Changing my mind on the House of Lords (Or, how I learnt to stop worrying and love an unelected second chamber)

Anyone not on the hard right can rejoice this week at the fact that the most pernicious Conservative plan of this parliament to date was blocked by the House of Lords. The bill to cut working tax credits was bankrupt, both economically and morally, and showed just how ideologically driven this government is. However, much as the left should be rejoicing at its failure, it is instead put in something of a quandary: an institution it has long opposed has just done a great service for the nation’s disadvantaged.  I confess that during my time I have switched back and forth on the Lords a few times. I have, on occasion, weakly supported an elected House, but I have never been convinced. This year, however, I have fallen heavily on the side of keeping it appointed.

Why? Because, uncomfortable as it may be for the left/liberals, the fact is the Lords actually do a pretty good job. The House is the embodiment of One-Nation conservatism – a philosophy which I have more than a little sympathy for. It is frequently too conservative for my tastes on LGBT issues, assisted dying and a host of other social issues, but when it comes to inequality the Lords tends to be far more philanthropic and just than the Commons. In part, this is due to their role as a scrutinising chamber, which allows them to be more critical of the flaws in legislation which is based in ideology rather than pragmatism. However, another reason for this is that they do not have to face election, meaning they do not need to subscribe to the latest populist bashing of welfare, immigration etc.

So those are the good points about the Lords being unelected, would it being elected come with many negatives? Well, yes. Let’s be perfectly clear about this: if the Lords were elected, the Tax Credit legislation would have almost certainly passed this week. There are only two ways an elected upper chamber would turn out. 1) It mirrors the Commons 2) people use it as a protest vote and it’s the polar opposite. Both scenarios are as dire as each other. In scenario one, legislation gets rushed through parliament with no proper scrutiny. The leader of the Lords could be bullied by the PM very easily, who would, justly, claim that both Houses were elected by a popular mandate, and therefore both had a duty to implement government policy. Furthermore, any Lords rebellion would risk a full state party civil war and possible general election, so the Lords are far less likely to rebel. In this scenario, the vote on tax credits would have passed. In scenario two, the Houses are almost permanently deadlocked, like the US Congress and Senate. This would leave any government basically powerless to do anything, and would also, realistically, require an elected Head of State. This scenario leaves any government hamstrung, unable to enact any real changes however necessary they are, and gives whoever leads the Commons plenty of opportunity to claim the other party is obstructing them, disregards the needs of the country etc. In short, it is a recipe for constitutional crisis.

To be frank, I have no problem at all with an unelected house of experts. Yes there are many problems with the Lords, not least that too often the ‘experts’ are simply the Prime Minister’s mates. There are many reforms that need to be made in terms of pay, size and composition. Likewise, I don’t care what it’s called. For all I care we could rename ‘The People’s Chamber’ and have everyone address each other as comrade. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the function the Lords performs is actually a very useful and much needed one, and changing it to an elected House risks constitutional disaster. Perhaps it’s tiresome and conservative of me to say ‘Better the devil you know’, but the opposition of much of the left to the Lords appears to be more and more based in ideology rather than reality.

Local Music: Sam England at Exeter Cavern

It’s nice to blog about something other than politics once in a while, so today I have for you a (very belated) write-up of a local artist I went to see at the Exeter Cavern on 6 October. I confess a slight bias as the whole thing was organised by my girlfriend, and also that my senses weren’t up to scratch, as I was full of both a cold and ‘Crafty Dan’s’ 13 Guns beer (which is excellent, by the way). There were two other acts on but I left early due to my aforementioned affliction.

To start with, I must urge you to go to Cavern if you are ever in Exeter for a night out. It’s a small venue but very intimate and much more interesting than the city’s other clubs. It is effectively an underground bar with one section for seating and the other for a stage and a dancefloor which can hold about 80-100 people. It specialises in ‘alternative’ nights, whether they be indie, folk, hip-hop or house. It’s a really good night and is definitely worth a visit.

So, to Sam England. Sam is a student at the University and writes folk music which flits between catchy and pensive. On the night he played solo using his acoustic for both the chord progressions and percussion, but on his EP ‘Red Skies’ he is joined by Christie Gardner who provides harmonies as well as various musicians to provide drums and electric guitar on certain tracks. I can’t help but be reminded of Iron and Wine by Sam’s breathy, baritone vocals, particularly when they are combined with Christie’s harmonies – the production and ambience really make me think of ‘The Creek Drank the Cradle’ and ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ in particular. What really stands out with Sam, however, is his aptitude for the guitar. He writes intricate guitar lines in various tunings which are very captivating and give his music an authentic folk style. It is very refreshing to hear in a music scene where ‘folk’ is too often symbolised by a guy with a beard hammering out Am, F and G chords on every track while making vague allusions to South-East Asia, and there are some genuinely interesting progressions which fans of folk music will enjoy.

So, I hope you enjoyed this brief departure from writing about the Labour Party (I did), and I encourage you to listen to Sam England on either the hyperlink I included earlier, Spotify or iTunes. Enjoy!

The Left is deluded: it is not a majority

If your life has reached the same low point as mine – which it must have if you’re reading this – you will no doubt have heard about the protests outside the Conservative Party Conference. You will have seen plenty of disgust at protesters spitting on journalists, shouting threats and abuse at, well, anyone, and egging Tory delegates. Needless to say, this disgust is justified, but what is more interesting is the mentality behind so much of the protests and the wider left in general. This being that they genuinely seem to believe that the country is brimming full of left-wingers, who are only being kept out of power by a conspiracy of the media, the electoral system or Labour ‘not being left wing enough’.

The evidence for this mentality existing is everywhere. You can see it in the ‘We are the 76%’ Twibbons in Twitter profiles, in the Socialist Worker’s ‘Defy Tory Rule’ banners and Natalie Bennett stating ‘We are the many, they are the few’. The cognitive dissonance exhibited by the above is quite startling. The incredibly tiresome ‘76%’ meme not only ignores that votes not cast do not count towards the overall result (who’d have thought?) but also that if 76% didn’t vote for the Tories, 82% didn’t vote for Labour and 96% didn’t vote for the Greens. Natalie Bennett’s laughable intervention also handily ignores the fact that the Green vote would not have been enough to even win back a deposit deposit if the nationwide share had been replicated in a single seat.

It is this bizarre sense of entitlement that hamstrings the left. Its acolytes feel they have the right to call those who oppose them scum and talk about their moral degeneracy as if centre-right views were only held by a small and contemptible number of the electorate. Nothing is more emblematic of this disease than the 99% vs the 1% narrative. It would seem many genuinely believe that the only people who actually can hold right-wing views are members of this elite, and anyone not inside it must have been conned by media narratives etc.

Essentially, the biggest problem with this view is that it imagines people view themselves as either the ruling class or those pitted against them; they don’t. To put it bluntly, the vast majority of people do not think in terms of class anymore, and certainly not in the traditional Marxian sense. Even most of the left no longer care care about it, hence its increasing emphasis on race, sexuality and gender as being the main areas of inequality. An owner of small business taking in £25K a year is far more likely to believe themselves a struggling entrepreneur who deserves to be rewarded more than ‘lazy public sector workers’ than they are to identify as a member of a lower-income bracket being oppressed by wealthy corporate managers. Likewise, the majority of hatred towards immigrants I have witnessed has come from working class people, although they almost always are in the same income band. On the other end of the scale, we are all familiar with the much-maligned stereotype of well-off bien pensants who subsist on vegetarian diets, shop locally and vote left. Class is simply not an adequate predictor of voting patterns or self-identification.

The left has to face facts. Right-wing parties received over 50% of the national vote in 2015. In contrast, parties that were identifiably ‘left-wing’ received just about 40%. TUC research shows us that fears that Labour will tax too much, spend too much and be too generous with welfare are still some of the main reasons people give for not voting for us. The British public do not much like redistribution, they really don’t like immigration and EU laws and they hate anything that sounds ‘PC’. Far from acknowledging this, the left has retreated into a wholesale ‘no-cuts’ narrative, professing unconditional support for Europe, dismissing immigration as a non-issue that only bothers racists and condemning people for ever-more esoteric breaches of speech codes. We then cheer as Jeremy Corbyn fills another echo-chamber with acolytes and we declare the government are scared. They’re not.

The Tories perfectly understand the fragility of politics, and as such are pitching to the centre-ground, putting on a humble face and trying to cement themselves as the natural party of government. George Osborne even conceded that the party hasn’t done enough to win over Labour voters, and has to listen to them. Can you imagine the left saying the same of Tory voters? We are in more danger than ever of becoming a movement convinced of our own superiority and purity, but with no regard for the electorate and the facts of democracy. If we do not change, our future will be full of sound and fury, but one which will signify nothing but defeat.

Notes on Mad Max: Fury Road

Last weekend I finally got around to seeing Mad Max: Fury Road – about six months later than everyone else. I realise this means this is hardly a contemporary review, but I want to add my reflections on the film regardless.

The first thing I am going to talk about is one of the most striking things about the film: its diversity. I remember seeing headlines such as ‘Fury Road finest feminist film for decades’ when it came out, and assumed it was an Onion or Daily Mash headline. For those of you who’ve had the privilege of watching the original Mad Max films, you will know that, while they are not sexist, they are hardly a meditation on gender; they consist of Mel Gibson beasting it around Australia on a motorbike doing in men dressed in S&M gear. Therefore, I expected the latest instalment to be basically more of the same, but with better CGI. Well, how wrong could I be?

Fury Road is possibly the best film I have seen for representing women as actual, interesting, rounded human beings. The writing team resisted the temptation of making Furiosa a cliché ‘strong woman’ badass character, which nearly always ends up with the woman just taking on the quasi-comic, overblown masculine traits of every action movie hero. Likewise, they resisted turning Max into some useless bumbling sidekick overshadowed by his female superior – another trope that often appears when people try to write a ‘strong female’ focused drama. No, Furiosa was indeed super badass and cool, more than able to fight, survive etc, but she also exhibited genuine tenderness, rage and longing just like any human in her situation was. Possibly the most moving and relatable, not to mention excellently acted, scenes in the film was when she returns to what she thinks is home only to discover that ‘home’ has become a barren, inhospitable quagmire that her party had already driven through. Similarly, Max is not a cliché, all-action hero, but a man haunted by his past who is also seeking redemption. Also, perhaps most importantly, neither Max nor Furiosa would have survived without each other. All-in-all, gender representation and equality is done excellently in this film, avoiding tropes and cliché in favour of actual believable and well-balanced characters.

The other thing that stood out for me was how excellently shot the film was. The Director, George Miller, has stated that we wanted the film to be ‘as colourful as possible’ and the art direction to be ‘as beautiful as possible’ and his vision was certainly realised. His reasoning was that he felt that all post-apocalyptic films went for a drab, colourless vision of the world to convey the horror of the post-apocalypse. Miller’s vision, in contrast, presents with a world that looks almost biblical. Indeed, I am sure that the feeling of mythical pre-history is no accident. The dusty masses clamouring for the ‘water of life’ at the start of the film, the huge dust storm and Furiosa being stolen from the ‘green place’ to roam the wasteland all have a distinctly Christian myth feel to them. This also ties in perfectly with the theme of redemption that runs through the film. (By the way, did anyone else notice that guy with distinctly neanderthal features at the end?)

The last subject I would like to talk about is what was, in my view, the central theme of the film: power. Fury Road is set years after civilisation as we know it, and as such humanity has returned to a ‘state of nature’, if you will. Far from Locke’s or Rousseau’s conception of this time, life in Fury Road is very much a Hobbesian affair – nasty, brutish and short. It is quite easy to see the film as being a meditation on patriarchy, or simply anarchy, but this misses the point that actually ‘evil’ in this film is always simply a manifestation of absolute power. Immortan Joe was clearly a respected, charismatic and powerful warlord in his day, and used this to build up an army of slaves and warriors. With these, he managed to subjugate neighbouring communities and created a monopoly over our most vital resource: water. After securing his domination, he was able to take any women he wanted as his property and cement himself as a god-king amongst his citizens – the similarities between Joe addressing the dusty crowds below and the Pope the crowds in St. Peter’s Square seemed to me quite intentional. This story of absolute power securing privilege and leading to despotism is almost entirely reflective of human history before the great social advances of the 18th-19th centuries, and is an unsettling reminder of the fragility of human society.

So there we have it. Fury Road is an excellent film which is beautifully shot, gripping and actually surprisingly thoughtful. The actors put in a great performance all-round, but Charlize Theron steals the show as Imperator Furiosa. (Also, I was more than thrown when I realised that Nux the ‘warboy’ is played by Nicholas Hoult, a star of my favourite film.) There is plenty of excess in the costumes and the quasi-comic grotesque nature of Fury Road (I confess, the guitarist playing thrash metal on a huge truck almost ruined for me), but it still manages to be a thoroughly watchable film, and, arguably, a film with quite a left-wing bent.

8/10

Corbyn’s ‘New approach’ to Prime Minister’s Questions. Aye or no?

So Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQs is over. Far from being the car crash that was being predicted, with Cameron belting out the national anthem before wheeling out some Hezbollah fighters and asking him to choose between them, it was a rather dull affair, in keeping with Jeremy’s ‘new approach to PMQs’. The braying and raised tempers rarely made appearances as Corbyn instead chose to proceed with ‘Marie wants to know about housing’, ‘Steven emails about the financial trouble his family is in’ etc. All-in-all it was an interesting change to Prime Minister’s Questions, but it left a far bigger question: will it work for Corbyn?

Well, with a few tweaks, I actually think this could be a very effective strategy. It has two big advantages over the old system. The main one is that it is a lot harder for Cameron to come back with an insulting, dismissive reply when faced with an actual question from a voter. When Ed Miliband said he was concerned about housing, Cameron could come back pretty easily with ‘WHY DO YOU HAVE TWO KITCHENS THEN? DON’T SOCIALISTS ALL WANT TO LEAVE IN COMMUNES ANYWAY LOL’ etc. Tiresome, but it shut down questions pretty quickly. In contrast, he really can’t just shout down a concerned voter from Basildon worried about cuts to schooling in their area.

The other big plus is that it makes PMQs more relatable for the viewing public. Labour is always faced by the risk of being seen as bien pensant liberals sat in parliament talking about things of which they have no real-world experience. This was a problem for ‘North London Millionaire’ Ed Miliband and would also be for ‘Privately educated North London MP’ Jeremy Corbyn. When actually quoting “real people™”, this criticism can hardly be leveled. Furthermore, it gives watchers evidence that people really are struggling in the UK, and it’s not just some leftie propaganda dreamt up in Brewer’s Green.

However, the big downside of this approach was pointed out by many. Cameron was effectively given free reign to spew out a brief version of the Tory manifesto. He was able to appear calm and measured while simply giving answers like ‘Of course we are worried about Susan’s flat, and this is how we plan to address it’. Even though they were basically the same fob-off answers you usually get when you write to MPs, there was nothing really in his responses that could be pulled apart or jeered at. It allowed him to appear statesmanlike and concerned – his best qualities – rather than rattled, short-tempered and incoherent – his worst.

If I were advising Corbyn now, I would suggest he uses a question or two from the public to set the scene and lay into Cameron with his own questions. ‘Kahlil is worried about cuts to policing in Reading’ followed by Jeremy’s own attacks about cuts and public services could be genuinely effective. It would allow the premise to be set by a concerned member of the public, but then the leader of the Labour Party to champion their cause and take the Tories to task. For all his faults, Corbyn today showed that he is at least competent at PMQs, and, with a bit of honing his approach, I would not underestimate him.

The Left and identity

Excellent post from my good friend Jade Azim. The negative reaction of elements of the left to the election of a working-class Asian just because of his gender shames us. Likewise, the manner in which class has been ignored and even mocked during this election all too-often betrays what the late Charb so neatly called ‘the disgusting paternalism of the white, bourgeois, intellectual “left” who seek to exist among the “unfortunate, under-educated poor.”‘

How did you vote in the Labour leadership election?

With less than a week to go until the new leader of the Labour Party is announced, how did you vote in the leadership election? ‘Polldaddy’ is not sophisticated enough to allow for second prefs, so take the questions as meaning who did you put as your first preference.