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Europe

Jul 24, 2017

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Opposition Leader Bill Shorten used a speech on Friday to the Melbourne Institute economic outlook conference to declare Labor’s commitment to eradicating the biggest threat to social cohesion and economic growth in Australia — inequality. The speech, according to Fairfax’s James Massola, “borrows from the populist message of progressive political leaders including Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain”. But how does the Labor Party under Shorten (a member of Labor’s right faction) actually compare to Britain’s Labour Party under self-described socialist Jeremy Corbyn? Let’s look at some of the 10 core pledges British Labour made in the lead-up to the recent general election and how they compare to Labor’s newfound focus on inequality. 

Tax

Jeremy Corbyn:

“We will build a progressive tax system so that wealth and the highest earners are fairly taxed, and shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid. We will act to create a more equal society, boost the incomes of the poorest and close the gender pay gap”.

Bill Shorten:

“If we’re going to fund vital investments for the future and keep the budget strong, we need to look at the old and growing faults in our tax system. The whole picture: revenue and expenditure, including tax subsidies. Including reforms that in the past we might have dismissed as too politically difficult.” Melbourne Institute speech, Friday July 21, 2017.

Housing

Jeremy Corbyn: 

“We will build over a million new homes in five years, with at least half a million council homes, through our public investment strategy. We will end insecurity for private renters by introducing rent controls, secure tenancies and a charter of private tenants’ rights, and increase access to affordable home ownership.”

Bill Shorten, “Labor’s postive plan to help housing affordability”  

“Labor has a plan to put the Australian dream of owning your own home back within the reach of first home buyers. We don’t want the let the dream of owning your own home vanish for you or your kids.

“Our plan will reform negative gearing and capital gains tax to make sure the housing market works for all Australians. These reforms are about putting some fairness back into the housing market, and making improvements to the Budget bottom line.

“These reforms are also good for our economy and will deliver $32.1 billion in savings which will help us to fund important reforms like Labor’s Your Child. Our Future, a plan to boost our schools for every child in every school across Australia.”  

Industrial relations

Jeremy Corbyn

“We will give people stronger employment rights from day one in a job, end exploitative zero hours contracts, and create new sectoral collective bargaining rights.

“We will strengthen working people’s representation at work and the ability of trade unions to organise, so that working people have a real voice at work. And we will put the defence of social and employment rights, as well as action against undercutting of pay and conditions through the exploitation of migrant labour…”

Bill Shorten, Australian Council of Trade Unions conference speech

“We will not stand by and allow the penalty rates of all Australians, millions of Australians, be put on the chopping block. We will do everything in our power, in the Parliament and in the courts, to remedy this bad decision (to cut penalty rates).”  

Employment and education

Jeremy Corbyn:

“We will create a million good quality jobs across our regions and nations, and guarantee a decent job for all. By investing 500 billion pounds in infrastructure and industry, backed up by a publicly-owned National Investment Bank and regional banks, we will build a high skilled, high tech, low carbon economy to ensure that no one and no community is left behind.

“We will invest in the high speed broadband, energy, transport and homes that our country needs and allow good businesses to thrive, and support a new generation of co-operative enterprises.”

“We will build a new National Education Service, open to all throughout their lives. We will ensure there is universal childcare to give all children a good start in life, allowing greater sharing of caring responsibilities and removing barriers to women participating in the labour market. We will bring about the progressive restoration of free education for all; and guarantee quality apprenticeships and adult skills training.”

Bill Shorten National Press Club speech

“That’s why, in 2017, my team and I have three major economic priorities: jobs, jobs and jobs.

“… the next phase of Labor’s Plan for Australian Jobs is about Skills, Training and Apprenticeships. These are our three fundamental principles:

1)  All Australians should have access to the skills and training they need for decent jobs that allow them to support their family – throughout their working life.

2)  All participants in the economy — government, business and unions — should share responsibility for designing a high quality and seamless tertiary and vocational education system – producing job-ready graduates and highly-skilled workers.

3)  Every dollar of taxpayer money should be directed to achieving the best student outcomes and the best employment opportunities — not wasting taxpayer money boosting private profits.

“…We are determined to use this time in opposition, as we should, to develop our plans … And preparing Australia to capitalise on the new jobs and new investment powered by renewables.”

 

Culture

Jul 20, 2017

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Yesterday, news.com.au repurposed a moral outrage for its local audience that international News Corp properties were done with a month ago. It was reported by The Sun in the days following London’s Grenfell Tower fire that so-called “dark tourists” were snapping self-portraits at the disaster site.

It’s awful news, of course, and the pain felt by survivors of the horror, expressed in signs like “It’s a tragedy, not a tourist attraction”, is immediately fathomable to any breathing human. The fact of rubberneckers was also entirely predictable. News.com.au may have placed the story in its “gadgets” section, as though the practice of visiting sites of recent horror was somehow made new by the introduction of digital technology. But dark tourism — or “thanatourism” if you prefer the posh word for what has become in the past twenty years a subsection of academic inquiry — has been a peculiar, and cross-cultural, pastime for an awfully long time.

Pilgrimages by Christians to the site of a martyr’s death were monetised centuries ago. Public executions were once considered suitable entertainment — even for 18th-century French women, who sat by the guillotine with their knitting, never dropping a stitch as elite heads rolled. Per the US historian Daniel Boorstin, England’s very first professionally guided tour was an 1838 train excursion to Cornwall to witness the hanging of two murderers.

We are now largely done with our illiberal bloodlust and now prefer to reflect on death rather than to revel in it. Dark tourism, a pastime some scholars reasonably propose is something to which a death-obsessed species is inevitably drawn, tends to be more organised. Certainly, the line between commemoration and schoolies week is blurred in the partying by Australians at Gallipoli, but other significant sites of common memory tend to be respected.

A few years back, much was made of the decision by a US teenager to take a smiling selfie at Auschwitz. The image that the young woman posted was replicated by thousands of angry internet users and gave rise to hundreds of moralising “what has our modern world come to?” pieces of the News Corp sort. One commentator expressed surprise that a 14-year-old product of the wretched Alabama public school system could have any interest, however inappropriate, in history at all, and a few softer thinkpieces followed, several of them citing the study of dark tourism and making the case that the teen, herself grieving for a father who had ignited her interest in world events, was enjoying a teachable moment.

I remember, as a teen myself, travelling to the Dachau memorial and, being me, scolding a happy American couple as they prepared to take photographs of each other under the sign for “badezimmer”, or bathroom, that signified an infamous Nazi deception. “How could you be so disrespectful?!” I cried to the pair, one of whom, as it turned out, was a Holocaust survivor. I have since learned to not to be such a pompous goy.

People will do what they do at sites of horror, and even when their motivations appear improper, they may have true grief at their core. Or, at the very least, a desire to make the history history, as I am certain was the case with a Jewish husband and wife who were not, as I had presumed, laughing at loss, but celebrating their survival.

There’s a nice quote from Marina Novelli, a UK professor of tourism. She says that dark tourism, whether spontaneous as in the case of “rubbernecking” or organised such as that at Port Arthur, is an effort to differentiate the present from the past, to declare that this awful thing is over. “This does not mean,” she writes, “that all history is dark tourism. But all dark tourism is history.”

The urge to make sense of the past is a preoccupation for nearly everyone, save, perhaps, for especially proficient Buddhists. From Hegel to an Alabama teen, the urge to understand the individual’s place in history is ongoing. None of which is to church up the actions of people who stare at car collisions, or many of those who smile beside the charred remains of a life in the most miserable part of London’s richest borough.  But it is to say, as dark tourism scholars assert, that folk can do odd stuff for common reasons.

Nearly 30 years after adolescent me had scolded Holocaust survivors for daring to smile, Holocaust survivors were scolding adolescents for doing the same. A Facebook page called With My Besties in Auschwitz was reportedly created by an Israeli woman who had visited the death camp sites and was struck by the way her countrymen and women took selfies. “I just thought there was something grotesque in tagging #mountofash next to a mount of ash in Majdanek, or in making a ‘sexy’ or ‘seductive’ face next to a crematorium. What is this supposed to mean exactly — I look hot in Auschwitz?! Turns out many people agreed with me,” she told The New Yorker.

The creator, who received as much critique as the posing teens did, explained that she was documenting these social media moments to rescue the act of commemoration which, in her view, had been whittled down to almost nothing by Israeli nationalist politicians. Looking hot in Auschwitz, in her view, was every bit as inappropriate as looking to Auschwitz not as a legitimate memory, but as a pretext for policy. Her virtual dark tourism was, in one reading, an effort for history.

As much as media, most especially conservative outlets, might critique the selfie-takers at Grenfell, dark tourism is a very old practice, and hardly a disorder of the present. Grenfell itself, of course, is a disorder of the neoliberal present, which may help explain News Corp’s eagerness to invent another one. I am certain, of course, that former residents were hurt and appalled by the intrusion. But, perhaps not as appalled as they were about their lack of secure housing, the refusal of Theresa May to consider Jeremy Corbyn’s popular proposal to requisition vacant investment properties in the postcode or the fact that many of them remain in budget hotels far from home.

To say that the UK Prime Minister has recently had ears of tin is to do a disservice to the periodic table. May has not responded, either practically or symbolically, to the loss of life and faith felt by the British people. There has been no housing solution yet proposed and no adequate form of public commemoration. If public leaders fail to make sense of a horror in which they, and previous leaders, have been complicit, other will make sense of it for themselves. Even if with a smiling selfie.

Australia

Jul 11, 2017

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Under normal circumstances, not even the most ardent fan of professional wrestling will find the time to view Kentucky’s minor Appalachian Mountain league. But circumstances, as you know, are far from normal. In the West, we’ve been Trumped and we’ve been Brexit-ed. In ignorant desperation, media continue to make claims, shown recently in two major cases to be wildly overblown, that Russia is to blame. If we can’t trust press to make good sense of a present rejecting traditional politics, we may as well look to loud men in unitards.  Say hello to independent wrestling’s latest heel — ring jargon for “villain” — Progressive Liberal.

Wearing spandex printed with images of former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, the heel, played by 36-year-old real estate agent Daniel Harnsberger, is the sport’s newest antagonist superstar. He yells at jeering crowds that they are “deplorables” and tells them that country music is a soundtrack for the dim-witted. He threatens to confiscate their guns, then makes like a DC technocrat. “I want to exchange your bullets for bullet points,” he shrieks. “Bullet points of knowledge!”

The wrestler has called his finishing signature move — which, of course, is destined never to secure a victory — “The Liberal Agenda”. All of this is, in my view, pretty funny. Right up until that inevitable point in the news cycle when I am reminded that Progressive Liberal’s parody is just a kick pad’s breadth away from our political reality.

Last Tuesday, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s decision to take a 2016 taxpayer-funded trip to the Great Australian Bight, accompanied by staffers and her young daughter, was questioned by conservatives. The journey to a pleasant tourist district was defended by the politician as one of fact-finding; she wanted to see firsthand how this leisure destination was threatened by “big oil”, an industry that has withdrawn from the region. The bill to assess an unlikely future threat was $3556.72.

[Larissa Waters and the Greens’ tedious return to identity politics]

Look. Maybe SHY was performing essential work. Perhaps without her brave efforts, the few well-to-do families destined to survive our Hunger Games future would not have been able to eat seafood in picturesque coastal villages, a comfortable base for whale watching. Possibly, those two scenic flights she took to survey the glorious ocean were carbon neutral and, if not, they will help safeguard vacations for generations of high-income earners to come.

In short, the politician may have had a good case to make for the journey. She did not, however, make it. With all the initial arrogance of a Bronwyn or a Sam, SHY came across all “how very dare you?” and made the claim that scrutiny of her travel expenses, a justifiably routine concern of press for all politicians, was based in — cop this — sexism. Probably racism, too!

The Greens’ dependable heel did not concede that a nation full of workers on stagnant incomes had the right to know if she’d been using their tax dollars thoughtfully. Instead, she claimed that she was the true victim here, subject to the cruel critique of “old white men”. Get your schnozz out of the slippery sweet oysters of Smoky Bay for a second, Sarah. We’ve seen the pictures of what looks very much like your spring break. And even some of us more everyday feminists might agree to bear a few insults from “old white men” if it meant we could afford a nice weekend at the beach.

It is likely that Hanson Young will not apologise. She, the sort of progressive high school prefect who attributes any playground moment of critique to broader social injustice, does not apologise. This, says The Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen, makes her exemplary of “the Left”.

Yeah. Nah. First, Sarah Hanson-Young is placed about as far to the left as the fish knives grasped at her subsidised seafood banquets. If Albrechtsen cannot detect the new emergence of a true left, then she hasn’t heard the names Corbyn, Melenchon or, ahem, Lee Rhiannon.  Such politicians do not, per Hanson Young and Larissa Waters and Progressive’s hero Hillary, figure themselves as victims. Their interest is in the victimisation of the many.

Even if we were to concede that SHY is credibly “left” outside The Australian, not just another uncritical fan of globalised economics who calls for a “compassionate” capitalism, her arrogant refusal to answer criticism is hardly partisan.

[Dear Angry White Men: HTFU, you’re not the victims]

They all do it. The policy and the media classes are always responding to criticism with the claim that they’re being “silenced”. And, honestly, press excels at it. On the “left”, we have dreary opportunists like Clementine Ford building careers on the publication of the mean tweets she has received. On the right, we have Bolt, Chris Kenny, even, at times, Albrechtsen herself who, although a little more restrained and a lot better read than most of her Murdoch fellows, is hardly above the tedious negation of, “I must be correct in my views because the ‘left’ says I am wrong”. And this, from the diaphanous centrist Caroline Overington, was one of the first pieces to publicly censure Yassmin Abdel-Magied — a person who can actually claim to be bullied into silence — for “silencing” “freedom of speech”. FFS. This is not “freedom of speech”. It’s a wrestling match.

Our policymakers and our journalists of whatever political hue have now acquired historic interest in themselves. Their pain, they reason, is everybody’s. If Bolt, after years of decrying the poor and the marginalised for their own plight, cops a serve, this is never a fathomable response to antagonism, but a case of his own oppression. If the “left” columnist Van Badham encounters argument from a true left curious to learn why she advocates for market-friendly politicians, she says this is evidence of misogyny.

And this pair are among our nation’s most widely read columnists. For them, as for many of our policymakers, the political is not merely personal anymore. The political is entirely narcissistic.

Such radical individualism, of course, is the alpha, and will be the omega, of our policy era. “It’s all about me and my struggles, which are everybody’s struggles” is not going to cut it for very much longer. Enjoy your oysters. Enjoy your wrestling match with a man dressed up as a parody of progressivism.

When Jeremy Corbyn was asked if he was hurt by the hostility of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the press, he answered that he was not in as much pain as the British people. That’s the way you do the politics of the future, people. You take it outside the ring and place it back where it belongs.

Companies

Jun 21, 2017

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To grasp what’s happening in politics this week, think about pretty much every eternal verity about economic rationalism that Australian policymakers have adhered to now for a generation and imagine the Coalition chucking them out the window. Not all at once, and not all ministers. But a deeply worried government is abandoning shibboleths around market economics at a rate of knots.

It’s worried not just about its political future, vividly demonstrated by the long line of polls that have shown it trailing Labor, but worried that the entire ideological landscape in politics, not just in Australia but across the West, is changing rapidly.

Yesterday, faced with the need to be seen to be doing  something, anything, about the big rises in power bills that will soon roll out across eastern Australia, PM Malcolm Turnbull, his Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg and Minister for Digging Stuff Up Matt Canavan, announced that new export controls would be placed on gas, that the ability of energy companies to appeal against regulator decisions on pricing would be ended, and the government would establish how to replace the coal-fired power capacity that would be taken out of the grid in coming years. If necessary, the government would also fund replacement projects, up to and including clean coal.

[Government’s lurch to the centre is also about ideology — the electorate’s]

In one announcement, the government unveiled even greater interference in companies and their property rights, cut off access to the legal system for companies, and flagged it was ready to get into the business of owning power stations that the market refused to fund because they made no commercial sense. Small government? Avoidance of sovereign risk? Investor certainty? Rule of law? Letting markets solve problems? Pfffft.

And it was happening at the same time as the government was desperate to find the votes to support a big increase in public schools funding at the expense of private schools.

Welcome to 2017, when Donald Trump is in the White House, Jeremy Corbyn looks twice the leader as any Tory does, wages have been stagnant for several years and consumers are sick and tired of paying ever-higher electricity prices for less reliable service. All governments of one kind or another are forced to abandon some point of ideology for electoral considerations. But the wholesale jettisoning of neoliberal truisms like so much unwanted weight from a sinking life raft is unprecedented in recent decades. What appeared nonsensical drivel from the likes of George Christensen a few days ago — the government should build coal-fired power stations — is now being seriously countenanced.

[In Christensen’s Soviet Union, coal-fired power burns you!]

Not all ministers have worked it out yet. Take Treasurer Scott Morrison, who yesterday in effect contradicted Reserve Bank governor Phillip Lowe’s suggestion that higher wages would be a good thing. Wages rises would come when companies grew, Morrison said. And Michaelia Cash’s legislation to target systematic underpayment of workers has just been delayed following lobbying by — you guessed it — business.

This sort of thing won’t cut it any more. Morrison’s language would have been unexceptionable even just a year ago. Now it sounds like a “bugger you” to households.

If Labor had done any of these things — especially around domestic gas reservation — the screams from the Liberals about sovereign risk and the impact on investment would have been deafening. But the Liberals are learning they need to adjust to an electoral atmosphere in which neoliberal dogma is increasingly toxic.

If business has a complaint about the direction of the government, there plenty of people it can take the matter up with. Tony Abbott and co, who ensured years of investment uncertainty in the electricity market. The Business Council and other big business lobbyists who incessantly demand wage cuts and lower company taxes. Energy companies that have relentlessly gamed the byzantine National Electricity Market. Gas companies that invested billions without having the gas to process in their LNG trains. Pipeline owners who behave like something out of the American Gilded Age. They thought they were being clever, maximising shareholder value and charging what the market would bear. All they did was end up provoking a backlash, and it has a long way to go yet.

Federal

Jun 19, 2017

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Whatever might be said about Malcolm Turnbull and his government, he has proved better at responding to the alienation and anger of voters than his counterparts in the UK and the US.

The May government, and most of the UK commentariat, were shocked by the strong level of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Old Labour in this month’s election. May’s handling of the Grenfell disaster — which may be the product of years of deregulation — has been so abysmal Corbyn now looks like the prime minister in waiting, and a damn sight more leader-like than May herself.

In the US, it’s been no surprise that Trump, who has betrayed pretty much anyone he has ever dealt with, has sold out the voters who put him into the White House on a wave of disaffection with business-as-usual economic policies. But Republican politicians are continuing to govern as though Trump’s election gives them carte blanche to implement a hardline neoliberal agenda beyond the wildest dreams of corporate America.

[Rundle: anguish turns to anger as London burns]

But Anglophone voters have had a gutful of neoliberalism and are expressing it at the ballot box — not necessarily in coherent or consistent ways, but expressing it they are. It’s a mistake to call it a shift to the left; there are plenty of conservative voters who are shifting further right as part of it. But it’s a shift away from market-based policies, curbs on government spending, open borders and the mantra that whatever is good for business is good for a country.

Turnbull has reacted to the shift better than the Tories in the UK, perhaps because he feels more comfortable governing from the centre, perhaps because compulsory voting (and lack of US-style gerrymandering) has made clearer the deep sense of alienation in the electorate. Turnbull nearly lost government, Nick Xenophon’s protectionist party seized both Senate and Reps seats, and One Nation has lurched out of the political grave to bring its stench of bigoted banality into the Senate.

On Gonski, on energy, on fiscal policy, Turnbull has shifted leftward in an attempt to claim the centre ground, conscious that if he continued to slavishly follow the dictates of the right, he’d be toast. On Gonski, he’s shifted even further left than Labor, promising to cut funding to wealthy private schools and taking on the gouging, unaccountable Catholic education lobby over its favouritism toward rich schools. On fiscal policy, he’s whacked a tax on the banks and increased the Medicare levy. On energy, he’s walking a fine line through his party room on trying to provide certainty for investors about climate action while fighting off irrational denialists like Abbott and other far-right backbenchers.

Of course, it’s not universal — Turnbull remains wedded to the right-wing approach to terrorism of relentlessly hyping the threat to national security from Labor, despite the fact that it never helped Abbott one iota, and it didn’t help Theresa May more recently. Maybe voters simply see through the claim from conservatives that when terror attacks happen on their watch, it’s magically the fault of their opponents in opposition.

[Even Keating now admits that neoliberalism should be dragged out the back and shot]

Turnbull’s opponents, needless to say, don’t care to see him succeed in this shift. Judging by today’s Newspoll, they’ve been successful so far. Labor is still portraying Turnbull, courtesy of some creative accounting and factual cherrypicking, as a rogue neoliberal hellbent on slashing schools funding, destroying Medicare and taxing low-income earners while handing out tax cuts to the top end of town. And Tony Abbott managed to make what had been a careful process of preliminary consideration of the Finkel review all about Turnbull’s leadership and the spectre of 2009.

The government is dead keen to nail down a deal on Gonski, preferably with the Greens, even if it costs a motza. It is dead right to oppose the greedy Catholic education sector, but a prolonged stoush is not in its interests. Already one backbencher, the retiring Chris Back, is threatening to cross the floor on the issue this week. Leaving the issue to fester over the winter recess will, at best, only create more static for the government. A worse outcome is it blows up and causes another internal brawl.

On energy, Turnbull is in no hurry, partly because he knows he can’t be seen to railroad anything on energy through the party room. But the same risk applies as with Gonski — the longer the issue goes, the more static it will create, the more likely it is that troublemakers like Abbott will exploit it. Plenty of reports say Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg are happy to wait until later in the year to settle the issue. That gives the denialists plenty of time to cause chaos.

What’s every bit as worrying as Labor’s persistent two-party-referred lead is the strong polling performance on One Nation. One Nation, courtesy of a lower than expected result in WA, and ongoing scandals and revelations of open contempt for the electorate, should be struggling. Instead, Hanson and her coterie of conspiracy theorists have bounced back into double figures. Turnbull is trying to address the very disillusionment that is fueling populists like Hanson, but it’s failing to have any impact so far.

Europe

Jun 14, 2017

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Of the many remarkable features of last Thursday’s British election result, perhaps the most momentous was the supplanting of class-based voting patterns by a new cleavage between the old and the young.

According to an analysis by the Financial Times, a voting gap between the classes that stood at 72% in 1987 (a 40% lead in the Conservatives’ favour among the middle class, and a 32% lead to Labour among the working class) has now been reduced to just 15%.

Meanwhile, Labour’s advantage among those aged 18 to 24 went from the low 20s in 2015 to 50%, while those aged 65 and over went in the opposite direction, as the Conservative lead inflated from the high teens to the low 30s.

This is a confounding development for scholars of electoral behaviour, who long believed that most voters acquired life-long political loyalties at the parent’s knee.

Its impact at last week’s election could be mapped geographically as well as socially, with Labour struggling in the declining industrial areas of the north while pulling off a number of shock victories in and around London.

Most notable among the latter were Canterbury, where university students delivered Labour its first-ever win in a seat that has existed since the Middle Ages, and the plush inner-London environs of Kensington, for which an Australian equivalent would be Malcolm Turnbull losing Wentworth.

[Rundle: how Jeremy Corbyn might have saved the UK]

As our own Labor Party plods along under the determinedly centrist leadership of Bill Shorten, many will be asking if it would be possible for something similar to happen here.

Certainly the litany of grievances accumulated by young voters in Britain — which Owen Jones of The Guardian itemised as “trebling of tuition fees, the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance, the scrapping of youth services across the country, a housing crisis that disproportionately affects them, the lack of secure jobs, a 10% fall in wages” — sound more than familiar to Australian ears.

Some insight into the state of the youth vote in both countries is offered by the chart below, which uses enrolment, population and polling data, together with a small amount of guesswork, to approximate how the 18-to-24 age bracket did and didn’t vote in the last two British elections, together with our own federal election last year.

 

Importantly, “non-voters” is taken to encompass all those eligible to vote and not merely those on the electoral roll, who provide the basis for the published turnout figures.

In comparing the two countries, a neat symmetry is evident between the Australian results and those from the UK in 2015, with Labor, the Coalition and the combined minor parties coming in at about double the result for their British equivalents (with the important distinction that the Australian minor party vote was dominated by the Greens, whose ability to win Senate seats gives them a traction Britain’s Green Party can only dream of).

From this evidence, it might have been inferred that what’s hidden inside the chart’s grey areas is simply a mirror image of the coloured parts.

[Corbyn-bashing ‘centrist’ media like the Guardian can jog right on]

However, Jeremy Corbyn’s accomplishments last week reinforce the impression given by Bernie Sanders in the United States that the voting behaviour of the disengaged youth is heavily contingent upon what’s on offer.

If our own Millennials are anything like Britain’s, it would seem many are choosing sides at elections without much enthusiasm, and that the gap in Labor’s favour could widen fairly substantially if it gave young voters something to get excited about.

Nonetheless, the crude reality is that Australian Labor can take the youth vote for granted to an extent that British Labour cannot, thanks to compulsory voting, which makes the turnout surge seen in Britain impossible to replicate, and preferential voting, which diminishes the imperative to make an active pitch to the left.

By contrast, Labor has everything to fear from the loss of support among the old that ensured Jeremy Corbyn was only able to enjoy a moral victory, rather than a real one.

 

Europe

Jun 13, 2017

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Interviewer: What’s the naughtiest thing you’ver ever done?

Theresa May: Gosh … well … um, no one’s perfectly behaved … I suppose when me and my friends ran through wheatfields, the farmers weren’t too pleased …

— Theresa May, interview with ITV, two days before election

Poor old Theresa May. Monday, 4.55am, she must have been slumbering, running through fields of wheat in her head, young and free, but then a klaxon sounds! Oh no! They are running towards the white cliffs of Dover! The wheat is Boris Johnson’s hair! The Prime Minister wakes. The klaxon is the alarm clock. There is no free running here. She is no Thatcher in the wry. She is Theresa May, in an impossible situation, with nothing ahead of her but months of pain, humiliation and resignation or deposition. She tries to sleep again, maybe to throw herself off the cliffs. But they’re made of goatskin, and she floats safely to the English channel. Where she continues to sink. Time to get up and run the country for as long as they’ll let her.

The UK is still reeling from last Thursday’s election, in which the Tories — sorry, “the Conservative and Unionist Party” as they now call themselves all the time — gave away a modest majority of 330 seats in a 650-seat parliament (643 effectively, given Sinn Fein abstention) for a plurality of 319 seats, against a renewed Labour Party’s score of 262 seats, up 21. Those figures disguise the full disaster for the Tories; they have 48% of the seats, but only 43% of the votes, against Labour’s 41%, due to the telescope effect of first-past-the-post systems. The raw numbers are worse still: 13,667,213 against 12, 874, 985. When you look at the new Tory marginal line, it is worst of all: less than 10,000 votes hold off Labour.

The Tories are making the obvious claims: that this was still a victory, as they are still the largest party, that Labour only came up to its 2010 seat count, when Gordon Brown lost to David Cameron, etc, etc. So too are various Labour-identified types, of which more below. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

But the truth is, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has headed the Tories off at the pass. The Tories were counting on a 60- to 70-seat majority, around 380, 390 seats. That would have marginalised in-party dissidents once and for all and made Labour’s task in 2022 nearly impossible. It would have set the Tories up for a chance to rule into the 2030s. Labour, down at around 200 — and especially if below 200 — would have been consumed by infighting of a viciousness unseen for nearly a century, and quite possibly split.

[Rundle: the curious thing happening in the UK election]

The prospects for the Conservatives are now dire. They must govern with minor party support. Majority support, and legitimacy for, a “hard Brexit”, and especially the recently suggested “no-deal Brexit” (where no trade arrangement kicks in, as the article 50 process is completed and the UK leaves the EU), is now in tatters. There is now no clear directive from the people as to how they would like the Brexit process to go. Every move will have to be fought and debated, item by item. That is a boon for those who wanted to ensure that Brexit, in Tory hands, did not become a do-over of workers’ and citizens’ rights. It is going to be an exhausting, draining and bare-knuckle process, with plenty of opportunity for brinkmanship and terrible misjudgement.

That is unlikely to faze May. Unlikely, because she won’t be around to do the negotiations. She is, as numerous media outlets, mostly Tory, have put it, a “dead woman walking”, “dead meat”, a “zombie PM” — the epithets have a real nasty party quality about them, supercharged by being directed at a woman leader. May didn’t help with an initial statement from outside No. 10, vowing to press on, and containing no ritual obeisance, contrition or apologies to members who had lost their seats. This was amended a few hours later when a camera crew were invited in for a fireside chat — if an apology hissed through clenched teeth can be so described.

Many were aghast that May hadn’t resigned immediately. Estimates of her survival as leader ranged from “72 hours” to “the end of summer”. No one believes she will survive for a year or more. Many believe the government won’t. That government will be the 318 conservatives, with a confidence-and-supply support from the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party — the hardline party founded by Ian Paisley, and with numerous murky connections to Ulster paramilitaries. They have 10 seats, having finally eaten up their more centrist rivals, the Ulster Unionists (as Sinn Fein, with seven, have finally driven out the non-abstentionist SDLP). The DUP are no modernised conservative party — they’re a Protestant religious party, with strong anti-liberal social views and archaic notions about LGBT issues, evolution and science. They will want huge funds and investment favours for Northern Ireland, but they will be happy to rubber-stamp austerity elsewhere. They are pro-Brexit and will push for it to be done faster and harder. The difficulties will come with potential conflicts with the Scottish Conservatives led by Ruth Davidson (who is married to a woman), who has a hip, no-nonsense manner, and has led the Tartories to take seven seats north of the border, as the second party.

[Poll Bludger: do the young love Corbyn enough to actually vote?]

The DUP leadership will stick with the new government through hell or high water. They have near-total saturation, and they will never have more power than now. Their erratic rank-and-file MPs are another matter entirely. But whoever leads the Tory government will have to contend with a greater danger, the Tory non-government — those who continue to believe that leaving the EU will be a supreme disaster for the UK, to be headed off by any means necessary. Would they actually bring the government down? Not in a direct no-confidence notion, but they might join in a series of votes that would make progress in negotiations impossible. At that point, which might be less than a year away, there would be a fresh election, and it would not be impossible for Labour to slide in. It would only need to take another 15 or so seats direct from the Tories — say, 318-262, down to 300-280 — to be able to run a minority government with SNP-Lib Dem-Plaid Cymru-Green support.

That result is all the more feasible given that Corbyn Labour’s performance has been so impressive, and Corbyn himself has emerged as a far more assured leader than he was, even at the start of the campaign. Rallies and walkarounds energised him, at the same time as May’s frozen lack of spontaneity became more painfully visible with each passing encounter. The 41% result has put to rest any question of a leadership challenge and forced the Blairites and “centrists” to perform abnegating mea culpas. Corbyn only needs to be about 10% more plausible for many Remainers to view him as someone who can negotiate more rationally with the EU than the Tories. Should May be replaced by David Davis, a measured and intelligent man, that cause would become more difficult. Should they elevate Boris Johnson, then the No. 10 staff might as well start ploughing up the back lawn for a place for Jezzer to grow his marrows. Contrary to the Boy Bramston’s piece in the Oz today (another cutting-edge Bramston article, straight out of 2014), Boris is now over the hump, widely seen as a blond buffoon. The forward-moving article 50 process is concentrating the mind wonderfully. Continuing Tory chaos will only add to that.

Indeed, it has already begun. The Queen’s speech and the opening of Parliament next Monday will have to be delayed, it is said, because the contents of the speech will not be finalised by Thursday. Why Thursday? Well, the speech, once composed, must be put onto goatskin parchment, taking three days to write and dry, with no corrections possible. Yes, the party that could get nothing done right in its program has only one chance to write it down.

Poor old Theresa has no dreams left, only nightmares, and too late for corrections. Pale and papery, she will wake to find that she is her own resignation letter, a single draft, rustling, as in the wind, distant fields of wheat.

Europe

Jun 13, 2017

5 comments

What failing traditional media have lost in revenue and influence, they have certainly gained in accounts of their own decline. Such a piece last year by Guardian editor Katharine Viner was widely shared by media workers, those perplexed that no one seems to be listening to them any longer, or paying them much mind. It’s not an altogether rotten work, and it makes the important case, as others have, that diminished revenues diminish the capacity of news outlets.

This is true. Most media, whether publicly listed or privately persisting, have seen a drastic decline in profit and reputation. What is not, in my view, true — and “truth”, as you know, is something many major outlets claim to tap directly — is the claim that often appends pieces such as Viner’s. Namely, “We are needed now more than ever. Please donate.”

Again, it’s not as though Viner has nothing to say in her long and famous in-group piece on the decay of traditional news. If you’re in the news business, or just quite interested in it, you’ll know that the velocity of social media has changed the pace and the fortunes of its traditional counterpart. If you read the traditional news, though, you’ll also likely know that its producers are just a bit deluded. They might think of themselves as noble, impartial standard-bearers who deserve our donation for their telling of the truth. But, have they read themselves, lately?

Look. These people just keep getting it wrong a great deal of the time. A British reader had a much better chance of assessing the electoral prospects of Corbyn’s Labour by use of chicken entrails than through press. “Are we witnessing the strange, lingering death of Labour England?” asked the Financial Times in February. In Breitbart, a toxic little rag that prides itself on its ability to take the popular pulse, we learn in April that Labour faced not, as was the case, the biggest swing back since the election of Attlee in 1945, but “election wipe-out”. The Claytons Marxist Brendan O’Neill wrote in the Spectator earlier this year that Labour was finished, but did munificently add that “you can’t blame it all on Corbyn”.

Which is just a bit more than Viner’s Guardian appeared to do.

A part of this Graun election video is quite funny. The reporter says to camera that she’s not sure why Corbynite Labour MPs won’t stop to talk to her. Hm. Maybe this had a little to do with stories that declared that Corbyn’s populism was “no good for democracy”, that Corbyn had “betrayed” the young, that he must “resign”, that he is “lifeless” and “spineless”, that he is no Bernie Sanders, that he is self-righteous, that he has “no point”, that he would lead his party to a “cliff-edge”, and, perhaps most wounding of all, that Australian writer Van Badham thinks he should be replaced by a more charismatic leader she can’t be bothered to name. Just someone a bit more like Bob Hawke, she reckons. You know, someone who will advance the neoliberal consensus that members of the traditional press uphold, no matter how much the sheen has gone off it for those troublesome voters. Them. With their “populism”.

Whether you like Corbyn or you think him every bit as up to the job of managing Britain as the alternative education assistant principal he so resembles is up to brokering peace in the Middle East, you want to know what’s going on, right? And what was going on was not what was in the traditional papers — save for The Independent. The guy had adopted just the sort of politics and old grassroots campaigning that had delivered Bernie Sanders the largest rallies and the greatest number of individual donations in US presidential primary history. Again, you didn’t have to like Sanders or consider his policies feasible to see that there had been a change. All you really had to do was check Google’s trends. Although Sanders was searched more than Trump and Clinton combined during the primaries, both these candidates received press coverage that outstripped his by around 20 times.

Sanders is now the most popular politician in the US. Poll after poll reveals his standing as the trusted figure, among Republican and Democratic Party voters alike. Heck, even Fox News can’t shake the survey results to the point they produce a nonsense like Paul Ryan. Sure, you might not like Corbyn or Sanders or any of the Western politicians currently receiving great support for their promise to hold the finance sector to account. But you’re a reader who’d probably rather know if there are significant current shifts in political consciousness. You might think, as most commentators clearly do, that the public is stupid. But you also know that it’s stupid to overlook what you might even view as their stupidity.

A noted non-stupid is Mark Blyth. The Scottish political economist who is now a professor at Brown has gained a popular — oh, the horror! — following in recent months for his lectures on what he calls “Global Trumpism”. He’s not, of course, in the papers much, but his spirited lectures are widely shared — and before you fret that his relative “populism” means that he speaks in slogans crafted for the Millennial dosed on chronic, I’d suggest you read him.  

I spoke with Blyth this morning and asked him why traditional press continued to ignore, or discredit, popular movements.

Blyth says, “If you see recent events as being primarily cultural, you tend to ignore where most of the action has been in terms of real electoral impact, which is on the left. Scotland, nearly the UK last week, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, all transformed. All discounted, since it doesn’t fit the cultural narrative.”

“Why do people defend this? Because the people espousing it tend to have cosmopolitan liberal values and are generally offended by right populism. They see it as a retrograde ideology and a real threat to democracy. So they focus on what makes populism look bad.”

So, all populism is seen as bad by commentators who, no matter how slim their pay cheques have become, continue to identify, per Badham, with the powerful technocrat class. “Experts” are to be trusted, and figures like Sanders are to be pitied or despised — see this recent rot in The New York Times that insists that the Democratic Party establishment knows better than the people who actually might vote for them how to win an election.

It may be very true that Clinton was the “most qualified”. What is not true, however much the apparently rational editors of big newspapers would have it, is that voters want the “most qualified” or the most centrist politician. It’s a delusion that centrism continues to be appealing to large numbers of people — again, whether you think this is the correct political response to a time of widespread wealth inequality is not the point. The point is that it is the response.

In the West, the centre does hold on the right. As Blyth tells me, “Trump is the only case where it’s not.”

“It’s the centre left that has collapsed,” he says. “And it’s the new left that is on the rise.”

And rising along with it is a great determination by purportedly progressive and “truth-telling” press to ignore what has occurred in a range of Western nations: impatience with the neoliberal consensus and a youth vote given over to quasi-socialist beliefs that commentators do not take seriously, but think of only as something that they used to do in their wild university days. Christ, no wonder voters pay no attention to their injunctions. Old folks who can afford to think of political principles as a youthful hobby; who’ve now “grown up” enough to believe that the authoritative centre knows what is good for all.

We need traditional media now more than ever? No. What we need as much as a revolution in politics is a shift in press so enamoured of its own interests, it blocks out the sound of an audience clamouring for any analysis more compelling than “sensible people with great experience know what’s good for you”.

 

Europe

Jun 13, 2017

5 comments

Apart from making us all instant experts on the intricacies of the politics of Northern Ireland, last week’s UK election can teach us a lot about the changing nature and role of the media in politics.

First, there’s some promising signs that the war against fake news is being won — not so much through tweaking of algorithms as through people thinking for themselves. The more people know about fake news, the more they push back — and the more they demand from journalism.

According to a data memo released by Oxford University’s Project on Computational Propaganda, only about 11.4% of information circulated on Twitter during the UK election was what the paper characterised as “junk news”. This contrasted to almost three times as much junk (33.8%) in a similar study of Twitter in Michigan in the lead-up to last year’s US presidential election.

At the same time, the proportion of Twitter links to what the paper describes as “content from professional news services” was 53.6% in the UK election, compared to 33.5% in the Michigan sample.

For supporters of quality journalism, there’s the added tidbit that over 40% of the links to professional news services were to either the BBC or The Guardian.

Similar studies by the university project in elections in France and Germany between February and April showed similar results to the UK.

In a suitably snooty British way, the university paper highlights the outcome as demonstrating a distinction between Europe and the US, saying: “UK users shared better quality information than that which many US users shared during the 2016 US election, but worse quality news and information than was shared during the French 2017 election.”

But the European comparisons show how quickly perceptions have changed since Trump’s election. Awareness about “fake news” (based on search and usage) exploded after the US election. The European comparisons may indicate a greater sophistication in the old world, but the timing is more relevant.

Perhaps the key battle of the past six or so months has been to determine just what we mean by “fake news”. Once Trump led the political class to characterise anything they disagreed with as fake news, it threatened to become yet another tool for bashing journalists.

[Fake news is not new, and a Senate inquiry into it would be a colossal waste of time]

It’s a hard paradox that a term meant to distinguish professional, ethical journalism from maliciously falsified information that steals the design to conceal its falseness threatened to become a term of abuse to undermine journalism itself.

In January, The Washington Post’s media writer Margaret Sullivan called for us to abandon the phrase, saying: “Instead, call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name. After all, ‘fake news’ is an imprecise expression to begin with.”

Imprecise, sure. But evocative as well. It’s been hard to let it go.

And now we’ve got the journalistic equivalent of an Apostolic Exhortation from the US Associated Press Style Guide to help. Early this month as part of the release of its updated guide, it tweeted:

The term “fake news” may be used for deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news circulating on the internet. #APStyleChat (1/3)

But don’t label as fake news specific news items that are disputed. If fake news is used in a quote, ask for details. #APStyleChat (2/3)

Alternatives: erroneous reports, unverified reports, questionable reports, disputed reports, depending on context. #APStyleChat (3/3)

So that’s settled then. Except that in the public’s eye, the line between professionally prepared news and the malicious lies we call fake news is not as clear-cut

This is the second lesson from the UK election, where the British Tory tabloid red tops — particularly The Sun and the Daily Mail — have long filled the niche that Fox News occupies in the US. On one reading, the modern usage of “fake news” derives its etymology from Fox (Fox News to Faux News to Fake News), so we shouldn’t be surprised that the red- tops’ brand gets at least a side swipe in the fake news car wreck.

[Sorry, ‘fake news’ isn’t information you don’t like]

Famously, it was The Sun that bragged on its front page after the narrow conservative win in 1991: “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT.” This year, they attempted a repeat with their election day front page: “Don’t chuck Britain in the Cor-Bin.” As headlines go, it was a bit short of the “Headless body in topless bar” class and this time it didn’t fall into the media vacuum of the early ’90s.

Now, a front page only delivers power where it becomes amplified through social media. Instead, social media responded with images of The Sun (and the guilty-by-association Daily Mail) tossed into the bin and set on fire.

Tying your paper to a party is a great strategy when the party wins. But, perhaps, this election result also means that the planned take-over of UK Sky by The Sun’s sister organisation 20th Century Fox may have also ended up in Britain’s political bin.

*h/t to Laura Hazard Owen, from Nieman Lab, whose excellent weekly round-up of real news about fake news highlighted the Oxford University report.

Europe

Jun 9, 2017

5 comments

We’ll be singing, when we’re winning … in the saloon bar of the Three Compasses, we’re singing, yelling, thumping the tables. The Hackney pub, swarmed by the Momentum movement since the polls closed, is living and dying on the slow drip drip drip of results, starting from 10pm, when the polls closed, and the first exit polls came out.

The crowd tensed before the big screen, and came the results: the Tories losing their majority coming down to 315 seats, Labour rising to 260-270. The crowd exploded. This was not a majority, but no one really expected a majority. To take the Tories below 325 was the goal, and if the exit polls are correct, that has been achieved.

Jeremy Corbyn and his raggle-taggle band of Labourists, Trots, Commies and bohemian desperados may have broken the back of Tory power in a way that no Blairite formula ever could, left the Tories with a hopeless minority government task, and paved the way for a real anti-Tory coalition.

It’s 2am as I write in Dalston, London, England. It is now not impossible that in a week or so Jeremy Corbyn could be the next PM of the UK.

It’s now 2am in this ridiculous, interminable vote count; 650 seats, and only 50 seats declared. The trend is to Labour, giving them about a 35% vote, much above what Blair or Miliband could achieve. No one has a clue what will happen in the next hour. Your correspondent is about to decamp from this pub (closing) to his club (open all night). There’ll be a postscript below. It still won’t be decisive. But looking like a goodish night. We’ll be singing …

UPDATE: 

Well, God. Here we are at 4am on a Friday morning in the UK. We have repaired, a bunch of us, to the Crikey Global Affairs Desk at a chain hotel, somewhere in the lower wilds of the Angel, Islington. We were all at a Momentum pub in Hackney, Momentum being the left faction that had supported Jeremy Corbyn through thick and thin, and now they were gathering for whatever happened.

Whatever happened, it was good.

There wasn’t much bad news for Labour diehards tonight. They retained most of their seats, and they gained back a bunch of seats, and the overall total may be a 30-seat gain, and it may include 15 seats in Scotland.

The news for the Tories was shit all over. They may have lost — it’s frikkin 4.30am and the sun is coming up through the hotel window — enough seats to lose a majority, down from 330ish to 315ish. Maybe 310ish?

The pub was rockin’. Everyone was high on possibility. A few key early election results:

Ilana: Russian gal, tall blonde, there because her flatmate was there. Gave me her number, may be fake, haven’t checked yet. A gentleman doesn’t. Nor me.

Rosie: brunette child psychologist. I had to dredge up a lot of stuff about Winnicott. Eyes like a Dresden doll, catfish cheekbones. Says she will meet me at the Freud museum, in Hampstead, on Sunday 1pm. “Dude, she won’t meet you,” some dumb hipster said. Fool. The whole point of arranging to meet a catfish-cheekboned gal at the Freud museum is that she won’t turn up. I mean, duh. You made the effort, you have the rest of the afternoon free. What could be better?

Sarah: Social worker (it’s Islington). Tall blonde drink o’ water. Boxer jaw, psychedelic yoga gear. Come back to the after-party. Crazy as fuck? Future ex-Mrs-Rundle. Votes are still coming in.

Votes are still coming in all over. The count goes on. It will stop in an hour or so, resume. This will take days.

But the key results are already in. This is a disaster for the Tories, for Brexit as is, a triumph for left Labour, a decisive exit for Blairies and Cameroons. All of which to be explored at length in the next few days. For now, triumph, of a sort, disaster as a possibility, is all there, for everyone.

More cogent thoughts later, but for the moment … yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesssssssssssssssssss!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!