposition, and is instead defending it as a legitimate political manoeuvre which the courts have no business interfering with.

This is probably a smart strategy; if the justices decide in his favour he can claim vindication, while if they rule against him it will only burnish his populist reputation.

My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that the judges will decline to overrule the executive, which will give Johnson the confidence to ignore the law compelling him to delay Brexit.

It’s looking more likely that any election will come after we’re out of the EU, and you’d have to fancy Johnson’s chances in that scenario. I’ve been swinging between hope and despair on this issue for the past few months, but the latter emotion is definitely predominant right now.