This one time, at Labour Conference…

By Elle Driver

Conference. Every year, the drill’s the same. Through the gates you go after flashing the pass, scanning crowds for people you know, people you need to speak with. Trawl the programme for promising events. Day one is about reconnaissance.

Inside, the main hall promised a furious programme of activity, the motions that Momentum had allowed to reach the floor and the set-piece speeches the Leader’s Office had approved. The peripheral rooms and common areas littered with MPs with their aides, suited and booted and avoiding eye contact like it might give them venereal disease. Can’t blame them, a single chat could root them to the spot for the worst 20 minutes of their lives, cruelly unable to escape the complete oral history of what’s gone wrong in Burnley. But, apart from them, the vibe of the crowd was distinctly grassroots, loose and casual. Being the first day, the army of bouffanted lobbyists, both male and female, hadn’t descended yet. It was early, so no-one was drunk. In other words, nothing was actually happening yet. Attendees were just streaming in, tentatively, checking it all out, looking for friends or partners in crime.

The real action was at The World Transformed, the parallel conference around the corner from the main one where, even on the first day, there was a line around the block to get in. A gaggle of self-described activists, killing time as they queued, shared their glee at how busy the event was, especially given the New Statesman venue was deserted. This was to be a recurring theme that week. No one had a kind word for the poor NS or its writers, they were apparently a pack of establishment sell-outs or worse, corporate stooges. A bit of parsing of these characterisations would then lead to their editors being described as anti-Corbyn and, well, nothing else. Not a great first impression of the new members, the Corbyn faithful, of whom I’d heard so much but not yet seen in the wild, certainly not up close. But I was determined to keep an open mind.

Onwards.

There may have been unkind words about the media, but in truth there were no roaming gangs of awful Marxists looking for dissenters to slay with their sickles. Apart from individual conversations, confined to particular stands, normality reigned. As the sun came out, it even began to feel festive and relaxed. I started getting reports from colleagues about the fringe meetings. There was no generalised tension, no-one causing real trouble or even just asking awkward, challenging questions. Others reported the same and soon it was clear that the party was indeed far more united than the dreadful MSM (or the poor ostracised New Statesman lot) would have anyone believe. The relief was beginning to feel palpable. But early days still.

Unusually for a conference attendee, I would have the honour of meeting Corbyn himself, more by accident than design. What a lovely man! You’d have to be some kind of Blairite gorilla to not instinctively like him, with his crumpled, vulnerable smile, the kindly eyes. In an instant the adoration didn’t seem or feel so bizarre. If you came upon this man thinking he shared your political views it would be impossible not to follow him, maybe even not to venerate him. Then suddenly I was pulled from  his personal orbit by one of the team of advisers around him. Or perhaps it was security, it was impossible to tell them apart. It was a rude interruption of my momentary thought bubble. ‘Mustn’t disturb Jeremy’, someone later quipped to me, ‘he’s the only thing keeping Labour from going Full Metal Jacket. They can’t be rocking any boats.’

In the fringes this message became clearer with each passing meeting. Questions weren’t allowed in the ones with contentious topics. ‘No Q&A’ became a common opening disclaimer for the chairs, and if they demurred a party aide would pipe up from the panel or the audience and remind all concerned: No Questions, No Exceptions. Insiders even apologised to me for the lack of access to anyone who held any decision-making powers and, sotto voce, they admitted the joking was all too serious. Jeremy can’t be anywhere near anything controversial right now. No one must be made unhappy. The cliff edge was all too near, the enemies poised at the gates, there was no way policies could be considered carefully right now. Just need to make it into Number 10: then we’ll talk.

Onwards.

Many of the stereotypes bandied around about Corbyn supporters were revealed as just that, stereotypes. The place wasn’t teeming with North London avocado-worshipping privilege, there were plenty of attendees who struggled to find the change to pay for the overpriced coffees in the seafront cafes. I chatted to as many different and disparate attendees as I could, and they were all unfailingly polite. Corbyn had seemed such a nice man, maybe we sceptics had it all wrong, something positive really was happening, why piss on an idealist’s chips?

New members everywhere, new faces. They didn’t really supply new energy, since they were timid, unsure of how it was all meant to work, excited but worried they’d do it wrong. Understandable. No one forgets their First Time. But it was still good to see them there, and to feel reassured that in fact the party was still functioning as it always had before, that reports of its takeover by hard left men in fedoras were looking greatly overstated.

My policy area, being controversial and difficult, meant, as usual, no-one really wanted to speak with me, but felt obliged to. Getting to see MPs away from the cameras is a similar experience to seeing celebrities in private settings. They may not play characters but many have public personas that slip away the second the door to the ante room shuts. I’m always grateful for the ones who prove to be no different behind the scenes, even more so if they’re polite rather than contemptuous. And if they actually stop, take time to listen, ask questions, understand, hey ho, that’s pay dirt. Few and far between, but not forgotten, and often the ones I least expected.

The new intake proved no different. Some appeared to feel it was their duty to take advantage of an opportunity to learn about an issue. Others didn’t even bother to conceal their irritation and wouldn’t so much as give a thanks-but-no-thanks. Again, this was a kind of relief to me, that there was no difference, that the big new names were behaved the same as the big old names. The game was the same, I’d no need to approach it differently. Be polite, charming even, if possible, smile, be respectful of their positions. That’s all. Keep at it, plug away. Some will listen, some won’t. Take the wins, forget the brush-offs. There will be arseholes everywhere. And so far none of the male MPs try it on like half the Tories do. Result!

More nice people to meet out on the pavement, more introductions. Contacts meet new contacts, and if you have balls, you introduce yourself to anyone and everyone. Us old hands were increasingly outnumbered as the week wore on. The average age tumbled so low I started to wonder if everyone who was there shouldn’t be at home, studying on a school night. Someone introduced me to a young guy who was very small, slight, quiet, and looked permanently uncomfortable. The type you couldn’t remember from school no matter how hard you tried or scanned those old photos. He proved to be no more impressive in speech than demeanor. Matt Zarb-Something, someone said. Oh! Oh? A name I knew, but alas not from where.

Onwards.

Andy Burnham, and his aide Kevin, ever the true gents. John McDonnell, never interested, but never impolite. Chuka Umunna, funny and decent and sincere. Dan Jarvis, aloof and cold and annoyed. Lisa Nandy, trying hard to get it, but always in a rush. Dennis Skinner with his lovely wife Lois, not having any of it, any of this conference shit, but loudly agreeing with me on my issue. John Prescott, warm and real but uncompromising and will turn on a sixpence if you cross him, loudly telling me to go before the wife finds out he talks to me. Kate Osamor wanting nothing to do with me. Diane Abbott too wary of strangers in her midst to really try, and for that I can’t blame her. Yvette Cooper fair and patient, giving nothing away, nothing. Then the media types – columnists and TV personalities worse than any of the MPs, with egos the size of the new British Airways attraction. Phil Collins from The Times so far up his own arse he’ll never need an endoscopy. But John McTernan the sweetest political killer I’ve ever known. A huge tender heart, once he lets you anywhere near it. Alistair Campbell weirdly vulnerable and nervous, fragile even. Stop that, I chide myself, can’t like him, not HIM…

None are the public caricatures they labour under, all are trying their best to balance personal ambition, insecurities, and doing the right thing. No, that’s not right, not all. Some want to further their careers and the rest is secondary. New intake and old alike. But it takes time, opportunities to test them, challenges to put to them, to find out who’s who. Who’s real and who’s just talking the talk. Over and over I’m surprised, caught out. Nothing works as a reliable shorthand or signal. I can never know until they’re in front of me, allowing a real conversation, give and take, examination.

My feet hurt, my back aches, it’s near the end, I’ve been walking or standing for 5 days straight, no lunches, just grabbed coffees and snacks until evenings. The football scarves have come out, with Corbyn’s name, the students have grown more comfortable, they’re getting the hang of the fact that there’s nothing to get a hang of, it’s a party conference. On the pavement someone makes another introduction, to yet another incredibly awkward young man named Sam, but this one’s not diminutive, he’s huge and that’s with me wearing heels. Towering over me, reminding me of one those trees in Lord of the Rings or is it Harry Potter? I’m told he’s a journalist but there’s only a mumble to be had by way of greeting. He manages a smile even if no eye contact. The young lurching lummox lumbered off before I get to find out which paper he writes for. ‘Dunno’, says my colleague. ‘Last name’s Kriss I think?’

Watching him go I recall the various meetings I’ve had; I can no longer suppress the nagging thought that I’ve been bumping into real-life Jim Levensteins all week. Then I realise I can’t afford to think that as it might make me Stifler’s Mom.

Corbyn’s entrance into the venue to make his speech is carefully choreographed to look like there’s a spontaneous burst of crowd support around him. I watch him and his team stride out from the back of the Odeon cinema, around the corner to where key supporters have been gathered but now are genuinely delighted. It looks and feels great, they’ve done it well. They’re getting much better at this, his team. I’m happy for him. Nice man.

Conference is over. I had hits and misses. The place had a slightly different look, a different crowd. But it was no different to the year before, or the year before, or the year before, or the year before. Stage managed to the nth degree, fewer opportunities for debate or questioning in separate meetings, but a bit more on the floor perhaps. The biggest issue of all, Brexit, blocked completely from open discussion. Armies of press officers swarming around to stop any controversy in its tracks. Corporate sponsors in the exhibition hall and of the fringes. Everything tightly controlled. MPs clasping their lines-to-take briefing sheets if you catch them unawares, the rest of the time, the scripts are hidden away, thrust into advisers’ pockets. Impressively coordinated. Nothing awkward, little discomfort.

The young members will come back, I hope, and, like me, over the years they will see that leaders come and go but the machinery never changes. It’s politics as it always is. There’s nothing new here.

 

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Labour moderates may be pushed before they jump

By an anonymous Labour councillor

The term “Labour moderates” covers a widely disparate range of views.  They include socially and economically liberal ‘Blairites’.  This group largely embraces global capitalism.  However, they want to harness the power of the state and the market to reduce inequality.  Sharing the moderate tent are more statist social democrats.  Their objectives are not wildly dissimilar to the Blairites.  However, they are more sceptical of markets and globalisation.  Nevertheless, they have no desire to bring down capitalism.  Next are those who self-identify as socialists but who espouse more radical reform of capitalism.  They should feel at home in Corbyn’s Labour Party.  However, their outlook tends to be internationalist.  Therefore, the default anti-West mentality of the Corbynite alt-left does not resonate with them.  More importantly, they feel uncomfortable about the cultishness surrounding Corbyn.   

These characterisations of Labour moderates are somewhat crude.  There are many shades of opinion within and between the groups described.  Still, this account of Labour moderates is more nuanced than the caricatures envisaged by the Corbynite left.  They see a common enemy consumed by bitterness and a desire for power over principle.  Labour moderates’ scepticism about Corbyn and his acolytes is regarded as proof positive of a barely repressed, innate conservatism.  The word ‘Blairite’ has been appropriated as shorthand for this.  Some Corbynite apparatchiks, close to the man himself, have taken to using dubious terms such as ‘slugs’ and ‘melts’ about Labour moderates on social media.  

The Corbynite pressure group, Momentum was formed in late 2015.  Its initial purpose was to consolidate Corbyn’s position.  Over time, it has developed a parallel organisational structure.  In effect, it is a party within a party.  Momentum activists define themselves in opposition to Labour moderates.  They flexed their muscle early on.  In December 2015, the House of Commons voted for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.  Corbyn made his vehement opposition clear.  Many Labour MPs, being of an internationalist disposition, were inclined to vote in favour.  However, a perceptible number did not.  The expected rebellion was stifled rather than quashed.  Many attributed this to an intense social media and lobbying campaign by Momentum activists.  

Momentum proved effective as Corbyn’s Praetorian Guard in the summer of 2016.  A leadership challenge was instigated by the Parliamentary Labour Party.  This occurred after the 2016 referendum on EU membership.  Many Labour MPs perceived that Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, had deliberately sabotaged the Remain campaign.  Nevertheless, the challenge was easily defeated.  Corbyn was greatly helped by Momentum’s organisation and resources.  In some ways, the outcome of the referendum was more significant for the Party than the subsequent leadership election.  It represented the beginning of an illiberal populism in the UK that is evident across the Western world.  Donald Trump’s election as US President, in November 2016, further exemplifies this.  Labour moderates have found that their core liberal values are under attack from the right and the left.  They have few allies in the centre.

Speculation about a new party surfaces periodically.  This has been a regular occurrence since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Leader in 2015. The speculation ebbs and flows according to Corbyn’s fortunes.  Commentators ruminate on the discomfort of Labour moderates:  Surely the Party activists have become too hostile?  Is Labour still the right party to advance their politics?  Would a new centrist party not be more viable for them?  After all, the Party has been transformed beyond recognition in only two years. Still, moderate Labour MPs are dismissive of such talk, in public and in private.  They are genuinely and deeply reluctant.  However, they may not be given much choice.  Momentum are waging a war against moderates.  It is genuine, sustained and highly organised.  

Their increasingly impossible situation begs an obvious question: why do Labour moderates stay?  Many are haunted by the spectre of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).  In 1981, a number of Labour moderates were alarmed by an earlier hostile takeover of the Party by the hard-left.  Their response was to break away and form the SDP.  For a short time, in the 1980s, the SDP was in the ascendant.  However, it experienced a rapid decline when Labour, under Neil Kinnock’s leadership, moderated and appropriated many of its policies.  Many Labour moderates, especially sitting MPs, have night terrors of ending up in a fringe party on the margins of politics.  This is not what they have devoted their lives and careers to.  They also have a deep tribal, familial identification with the Party.  To them, Labour is more than a political party; it is a community which often provides the basis for a social life.  They are, understandably, reluctant to isolate themselves from that.  

Until very recently, Labour moderates were enmeshed in the structures of the Party.  They were often in a position to act as a restraining influence.  However, the result of the 2017 General Election has changed this.  The Corbynite wing has interpreted the better-than-expected result as validation of their world view. Moderates within the Party have been fatally weakened.  Momentum have been quick to take advantage and a new phase of a hostile takeover has commenced.  

Noisy threats to deselect Labour MPs were frequently made by Momentum activists before the election.  However these have subsided and there is a reason for this; they have a new target.  Many local Party branches have held their annual general meetings in recent weeks.  Longstanding branch officers have found themselves replaced by strangers wearing badges emblazoned with Corbyn’s name.  This is the result of slates organised by Momentum.  Moderates report that has become increasingly difficult for them to find candidates for voluntary positions.  People are said to find the atmosphere of Party meetings intimidating.

There are two clear lessons to be learned from Momentum’s latest manoeuvres.  Firstly, they are completely uninterested in cohabitation with Labour moderates. They seem them as a barrier to be removed.  Secondly, they are no longer targeting Labour MPs directly but they are still targeting them.  They have chosen the more indirect route of seizing control of local party structures.  Moderate councillors are their next target.  Their objective is not simply to weaken moderates but to expunge them altogether. Labour moderates have little desire to leave the Party but staying is rapidly becoming less of an option.  

Many Labour moderates dream of regaining control of the party.  Others, who consider themselves to be pragmatists, hope to reach some sort of accommodation with Momentum.  Neither of these outcomes seem likely.  

 

Britain’s alt-left

By Jake Wilde

The British left has a long and distinguished history, stretching back over a hundred years. By consciously and deliberately rejecting revolution and embracing parliamentary democracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the left in Britain was able to present itself as an honest, patriotic expression of the interests of working people in this country. By consistently rejecting undemocratic, anti-democratic or openly totalitarian manifestations of leftist thought and actions that arose inside Britain or abroad, the Labour Party, whatever public opinion might have thought about its competence, has upheld the principles of liberal democracy, and been seen to do so. From the Zinoviev letter through to the Cold War, the various attempts by Labour’s political opponents to suggest the party is a risk to national security, or holds views contrary to the broader public interest, has consistently failed to gain traction. It is this reserve of trust and goodwill that the current leadership of the party has been able to call upon to deflect doubts about their past associations.

There are, naturally, some genuine British revolutionaries. They are generally easy to identify because they tell you who they are and they all know each other. They meet in small halls that echo to the drone of interminable arguments about the true nature of socialism. Some are Leninists, others are Stalinists, there’s a telephone box-full of supporters of North Korean Juche, and perhaps a few busloads who have a thing for Latin American men in uniforms. The sanctity of human life is a rare commodity in such circles, making it hard to distinguish these earnest wavers of red flags from religious death cults or neo-Nazis. Irrespective of whether you subscribe to spectrum, compass or horseshoe theory, it seems to me that once your founding principle includes the notion that some people deserve to, or indeed must, die then it matters little what brand you give to your inhumanity.

During the Cold War, the binary political choice was starkly plain to see. There was no room for communist apologism in mainstream politics so those with sympathies in that direction were bundled in with the revolutionaries and were largely happy to be there. However, for those with political ambitions being a revolutionary in Britain is wholly unrewarding and so it is necessary to try to find your way into the mainstream as the Militant Tendency did. However, in that binary Cold War world, it was always going to be impossible to reconcile the quasi-revolutionary views of Militant’s members with those of mainstream Labour Party democrats.

Once the Berlin Wall fell and the memories of the Soviet Union began to fade it started to become acceptable to use language tinged with Marxist ideology within the Labour Party, with Tony Blair even adding the phrase “democratic socialist” to membership cards. And so since the end of the Cold War, and dwelling in the space between the traditional left and the revolutionary left and elbowing their way into both spheres, Britain’s alt-left began to emerge.

 

The alt-left see themselves as the bridge between the democratic left and the revolutionary left, the unifying force behind the creation of a hegemonic left-wing movement that will sweep aside, through sheer force of numbers, the right-wing establishment. Many individuals have attempted to be the personal manifestation of that unifying force, from George Galloway, through various trade union leaders, to John McDonnell. Finally, and largely by accident, Jeremy Corbyn stumbled upon the magic formula. This turned out to be, by stark contrast to his predecessor would-be messiahs, that one should be widely lauded as a principled man but be sufficiently unclear about what those principles are in order for people to be able to project their own upon him.

The destabilising effect on UK politics of the alt-left has had a number of direct consequences. The first was that the consequence of the internal conflict within Labour in the lead-up to the 2015 general election was that the party presented an unclear message to the electorate. Irrespective of whether you think Labour should have been clearly anti-austerity or more firmly in favour of stricter controls of the economy the fact that it failed to convince anybody that it was either of those things was cited by voters as being a key barrier to supporting them. Ed Miliband’s odd attempts at populism, which plainly didn’t suit him, look even stranger now viewed through the prism of Corbyn’s leadership. Consider the Ed Stone; imagine it had never happened and Jeremy Corbyn produced it during the 2017 election. Corbynistas would have hailed it as a stroke of genius, a physical manifestation of the great man’s principles, whatever it actually had carved upon it.

The second was that a Corbyn-led Labour Party directly contributed towards the UK voting to leave the European Union. Not a single person working on the Remain campaign is in any doubt about that. Brexit will have the single most disruptive impact upon the UK economy since WWII and those familiar with Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy will recognise the appeal of this to the alt-left. Brexit may well create the conditions that allow the alt-left to argue effectively for the “siege economy” approach envisaged by Benn, a combination of widespread state ownership and protectionism. It is inconceivable to imagine any other Labour Party leadership since Attlee pursuing such policies.

The third is the potential for a long-term fracture within the left, rather than unity. The 2017 election showed what can happen if there is hegemony, with those who just a few years ago would never have voted for a Corbyn/McDonnell-led party finding themselves forced into voting Labour through an absence of choice. This is the realisation of the alt-left’s electoral strategy. The alt-left are not interested in building common cause with moderates, but in eliminating their voice by bullying them into either silence or submission. They wish to force everyone who identifies as being “of the left” into making a simple choice – it’s us or the Tories – knowing this places their opponents in a lose-lose situation. If moderates vote Labour they prop up the alt-left, if they don’t vote Labour they have betrayed the nation by letting in the Tories. This is not particularly novel – Tony Blair was often accused by Militant’s successors of taking the votes of Labour supporters for granted as he pursued “neo-liberal policies”. This is why the mere mention of the possibility of a new centrist party induces vitriolic rhetoric, as such a party would provide a home for these votes; votes that the alt-left needs even if they do not value the voters who cast them. The alt-left are dishonest brokers, appearing to offer the tantalising prospect of unity only to reveal that it comes with a price – that you must agree with them.

The fourth effect is the degradation of political discourse in the UK. The alt-left have deliberately rejected consensus politics, and on more subjects than just economic policy. The alt-left’s commitment to liberal democracy is as thin as a leaflet demanding that the country Kick Out The Tories the day after a general election. The word ‘democracy’ has two meanings for the alt-left: when they win then it means whatever they say goes. One individual success prompts them to toss aside democratic institutions, other election results or the culture that is necessary to sustain successful liberal democracies. When they lose an election they dismiss the outcome as an establishment conspiracy, a plot hatched by their enemies and freely open to challenge in the way that an election in which they succeed is not.

Double standards abound, on free speech, secularism, blasphemy, women’s rights, immigration, homosexuality, racism and war. Human rights only exist when there is a grievance to exploit, or a sub-group to recruit. Ostentatious claims of “zero tolerance” of racism turn out to mean considerable tolerance, depending on the racism or the racist. They prefer brewing street violence to building civil consensus, and emote understanding when lunatics express their grievances through randomised mass murder. They are noisy in their condemnation of regimes associated with the West, but silent on the crimes of any that identify as anti-Western. They squeal about an MSM conspiracy and then appear on Russia Today. They decry their opponents’ “hate speech”, and then barrage their enemies with sickening abuse.

The alt-left have fluid relationships with both facts and objectivity. Rather than have a reasoned debate a member of the alt-left will denounce their opponent in hyperbolic terms to encourage their supporters to pile on. The techniques employed by Britain’s alt-left are a combination of the traditional bullying honed by the revolutionary left over decades and now adapted for the era of social media, and the exploitation of grievances developed by the purveyors of identity politics.

 

Thus far, the traditional left have been immobilised by the alt-left, unable to offer a unified response. The soft-left have chosen to be glass-half-full optimists and see the alt-left as an ‘exciting, dynamic and modern’ catalyst for bringing new people into politics in general, and towards the Labour Party in particular. They politely pretend that there is merit in an economic policy that is nothing more than reheated Bennism and that the racism and misogyny on show is nothing to do with the party’s leadership. In private, they retain faith that the pendulum will eventually return from its swing from Blair to Corbyn and come back to them, and that they just need to hold tight and ride out the rough times. So, in the meantime, they appease the alt-left crocodile.

Meanwhile the moderate left have tried to be robust in standing up to the alt-left but lack the determination to back it up by refusing to be in the same party. In short, like Jeremy himself, they have declared they will never use their deterrent. The phrase “It’s my party not theirs” often appears when Labour moderates talk about the alt-left. I have sympathy for this view but the truth is that most Labour Party members who are interested enough to vote in internal elections – itself a low bar for measuring levels of engagement – vote for the most left-wing candidate who isn’t a woman or black, and have always done so. Labour Party online forums are riddled with antisemitism but is this new or was it always there and simply hidden? Labour Party members know all about Jeremy Corbyn’s long-term support for terrorist groups but this makes no difference to the support he receives. The sad reality is that this is the state of the party, and members are not coming to the rescue.

I suggest that the decline of the term “centre-left” and the rise in the use of the word “centrism” is not because people are shifting politically, it’s because the alt-left has made the term “left” an undesirable signifier. This is why the British left must seek to detach itself from the alt-left or it will suffer long-term reputational damage long after the alt-left have faded back into obscurity. This is what will prevent the British left from being able to form a government, more than the relative strength or weakness of the Conservative Party. That is because the pre-existing mistrust of the traditional left’s ability to manage the economy will be deepened by the presence of the alt-left in the formation of policy and, in the event of a Corbyn government, their hand on the actual levers. A Corbyn government could not successfully run the economy because confidence, from city banks to small businesses, would be non-existent.

 

I don’t believe there are any easy solutions to the problem of the alt-left, but there is work that can both mitigate the damage they cause and prepare for the time when they can be defeated.

The first act is simply to stop taking them seriously. None of the alt-left are intellectuals and none has anything to offer public policy debates beyond regurgitated sixth form communism. We have collectively made the mistake of falling for their self-publicity. Let us stop sharing the latest outlandish, hypocritical comment, article or op-ed across social media. “Look at the state of this”, we cry, and we froth and click and froth some more. It is through this method that they have controlled the debate on their terms and we can, and should, end our part in this tomorrow.

Secondly, there needs to be a collective will to build consensus. That means finding common cause across party lines without it being seen as dangerous, at least to anybody other than the extremists. This will require steel not just on the part of the centre left but also those on the centre and centre right; to ignore the abuse that will come from those of a more tribal or sectarian nature. In order to return to a civil political environment we must seize every opportunity for consensus-building and cooperation, and a life in politics that is bearable. In every area of public policy the goal should be to find areas of agreement, if not in full then in part.

Thirdly, those in the centre, and in particular on the centre left, need to resist their inclination to be inclusive towards the alt-left. It is the natural state of the centrist to seek out ideas from across the spectrum and to try to build broad alliances. Centrists will need to exert self-discipline to turn their back on the siren voices of the alt-left, who will sing alluring arias from the rocks on the theme of defeating Theresa May.

This leads me onto my final point, perhaps the hardest sell of the piece, that of the end goal of all of this activity. This is not to form some kind of government of national unity or to create a homogenous centrist party. Instead, we will expend all of this energy not to even achieve power, but simply to make politics constructive rather than destructive. In order to achieve this then all parties will need to look at why that destructive anger – and I have focused here on the alt-left but it is also present on the nationalist right – rose above its normal obscurity. There are many, complex reasons but high on the list of complaints from the electorate was that politicians simply did not appear to be listening. The alt-left have exploited this without actually offering any solutions, instead firing out their usual smokescreen of rallies, marches, pseudo-conferences and other illusions. Real solutions, ones that bring politicians closer to their constituents, and bring political decision-making closer to the voters, have to be an integral part of the overall response. This might include increasing the number of MPs to allow them to spend more time in smaller constituencies, or making it easier to consult voters by using electronic media linking electoral rolls to personal apps such as Facebook or online banking. This work must form a key part of the efforts on producing new public policy to improve politics.

There is a claim that the alt-left have reinvigorated politics, and that Corbyn and his supporters are a breath of fresh air. The reality is that politics is now less about finding ways to improve the country and more about defeating your enemies and wreaking revenge. The alt-left are not responsible for all of the worsening of political discourse but their impact upon national politics has been to reduce rationality, increase hostility and damage the integrity of the democratic institutions of the country. The trouble is that is precisely what they set out to do.

 

Open letter to Owen Jones

By Connor Pierce

Dear Owen

You’ve gone a bit funny lately.

I was once a fan of yours. While I did not always agree, I often read your journalism and respected your opinion. You were principled, had integrity, and fought for your beliefs, which I believed you held for the right reasons — even if we did sometimes reach different conclusions.

I no longer believe that. Many others agree, and you seem perplexed as to why. You think it’s because of Brexit, or the “degeneration of political discourse”, or something. It isn’t. It’s because of you.

I’d like to explain — but before I go further, allow me to digress into analogy.

British politics is a secondary school playground.

The Tories are the teachers. The rest of us are the students. Aloof, distant, powerful: they are generally resentful of — and certainly resented by — the rabble they rule. They squabble and gossip amongst themselves, playing petty power games behind the Staff Room door which impact our lives immeasurably but which we are powerless to change.

While they patrol the boundaries of our metaphorical playground for signs of trouble, they are, for the most part, oblivious to — and uninterested in — the social and political dynamics playing themselves out right under their noses.

The coolest kid in the playground is Jeremy Corbyn. Everyone wants a piece of him. The fit girls all fancy him. The music kids — the ones in bands and the wannabe rappers and DJs — all want to hang out with him. They even invite him to their gigs.

His champions — the journalists and activists who praise him at every opportunity — are the In Crowd. They strut around the playground with patches of Che Guevara sewn on their bags, making in-jokes and taking selfies as they flick two fingers up at the Tory teachers behind their backs.

Down at the bottom of the social spectrum are the sorry group to which I now belong: the Dorks, the Nerdlingers — the centre- and soft-left Labour voters and (God help us) Liberal Democrats who always thought Corbyn was vain and disingenuous; who always thought his pontifications over the teachers were superficial posturing without substance. We now lock ourselves in an unused, distant classroom at lunchtimes, eating ham sandwiches and playing chess, complaining about how unfair it all is and how we can’t wait to grow up and leave this fucking school.

Owen, you were never in the In Crowd. But, when you found yourself rubbing shoulders with those cool Vice journalists and the letterman-jacket-wearing jocks at Momentum, you didn’t really change. You still wrote with clarity and with integrity. You kept your head when the frenzied cult of Corbynism steamed into British politics; you didn’t engage (much) in petty squabbles and in-fighting with “Blairites” and “Neoliberals”; and you were not afraid to hold the mirror up. You were brave enough to criticise Corbyn in public: that took courage in the circles you moved in. The Nerdlingers respected you for that.

Something changed after the General Election.

After having been one of the Left’s best young journalists, you hurtled full throttle into the Corbyn-led In Crowd with all the passion, vigour and intensity of the repentant sinner turned TV evangelist. Your volte face on Brexit was only one of several other issues on which you supported a party line that contradicted your earlier ‘principles’. Your inability to even acknowledge such blatant hypocrisy was the start of your undoing as a writer of integrity.

But your Damascene conversion to Corbynism is not the only cause of disillusionment. Like the wimpy sidekick punching dorks to impress the high school bully, you have sought to prove your worth to the cool kids by doubling down on your attacks on the Nerdlingers at the bottom of the political high school food chain — that disparate, varied, and ever growing group of the politically homeless, the “Centrists” (whatever that actually means) that you now attack on a daily basis.

You have written blog posts, Guardian articles, Facebook posts and countless tweets about “Centrist abuse”, “Very British Coups” and “Militant Remainers” which deliberately seek to portray “Centrism” (which apparently means “not agreeing with Jeremy Corbyn”) as some kind of dangerous, sadistic cult. This is absurd. While I do not seek to deny the very real abuse you receive both on and offline (I do not know the political position of the sad and loveless perpetrators — some may indeed be “Centrists”), it is clear that you deliberately and disingenuously blur the line between what one might loosely call “sweary insults” and “abuse” in order to achieve this aim.

In one of your blogs on how online abuse was not the sole domain of the Left (it is not, but the Left has a huge problem on that front), you cited Nick Cohen and Janan Ganesh calling Jeremy Corbyn supporters “fucking fools” and “thick as pigshit” as examples of abuse. You more than anyone should know the difference between comments like that and targeted, sustained harassment of specific individuals, yet you mendaciously seek to cast them as the same thing. There is a name for that kind of thing: it’s called gaslighting. Everyone can see you doing it.

The sad thing about all of this is that the motivation for your transition from leading light of left wing writing to one of the most cynical hacks in journalism seems to be nothing short of popularity.

In an interview you held with Alistair Campbell some time ago, you revealed a trait not desirable of journalists: an unappealing preoccupation over what others think of you, particularly those on the far left. You have unfortunately surrendered your integrity to this sad fault.

Ultimately, you have decided that you want to be one of the In Crowd after all. To get there you are willing to tread not only on your own previously held beliefs, but on others who formerly shared them with you. That’s why people are mad at you.

What happened to you, man? You used to be cool.

 

Republished from the author’s original posting by kind permission.

The Vicar of Glibley

By Ben Sixsmith

I feel sure that Giles Fraser, the Church of England priest and Guardian columnist, is a nice man: a loving husband, a devoted father and a loyal friend. But with such authority it is not enough to be nice, and in his work he can be obtuse, sentimental and smug. His writing spreads like treacle throughout Britain’s media; sweet but sick-making.

Reacting to the case of Charlie Gard, a young child whose parents were denied the right to seek experimental treatment for his terminal illness, Fraser tweets:

We need more love in the world not more bloody science.

More science, of course, could have saved little Charlie’s life. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the debate around his treatment it is an absurd thing to say when other children’s lives depend on the continuation of medical progress. The difference between medical science advancing and not is the different between them living decades and days. No amount of love would heal the wounds inflicted by the latter possibility.

Still, this was a tweet. None of us are at our best on Twitter. Yet this is entirely characteristic of him. Time and again he proclaims lofty platitudes. Promoting gay marriage, he wrote that…

What I find in the Bible is a gradually expanding consciousness that God is love and not an instrument of oppression. And there is always more of that inclusive love to discover.

So that’s it? Goodbye millennia of moral teachings? So long centuries of philosophical argumentation? Some Christians who support gay marriage, like Daniel Helminiak, analyse Biblical and theological teachings in depth. For Fraser, love is all you need. It was enough to justify abandoning his Church Times column as a protest against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “moral opposition to homosexuality”.

I mention this because it illustrates Fraser’s habit of plastering quasi-theological, cod-philosophical rationalisations on his moral and aesthetic instincts. Floating in a kind of spiritual self-righteousness he rarely analyses their complexities and contradictions, or attempts to find his place in a coherent tradition. He denies, for example, that Jesus sacrificed himself – not with reference to scripture or theological arguments but as it is “a disgusting idea”. I am no Christian and, thus, in no place to condemn heresy but the unmerited assurance of Fraser’s judgements is absurd.

This is more obvious when he writes on politics. Community is a good thing, he believes, and so he argued in one column that is wrong to expect people to abandon or dilute their culture. I sympathise. Our conceptions of meaning and identity are wrapped up in our cultural characteristics and we lose something when they are deconstructed. But wait! Fraser is an advocate of mass immigration. If we have large ethnic minorities in Britain how can we maintain a united, cohesive and efficient society if people speak different languages and hold different values? Fraser does not mention this. It is too complicated.

Fraser sounds oddly conservative in this article. “The very nature of community is that there is a boundary between those who are in it and those who are not,” he says. ” To speak of community without any sense of a difference between being in it and out of it evacuates the term of any possible meaning.” This sounds like a Straussian argument for border control. It is not, of course. Fraser wants some kind of cultural patchwork. Yet it feels as if he likes everyone to have their traditional cultures except the ancestrally English. When he visited what sounds like a charming little village fete he wrote “how white”.

At the end of his article Fraser salutes Muslims for their “resistance to the hegemony of integration”. Given that some Muslims resist integration by forming sharia courts where domestic abuse is sanctioned; secretly circumcising little girls and running away to Syria to join ISIS you would think he would at least qualify his admiration. Nope. His feelings resist empirical contradiction.

Fraser is sadly naive about jihadism. Responding to a Radio 3 broadcast of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, in which nuns choose to die before renouncing their faith, Fraser asked what what have happened if it had been a story of Islamic martyrdomThere would have been outrage, he said, for “isn’t this religious extremism”? Well, no, not in the sense that people use the term. What people fear about jihadism is not people dying for the faith but people killing other people for their faith. Was Fraser asleep for the last two decades?

Sometimes he acknowledges acts of terrorism but he can’t believe they have anything to do with religion. Reacting to last year’s in Berlin, where a Muslim drove a lorry into a crowded Christmas market, Fraser wrote that terrorism cannot be inspired by faith because religious people “trust in God’s greatness” to heal the world and act on his behalf. This is one view of faith. It is not one most people share. I do not think Muhammad would have liked indiscriminate terrorism but is Fraser not aware that he was a brutal conqueror and statesman who very much thought he was doing God’s will in politics and war?

Despite all this hazy, subjective, impressionistic writing, Fraser thinks that he has a monopoly on reason. Of conservative Anglicans, he says that, “rather than laugh at them or argue with them, the best thing is probably ignore them”. Some of the words I have written here is harsh but I think this sentence excuses some severity. Why should the same treatment not be accorded to him?

Fraser’s columns often seem like sermons: heartfelt, urgent and emotive. Yet as far as I can tell the authority of priests is lower than that of God. Analogously, if not equivalently, the authority of political commentators is lower than that of data, logic and tradition. Our value depends on our ability to channel them.

The Free Speech Backlash

By Jake Wilde

The British public want something different from their politics. Over the last three elections they have sent the message: We don’t really want any of you.

On paper Cameron should have won a clear victory in both 2010 and 2015, and May should have romped home in June. Yet on each occasion the margin of Tory victory was slender at best. At some point the Conservative Party must surely reflect upon their anti-Midas touch, and they must do so before they make another mistake that threatens the security and prosperity of the country. The outcomes of Cameron’s unnecessary referendum and May’s unnecessary election should be enough to deter the Tories from further foolishness, but that doesn’t mean it will. Boris continues to lurk, promising a further degradation of how we talk to and behave with each other.

Labour, despite hoovering up every crank and zealot to their left, have succeeded only in proving that it is possible to do badly and still convince yourself you did well, as long as your expectations are that of tinpot revolutionaries, not a serious party of government. The outcome of last month’s election is that the Labour Party is now firmly in the grip of the far left, with the party’s response to Chuka Umunna’s attempts to find some common ground with the majority of Labour voters underlining how little the far left have changed over the decades. The applauding of Corbyn, the non-response to the bullying of Luciana Berger, Keir Starmer’s preposterous six tests – whatever the Labour moderates’ plan is, it’s clearly so cunning that I’m starting to suspect it involves a fox.

One of the reasons for the public wanting change is the degradation of our political discourse. Over the last few years, and especially over the last twelve months or so, the way people talk to each other, at each other, is bordering on dystopian. Orwell famously offered a vision of the future that was “a boot stamping on a human face – forever”. The implication was that the boot symbolised the state, but most of us these days recognise the boot as the internet, stamping on our faces through social media and fake or propagandised news.

Daniel Van Boom, CNET Sydney’s Asia News Editor, wrote recently about the effect of Mean World Syndrome on our online interactions as part of an interesting series of articles on internet hate for CNET. His basic hypothesis, which I entirely agree with, is that it is nigh on impossible to hold a reasoned and reasonable discussion on the internet with someone who disagrees with you and that it’s not surprising that this has now spilled over into the real world. He uses recent well-known examples from North America, such as Ben Shapiro on ‘safe spaces’, Christina Hoff Sommers on ‘feminist myths’ and Bret Weinstein of Evergreen State College, but all of us have enough of our experiences to draw upon, whether that’s attending a Constituency Labour Party AGM, the discomfort at discovering a relative’s real reason for voting for Brexit, or just venturing too far away from the cat gifs. It’s a good article but the offered solution is to appeal to reason, which is where we came in. In a world in which the extremes are dominant and riot police are required because of someone’s words it seems unlikely that appealing to people’s better nature will succeed. However there is a general sense that something must change, and either we the people do it, or the state does it.

The current inquiry into the abuse of parliamentary candidates could go in two possible directions. The first is that the evidence is shrugged off as ‘part of the job’, or that there’s a descent into a hierarchy of victimhood, or whataboutery, or worse, that the details are devoured with prurient glee. The second is that the details of the abuse are so shocking, so unacceptable, that society turns upon the abusers. At some point reason dictates that we, as a society, will reach the moment where the demand for action becomes overwhelming. When even BBC reporters need bodyguards we know we’ve taken a wrong turn. Could it be this, could this be the tipping point?

If so, what is it that we ought to be hoping for?

One possible outcome sees a tightening of the law, where the burden of proof over intent to harm is reduced, where rights to online privacy are eroded, with routine criminalisation for online abuse and custodial sentences for those on demonstrations that turn violent. We might also see the state join in with the practice of no-platforming, or force broadcasters to do so. This would be a mistake, a hugely counter-productive mistake.

Christopher Hitchens described himself as a First Amendment absolutist, a position I share. Hitchens said, “That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear, and that it must extend, above all, to those who think differently is, to me, self-evident.”

A better outcome is to have a society that values freedom of speech, protects it absolutely, discards the ridiculous notion of hate speech and gives people ownership of the discourse in their society. As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Have the debate in the open, not in dark corners. I want to know what views you hold because only then can I truly decide if I want to listen to you. Just as the debate over the EU referendum revealed those who hold racially prejudiced views so has Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party revealed the extent of antisemitism on the left. It is horrifying, but I’m glad I know. For not only does this sunlight identify those who hold those horrifying views but also those who make excuses for them.

Only one response will widen the centre ground and push the extremists back to obscurity. Some will wish to use their freedom of speech to spread messages of hatred, be that about other races, religions, sexual orientations or political views. Some will want to bully, to intimidate, to silence their opposition. These people are a tiny minority. If we act collectively we can drown them out, push them back to the edges, and then consign them to their rightful location under a rock.

The important principle is that freedom of speech is protected. We have no need to be afraid of the hatemongers if, collectively, we are clear that their bullying, their discriminatory language, their support of tyrants, and their opposition to our liberal democratic values is rejected by society at large.

We can draw a distinction between those expressing their views and those seeking to encourage criminal or even terrorist behaviour. Directing others to commit criminal acts, or making direct threats to an individual or group are criminal acts. It does not matter whether they are performed online or face to face. These are not exercises in free speech and our laws can cope with them already.

If we build a consensus about a new standard of acceptable conduct for citizens, a standard that we would be happy to be held to ourselves and thus would reasonably expect others to be held to as well, then we can solve the problem. Not restriction through legal instrument, but through personal choice. We can, we must, challenge the extremists wherever and whenever we find them, whoever they are. 

We know that society’s attitudes evolve and that evolution can, of itself, have a corresponding effect on behaviour. Some such behaviours, such as seat belt use, not drink driving and the reduction in smoking, may have started with legislation but have been made effective by us, by society. Others, such as our attitude towards marriage equality, blasphemy and deference, have changed primarily through our exposure to a broader range of human interaction, and understanding that difference shouldn’t be feared, opposed or fought against. Others still, such as domestic violence or child abuse, have moved from unspoken normality to universal condemnation. As a society we need to similarly transform our attitudes towards the political hatemongers, rejecting them, ostracising them and signalling that such behaviour is unacceptable.

Just as so many activities and practices that used to be acceptable are no longer then let us do the same with public, political abuse. As Justice Brandeis put it, “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.” The consequence of us doing so will be a new politics, a revival of traditional British liberalism, and genuine political choice in the centre ground.

False Equivalence: The logical fallacy of defending Jeremy Corbyn

By Connor Pierce

The company Jeremy Corbyn keeps should by now come as a shock to no one.

On 11 July, Jeremy Corbyn was photographed enjoying a pizza with a man called Marcus Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos tweeted the picture with the caption: I spent the evening with @jeremycorbyn , who the United Kingdom desperately needs as its next Prime Minister…

Papadopoulos is known primarily as a chief apologist for Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia who was convicted by the Hague in 2002 for crimes against humanity during the Bosnian war. Amongst other things, Papadopoulos has openly denied that the Srebrenica massacre — during which 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered by Serb nationalist forces, ironically 22 years to the day before his meeting with Corbyn — ever took place.

Papadopoulos has also repeatedly voiced support for the Assad regime in Syria, declaring shortly after Assad’s chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun in April, that he would ‘stand with Assad 100%’. In short, he is a conspiracist crank whose appeal should stretch no further than the spotty adolescent sofa masturbators that populating obscure MRA Reddit forums that no doubt make up the majority of his fanbase. No mainstream politician should touch him with a bargepole. None would, of course — except for the leader of the opposition.

Those familiar with Corbyn’s ‘questionable’ relationships with dictators, terrorists and anti-Semites no doubt greeted the news of their meeting with the same air of weary despondency and resignation that has become routine. Given his vocal support of the dictatorial governments of Venezuela, Cuba and Iran; his admiration for Putin and his reluctance to openly criticise the atrocities committed by Assad’s government, it is no surprise at all that Corbyn would attract the support of a man like Papadopoulos.

The reaction amongst Corbyn’s supporters has also been grimly predictable. His most ardent defenders — those who are so emotionally invested in the deification of Jeremy Corbyn that their reaction to each lurid revelation can only be either disbelief or deliberate, willful ignorance — always give two deeply unsatisfactory responses to news of his connections.

The first is that famous retort Corbyn has espoused himself in defence of his links with Hamas: the peacemaker excuse.

When challenged on the company he has kept in the past, Corbyn has made much of the importance of open dialogue with the enemy in the aim of achieving peace. Such a sentiment might of course be laudable, if only it were true.

In his frequent meetings with members and supporters of Hamas, Hezbollah, the IRA and any number of other deplorable people and organisations, Corbyn has never made any attempt to challenge the insidious views of his hosts.

Instead he has either passively endorsed them — by keeping quiet and toeing the line, as he did when he called Osama Bin Laden’s death a tragedy on Iran’s PressTV — or has actively embraced them, as he did when he called Hamas a ‘movement for social justice’, or when he reminded us all of the achievements of the viciously homophobic Cuban regime after Fidel Castro’s death.

Neither has Corbyn ever met with these organisations’ counterparts — Loyalist terrorists like the UDA, for example, or Israeli settlers in Gaza.

When one considers how little scrutiny his peacemaker claims stand up to, it is depressing how many people — including those in the supposedly hostile ‘MSM’ — are willing to take him at his word. Given his form, the likelihood that Corbyn used his evening with Papadopoulos to challenge him on his propagation of warped conspiracy theories and support for Ba’athism seems somewhat slim.

The second strand of the Corbynista’s defence is that most infuriating of argumentative tactics: Whataboutery.

The act of responding to any argument with a separate, unrelated point that exposes the hypocrisy of an opponent rather than engaging in a meaningful discussion, Whataboutery has always been endemic amongst sections of the left. It was a popular propaganda technique of the Soviet Union that has been employed with a new vigour by Corbyn’s acolytes when asked to address the issue of his unsavoury relationships.

Whataboutery is the last refuge of the debater with nowhere to go. It is a logical fallacy, the purpose of which is to wilfully mislead, serving only as a kind of character assassination of an opponent rather than a genuine attempt to justify or defend a position. That in itself is enough to disregard it — but one particular strain used by Corbynistas relies on a certain twisted logic which is not often enough addressed.

It is that which seeks to justify Corbyn’s chumminess with oppressive governments in conjunction with Britain’s own diplomatic ties to questionable regimes — popularly now, though not exclusively, Saudi Arabia. In response to a question over Corbyn’s allegiances, a typical retort runs: “Well, what about Saudi Arabia? Their government is killing people in Yemen — and we still sell them arms!”

If one were to make a list of the most heinous, despicable countries, of the most repressive, patriarchal or corrupt regimes on the planet, Saudi Arabia would likely come somewhere close to the top by almost any measure. It is hard to imagine a country that more embodies the antithesis of liberal democracy, or that has done more to spread hateful, violent ideologies that unsettle the safety of the world.

The UK’s cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia is both morally repugnant and politically myopic. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the civil war in Yemen has taken a backseat in comparison to Russia’s intervention in the war in Syria, but it is no less vile or indiscriminate. Saudi Arabia has shown scant regard for human rights on both domestic and international fronts. The humanitarian case for severing links with Saudi Arabia has, in short, never been stronger.

Similarly, from a purely pragmatic point of view, the UK’s close ties with Saudi Arabia are also an increasing liability. Its rife Islamism arguably undermines whatever national security benefits Britain gets from the relationship. Furthermore, Britain can hardly claim to be setting a moral example with its tacit support for the militant Wahhabism that governs the country.

The UK government should halt the arms trade with Saudi Arabia if it continues its campaign in Yemen, and it should also take measures to reduce its dependence on the country. I say this without qualification and fully aware of whatever ‘commercial’ price the country may pay.

That said, international relations are seldom simple. Reducing dependence on Saudi Arabia would at the very least be complicated. Ties between the west and the Kingdom of Saudi go back decades — long before many of today’s politicians were even born, and the fragile global order means that such decisions can rarely be made unilaterally. The reality of international governance is that sometimes, despicable regimes remain allies.

This is not to say that criticism of the UK’s relationships cannot be made, or that it is justified. But political necessity and the pressures of power are legitimate defences for maintaining them. Part of the nature of power is that principles must sometimes be compromised.

Comparing Corbyn’s support for hostile governments like Iran to a Prime Minister’s support for Saudi Arabia is therefore a false equivalence. From a purely moral and ethical perspective, they are totally different.

Corbyn has never held any position of real power. There has never been any real need for him to compromise with his principles. However, he still lends his support to some of the most brutal regimes on the planet. The defence of compromise in the face of political necessity, or even expediency, is not available to him: he chooses to support these regimes, causes and organisations regardless of their conduct and the suffering they cause, all without the excuse of the pressures of power.

Duty did not call for Jeremy Corbyn to share a pizza with a man who denies genocide and supports General Bashar Al-Assad. Just like his countless other friendly meetings with apologists for murder, terrorism and anti-Semitism, Jeremy Corbyn met with Papadopoulos in his free time because he wanted to — and not to disagree with him, but because he views him as an ally.

If this is the company he chooses to keep, one can only wonder at how he might react when the pressure is really on. It should worry everyone that we may well find out soon enough.

 

This article originally appeared on the author’s Medium account and is kindly reproduced with permission here.