Dudes in the woods

Robin Hood is a Mediaeval superhero. He doesn’t care much about emancipation, but he loves to skip through the trees.

Gross is every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913, reviewed.

DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS IN ROBIN HOOD, ALLAN DWAN, DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS PICTURES, 1922, 127 MINUTES. U.S. GROSS: $2,500,000.

Banner graphic for GROSS - DOuglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood in silhouette at an arched window. The word 'GROSS' and the year 1922 are overlaid

There’s something cynical about this film. It’s as if it knew it was going to be the first in a multi-decade franchise, as if it knew it was likely to create the template for the action hero; leaping, laughing and slapping entitled aristocrats and bureaucrats around with gusto. Wikipedia calls Fairbanks’ Robin Hood an “…acrobatic champion of the oppressed” which accurately expresses the balance of his interests – his vibe.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the content of this movie. It’s a genuine epic – one of the most expensive movies of the era with a huge cast and elaborate, beautifully-detailed sets and the action is joyful and often breathtaking, with really good slapstick elements that must have had audiences in stitches.

But the storytelling’s pedestrian and – with the possible exception of Sam De Grasse as brooding, bitter falcon-botherer Prince John – the acting’s unevolved. Wallace Beery throws his head back in Kingly laughter and/or fury so often I fear he must have done permanent damage to his poor neck (he was a big star, he probably had access to a full-time neck therapist back in his trailer, though).

Levelling up

Of course, what’s interesting about Robin Hood is the economics. Seriously. Is Robin an expropriative socialist? A liberal redistributionist? An effective altruist? None of the above, obviously. In this version, Robin’s an aristocrat – a feudal lord gone off the rails. He steals bags of coins and throws them randomly into crowds. This is not a planned economy. It’s levelling-up as jape. He returns from his crusade a reformed baron – a merry prankster, really – and then laughs his way around Sherwood, winning hearts and minds with his arbitrary largesse.

In this role, Fairbanks defines one end of the Robin Hood character spectrum. He’s the big-hearted if haphazard philanthropist. It’s all jumping through windows, roughing up countless chain-mail squaddies and swinging from vines (yes, vines). He overcomes the cruelty (and there is some surprising cruelty – torture, whipping, hanging…) of Prince John by means of a series of joyful flashmobs. And his generosity is that of a child – “what use do I have for money? I live in the woods!”

Yes, Magna Carta

We’re a long way from the brooding latter-day Hollywood Robin Hoods who are basically comic-book toughs – rugged individualists in Lincoln green. In Ridley Scott’s 2010 version, from right at the other end of the spectrum, Russell Crowe hacks his way across a hostile England with no apparent interest in the welfare of the peasantry. His Robin Hood is a big-picture guy, not a skipping-through-the-woods guy and the director dramatically and implausibly inserts him into history: he somehow contributes to the drafting of Magna Carta: (you have do this in a kind of Irish-Scottish-geordie accent for the full Russell Crowe effect) “If your majesty were to offer justice, justice in the form of a charter of liberties, allowing any man to forage for his hearth, to be safe from conviction without cause or prison without charge…” Achievement unlocked.

In the folklore Robin is always a yeoman – a small farmer – stripped of his land and driven into the forest. In later accounts he’s upgraded. He becomes a fallen aristocrat, acquiring the kind of glamour that’s necessary in the movies – usually just back from the crusades but unfairly robbed of his estates, sharing the woods with vagabonds and freedmen. In the middle-ages this class of landless commoner was a major threat to the dominance of the feudal lords.

The idea of an entirely free man – anonymous, unbound, without loyalty to any lord or parish – was terrifying to the elite. Landless men were harassed, imprisoned, transported, classified as vagabonds, criminalised. Harsh local laws kept the landless to the worst of the marginal land or moved them on all together. Later a law was introduced: “…that all Rogues, Vagabonds, and Beggars do on every Sabbath-Day repair to some Church and Chappel, and remain there soberly and orderly, during the time of Divine-Worship.” – a recognisable example of an authoritarian law that’s presented as a benign improvement – in this case to the observation of the Sabbath. The disciplinary yoke was tight, even at the margins.

For the aristocrats Robin of Sherwood is worse – he’s a freedman who commands the loyalty of others – of a private army, in fact. Essentially the ultimate threat to the peace and wealth of the owner class – Robin thrives outside the baronial economy and beyond the parochial pale. He ridicules the feudal status quo and must thus be chased around, fought and expelled from polite society.

Feudalist realism

But Robin is no freedom-fighter, he represents no challenge to the system and offers no alternative. He’s not a lollard or a leveller, not a utopian. He’s just a guy. A dude. He stages incursions, raids, hilarious stunts. He puts rent collectors and lieutenants in the stocks or hangs them by their braces from the trees, he liberates treasure and hands it out to the peasantry but he offers no vision of liberty or even of equity. The adjustments he makes are local, temporary, essentially trivial. Ultimately he marries with all the pomp of a prince and is accepted back into the baronial fold. Game over.

In this, of course, Robin is the model for all the movie action heroes to come – and especially for the superheroes: an over-achiever who rights wrongs, one at a time, one villain at a time. Not a liberator but a cheerful, reactionary hunk with a big heart.


  • I watched the film on YouTube. A decent print with an orchestral score. There’s a Blu-Ray.
  • You can get these reviews in your inbox over on Substack.
  • Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down is brilliant on all the vagabonds and outlaws and radicals who challenged the feudal norm at the time of the English Revolution and could be describing Robin here:
    • “Vagabonds attended no church, belonged to no organized social group. For this reason it seemed almost self-evident to Calvinist theologians that they were ‘a cursed generation’. Not till 1644 did legislation insist that rogues, vagabonds and beggars should be compelled to attend church every Sunday. Such men were almost by definition ideologically unmotivated: they could steal and plunder, but were incapable of concerted revolt.”
  • Wallace Beery, our Richard I, is probably the most interesting (and ghastly) person in the film, although now largely forgotten. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson calls him “the most notable example of the ugly, stupid, boorish man who was as successful in films as heroes or lovers.” This is the feature that made him a big star. The following year there’d be a sequel: Beery’s character was promoted to lead and Robin was gone all together. Between 1914 and 1916, in a series of shorts, he’d played Sweedie, a comic maid, in drag – a character he’d brought with him from vaudeville. On the Sweedie films he met and quickly married a 17 year-old Gloria Swanson – their marriage soon failed and in her autobiography she accuses him of brutally raping her. He’s a footnote in the second volume of scabrous and brilliant Hollywood Babylon – Kenneth Anger calls him, characteristically. “a turd of a toad” – and he was a drinking buddy of gangster Lucky Lucciano. He not only survived the transition to sound but dominated the new form and his highly-lucrative contract with MGM (which lasted for 20 years) made him the world’s highest-paid actor in the early-thirties. Beery made perhaps 200 films and worked until the year of his death in 1949.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • And here’s another top-grossing list.

An endless round of perfectly-formed gotchas

Some people can’t tell the difference between advertising billboards and politics.

Mock-up photograph by the protest group Led By Donkeys showing a billboard with Nigel Farage's face and a quote that says "Brexit has failed - BBC Newsnight, 15th May 2023"
“We don’t have much in the way of politics but wait till you see these gotchas”

What is it that’s so contemptible about these stupid stunts? This shallow, patronising bollocks?

For liberals, this kind of smart ‘gotcha’ has now almost entirely replaced politics. For these billboard warriors, if you hone your clever message, tighten up the creative, select the perfect damning quote from your target, no politics is required.

Shaky animated gif of three power station cooling towers collapsing in a controlled demolition

But a gotcha, let’s be real – a clever communication of any kind, no matter how smart, witty or penetratingly devastating – *loud fx of power station collapsing* – cannot stand in for politics.

Once you’ve done your amazing, super-persuasive take-down, once your killer billboard is out there in the cities and towns, it must be easy to convince yourself that you’ve done your politics and can now take the rest of the day off. Kettle on.

I’m not a historian or a political scientist (or anything really) so I don’t know if this is something to do with Gramsci or the cultural turn or the final triumph of the Mad Men advertising and marketing pop culture culture thing (it’s certainly got something to do with the inflated opinion of their own work that advertising people have).

But I suspect it’s actually about a terrible lack of ambition, an almost total loss of anything even slightly utopian in our shared dreams. A really solid take-down or a killer clap-back is now, in the post-political era, essentially all we can hope for.

It’s not the fault, vaguely, of social media or of collapsing attention spans or, I don’t know, narcissism or influencer culture or woke or any of that stuff. It’s the fault of the collapsing horizon of radical possiblity.

Cut off from both ends – by the steady, forty-year decline of democratic institutions in the liberal states we live in and by the ever darker, pre-modern urges of the authoritarian right, radicals can now only dream of definitively winning the argument on Twitter.

Improving lives, changing circumstances, transcending the grim stasis of neoliberalism and marketisation and precaritisation – all off the agenda. We might win the meme wars, though.

Still from the end of Independence Day: Resurgance showing the explosion of the alien space ship

What’s worse – perhaps the most irritating thing about these stupid ads – is that they don’t actually say anything. There’s no message at all. No proposition, no offer. No suggestion of anything better or even different – just a dumb quote from the dumb golf club demagogue himself. A quote that, presented in isolation, is meant to act like a kind of rhetorical hand grenade. The idea is that the quote, in some way sufficient unto itself, will cause the man and his whole tribe to implode satisfyingly – like the giant explosion at the end of an alien invasion that neatly disposes of the entire threat in one big bang.

There’s a perfect, hermetic circularity to this: a weakness is identified (preferably hypocricy – hypocricy is usually best); a clever ad or post or column is written; the ad goes into circulation and goes viral; much celebratory nodding and celebrity retweeting; campaign complete. Repeat.

And, obviously, the whole thing depends on a perfect, patrician contempt for the people targeted by the ad, for the mainly working class men and women in whose neighbourhoods these billboards are put up (modelled, in the mock-up photo, by the two people walking their dog, staring slow-wittedly at the billboard, reaching for the truth).

These posters are a kind of happy, crowdfunded ‘fuck you’ from the metropolis – a ‘fuck you’ for the low-information leavers’ gullibility or their xenophobia. “Look, we found this quote! It proves you were taken in! Confirms you’re a mug, a retard – and probably a mouth-breathing racist! Wake up! Join us!”

Slow progress

It is possible for geniuses to explain things in ways that non-geniuses can understand but sometimes they need to switch formats to do it.

Karl Marx
This guy

I’ve spent a stupid amount of time trying to understand politics and political science. I ought to have just gone to college or something but it’s too late for that so I buy books and subscribe to periodicals and so on. I follow interesting people on Twitter, I read Substacks and listen to podcasts. I’m all over it. But to be honest it’s not really working. I mean it goes in one ear and out the other. The best I get is a very gradual – almost undetectable in fact – improvement in my understanding. Pretty much the same kind of glacial change I’m seeing in my ability to write poetry (which I’ve also been doing for years) or to construct decent-looking shelves for all the fucking books.

This has go to do with my age obvs but also, it’s clear, to do with the fact that I’m doing this in the piecemeal, unsystematic way of a distracted hobbyist. My kids went off to university and studied this stuff for three years and now they explain it to me like I’m an idiot. I obviously envy their comprehensive, organised understanding, given to them in the time-honoured way by experts and, in fact, by geniuses. But I’m still here, trying to figure it all out.

This guy, Dylan Riley, is one of the geniuses, a big brain who teaches sociology in California and writes books and papers and long articles about Marxism and society and so on. He came to my disorganised attention last year when he co-wrote an influential piece – with an even bigger genius called Robert Brenner (who has a whole area of disagreement named after him) – about the emergence of something they call ‘political capitalism’.

It’s a very persuasive idea that seems to account for the way investors and corporations continue to make increasing profits even as the return on investment declines almost everywhere. The piece has been influential beyond lefty circles and the ideas contained in it have begun to show up in mainstream politics and journalism. A kind of breakthrough for cloistered Marxists.

Anyway, the piece – and the other stuff he’s written that I’ve dug out since then – is full of deep insights and lofty ideas, as you’d expect, and a lot of it goes whoooooosh over my head while I wrinkle my brow. So I was kind of intrigued to learn that Riley had also written a little book made up of tiny, informal notes that he wrote – in longhand in an actual notebook – during the pandemic. To be clear, these are not the shopping lists (“400 rolls toilet paper, 20kg spaghetti”) and reminders (“stay indoors”) that I was writing during the pandemic, they’re notes about the genius stuff – and in particular they’re reflections on Covid, lockdown, the bail-outs and so on.

So I thought “that’s going to be right up my street, it’s going to be accessible stuff that I can get my head around, in small chunks that aren’t going to put me off and make me feel stupid.” I always jump on texts that promise to make the abstruse and theoretical transparent to me (in the same way I occasionally buy the latest ‘Quantum Physics for Know-Nothings’ from the table at the front of Waterstones).

And it is right up my street. I mean it’s still full of big ideas and a lot of assumptions are made about the reader’s understanding of politics and sociology (get ready for a lot of Durkheim) but it’s also full of nifty, two- or three-line insights – aphorisms, I guess – that genuinely illuminate the whole scene, the whole post-pandemic, end-of-the-end-of-history, collapse-of-neoliberalism thing – but also Trump, Biden’s green programme, lockdowns, Trump’s announcements, music education, the economics of slavery, utopias, illness…

Riley’s language is never less than academic and can be po-faced. I’m going to say that he’s a pretty orthodox Marxist. He has no time for ‘IDPol’ or for ‘liberal hand-wringing’ in general. In his writing he never doesn’t take himself seriously. And this is something I also kind of envy, actually. I mean the confidence to lay down idea after idea without at any point feeling the need to make a joke at your own expense or understate your intelligence or whatever.

Like, for instance, demolishing the whole idea of democracy in four lines:

To imagine a postcapitalist political order is to imagine an order without sovereignty—and therefore without the metaphysics of sovereignty and its terminology, such as “democracy”—but with coordination and rationality.

Or illumating the present moment via the ancient state:

The state is an object of struggle among competing political-capitalist cliques. In antiquity two models emerged: the universal monarchy, which to some extent disciplined these groups; and the unstable republic, which allowed them to run rampant. Are there not analogues in the current period? Putin’s Russia could be thought of as the Roman universal monarchy, and the United States the unstable republican form.

Dylan Riley. microverses

That kind of thing.

And it’s one of those books that make you think “come on, geniuses, why don’t you do this in all your stuff? If you can make big ideas clear in a flash and in about 300 words of pellucid prose in one format, why can’t you do it when you’re filling a big, fat book?” There’s obviously something about the stylistic liberty provided by the informal layout that permits these more relaxed, generous, explanatory insights and something about the academic format that inhibits them, that explicitly excludes them.

Anyway, Riley’s book is a jewel – and it’s so short you’ll read it in a couple of days – or, since it’s not in any way linear, you can just keep it by the toilet.

  • Robert Brenner wrote another piece (free PDF from the Internet Archive) earlier in the pandemic which also crossed over a bit and was picked up in the wider debate about bail-outs and support for ordinary people. He called it ‘Escalating Plunder’ and the phrase has become a kind of shorthand for the enormously lucrative raid on the public finances staged by big business during Covid.
  • Top book buying tip. You can buy the book in all the usual locations but if you buy it from the publisher, Verso you get the eBook for nothing along with the print edition (and, in fact, the eBook on its own is only £1.50, as against £7.99 at Amazon and, because it’s not copy-protected, you can read it on any device). This, in fact, applies to everything you buy from Verso, so might constitute a good reason for you to get started with your own hopeless effort to learn about Marxism. Not that there’s necessarily anything hopeless about it but you know what I mean.

And your enemies closer

Close-marking’ is an electoral strategy, the invention of the now legendary Labour Party spokesman Alastair Campbell and strategist Peter Mandelson.

Ligue 1 Bordeaux vs Nice 2008 , photograph by Hervé Simon on Flickr
Actual close-marking (Hervé Simon)

The idea is that an opposition party assembles focus groups and runs polls to identify the government policies that are popular in the target electorate and then copies those policies. Remember Gordon Brown’s pledge to stick to Tory government spending commitments? Jack Straw’s reprisal of Tory crime policy? David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh, in their splendid book about the 1997 election, say that the Labour Party in opposition

…tried to ensure that it was never seen in fundamental opposition to popular government policies. Each party was getting similar messages from its focus groups about what the public wanted or would react favourably to; each therefore tended to find itself saying the same thing.

The British General Election of 1997

There’s much about the Starmer regime that resembles a Tony Blair tribute act. This is not an insult. Blair and his machine were hugely, unprecedentedly successful – and there was a lot more to it than close-marking during the 1992-97 Major government – but it’s Starmer’s profound hope that staying tactically close to the Conservative government’s programme will enable Labour to slide into office in 2024 in much the same way. Close-marking is back.

See if you can spot it in the way Yvette Cooper finds a way to object to detaining asylum-seekers on prison hulks without actually criticising the policy (the quotes in this article show that Cooper is a close-marking ninja – she should give workshops).

Observe also the impressive way Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting sticks tightly to government policy on the NHS, urging ‘reform’, even endorsing a Tory think-tank’s seven-point plan. Streeting is another close-marking maestro. He can speak with visible passion about policy differences that are vague or almost undetectable. His big idea for the NHS is to train more hospital doctors. A masterpiece of stating the obvious and understating the problem at the same time. When asked if he supports the striking nurses and junior doctors he says “how could I?” Good question, Wes.

Close-marking explains the delicate way the Labour front bench steps around criticism of big government policies – even ones that have been shown to be catastrophic or that stick in the throats of members and supporters. Government policies are always ‘poorly-implemented’ or ‘too little, too late’. Sometimes they just ‘don’t go far enough’ or they’re ‘what Labour suggested years ago’.

Often it’s down to style. The key is to try not to come at a policy in policy terms but in presentation terms. Government policies are ‘panicky’ or ‘desperate’ or ‘chasing headlines’. Politics of this balletic form can evidently produce the goods – it can reassure voters nervous about change and it contributed to Labour’s biggest victory ever – but it can also be confusing and alienating. It necessarily weakens important political contrasts, drains the antagonism out of the democratic to-and-fro, makes it harder for voters to identify with a platform that is, apparently, very like the other one.

Close-marking produces a shallow politics of aesthetics, of carefully-maintained presentational difference and it’s by definition helpless in the face of more agonistic forms. Populists laugh in the face of this kind of positional calculation. Only Britain’s anachronistic electoral system – where total victory can be secured by moving a small percentage of votes from one side to the other – protects it. This approach is an irrelevance now in almost every other democracy.

And an obvious problem with this kind of focus-group-driven strategy is that if it works and you win power you risk being stranded on the arrid policy plateau just vacated by your opponents, with all of its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. You’ve inherited the exhausted, lame-duck programme of the defeated party and switching into a viable policy programme that’s not tethered to the loser’s manifesto takes genius-level political skills. Good luck with that.

Occasionally, of course, it’s possible to identify a government policy you think you don’t have to shadow closely – one you can safely distance yourself from, that you don’t need to dance around. Ed Miliband tried this with immigration (remember the mug?) and Starmer has settled on locking up paedophiles as his signature policy for the opening of hostilities.

As many have pointed out, though, the risk here is that electors don’t believe you and the message doesn’t land because what you propose seems out of character or opportunistic. Worse, you appear clumsy and cynical and Stevenage Woman remains unmoved.

The 2024 General Election campaign has begun.

End of the line

The Conservative Party is, famously, the most successful political party in history.

The party is a shape-shifting cockroach that’s survived the whole industrial era, the expansion of the franchise, the growth of the cities and the urban middle class, revolution all across Europe, secularisation and the erosion of the power of the gentry. It shouldn’t be here – it should have died in a country house in Hampshire in about 1920. The Tory party is obviously indestructible. But it has its moments – usually right at the end of a long period in power. Like now for instance.

I’m a bit geeky about the fantastic Nuffield Election Studies books; fat retrospective reference books, full of data and scholarly description, published a year or so after each election since 1945. For many editions, the books were very much the domain of celebrity psephologists David Butler and Anthony King. I’ve got a pile of them, going back to 1966.

The data’s mostly redundant, of course, since you can get it all on Wikipedia now but the essays are the main thing anyway. And often a useful reminder that there’s not much that’s new even about the present political polycrisis (clusterfuck? Imbroglio?).

I was looking at the 1997 edition, mainly because I was getting all sorts of weird deja-vu vibes from the conduct of the present government. The same kind of end-of-the-line feeling that haunted the Major government swept away by Labour in 1997 clings to the current lot. Sunak and his crew of millionares, spivs and bullies seem to have got stuck at the tawdry end of the conservative policy spectrum, much as Major and his awful cabinet did.

For years now it’s been all VIP lanes, complicated tax avoidance schemes, highly-remunerative second jobs, huge secret loans and preferment for old pals: the whole shopping list of cheesy political misbehaviour. It won’t have escaped your attention that we’ve even got a full-blown ‘cash-for-access’ scandal brewing.

So let’s catalogue some correspondences between the end of the Sunak period and the end of the Major period:

Sleaze, sleaze and more sleaze

To state the obvious, Major’s five years in office were marked, like no other government of the modern era, by scandal and impropriety (enter Boris Johnson from stage right: “hold my beer”). Major’s government was beset by domestic, sexual, financial and propriety scandals – and they kept coming. It seemed that every time Major sought to reset the government’s standing with electors, there was another one. Cash for questions, Jonathan Aitken at the Paris Ritz, David Mellor’s holiday in Marbella, Asil Nadir’s watch… So many scandals that they’re now literally on the curriculum in British schools.

Of course, in comparison with the record of the current Tory government – especially over the last five years or so – the offences of Michael Mates and Neil Hamilton and Alan Duncan begin to look almost quaint, especially when you consider just how difficult it has become to dislodge an offending Minister or MP. Surely time to update the A-level Politics sylabus.

The chicken run

A still from the animated film Chicken Run showing a terrified chicken n close-up
A chicken, running

As the Major government ground on, Tory MPs – conscious of the polling and of their already-dwindling majority – began to seek safer seats to stand in. Boundary changes announced earlier in the Parliament that were hitting smaller, Tory-held constituencies, contributed to the spectacle. Today’s polling, even after the Rishi bounce, continues to look grim for the government – the Tories could be reduced to an all-time low of 113 seats in 2024 (or worse). Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat certainly can’t be considered safe, and, although his constituency party reselected him last month, it must be likely that he’ll be switched to a safer seat in time for the election (Johnson must be regretting that he didn’t become MP for Hertsmere – 172 places further up the table of safer seats – when he had the chance). The thoroughly Darwinian shuffling and selecting and deselecting has already begun – and they’re calling it a chicken run again. It will certainly be unedifying but probably quite entertaining.

And a public health crisis

It was no pandemic – less than 200 people in Britain have died from the human variant – but the BSE crisis was a classic of the genre and now looks spookily like a preview of the Covid-19 catastrophe. It was very much a Conservative creation – first when the Thatcher government loosened regulations on animal feeds, permitting the feeding of infected brains and spinal chords to beef cattle, and subsequently when the Major government first ignored and then played down the nasty effects of BSE before being finally obliged to admit the grim connection with human CJD in 1996. The impact of the crisis rattled through the UK economy for years – over four million cattle were slaughtered and the final international bans on British beef were not lifted until 2018.

It’s not just the Tories who seem to be re-living the early nineties. Starmer’s Labour party has made a close study of the successes of his party while in opposition and hopes fervently that he can reproduce them.

  • The Nuffield books are textbooks and they’re often, obviously, out of print, so they’ll usually be stupidly expensive. Amazon has the 1992 edition for over sixty quid, for instance. But if you dig a bit you’ll usually find a second-hand copy for cheap. Here’s the same book for £16.95 on Abe Books, for instance.

Defending the indefensible

This is a guest post from the nice people at Radlett Wire, a local blog that, having spent ten years providing, let’s face it, mostly quite boring information about the small Hertfordshire town in its name, is now doing something a bit more political and keeping an eye on the public life and shifting fortunes of local MP (and Sunak sidekick) Oliver Dowden. This post caught our eye because it’s about the politics of clinging to office.


Media training for Ministers of the Crown must now include excusing the indiscretions of people you probably think are beneath contempt

Sir Gavin Williamson MP behind a big desk with a union flag behind him
Boris Johnson literally knighted this man

In the past, when ministers broke the rules, made egregious errors or just royally embarrassed themselves, the routine was fairly simple. You resigned sharpish and – depending on the severity of your offence – were cast into outer darkness (the House of Lords), left politics all together or, in the fullness of time were rehabilitated and reinserted to the cabinet as if nothing had happened (sometimes more than once).

More recently, in the period, roughly speaking, between the beginning of the coalition government in 2010 and the chaos of Brexit, the routine changed. Something about the rise of populism, the bracing free-for-all of the new politics, means the norms have been rewritten. Now, when disgraced, a politician can be expected to cling to power – sometimes for months on end, sometimes indefinitely – with the petulance of a haughty toddler. The honourable resignation, the dignified retreat from public life – these are now thought to be signs of political weakness, hopelessly outdated remnants of a prissier political era. Only wimps resign.

For the muscular populists of the post-political era, the polite traditions of 20th Century politics are not just an inconvenience, they’re part of the problem. Decorum, sobriety, propriety – all are no longer sources of legitimacy but evidence of establishment paralysis. Trashing political norms is not incidental to the project – it’s fundamental. And it’s a self-reproducing behaviour. Once a majority of pols are responding to crises in this way it becomes essentially impossible to do so in the old way. When politics shifts and everyone around you is shameless, resigning when found out becomes essentially unpolitical, unstrategic. You’d look like a mug so you hang on until the storm passes (or you’re literally forced onto a plane home to be publicly fired).

So a necessary part of the new routine is the ritual interrogation of the miscreant’s colleagues. It’s an accepted part of the job. Whoever shows up in the studio to answer questions about that day’s big story will, as a matter of routine, be asked to justify the errant minister’s continued presence in the cabinet. There’s a fairly static repertoire of responses – “it would be wrong to pre-judge the official inquiry”, “the minister has apologised and is now 100% focused on delivery of the government’s ambitious programme”, “the minister has the full support of the Prime Minister.”

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's cabinet, seated around the cabinet table in Number 10 in October 2022

Given the size of a modern cabinet – (31 ministers attend Rishi Sunak’s cabinet) – there’s always at least one minister in disgrace. In recent times it’s regularly been two or three and, in the remarkable period that came to a close in August, it was often the Prime Minister himself. So the likelihood you’ll be grilled about a colleague’s indiscretions is high. You need to be across the story. In the official car on the way to the studio the minister is reading papers about their own brief, about wider policy and about the antisocial behaviour of a fellow minister. It’s all in a day’s work.

Oliver Dowden is evidently thrilled to be asked about Gavin Williamson

So when our MP Oliver Dowden showed up in Laura Kuenssberg’s studio on Sunday he had to have the Gavin Williamson story down pat. The timing of his appointment to his current role, the status of the inquiry launched when Wendy Morton made her complaint, whether or not the Prime Minister had seen the screenshots of Williamson’s latest outburst. All committed to memory – the man’s a pro. Williamson, who was knighted by Boris Johnson after an earlier sequence of screw-ups (remember the lockdown exam chaos, the row with Marcus Rashford and the Department of Defence leak?), at least nominally reports to Dowden, so that must make it all a bit more real. In the interview Dowden made use of a fairly flimsy ‘heat of the moment’ defence and made the slightly ungracious implication that nobody liked Wendy Morton anyway (“it was no secret that Gavin Williamson, and others indeed, didn’t enjoy a good relationship with the Chief Whip at the time…”).

Williamson’s texts to the Chief Whip, of course, are probably a blessed relief for the government, keeping the Home Secretary’s more consequential string of cock-ups off the front page for a day or two. The clock is ticking.

From the other end of the modern

Italo Svevo and Adam Tooze (and Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng)

The facade of a residential block in Trieste, Italy (probably 19th Century), some shutters open, some closed. A black and white photograph by Russell Davies
Trieste, by Russell Davies

So, this post originally started with a bit about how I’d read about Svevo in Franco Moretti’s The Bourgeois but I just looked in the book and there’s nothing about Svevo at all, so I literally imagined it. in his book about the real hero of modern literature, historian Franco Moretti put me on to Italo Svevo’s 1922 novel Zeno’s Conscience. So now I know it’s Anyway, Zeno’s Conscience remains a brilliant and prophetic book, whoever told me about it. In the book, with our hero, businessman Zeno Cosini, we walk the streets of Trieste, a port city at the edge of a collapsing empire and at the edge of the unfortunate 20th Century. He’s the most annoying and loveable (and most unreliable) unreliable narrator you’ll ever meet.

This narrator is a very up-to-date Austro-Hungarian. He’s an enthusiast for the latest Viennese fad psychoanalysis—we learn that he’s writing all this down for his analyst in Vienna (Doctor S, probably Sigmund Freud, who actually treated Svevo’s brother). He’s a hypochondriac who knows all the latest ailments and treatments, a chemist who knows the composition of all the new remedies, apparently in robust health but surrounded by sick people. An egomaniac – but only in the sense that you would be too, if you were writing everything down for your analyst.

And, in the text, Zeno’s right there, on the cusp of the modern, at the beginning of the long 20th Century—all that revolution, industrialisation, despoilation, globalisation—and war after war—just over the horizon.

He’s a modern man, a complicated subject like you or me, a secular bourgeois. He’s superstitious but not religious, a terrible businessman who prospers by accident. In the book he becomes a kind of comic avatar of the emerging scientific capitalism of the late 19th Century. The whole petty theatre of modern business is here: the awkwardness of foreign trade, company law, buying and selling shares (in Rio Tinto, supplier of copper to the hypermodern boom industries of electricity and telegraphy – he’s at the bleeding edge), fiddling the books (and worrying about getting caught fiddling the books), surplus stationery purchased in error, shipping and warehousing, HR dilemmas…

There’s a huge stock market loss (and an unlikely recovery), a catastrophic purchase of 60 metric tons of Copper Sulphate from a company in England, a sequence of terrible deals made from Zeno and his brother-in-law’s comically badly-run office (apparently staffed by the cast of the Carry On films—Carmen is Joan Sims, Luciano Jim Dale and Guido Kenneth Williams—change my mind).

The story ends with an intriguing perspective on the catastrophe of the Great War, from the other end of Europe—from the complicated, multi-party territorial war over Svevo’s beloved Trieste. I won’t spoil the ending but it brings the story to a grand and moving conclusion.

Anyway, I’d just finished Zeno’s story—and I’m all buoyed by his optimism, his readiness to transcend the darkness of war and death, to enter a rational new world of telephone calls, intercontinental travel, electric light and nation states—when I read Adam Tooze’s latest Substack. It’s about the latest explosion of stupidity and venality in British politics and the ripples it’s caused in the world economy in the last ten days. I experienced an unaccountable tingle of connection between the two stories.

Tooze starts with a fairly close-up view of events in Westminster and the City but his essay quickly spirals out through British and world markets and winds up in a very big (and quite bleak) picture indeed:

Does it really make sense to perpetuate a system in which disastrous financial risks are built into the profit-driven provision of basic financial products like pensions and mortgages? Yes the central bank can act as the fire brigade, but why do we such a dangerous situation as normality. Why do the smoke detectors fail again and again? And why is the house not more fire proof? It is time to ask who benefits and who pays the cost for continuing with this dangerously inflammable system.

‘The bond market massacre of September 2022’, Adam Tooze

I feel like every time Tooze sits down to document a new human catastrophe these days he can’t help observing that whatever the latest planet-scale fuck-up is, it’s actually also a symptom of something bigger and more final. His last two books documented the financial crisis (Crashed) and the pandemic (Shutdown). The next one will be about the global collapse triggered by Kwasi and Liz’s sixth-form science experiment in the UK economy. It’ll be called ‘Spavined’ or ‘Wrecked’ or ‘Knackered’ and it’ll have a big picture of the pair of them gurning in hard hats on the cover.

Svevo, who was a pal of James Joyce, documented Europe’s entry into modernity. Tooze is documenting the way out.


Monarchy: to be bothered or not to be bothered?

A night-time aerial view of the convoy of vehicles carrying the body of Queen Elizabeth along the Westway in London
The late Queen entering London via the Westway

Less than half of gen-z in Britain thinks we should keep the monarchy but mainstream politicians can’t get enough of it.

What do lefties and republicans think about the monarchy? Seems obvious, right? Off with their heads! But no, there’s some complexity here and it connects closely with the weird (almost unique on planet earth) constitutional arrangements that persist here in the archipelago.

On the left there are basically two positions on the monarchy. Not on monarchy in general — only one there really — but on Britain’s actually existing monarchy, the Crown-Constitutional Parliamentary state that’s been locked in here since the 17th Century.

In position one, the monarchy is an unequivocally, catastrophically bad thing—a major impediment to meaningful popular sovereignty and an aspect of Britain’s backward machinery of state. Britain’s monarchy, in this view, is a vital contributor to the country’s long-term decline, solidified in the retreat from empire and the disastrous deindustrialisation of the post-war period.

In this perspective, identified with the British ‘New Left’ since the 1950s and developed in great detail in the pages of New Left Review by brilliant writers like Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, the settlement that secured the monarchy in 1688 locked in the dominance of sclerotic aristocracy, land-owning elite and the compliant institutions that sustain them. The result is a country that, paradoxically, became a nation-state first and industrialised first but failed fully to make the transition from ancien régime to modernity, whose progress from feudalism to capitalism is still incomplete. In the New Left worldview ceremony, deference and acceptance of hierarchy have naturalised and hardened aristocratic dominance and neutralised the popular radicalism that has expanded democracy elsewhere in the capitalist world.

The other left anti-monarchist perspective, embodied these days by lefties belonging to populist or ‘realist’ strands of the tradition, is much less bothered. These anti-monarchists oppose the unelected power of the monarchy (obvs) but would probably be quite happy to leave the Windsors where they are and get on with the class war. In fact, for left-populists, the fervent opposition to the crown and its institutions embodied by that earlier generation of left-wingers is actually damaging to the cause. For them, the critics and theorists who developed the declinist narrative of the New Left—whose animating idea was that Britain is stuck in a deferential mire and can aspire only to a steady loss of status, relevance and prosperity—are a bit FBPE, a bit ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ and not least because opposing the monarchy puts them at odds these days with a clear majority of the British working class.

It’s not just the left who oppose the monarchy, of course. There’s an indignant centrist/liberal republican movement too – in fact they’ve been at it for longer and they’re more organised than the left. In the Crown’s 19th century slump it was largely Whig/Liberal radicals like Charles Dilkes who opposed the monarchy and, in the present day, the Liberal party itself still has a robust republican strand. The young Liz Truss was not alone in her vituperative opposition to the royals. See also Norman Baker’s book And What Do You Do?

The rehabilitation of the monarchy that’s taken place since the end of the 19th Century, described by Tom Nairn in his brilliant and thoroughly New Left book The Enchanted Glass, has, to put it bluntly, worked. The Crown-Parliamentary state won. In the middle ages, monarchs cowered in their palaces, derided publicly. When they ventured into the streets kings and queens were often booed, some were so often away crusading (or hunting, or carousing) they might not be known to their subjects at all.

Labour leadership and conference officials bow during a minute's silence for Queen Elzabeth at the 2022 Liverpool conference
Labour Conference 2022: national anthem at one end and Red Flag at the other

Working people who, until the early 19th Century, were suspicious of or even hostile towards royalty are, especially in the most recent decades of the Queen’s reign, mostly in favour (the numbers might be a bit different among fans of The Crown and the young, of course). Principled opposition to monarchy will just put the left in conflict with the working class and leave lefties in a very familiar position—thrashing about trying to explain why ordinary people don’t agree with them. It all begins to look a bit Remoaner/People’s Vote/Russian money.

So now, a left wing party or movement that put much energy into opposing the monarchy, that set out policies aiming at an elected head of state or even a slightly less anti-democratic settlement—one that, for instance, removed the monarch’s powers of consent to new laws—could only damage its prospects with working people. Leave the monarchs alone, lefties, they’re not worth it.


Over on Goodreads, I reviewed Nairn’s beautifully-written and highly-entertaining page-turner The Enchanted Glass which dates from the period before the annus horribilus but has two excellent forewords by the author bringing the story well into the 21st Century.

I’d go so far as to say that this is a beautiful book. Funny, angry, imaginative – an unforgiving demolition of the fantasies and self-deceptions of Britain’s backward, complacent, destructive tolerance of the invented rituals of modern royalty – the damage done to our democracy, the permanent strangulation of popular sovereignty, the narrowing of our national potential, the bleak prospect of unstoppable decline made inevitable by our unthinking acceptance of the Crown-constitutional status quo.

Published in 1988, there is absolutely nothing dated or irrelevant about this book – in fact one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the constant, startling correspondences we find between Britain towards the end of the Thatcher revolution and Britain after the Brexit revolt.

The scope of the book is not limited in any way to a critique 0f monarchy or monarchism. My understanding of Britain’s constitutional weirdness (Nairn’s wonderful name for Crown-constitutional Britain is ‘Ukania’) and the powerful parasitic grip of Britain’s social and economic elites has been so enhanced by his excoriating, wide-ranging critique of City, Crown, complacent Parliament, self-interested administrative class, complicit media elite (and so on). I feel I have a new super-power.

Nairn is a brilliant writer, his language sparkles and surprises – you’ll find yourself stopping to look up words you’ve never heard that always turn out to be perfect for the job. It’s an absolute joy – and it took me a long time to read, mainly because I couldn’t help myself from highlighting brilliant passage after brilliant passage on the Kindle (it’s a cause of immense Bezos-directed resentment that I can’t share my highlights with you because I read the book in a non-Amazon format! Sort it out Jeff!).

Nairn, who as of this review, is still with us, developed his powerful argument for the backwardness of Britain’s constitutional arrangements and for the inevitable decline of the state and the polity across his many decades as writer (and editor) at New Left Review. If you have a subscription you can read the entire archive of his writing (and of his pal Perry Anderson – also still with us – another brilliant writer with whom he worked closely) online.

Review of The Enchanted Glass, from Goodreads

I’ve been bingeing on texts about monarchy lately, for obvious reasons. I also recently read David Cannadine’s influential paper ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual : The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’ c. 1820–1977’ which is in a terrific book of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. The essay, published in 1977, explains how the rituals and customs invented or updated in the 19th Century rescued Britain’s Crown from irrelevence or even obliteration in a revolution like those that wiped out the monarchies of Europe one after the other (Hobsbawm’s essay in the same book, a wider-ranging survey of the twilight of monarchy across Europe, is also worth a read).

Another good read in this context is a David Edgerton’s 20th Century history The rise and fall of the British nation, which aims to dismantle the whole declinist New Left narrative. Perry Anderson, owner but not quite sole proprietor of the declinist story, predictably enough dismantled Edgerton’s dismantling in the pages of New Left Review (you might need a subscription to read that one).

Listen to this episode of Bungacast, the podcast from the people who brought you ‘The end of the end of history‘ for a good illustration of the modern, populist left perspective on monarchy—dismissive, derisory but definitely not bothered.

Ten times the Labour party stood behind striking workers in Britain

Actually, there aren’t any. Sorry.

The story is that Labour is the only major socialist party in the world that emerged directly from organised labour—every other important party—in the USA, Germany, France Japan—was the product of an actual revolution or of a popular socialist movement. Labour founders Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson had both been union leaders and many early Labour parliamentarians were well-known workplace leaders or campaigners for workers’ rights.

(note labour and Labour are used throughout, for obvious reasons).

RMT members holding banners and placards on a picket line in 2022 - photo from the RMT
RMT members on a picket line in 2022 – photo from the RMT

So there’s a logic to the statement that Labour is ‘the party of organised labour’ or ‘the Parliamentary wing of the trade union movement’. And to the reminders that it’s the unions who still largely fund the party and to the shock and upset amongst supporters when Labour’s parliamentary leadership fails to support union action or even opposes it.

His Majesty’s loyal opposition

It turns out, though, that the will of those noble and undoubtedly courageous early Labour leaders – and of their comrades at the top of the union movement – was not to win a victory for workers, to challenge or overthrow the parties of power at the time, to replace or diminish the landowner and business elites, or even to offer a pro-worker counterweight in the Commons. The will of those leaders—as of the current generation—was always to gain access, to join the club, to get their bums on the green benches and to form a polite left-hand hump to the Crown-Parliamentary camel, supplanting the previous occupants of the less-favoured benches and becoming ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’.

Sepia-toned portrait of Keir Hardie, looking directly at the camera. Labour Party founder and first leader. He sits on the edge of a small table, holding his pipe in his right hand and a handkerchief in his left.
We know what Keir Hardie would have done

This sounds cynical. I don’t mean for a moment to discount the contribution of those pioneer socialists to the pushing back of the multi-century stasis of Tory (and Whig) domination. They were responsible, after all, for the epochal introduction into an ancient elite legislature of working people. And, of course, individual Labour members have provided the backbone to countless labour disputes over the years—but it is vital to be clear-eyed about this. Labour in Parliament, from its very beginnings, was not a workers’ party and, in the present day, it’s a progressive party, a party of the Parliamentary centre-left, but it’s not a workers’ party.

So there’s nothing new or surprising in the Labour party distancing itself from the interests of working people—do you remember the grim spectacle of Neil Kinnock making a flying visit to a miners’ strike picket, right at the end of the strike and at 5 a.m. so as to miss the reporters? (Of course you don’t, it was barely recorded. See if you can find a photo. There are none). During the long strike Kinnock, the miner’s son, never supported the strikers’ aims, repeatedly called for a national ballot and didn’t once ask workers to respect NUM picket lines. It was perhaps the greatest challenge that a modernising Labour leader could possibly face—and we know that Kinnock was unhappy about the position he had to take. It became the most iconic—and relevant—statement of Labour’s labour ambivalence of the post-Thatcher era.

Going back further, almost to the origins of the party, during the First World War, Labour and the unions agreed an ‘industrial truce‘ in the national interest (Labour ministers joined both the Asquith and Lloyd George coalition governments). After the war, Labour continued to oppose all instances of labour militancy and, in the build-up to the 1926 general strike, as the climate worsened and employers tried to force through wage cuts, the Labour leadership mediated ineffectively. Ramsay MacDonald made grand speeches in Parliament, calling for reconciliation but, when the strike came, he opposed it.

Leave it to the Rotary Club

When the Jarrow crusaders marched to London ten years later they had to depend on a strange alliance of churches, rogue trade unionists and the Rotary Club for food and support along the way—the TUC and the Labour party didn’t turn up (local MP Ellen Wilkinson was a charismatic exception). 20th Century history is studded with examples like this. Even earlier, when Churchill moored a battleship in the Mersey to bring a little jeopardy to the 1911 Liverpool dockers’ strike, the Labour party, already a force in Parliament, was nowhere to be seen.

Communist founder and leader of the Unemployed Workers Movement, carried on the shoulders of supporters outside a court in London
Wal Hannington (activist Emily Rothery waving her hat in the foreground)

In the rough years between the wars there was an explosion of labour activism and confidence—in the face of the great depression, active government repression, blacklisting and a hostile judiciary. Wal Hannington’s National Unemployed Workers Movement moved mountains—organising big marches and actions all over the country. Its leadership was convicted under ancient mutiny laws and imprisoned—right at the sharp end of the workers’ struggle—but for Labour it was a bit too Communist. The party stood back. Likewise, the local councils who defied ancient, repressive laws to hold down the rates and to protect the poor did so without the support of Labour in Parliament. In 1921 dozens of Poplar councillors—mostly Labour, including future leader George Lansbury—were imprisoned for their defiance. The Party leadership opposed their action (in the nineties, you won’t be surprised to learn, Neil Kinnock scolded Labour councillors prosecuted and surcharged for not paying the poll tax).

You’re on your own, ladies
Black and white news photograph of strikers and supporters on a picket line at the Grunwick factory holding placards in West London in 1977
What we’ll do is show up on week 40 of your strike

When in government the party found it even harder to support strikers. The Grunwick workers, whose long strike was about union recognition, were defeated and humiliated while the governing Labour Party withheld support, although in scenes familiar to us now, individual MPs, including cabinet ministers, showed up at the picket line (the record shows that Shirley Williams et al waited until the strike was 40 weeks old and essentially already crushed to offer their calculated solidarity, though). The underpaid women at Ford’s Dagenham plant were left high and dry by a serving Labour government, winning only partial parity, after a long dispute, with the equally-calculated support of then Secretary of State Barbara Castle.

Castle’s own contribution to labour relations was to lay the foundations for 1974 legislation that withdrew important workers’ rights. It was this law that first introduced the requirement for strike ballots – and when the Tories introduced their own anti-union legislation in 1992 it essentially just tidied up Labour’s (the title of the act artfully just adds the word ‘consolidation’ to the name of Labour’s 1974 law). When Blair came to power he moderated but did not remove the Thatcher ‘reforms’ and actually introduced new limits on legitimate action to meet the requirements of his new backers in business and the media. His government’s 1999 legislation on union recognition had essentially been neutralised by employer lobbying by the time it was in the statute book. There was so much Third Way promise in the New Labour programme that optimists convinced themselves of an imminent renaissance for British trade unions after the 1997 landslide – of something like the enduring social settlement that had sustained growth and prosperity in post-war Germany. It didn’t happen.

Striking British postal workers on a protest parade with banners and placards in 1971

After Labour lost power in 1970 one of the biggest strikes of the entire period took place right at the heart of the state—in its very guts you might say. The now mostly-forgotten 1971 postal workers’ strike lasted for seven weeks and had overwhelming support from Post Office workers who had been almost uniquely badly-treated in the post-war period. The strike became a template for Tory government opposition to industrial actionRoyal Mail’s monopoly on delivering letters was suspended in an effort to circumvent the strike’s enormous impact. The strike ended without agreement—a dispiriting defeat. The workers were awarded a backdated 9% pay increase and some changes to working patterns after an inquiry but this didn’t even match what they’d been offered before the strike. No one was happy. Individual Labour MPs, including Tony Benn, who’d been Postmaster General under Harold Wilson in the sixties but by this point was on the back benches, supported the strike. Wilson himself, from the opposition front bench, walked a familiar line, saying that the union’s demands were not unreasonable but advocating independent arbitration by a court of inquiry. He opposed the strike.

The one big win

The extraordinary sequence of slow-downs and strikes that brought about the three-day week and the infamous powercuts in the early seventies is still the only industrial action that has ever brought down a UK government. Heath’s battle with miners and power workers was surely the high-water mark for labour activism in Britain—bringing together workers, party members and movement in a way not seen before or since. It was a highly-effective action, using modern communications to coordinate the strikes and winning significant public support for the cause. The workers won and so did Labour. The Parliamentary Labour Party, while in opposition under Harold Wilson, actually supported the pay claims of the miners (often in House of Commons debates) and, once in office, agreed two 35% pay rises for the miners in the space of two years. In the 1974 election Labour ran on a manifesto that promised to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families” but did the party support the strikes that brought about their victory? What do you think?

The series of strikes we now know as the Winter of Discontent was triggered by a Labour government’s imposition of wage controla 5% cap on pay increases. The subsequent industrial action took the form of a battle between state and workers. Fascinating, of course, that the present round of disputes is, at least in principle, more diffuse, pitting workers against dozens of individual employers—many in categories that did not even exist in the last era of union militancy—but that, even in the absence of a government-imposed wage cap, the state is still profoundly present.

The next generation

In the era of apps and zero-hour contracts, the strikes, walkouts and protests by gig workers, outsourced workforces and workers resisting ‘fire and rehire’ policies might seem to offer a useful opportunity for Labour to reconnect with labour, by making an association with a new generation of workers and with an updated labour activism for the social media era—with vivid new causes that have revived support for workers in Britain, especially amongst the young. No chance.

I’m not a historian (no shit, Steve) but it’s been an instructive exercise this, searching for Labour support for striking workers over the years of its existence. For me a fascinating and quite urgent reminder that Labour’s role across the modern period has been much more about achieving and sustaining a position in the Westminster constitutional fabric—holding on to what still feels like a wobbly foothold in the institutions at all cost—than about actually transferring power to working people, or even improving their conditions of work or their pay. The choice was pretty simple: take a polite role in the ancient theatre of the Parliamentary system or work for emancipation, popular sovereignty and worker control. You know the rest.

(Can you think of a time that Labour officially supported an industrial action, in or out of office, in the party’s entire history? Leave a comment).

And my scan of the party’s history suggests that it would really be wrong to expect more from the current leadership while in opposition or in government. For Starmer to even acknowledge what looks to many like an important shift in the terms of the national argument in favour of working people and organised labour would be not only to risk a monstering from the Tory press but would also defy literally the entire institutional history of his party. He leads an establishment party that must, almost as a condition of its existence, retain an even and unsupportive distance from its own organised labour wing.

Uber drivers carry banners at a London protest. They carry banners for the IWGB union
Gig workers strike in London

The party’s establishment orientation is so durable that it comfortably survived the Corbyn insurrection, living on inside the party in the administration and the political bureacracy. The machine had the confidence to take on both leadership and membership – essentially ignoring two leadership elections – and, after almost five years, ultimately deleted the entire experiment as if it had never happened. Corbyn and his programme left essentially no trace in the party. Starmer was able to pick up essentially where his predecessor did in 2015.

So it seems obvious that Starmer, Reeves et al will not have any difficulty resisting calls to expand the reach of organised labour. Nor in finding good, sensible, tactically-savvy reasons for withholding support from strikers once they’re in power too. The difficult truth for the leadership of a progressive party in Britain is that there is literally no circumstance in which it is tactically correct to support a strike.

Let’s face it, if the Tolpuddle Martyrs were to come back to life and join the party tomorrow morning, Starmer would have issued a statement, suspended their memberships, conducted a disciplinary and kicked them out by lunchtime.


  • Many now think that the huge imbalance of power between owners and workers that’s arisen in recent decades must urgently be corrected. We know that Rachel Reeves has ambitious ideas about what she calls ‘securinomics‘, something that sounds a lot like a rebalancing, but scour the party’s web site as much as you like, you’ll find much about renewing our democracy and rebuilding the economy but no mention at all of organised labour, of unions or of union legislation.
  • Wal Hannington wrote several books. He’s a brilliant example of a phenomenon of workers’ politics in the 20th Century – a self-taught labouring man who came to speak for millions and to defy capital and the social elite. You can still find his autobiography, Never on Our Knees and other political works like this terrific pamphlet Black Coffins and the Unemployed, written for Raymond Postgate’s FACT monthly.