On #traingate

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Don’t even know where to begin with this one, but I think it’s relatively safe to say this could be the final nail in the coffin for the Corbynite movement.

Like other, albeit more competent, leaders before him these image-destroying gaffes have proven catastrophic. It’s the perfect example of one of those simple situations that while fundamentally irrelevant to any matter of policy neverthless seeps into the public imagination with incredible efficiency. And it sticks.

Foot’s donkey jacket at the cenotaph. Miliband’s bacon butty. Cameron’s cycling chauffer.

Despite the fact that for staunch supporters/detractors this will merely confirm existing narratives — i.e., for supporters that the media/big business is out to get him because they are scared, for detractors that the man is utterly incompetent — the worst part about this is that it completely eradicates his “I’m different; I’m honest; I’m special” front. As such it ends any prospect (limited as it was on this shallow basis anyway) for him to convince other people to join him. Corbyn needs to change minds, not entrench them; least not existing mindsets if current polling is anything to go by.

The elephant in the room here is that Corbyn has built an entire ‘movement’ out of his personality and his (ac)claimed characteristics. Much as Corbynites like to say they’re really keen on policy, even a short conversation with them reveals this to be untrue.

Most remain remarkably ignorant of any meaningful policy considerations or arguments, instead defaulting to vague rhetoric about the status quo, neoliberalism etc. Prod even that (if you dare!) and you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of people regurgitating the (incredible) extent to which they believe Corbyn to be a paragon of virtue. “Straight talking, honest politics” is the slogan.

With that in mind, this incident, involving what is in reality a relatively ordinary and unremarkable (read: ‘boring’) man who claims to be truly special and ‘above it all’, will undoubtedly do significant harm to his already disastrous image.

Furthermore, the idea that a business would pick a fight with a leader of the opposition suggests just how little threat of a Corbyn government there really is perceived to be, particularly for an industry whose business is heavily influenced by regulatory changes and liable to expropriation. Were he viewed as likely to form a government, Richard Branson would have probably tweeted sarcastically about the incident, brushing it off, rather than directly attacking Corbyn and risk being made an example of by any future government, particularly one with an already intensely prejudiced view of corporations and an ideological hunger for state ownership.

Oldham West and media narratives: JezWeCan

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The Economist’s current Bagehot fantasises over a rebellion of moderate liberals; local government in the form of Jim McMahon taking centre stage.

You quickly become aware that is it politics as usual when the Corbynites come out in full swing in the wake of the Oldham by-election. Apparently, under Corbyn’s influence, the constituency increased its Labour vote and is further proof (alongside his leadership bid) that Corbyn isn’t unelectable. There are a couple of things that are in equal measure both wrong and amusing about this analysis.

The most obvious and superficial is that McMahon is part of the 4.5% that supported Kendall. I’m not sure he can get any more centrist or Blairite than that. Until of course you realise that the Economist is complimentary towards him while scathing about Corbyn. See, e.g., article linked to in image caption. Another is that the campaign was apparently local-issue-focused with little mention of the grandiose, national visions espoused by the chosen one. Let alone his name or that many in Oldham even knew it to begin with. Corbyn wasn’t standing in this election. A local and well-loved Blairite was.

Related to this are the obvious traits of this constituency, most notably its demographics, the fact that is a tribally safe Labour seat and that the less than 20k or so that voted for McMahon (or “Corbyn” if we’re being generous) are representative of seats across the country (but especially marginals). It is quite odd to consider winning a safe seat as an achievement of the leadership. In sum, a grand total of <0.01% of the British electorate might be said to have “voted for Corbyn” here, but only, of course, if we chose to ignore a number of other factors and data. Or I guess simply if we like Corbyn and just believe hard enough that his (our?) dreams will come true.

The second is what making the argument that it was “Corbyn wot won it” involves on a more analytical level. As a reminder this is a movement that has a lot of resentment towards the media and its misleading narratives (though how could we forget given that most issues for them come back to this; astutely referred to in another blog as “The Worst Meme in Politics“). With Oldham, they claim that Corbyn, contrary to the (false) media narratives they decry, has actually risen above those falsehoods to demonstrate how electable he truly is.

If you think about it, this amounts to using a false media narrative to make their case because it is only relative to that pseudo-narrative that their argument makes any material sense. It was only on account of hype and media punditry that anyone seriously (and mistakenly) thought Oldham, with its excellent local candidate, was actually at risk to an outsider Kipper on account of the Corbyn brand. Now those false perceptions with regards the seat are being used to set up a contrast to make claims of electability. A contrast with a false narrative to put forward another one. Bizarro-world indeed.

Now, had it turned out to be a (really) bad day for Labour, losing an incredibly safe seat, this would definitely have been more attributable to Corbyn. Emphasis on the “more” because this is a hypothetical and a number of other factors would need to be looked at had that event occurred. Naturally to the partisan this may seem hypocritical — if Corbyn can be held to have lost it, he can be held to have won it. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t quite follow in the circumstances here.

For those looking for bit more information, there’s a more detailed analysis on the implications (or rather, lack there of) of this result here.

NB Oldham was a few weeks ago, but I have only just gotten around to fleshing this out now over the holiday season.

 

When proportional representation goes awry

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If there’s one thing proportional electoral systems are great at representing is a fragmented and unstable political situation. This isn’t a necessary result of such systems, but the current woes of Spain are a good example of certain tendencies attributable to them.

The Spanish constitution requires a majority of 176 representatives to form a government – a bar not met in the latest national elections. Few coalitions seem particularly viable as the nature of the current political climate has spawned a variety of (new) parties, each with their own hot-button and often irreconcilably niche issues.

Spain also possess a relatively combative approach to negotiations. The last incumbent PM was recently assaulted, albeit by a teenager, during the campaign. The example isn’t wholly representative on its own, though tempers are clearly high. But as an Argentine familiar with Spanish culture it’s also clear there is a confrontational slant to how interactions take place in these countries regardless.

Combine this with being the Eurozone’s 4th largest economy in a fragile state, and it is almost certain political risk analysts will be watching subsequent developments closely.

Let’s hope the Spanish economy can stomach the political instability of this result, never mind whatever manner of coalition (that no one explicitly voted for) emerges.

Is Zwarte Piet racism?

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Great Economist article summarising this current Dutch debate.

I’d suggest the resolution to the issue comes down to the intention of the costume/tradition/wearer. We can test this by asking how a white person would react to a black person approaching them with genuine concerns about the tradition.

If the instinct is to dismiss those views entirely, with no room for compromise (or modification of the tradition) then I’d suggest we have the beginnings of an argument that at least that person is racist, and that (maybe) the tradition is the root of that or a significant cause of it. We can then try to extrapolate upwards to see if this kind of approach is shared widely across Dutch society, and, if it is, more readily conclude that indeed the tradition is racist.

Arguments that because the tradition was borne out of colonialism, is a still practised tradition and that therefore it is a racist tradition are superficial and wrong-headed. Something that began 100+ years ago in a wildly different context says little to nothing about whether the it is currently racist, even if it is still practised as a fancy dress exercise.

Some have, however, reacted badly and somewhat dismissively. Nevertheless, this only goes some way to making the argument. Some is not the same as all; it’s not the same as society. This comment from the article sums it up quite well, in my view:

It should be noted that the current discussion was provoked by a researcher posing as an independent UN investigator, who basically told an entire country to throw out one of its most loved traditions. That doesn’t excuse the racists now showing themselves in these discussions, but it does lump all the non-racists in with them.

From my perspective, as silly as it may sound to some, the ‘soot-covered’ argument sounds fine. Indeed, the stereotypical Zwarte Piet image is a man with *blue eyes*. As a child, I never once associated Zwarte Pieten with black people – they were a supernatural phenomenon, just like Sinterklaas himself. Does that mean it can’t be construed as racist? No. And maybe there’s something to be said for allowing more hairstyles, at least, considering it adds to the stereotype.

But the point is, for most people there’s no racist *intent* here. Having someone tell you that you’re being racist is offensive if you’re not aware of any harm – it should be fine to suggest changing the tradition in some minor way to be more politically correct, but it doesn’t surprise me that people go on the defensive considering the way those against the practice have gone about it.

Ultimately I’d submit that, on balance, Zwarte Piet isn’t a racist tradition. It may have been the product of an era we now regard as racist, but if anything, I think that if you ask any Dutch person, of any race, few will say they treat Zwarte Piet as an assertion of colonial racism manifest in modern Dutch society. The only ones that seem to be suggesting it is are, somewhat ironically, the currently staunch opponents to the tradition – much like those who take a wholly dismissive view of the issue while labelling an entire society as prejudiced and discriminatory.

Perhaps there is an argument that regardless of the practice’s affect on conscious racism, it may form the basis for a less overt form of subconscious racism. I don’t, however, see how such an argument can adequately be shown empirically, absent widespread racial discrimination and racist attitudes within the society or similar.

Indeed the tradition may even form the basis of reminder of the nation’s past, – a past few would honestly believe is worth returning to, let alone remotely close to what modern life in the Netherlands is like.