Johnson's Irish Knot

Johnson cutting the Irish knot (Alexander cutting the Gordion knot)**Image credit:** [Wikimedia](
Johnson cutting the Irish knot (Alexander cutting the Gordion knot)1

Just as it was the case for May, so it is for Johnson. Approaching the knot from behind doesn’t alter the ironic necessity of making one’s own contortions in order to decipher the Brexit puzzle. Johnson has already repeated May’s error by having drawn a red line, which is the definite departure from the European Union on the 31st of October. He does however have the benefit of having only one red line, as opposed to May’s many. Having accepted a no-deal scenario as palatable has opened up a much wider number of possibilities for a course of events going forward. I would argue the most likely course of events ends in a Brexit with a deal, most likely within the next 12 months. That is, that Johnson intends to use a sword to break the knot, a quick and aggressive way to resolve the impasse.

Flowchart of possible events
Flowchart of possible events

Firstly, it’s already been established that Johnson intends to pursue renegotiations with the EU. He will seek alterations to the current deal. The EU has already stated the unpalatability of substantive changes, but has offered cosmetic alterations to the political declaration. I believe with sufficient pressure from the UK, the two parties may meet in the middle and make some minor changes to the substance of the agreement, perhaps better rights for UK citizens in respect of Europe. But that doesn’t untie the Irish knot; the UK will still have to choose between a hard Irish border and a customs union, neither of which are palatable to a Commons majority.

Therefore any deal struck by Johnson will not satisfy the Commons. His deal may perform better and close the gap to a majority, but it will still fail, especially since there has been an effective role-reversal within the Conservative party. Remainers and moderate Brexiteers, having been evicted from Cabinet, now have nothing to lose in breaking with the party and voting against whatever deal Johnson puts to the parliament. What then is Johnson to do in the scenario where his deal fails?2

Talk about town is about suspending parliament. That’s made on the assumption that parliament would act unilaterally to extend the Brexit date should the 31st of October near with No Deal a prospect. This is based on the Commons having previously resolved against a No Deal in an indicative vote. The only way for Johnson to circumvent this and hold his promise of exiting on the deadline is to suspend parliament, which indeed he can do. It would however be subject to litigation in the UK Supreme Court, and may result in an injunction preventing Brexit. That doesn’t matter so much as it would mean the deadline had been pushed out not of Johnson’s volition, same goes if the Parliament resolves an extension unilaterally. Expect some nasty rhetoric directed at the Courts and/or the Commons.

Assuming either the Commons or the Supreme Court issue an extension or injunction, the date gets pushed out either way. This is the most likely event; I don’t expect Johnson to be able to force a No Deal purely with executive power. The next decision for Johnson is whether to wait out or to act in respect of the extension/injunction. Johnson has never been one to sit still, and the success of his premiership rests on resolving Brexit one way or another. He seems determined to crash through and has the carte blanche with which to do so and for that reason I say he will call an election or a second referendum, whichever is most likely to deliver some kind of Brexit. With Corbyn as his adversary, Johnson would most likely be returned with a hung or majority government, Labour staying in Opposition. This has the lowest net gain but also the lowest risk. He’s highly likely to win but it most likely puts him back where he started, fighting with the Commons. Which way a referendum would go is unclear and therefore high-risk, but it is also high-payoff for Johnson. Assuming he gets the Commons to “build-in” automatic approval for whatever the referendum result dispenses, it provides a swift means to deliver Brexit, assuming he wins the vote. Losing means the end of his premiership, making this extremely risky.

I don’t know Johnson and I don’t know how much he’s willing to gamble. I do judge however that he is able to see the course of events in front of him and that he considers ending up in a quagmire like May did to be the absolute worst case scenario and the one he will most likely try to avoid. For that reason alone I would say he takes the gamble on a referendum. I say that referendum, assuming it uses some kind of instant runoff voting, delivers a Brexit with a deal as its outcome.3 The Remainers would provide their runoff preferences to a Brexit Deal and these would combine with moderate Brexiteers to deliver a majority for a deal.

Can I commit 100% that this is the course of events that will occur? Definitely not. Brexit is still volatile, and in fact even more volatile than ever before. Johnson is unpredictable, the Commons and the general public are both bitterly divided and on a razor’s edge. However, on balance, the most likely outcome is Brexit with a deal before 12 months has passed.4 Whether the course of events I have outlined is the way we get there is less likely, but still in my view a reasonable projection to make given the current variables. My projection is further reinforced by immediately recent events such as Johnson’s ruling out an election and the decision to fund government advertising for a No Deal.5

All of that said, political junkies like myself are going to be fascinated to see the ultimate outcome. The British public is probably much less enthusiastic, or enthusiastic for very different reasons. Such is perhaps indicative of the social rupture that caused this political upheaval in the first place.

  1. Image credit: Wikimedia ↩︎

  2. His deal might not even make it to parliament if the ERG has serious objections due to lack of substantive changes, course of events continues in any case ↩︎

  3. I imagine a two-tier question: Brexit or Remain? Then in the event of Brexit, Deal or No Deal? ↩︎

  4. sufficient time needs to be allowed for a referendum ↩︎

  5. This will draw people into the Brexit camp in general in the event of a referendum. Leave, indeed, will have a big leg-up. ↩︎

Rebooting the Left

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - Caricature” -  Credit:  Wikimedia

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - Caricature” - Credit: Wikimedia

Social democratic parties are on retreat across the Western world in the face of a new kind of politics which is eventuating from the profound economic and social reforms experienced through the 1980s and 1990s. The Right has begun adapting to the new circumstances, whilst the Left has floundered and tried to find comfort in ideas of the past, be they socialist or liberal. Neither socialism or liberalism will bring electoral success like they once did. Both new-liberalism1 and old-socialism are and were responses to the circumstances of their respective eras.

What is the answer? To push the ideological envelope and articulate a new set of ideals based on broad Leftist principles which depart from both old-socialism and the new-liberal consensus today comprise the totality of the mainstream Left. The Right has already started on its own ad-hoc project called the alt-right, which cobbles together old and new both conservative and reactionary concepts to create something that right-wing politicians will hope to be palatable or even excitable for the electorate. They know quite well that the new-liberal consensus is coming to an end and a new path forward is needed, and not just in terms of ideological elucidation, but also raw political strategy. They’ve developed a proto-ideology that it is hoped will grow into a mainstream worldview which can defend the old institutions the Right has always defended: aristocracy, wealth, and hierarchy.

I would like to stop here for a moment and emphasise that though the Right is ahead of the Left, there is no reason the Left can’t or won’t catch up. It’s done so before: the overwhelming consensus between aristocrats and capitalists was broken in 1917; and before that, the compact between feudalism and the peasantry was disrupted by mercantilism. Though today the bourgeoisie merchants responsible for the reset in terms with the old Western aristocracies are from our perspective nothing crusty capitalists, at the time capitalism itself was radical. The Left pushed the world forward through these radical changes, with the Right fighting and sometimes winning the preservation of old institutions. They held back the hordes and prevented the total annihilation of European aristocracy.2

The Left must move to develop a prototype ideology not unlike a sort of ‘alt-left.’ Be mindful I’m not advocating for an alt-left or right to become a political mainstream, merely for each to act as a petrie dish from which political operatives can locate a message and worldview that can win electorally and provide a path forward for societal evolution in this new era of social, economic, and climatological disruption.3 New4 ideas such as negative income tax, universal basic income, parliamentary juries, full employment (notwithstanding economic rationalism), are all the sorts of things that may excite a new progressive coalition and form a framework on which to build a new overarching worldview.

Now, let’s talk strategy. None of the policies I just mentioned are immediately self-evident in their purpose. Concepts like universal suffrage and universal healthcare were much easier to see and understand as a layperson than parliamentary juries, they were tangible in benefit rather than abstract.5 What is needed is to bind these new ideas together with common principles, many of which will be found in the old Left.6 Make the argument that we are in a class war and they shot first. That is what covers these broad sweeping reforms to taxation. As an example close to home, Australian Labor threw the 2019 election because it spent so much time trying to make people understand franking credits. I still don’t understand how the fuck they work. They should have been out there talking about how the right-wing was in it for itself and that greed shot first, not the workers and lower middle-class.7

Furthermore, the Obaman ideal of “when they go low, you go high” is bullshit. You will lose if you ignore the base strategies of your opposition. You need to fight on the same fronts as them. You can’t give up a theatre of conflict because the other side wasn’t fair to open it in the first place. What I’m talking about is the blatant lying used by right-wing populists and reactionaries which has found itself bleeding into the mainstream Right, especially through social media platforms. Though lying has always been a part of politicking in some form, it’s gotten much worse, having departed from even the faintest vestigial bind to reality. A viable Left opposition must be firing on all cylinders, they must be articulating the intellectual argument to capture the intellectuals, but they can’t rely wholly on that because they think themselves above getting down in the slop with the pigs. You combine your pig-wrestling with fully fleshed out arguments which are accessible and transparent.8 You know what? This concept isn’t even new, it just seems to have been forgotten. The Bolsheviks knew how to message properly; they spoke of “bread, food, and land” to the peasants whilst they elaborated on the fantasy of communist utopia with the intellectual gentry.

Chiefly, what I’m saying is that the Left needs to abandon its anxiety around remaining morally righteous. It is possible to hold the ‘correct’ views whilst also arguing those views across all forms of media and in all rhetorical paradigms. I’m not talking about lying, I’m talking about addressing the fundamentals of the reactionary Right by putting clear 140-character counters to theirs which aren’t condescending and overly intellectual, which are combative but targeting the opponents and not their (potential convert) followers. Talk about “bread, food, and land” to one group and “utopia” to another, and hold no qualms in the fact that they can mean the same thing. Lift the veil and reveal the oppositional talking heads for what they are: sycophantic bootlicking rabble-rousers living in extraordinary privilege and wealth in the inner-cities cordoned off from those whom they purport to represent. But don’t, please don’t do it using those words. I’m a condescending prick9 and I’m not the sort of person any politician should be emulating with the hopes of winning; condescension and verbosity don’t win elections. Nor does being sassy or bitter.10

In conclusion, I’ll put it plainly. To the Left: you need new grand ideas and to revive old ones with merit. People want change but they don’t want to be scared by it. Always emphasise the spend side instead of the tax side. Think of spending as giving away the sweets whilst taxes, no matter how fair and pro-worker, as like going to the dentist.11 Be ready to talk shit to your opponents and take the fight to them in all forums, whether its in long-form media interviews with tough journalists or in the tabloid gutter press or social media. Those who can’t do that or think they’re above that need not apply. I’ll give credit to Labor leader Anthony Albanese, he may have swung to the right on policy (which is definitely not what he should be doing), but he talks to the gutter and right-wing press, taking the fight to their home turf. 12

I would end by pointing the reader to ContraPoints, the prolific philosophic-political YouTuber, who published a quite interesting piece over a year ago on where the Left should be going in order to win. Also take a look at this piece in the Guardian on the idea of full employment as an example of disruptive and potentially popular policy.

  1. I choose to avoid neo-liberalism as a term in this blog post as it has too many negative connotations on the Left and may distort what I’m trying to articulate. ‘New-liberalism’ I define as meaning the tenants of classical liberalism as applied to the late 20th century. ↩︎

  2. Much of the world is still today reigned over by a monarch, albeit as a powerless one. See HRH. ↩︎

  3. I refer to climatological disruption separate from the economic and social so as to emphasise its importance as an underlying factor. However, it itself does not in my view form a ‘third head’ of disruption. The Left needs to learn this and emphasise the importance of climate always through the socio-economic lens, rather than a lens of virtue. ↩︎

  4. Relatively new ↩︎

  5. Parliamentary juries are the idea of ‘raffling’ off a subset of parliamentary seats at random to anybody on the electoral roll. Some more radical proposals are too raffle off the entire parliament. It would create something like how a jury functions in a courtroom, but in respect to legislation and public policy. ↩︎

  6. It is these concepts that have always and will forever distinguish Left from Right, in my view, perhaps owing to the neurological causes of political affiliation ↩︎

  7. Excuse the clumsy Star Wars reference, I know Han really shot first. ↩︎

  8. Think about having a massive 100+ page policy document going into an election that is available to journalists, properly developed to emphasise the most potent points, then distilled into its most useful parts for campaigning. This is not unlike what is already done in the United Kingdom with party manifestos. ↩︎

  9. Though trying to fix that ↩︎

  10. Bill Shorten, I’m looking at you. ↩︎

  11. People know they need to go to the dentist. Children, however, do not, and require careful guidance. ↩︎

  12. An even better leader, one who recognises the impending death of the new-liberal consensus and who also participates and engages even more across all forums, would be Wayne Swan. Too bad he left the parliament, and too bad his colleagues didn’t see what an asset they had. He may be federal president of the ALP but he can’t do much from outside the parliament. ↩︎

Why Labor Will Lose in 2022

The two most significant acts so far of Albo’s ALP have been to attack the leader of the party’s largest left-wing union and to wave through the government’s regressive and upwardly-redistributive income tax changes.1 Both of these actions, but particularly the latter, are indicative of a party which hasn’t properly understood the lessons of the 2019 election. The problem is not and has never been that Labor was too left wing under Bill Shorten and now needs to pivot to the right, the problem was that Bill Shorten was an unpopular automaton and that Labor couldn’t sell water to a desert nomad. Labor is now obsessing that its checkers pieces are red when it should really be concerned that their opponent is playing chess instead.

Credit:  Wikimedia

Credit: Wikimedia

Firstly, they fixed the problem of the leadership. However, that they actually did that is arguable since Shorten resigned right off the bat so there was no effort on the party’s part to correct course on that matter. Furthermore, the caucus’s active decision to decide the leader behind closed doors to avoid a party membership ballot allowed through a leader who obviously does not understand how to beat the Coalition, has little charisma,2 and doesn’t connect well with the party base outside of Sydney. Secondly, they’ve totally side-stepped the problem of their marketing and communication. They spent more time in the lead up to the 2019 election defending their tax policy than spruiking their expansions to Medicare. They released their tax policy more than two years ago so that the Coalition and their media allies could spend the whole time reshaping and characterising Labor as all-tax-and-no-benefit.3 They put the cart before the horse and didn’t come out with their proposed expansions to Medicare around cancer and dental treatment until two weeks before the election. By then the election was already lost, voters had already made up their minds, and the prevailing winds are all that whistle through the ears of the low-information voters that decide every election.

The decision by Albanese and co to wave through the income tax cuts with minimal intervention is an outright attack on their previously held policies. Again, it was never their policies that were the problem. If they fail to differentiate on policy then their base has no reason to volunteer for campaigning, swing voters will see them as a cheap imitation of the Liberal party and instead vote for the “real deal” and it narrows the Overton window such that any policy push back towards the left becomes exceedingly difficult and will draw fire from the media for their hypocrisy and open them up to attack using “red in the bed” style rhetoric. I would also mention that though there is some tactical basis for Labor to encourage the Coalition to cut deep on taxes as it implies later austerity which is deeply unpopular, this tactical benefit is outweighed by the drawbacks which will cause the party to continue to leak voters and activists to the Greens. It also threatens to leave Labor with nothing to sell voters when the next election rolls around and no plan for government if they win, as they will have no money to spend and will have shifted all their policies to the right.

So what now? Well, it depends on what Labor does in the Senate. In my opinion, the only way to make up for what they’ve done in the House is to outright oppose the entire tax package in the Senate. Stage one may be permissible as it primarily benefits lower income workers, but any support for stages two or three would be a clear indicator that they have miscalculated their political strategy and are on the path to defeat in 2022. I look forward to and hope that Labor’s election post-mortem addresses their communications and marketing issues and signifies to the party the need to preserve much of their existing progressive policy. As a strategy it can work: look at Victorian Labor, who have spent most of their public airtime aggressively pushing their most popular policies whilst keeping revenue measures in the background. They also waited until they were actually in government before putting forward their most ambitious policies instead of just putting it all on the table at once for attack from their opponents. In summary: Australian Labor, check yourself before you wreck yourself (again).

  1. Which they swore up and down they opposed right up until late last night when they passed them. ↩︎

  2. Though certainly mountains more than Shorten. ↩︎

  3. Brilliantly put as “the Bill you can’t afford.” ↩︎