The dead cat of Dominic Cummings?

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From the left, the reaction to the Dominic Cummings story has been curious. Of course, there’s been anger. While not surprised, socialists (along with the general population) have expressed genuine outrage that the chief adviser to the Prime Minister could display such arrogance and disregard for public health. But mixed in with that, I sense that there is a real nervousness about letting Cummings become the story. I talked a little about that in a piece I wrote about Cummings’ politics last week. What many argue is that even this story, superficially damaging as it is for them, is a cover for the Tories to conceal far greater crimes.

We saw a similar nervousness throughout the Corbyn years: a sense that we must not allow these right-wing chess players, the likes of Steve Bannon, Lynton Crosby and now Dominic Cummings, to set the agenda and employ dead cat strategies to distract the public with stories that play to their agenda alone – so from the annual “Poppygate” to Cummings’ press conference last Monday, almost everything is seen through the prism of this game of mass distraction. I think an element of this is bound to be true, but we must be careful that by calling everything a dead cat, we don’t fall into the exact trap we’re trying to avoid.

Of course, people like Dominic Cummings employ game theory and such like. Throughout politics, there are people who work in the background, mapping out scenarios and attempting to pull the strings of the public. We’ve had our examples of people in our party whose job was to do the same, and some of that was very successful. Of course, it’s the opposite of movement building and is as old as history itself. Machiavelli wrote the book.

However, we have to be careful. We mustn’t get sucked into the idea that the likes of Cummings are omnipotent or be overtaken by conspiracy theories. These people aren’t all powerful, they are part of a struggle – and a political one at that. Their theory of the world: that human interaction is fundamentally governed by self-interest, is not uncontested terrain. Alternatives views are available. It is part of a battle for the future, which we are all agents.

A hugely important Italian Marxist theorist – Antonio Gramsci – had a different perspective, based on a different world view. He read Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (a guide to courtiers in how to win power through manipulation and subterfuge in Renaissance Italy) and developed a new theory: that in modern society, it was the party (the collective, organised working class) that was the Modern Prince. In other words, in the struggle for power and leadership (what he called hegemony), there was power from the top (the old model), but always a countervailing power from the bottom up – and that’s where democratic, socialist politics has its source.

I think there is a real danger – especially in difficult times – that we accede too much power to those in formal positions of power and those who, like Cummings, seem to pull the strings of not just a hard-right government, but the right-wing press. In so doing, it often looks like the control over the people is total, that Cummings is directly pulling the strings of the general public. But it is more complicated than that – and there are always other forces bubbling up. There are always cracks, and it is our task, as socialists, to turn them into crevices.

Of course, the likes of Dominic Cummings, Lynton Crosby and Steve Bannon do have real power and alongside the right-wing press and social media channels that they have developed, are often successful at creating hegemony (or leadership) amongst the public and of the state. But there is a real issue with going fully down a conspiracy rabbit hole, because it is utterly debilitating for us, as people who want to change the world. Because ascribing to any person, or a group of people, all-encompassing power makes our organising largely pointless. It overwhelms and demoralises people – and demoralised people don’t tend to organise, they tend to wait for better days, hide – or worse, give up all together.

Let’s take an example: some people on the left are saying that the situation over Dominic Cummings is designed to cause such anger, that it leads people to civil disobedience, as a precursor to authoritarian or martial law. Where is this argument going? Is it designed to stop the authoritarianism, the anger, or people speaking out? It’s not clear – and that is the point. Over the last 40 years, the real enemy of socialism has been demoralisation and apathy. At the heart of that is a sense of powerlessness. When we inflate the power of the dark forces controlling our lives, without any light, without any sense of how we fight back, we help them.

I think the best way to see Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson and the whole gamut of ascendant right-wing forces, is part of a political struggle. Their biggest battle and biggest challenge is to win hearts and minds, in order to gain consent for their admittedly authoritarian project. Our job is also to win hearts and minds, but our battle cannot be won from above, with the support of the media or the apparatus of the state. Ours must be won by organising amongst the people, opening up the space for a different vision of society, based on our collective power. But we must challenge their narratives, whatever games they are playing and whatever their strategies – because you don’t lead by hiding or hoping for better days.

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The politics of Dominic Cummings.

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On the left, there is a tendency to dismiss the significance of right-wing political figures. That’s an understandable gut reaction and I would argue that the opposite tendency – to inflate their power – is a real danger too, but I do think we need to understand the politics of different strands on the right, as well as the motivations and underlying principles of the leading exponents of those politics.

Dominic Cummings is dismissed as a liar, a fraudster and a manipulator. All of those things may be true, but if that was all he was, we would not be talking about him now and Boris Johnson and the rest of his allies in the Cabinet and in the Tory Party would not be fighting so hard to keep him in position.

Should we ignore him then? I would say not, though clearly, we have to be careful not to play his game. But the reality is, he has achieved something extraordinary: forging a seemingly impossible unity between the hard right across the country, bringing together Tory free marketeers, old guard Thatcherites and the Brexit Party – the outward manifestations of which were the Leave vote in the 2016 Euro Referendum and the overwhelming Conservative victory in the 2019 General Election.

The formal victories are only one part of the story, however. The true significance of what Cummings (and a handful of trusted people around him) has achieved is to kick off a revolution in the Tory Party. In much the same way that the Corbyn leadership challenge did within the Labour Party, Cummings and his crew are turning the Conservative Party on its head.

Some say that there is no plan, that the plan is destruction and chaos. There may be something in this, but I think, whether by design or not, Cummings and the Leave campaign has tapped into some deep-rooted ideological battles within the Tory Party, which are being fought out on this terrain. Eurosceptics versus Europhiles; Neo-liberals versus One Nation Tories; radicals versus conservatives and ideologues versus pragmatists. Some of those battles stretch right back to Thatcher.

Dominic Cummings is a complex character who sits right in the middle of these battles. On the one hand there’s an outward arrogance, an air of invincibility. Here’s someone who doesn’t seem to think he should be answerable to anyone: a self-declared political genius who delivered victories and is busy extracting favours. You can see it in the power he’s been given to hire and fire, the privileged access he’s been given to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and in the way the Prime Minister’s office is mobilising to save him right now.

That isn’t a quirk. I don’t think, as some have suggested, that Cummings’ power lies in the fact that he “knows where the bodies are buried.” I think it is vastly more complex than that – it is the fact that he represents and symbolises those ideological cleavages. In some ways, he is also a conduit for them: so those whose vision is a remade, hard right, Tory Party know the significance of what Cummings and his friends have delivered.

On the other hand I’ve noticed, over several months, that he seems to be in a hurry, like he’s running from something, as if he’s about to be found out. He acts like a manipulative, naughty boy, testing the boundaries to see whether people will defend him. That shows a weakness, a shaky foundation to his power – that he’s still very much in the business of shoring it up and maybe even simply fighting a defensive battle to hang on.

I think what this shows is exactly the broader context of the battle for the soul of the party. If Cummings goes, it won’t be the end of a new, hard right Tory Party, but it will be seized on by those who desperately want to drag it back to what it was under David Cameron – a managerialist, free market version of One Nation Toryism. The party that Dominic and his allies have utter contempt for.

Rightly or wrongly, Dominic Cummings is felt to have his finger on the pulse of the British people – not just by himself, but by large parts of the Tory right. This is part of his strength and, conversely, his weakness: every part of Cummings’ political practice is based on the idea that the public can be manipulated and fairly easily. His argument is that he has managed to work his magic not once, but twice. And it mesmerises them. But what happens when that magic runs out? What has he got? Is there anything of any substance, or just a half-baked libertarianism? Is it all an act? Does he have anything beyond the dark arts and big data?

I’m not sure he does, at least not personally. If you read his blogs, they are desperately incoherent and rootless. There are a lot of words, but little in terms of substance. I think that the clock is ticking for Cummings, and he knows it. He has done a job, but he can’t necessarily finish it. In fact, I’m not convinced he really wants to.

In that sense, this drama that is playing out now, over his movements, controversies and attitudes – all the speculation and outrage – is a sideshow to something much more significant for our politics, which is the future of British Conservatism and the remaking of the right. Cummings has created a temporary, but deeply unstable alliance. That’s unlikely to hold. But he has put a torch under much bigger conflicts within the Tory Party that are about to catch fire.

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Organising the Labour left in Durham

This piece was written by me in Labour Briefing in November 2018. I’m republishing it here because I think Durham Labour Left offered a model, not just for the North East, but for the rest of the country. Things got in the way, mainly to do with defeats – not just the General Election, but a series of local defeats from that point onwards. And that clearly affected our unity as a group and our confidence. Six months after losing the General Election and eighteen months after this fantastic event, it’s time to recover both.

SOMETHING IS HAPPENING in Durham. For over two years, a group calling itself Durham Labour Left (DLL) has been beavering away behind the scenes, working to bring socialists within the party together in the county.

The aim has never been to replace any organisations that already exist, but to become an umbrella organising hub for people in Momentum, Red Labour, the LRC groups and other Labour Party socialists. The focus has been to support and co-ordinate each other’s activity and that effort is now starting to bear fruit. Durham, of course, has a rich labour movement tradition, as anyone who has attended the annual Miner’s Gala (the Big Meeting), which takes place in early July every year, will know.

It was therefore appropriate that the recent ‘Organising the Labour Left’ conference, organised by DLL, took place at Redhills, the home of the Durham miners. Held on 21st October, it followed a similar meeting held in Newcastle in February, when socialists in the party gathered to discuss the possibilities of working across different groups on the Labour left to achieve common objectives, such as positions on the regional board, internal party elections and selections.

The half day in Durham was notable for its comradely atmosphere. The event was attended by over 100 regional and national Labour Party members, activists and MPs. Every constituency in County Durham was represented in some form or another, many more came from all over the north east and some even travelled from Sheffield to exchange ideas and learn from the comrades gathered at the Miners’ Hall. Although MPs Grahame Morris and Laura Pidcock attended, they did so as ordinary members, and the whole ethos of the day was grassroots learning from each other.

After a plenary session, introduced by DLL founding members Angela Hankin, Chris Turner, Adrian Hedley and Brenda Stephenson, the day was broken down into breakout sessions, which included using social media to organise; report back from annual conference; standing as a candidate for CLP, council & region; how a CLP works and organising democratically in CLPs; and building street and workplace movements against racism, war and poverty.

Lynn Gibson, Leeann Clarkson and Paul Daly ran a session which encouraged us all to share our ideas on making new, and in fact all, members welcome in our party. They advocated creating a welcoming environment in branch and CLP meetings and, above all, respecting all members – from those who have been lifelong members to the very latest recruits. Lynn explained that she organises bi-monthly branch socials for new (and inactive) members to come along and meet with active members in a more social environment and offers a buddy system for new members to attend meetings.

Grahame Morris spoke about standing as a Labour candidate. He said there was a marvellous and unprecedented array of talent now available to the Labour Party at every level with the dramatic increase in membership and the radical manifesto for the many under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The challenge is to engage with our members, build on their existing skills and enthusiasm and help to develop people’s confidence, as many working class candidates still struggled with the idea that they had a place in the party’s representative structures.

Harry Cross and Ed Whitby talked about organising democratically within a CLP, opening local parties up to political education and engaging our vast membership in its processes. Ben Sellers held a workshop on how to use the tools of social media to organise locally and emphasised the need to link online campaigning with on-the-ground organising. Daniel Kebede ran a very interactive session on how to challenge racism and building anti-racist campaigning as a thread throughout the Labour Party and Sheila Williams reported on the rule changes and debates that had come from conference.

The conference ended back in the beautiful old chamber at Redhills, also known as the Pitman’s Parliament. A discussion was held where people made considered contributions. No one was grandstanding – it was a genuine exchange of ideas.

Of course, there’s some way to go. DLL hasn’t ‘cracked it’ in Durham and will only achieve what’s needed in the party locally if this sort of engagement carries on. But the whole conference was genuinely refreshing and, like the Durham Labour Left, offers one model of how we might go forward – avoiding the splits and sectarianism that have beset the Labour left in times gone by, and which hang over us to this day. We can, and must, do better than that.

Ben Sellers

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No common ground with Cummings

Just a couple of months ago, Dominic Cummings was pushing herd immunity. He’s Boris Johnson’s most powerful advisor. At the same time, the Prime Minister was dithering over lockdown and delaying action, when it was clear that radical measures were needed. That certainly cost lives. Let’s not forget that.

Also, let’s not forget what we discovered a few weeks ago: that Cummings and some of his closest political allies – people who developed strategy alongside him over years – were part of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meetings – at the very least, taking part in discussions about how advice would be relayed, but no doubt forming that advice too.

Let’s remember, too, who Cummings is and what he does: he’s someone who has been emboldened by quietly racking up the political victories; by skilfully creating opportunities out of chaos; by manipulating public opinion; by tapping into deep seated anxieties, emotions and prejudices and turning them into slogans and ideas.

And right now, what Cummings is doing (alongside Boris Johnson and the hard right friends he’s gathered around him in the Cabinet) is desperately trying to work out how they can benefit from this crisis. How, despite that catastrophically lethargic response, despite the fact that they’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything approaching the right thing, they can turn this crisis round to the benefit of the Tory Party, and their political faction within it.

Let’s just take an example over the last few days. So, on Thursday, we had right-wing tabloid press carrying headlines like “Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons!” and “First Steps to Freedom From Monday!”, almost in unison. On Friday, VE Day, thousands of people had street parties, formed congas, many clearly in breach of social distancing rules. A coincidence? Not likely, but flag waving, national pride dressed up as rebellion – I couldn’t think of anything more Dominic Cummings if I tried.

That campaign to win the ideological battle will have many facets: they will work with, then manipulate the press; they will send mixed messages about the lockdown and play with people’s desperate desire to return to normality; they will orchestrate fears, stoke myths and displace blame. But their focus will be clear, because they are utter ideologues, convinced of their natural authority and destiny.

That group, with their big data, endless resources and their bear traps, are already planning ahead. They are about winning hearts and minds in this coronavirus crisis, just as they were with Brexit and the General Election. They know which buttons to press, how to individualise this crisis, so no light can be shone on the Government’s structural and deliberate failure to represent and safeguard its own people.

We can’t treat this group around Cummings as if we were dealing with an Edward Heath, or mainstream Conservatism. We can’t trust them, or expect them to listen to the science or do what is right for the majority of the population. They may play at being One Nation Tories for a press conference or two, but they are far from it.

The idea that there is common ground here is naive. When they talk about the trade unions, opposition politicians and local government administrations as being a “blob” holding them back, we better believe them. We are in their way and we better decide how we are going to stand our ground, rather than being steamrollered.

Caution is not the watchword, not when it comes to workers being sent into dangerous workplaces or life threatening scenarios. There’s so much simmering discontent, amongst those who have the most to lose from a premature “unlockdown” and from those who will go, unprotected, into an expanded frontline. On one level, our task, right now, is really quite simple. We must stick up for our people, with as much determination as they do theirs. Which is a hell of a lot.

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