Religion and Politics Blog

Card-carrying Liberal Democrat. My views are my own, and do not necessarily reflect party policy.

The depressing thing about any kind of politics is what people believe matters far more than what is actually true.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

Whatever Happened to the Road Lobby?

Virgin Trains East Coast HST at York

Railway privatisation and the possible renationalisation has been in the news a lot lately. But there is one unexpected consequence of privatisation that doesn’t get talked about and few if any saw coming; the strange disappearance of the Road Lobby.

Back in the days of British Rail there was an organised lobby that consistently opposed investment in rail, and even lobbied for closures. In the 1980s British Rail even had to devote time and energy fending off politically-connected cranks who wanted to tarmac over the rail network to convert them into roads.

There were many components of the Road Lobby. There were the big construction companies who profited from road-building and therefore lobbied for investment in roads at the expense of rail, most of them big donors to The Tories. There were the bus and coach companies, and the road haulage industry. There were the unions in the motor industry, who at that time outnumbered the rail unions and had the bigger influence over Labour policies. Finally there was the civil service at the department of transport. Planning and managing road investments employed many, many civil servants. In contrast very few of them had anything to do with the railways; British Rail had its own management. So a career civil servant had the natural incentive to favour road over rail.

With privatisation much of that changed. Nowadays big railway investment projects involve the same construction companies that had previously built roads, and no longer have any incentive to lobby against rail. Many of the privatised train operators are also major bus operators, and they see their train and bus operations as complementary rather than as competition. And perhaps most importantly the civil service now has a far bigger role, managing procurement and long-term investment, taking the strategic role that used to belong to British Rail’s management. The whole IEP saga suggests they’re not as good at the job as British Rail used to be, but at least they’re not actively opposing rail investment.

Yes, it’s true that privatisation and the resultant fragmentation have added layers of overheads and made the railway as a whole more expensive to operate. But the resultant defanging of the railway’s old enemy, the Road Lobby, shouldn’t be overlooked.

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Did a TV Sitcom Cause the Downfall of Western Civilization?

Was a popular sitcom responsible for the decline of Western Civilisation? David Hopkins seems to think so:

I want to discuss a popular TV show my wife and I have been binge-watching on Netflix. It’s the story of a family man, a man of science, a genius who fell in with the wrong crowd. He slowly descends into madness and desperation, lead by his own egotism. With one mishap after another, he becomes a monster. I’m talking, of course, about Friends and its tragic hero, Ross Geller.

You may see it as a comedy, but I cannot laugh with you. To me, Friends signals a harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism in America, where a gifted and intelligent man is persecuted by his idiot compatriots. And even if you see it from my point of view, it doesn’t matter. The constant barrage of laughter from the live studio audience will remind us that our own reactions are unnecessary, redundant.

I’m more inclined to believe that popular entertainment reflects social trends far more than it influences them, and to claim otherwise is to give ammunition to censorious self-appointed moral guardians.

But I do think Hopkins has some valid points on anti-intellectualism, empty consumerism and the worship of vapid celebrities at the expense of those who make genuine contributions to arts and sciences. The whole thing is worth a read.

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I don’t care if Babymetal are cool, your article is toxic and alienating

As I’ve said before on this site, Babymetal are one of those bands who divide opinions. For everyone who finds their mix of metal and J-pop gloriously entertaining, there is another who thinks they’re too far removed from their narrow version of the spirit of metal. So when they were named as band of the year by Metal Hammer, it was all too predictable that some self-appointed defenders of genre purity were not happy with the result.

Unfortunately the bottom-feeding clickbait media got hold of the story.

I won’t name the publication or link to it because quite frankly those sleazy hacks don’t deserve the clicks. When you use inflammatory language like “Metal bros losing their shit” and “Manbabies throwing tantrums” you make it clear you’re not interested in constructive discussion. Cherry-picking the posts from a handful of idiots and using them in an attempt to smear a far wider subculture for cheap outrage is little different from the way alt-right scandal sheets like Brietbart treat Islam.

You get a sinking feeling reading garbage like that. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of those “Gamers are Dead” articles that did so much to inflame the toxicity of GamerGate two years ago, and you wonder if they’re going out of their way to provoke an equivalent backlash from metal fans. I hope metal fandom is wise enough not to rise to the bait.

Social media gets a lot of the blame for the increasing toxicity of online discourse. But the online media that actively fans the flames of the culture wars for profit shares an awful lot of the blame, and this is yet another example.

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Pushing the Self-Destruct Button

Labour are two parties, and it was only a matter of time before they split. According to James Kirkup in The Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Corbyn’s deselection threat means Labour’s civil war is now a fight to the death .

Jeremy Corbyn has today confirmed that the struggle underway in the Labour Party is now the political equivalent of total war.

He did it with these words, at the launch of his campaign to keep his job, when he was asked whether Labour MPs should face mandatory re-selection to stand again as Labour candidates at the next election:

“There would be a full selection process in every constituency but the sitting MP… would have an opportunity to put their name forward.

“So there will be a full and open selection process for every constituency Labour Party through the whole of the UK.”

The hard-left takeover of the previously moribund grassroots of the party means it’s not just the “Blairites” who are under threat. It’s everyone who won’t follow an agenda set by the Trotskyite hard left.

Yes, we all remember the breakaway SDP was all but wiped out in the 1983 General Election. But once you start deselecting MPs, don’t expect them to ride off into to the sunset without a fight. They will no longer have anything to lose from forming a breakaway party.

It’s not impossible that the breakaway party may end up with more than half of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which means that they, not Labour will become the official opposition.

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Goodbye Nero

So Twitter have finally had enough and banned the notorious troll Milo Yiannopoulos, @Nero for his part in egging on the racist harassers of Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. Much of Twitter erupted in cheers. His 300,000-strong alt-right fanbase cried foul.

Let’s get one thing straight. Yiannopoulos deserved to be perma-banned from Twitter. He’s repeatedly and flagrantly violated Twitter’s Terms of Service, not just sailing close to the line but driving a coach and horses through the spirit of the rules.

Kicking him off Twitter is probably a net gain for free speech. That’s because the fear of being the centre of a witch hunt has a silencing effect. The mob is as an effective censor as the bureaucrat with the red pencil, and as with all censors, the goal is for force people to self-censor, to make whatever things the censors don’t like become unsayable. And it’s all based on power.

Yes, it’s too little, too late. And it does look as though Twitter only acted because the latest ugly eruption involved a celebrity. Twitter does need to be consistent and transparent in the way it enforces its own rules, and needs to devote enough resources to do the job properly, things which are not currently happening. Making a public example of Yiannopoulos just looks like a quick-and-dirty fix, and a very political one at that. Especially when by no means are all of the awful, abusive people on Twitter on the right.

Twitter has had a problem with trolls and mobbings for years, and it goes back long before movements like GamerGate or the rise of the alt-right. Go back a few years and it was parts of the so-called progressive left who were leading the witch hunts and harassing people who said or did anything they didn’t like. The worst parts of social-justice call-out culture were a frightening thing, and one false move could put anyone in their crosshairs. That had the effect of legitimising the tactics that Yiannopoulos and his ilk would later use in the service of right-wing causes. One you claim there are no bad tactics, only bad targets, you hand a terrible weapon to your enemies.

Twitter does need a rethink about what it’s for and what it does best. At its best it’s a great conversation space that’s most effective for interaction with your peers rather than the unequal relationship between celebrities and ordinary people. And because it’s far more mainstream it breaks down when subsets of people try to import the values of subcultures that developed places like 4chan or Tumblr which become toxic outside of those spaces.

(Given the subject, comments are closed on this post)

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Labour is going to split now, whatever happens. Any leadership election will be about which faction gets to call itself the Labour Party. Classic rock fans will recognise the situation; Angela Eagle’s Labour Party vs. The Labour Party featuring Jeremy Corbyn. Like Barclay James Harvest only without the tunes.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

Are the Tectonic Plates of British Politics Shifting?

Jonathan Calder thinks nobody knows anything about British politics any more.

In April I wrote:

“That party membership is such a minority taste now suggests that the 19th-century model of political parties we still embrace is hopelessly outdated.

Yet no politician has the vision or overweening ambition to wrench it apart and allowing something more attuned to our needs today to take its place”.

Party membership is growing again, so I was wrong about that. But maybe the tectonic plates really are moving.

Already, Remain and Leave across the UK, and Yes and No in Scotland, seem more vital and more coherent identities than the old party labels.

There is a high probability of a significant realignment happening within the next few months, and not just on the left. “Left” and “Right” no longer describe the real political faultlines in England, the big divides are more cultural than economic.

Labour is fundamentally split between its middle-class activist base and its working class roots to the point where there is no reason to exoect white working-class small-c conservatives to vote for a party more concerned with middle-class identity politics. And that’s before you throw the cultish behaviour of the old-school hard-left into the mix. Do you really expect people in Rotherham to support a party who seem to care more about Palestine and Venezuela than the north of England?

The Conservatives are just as split, between neo-liberal internationalists and little-England social conservatives, with cultish Randite libertarians mirroring Labour’s Trotskyite left. It may be that Theresa May will win the leadership election and hold the party together in the short term. If Andrea Leadson wins, all bets are off, and the chances of the party splitting are high.

The Liberal Democrats are seeing a surge of membership as one party who do still have a coherent idea of what they actually stand for. But in the longer term will liberal values be served by a small dedicated party, or as a faction with one of the new parties that may emerge from the breakup of Labour and the Tories?

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Chemistry is Sexist?

It’s another one of those Real Peer Review things. Sadly the original Real Peer Review was forced to close down after threats to expose the academic behind the account. The new one is a group account run by different people, with the blessing of the original anonymous academic.

In this one, a paper that tries to argue that Chemisty is sexist. As before, I’m not linking to the original to spare the author.

Feminist science criticism has mostly focused on the theories of the life sciences, while the few studies about gender and the physical sciences locate gender in the practice, and not in the theories, of these fields. Arguably, the reason for this asymmetry is that the conceptual and methodological tools developed by (feminist) science studies are not suited to analyze the hard sciences for gender-related values in their content. My central claim is that a conceptual, rather than an empirical, analysis is needed; one should be looking for general metaphysical principles which serve as the conceptual foundation for the scientific theory, and which, in other contexts, constitute the philosophical foundations of a worldview that legitimates social inequalities. This position is not being advocated anywhere in the philosophy of science, but its elements are to be found in Helen Longino’s theory of science, and in the social epistemology and ontology of Georg Lukács.

It goes on

4. Marxist and feminist standpoint theory

In order to establish the claim that certain values found in the theories of the physical sciences are gendered, an alternative epistemological framework is needed. Traditionally, the alternative to empiricism as a theory of knowledge is Marxist epistemology, also known as standpoint theory. The writings of Marx provide grounds for the claim that the two main classes in capitalism (the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) have distinctive viewpoints on reality. The systematic philosophical elaboration of this view is to be found in the work of Georg Lukács. Feminist standpoint theory was developed by means of analogy between the position of women under patriarchy and the position of the proletariat under capitalism. This section examines Marxist and feminist standpoint theory for their potential to conceptualize social ideologies in the physical sciences.

If you’re being generous, you could consider this a case of an academic who’s gone so deep into theory they’ve lost the ability to recognise where their theory doesn”t apply, making the same mistake frequently made by economists and evolutionary biologists. A case of the Richard Dawkins?

But you could argue that things like this are actively harmful. When there’s a movement to get more women involved in STEM fields and challenge harmful stereotypes like “Girls can’t do maths”, do attempts to undermine the theoretical basis of science itself in the name of feminism really help?

Or am I not allowed to criticise such things because I’m a “straight white male”.

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We are a divided nation

Britain of the past two weeks has started to take on the worst aspects of American politics, divided into opposing tribes each with world views the other finds incomprehensible, who regard each other with mutual loathing.

In England and Wales, there’s a gulf between the prosperous cosmopolitan cities and university towns, and the small towns and declining former industrial regions. One side effect of being a progressive rock fan is you do get to visit places like Bilston, Crewe or Wath-upon-Dearne. It’s a different world from the bustling cities and leafy suburbs, and it’s a world many from the prosperous regions probably never see.

What this divisive referendum has exposed is the way our structure of government and electoral system disenfranchises large parts of the country. People who don’t live in marginal constituencies had got used to their vote not counting for anything much in general elections, and used the one time their vote actually did count to send a message to the elites that had been ignoring or taking them for granted.

Whether we do end up leaving the European Union in the end, and it’s by no means as settled as some politicians would like us to think, we will have to heal those divisions.

It ought to be obvious that the fruits of whatever prosperity we might see in the future must be shared more fairly, and we need to think about the best ways of doing this without either stifling enterprise or creating political client states.

But constitutional reform needs to be high on the agenda. There needs to be a more representative electoral system for starters; never again should mainstream politics be able to ignore entire regions for decades. But there also needs to be more regional autonomy within England. It’s not clear quite what a more decentralised England might look like, but if people voted to “take back control”, they should be given more power over the political decisions that effect their lives.

Quite how this can come to pass rather than see the nation fall deeper into darkness and division is another question.

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