The Bluestocking, vol 202
the chad Hobbes appreciator
I started writing this newsletter from the press room at Labour conference, which was absolutely freezing. Probably a metaphor. Please skip this intro if you are a well-adjusted human being who isn’t interested in Labour Kremlinology.
I went to Brighton to speak at a panel about Scotland — following my Atlantic longread on the SNP earlier in the year — and hung around to rekindle source relationships/have a big ole gossip with people I haven’t seen for 18 months. Also, as someone who worked at a left-leaning political magazine for nearly a decade, I wanted to prod the bloated carcass of the Labour Party and see if it twitched. Is this a future government in waiting? Or a party heading to its fifth election defeat in a row?
Here are 10 Things I Noticed At Labour Conference:
Andy Burnham has got The Buzz: He’s been on TV lots during the pandemic, he’s a Labour politician with actual power, and he’s got a consistent Centrist Dad aesthetic (black polo shirt, trainers). Andy, you’re a star. He knows it, too: he was late to my event because he was being stopped for selfies.
Also has The Buzz, and a consistent aesthetic: Angela Rayner. She swept into the LGBT Labour/Stonewall fringe on Tuesday with her hair in coiled russet ringlets, delivered an absolute barnstormer of a stump speech, and swept out again. The line that played best: “Women’s rights are not in conflict with trans rights.” Of course, that isn’t true—as the new guidance from the UK Sports authority demonstrates—but no matter, it’s what a large chunk of the activist base wants to hear, and the crowd went wild.
She’s running. Angela Rayner’s actions this week were exactly what you would do if you wanted to convince the Corbynite left of the party to vote for you as the next Labour leader. Calling Boris Johnson “scum” on Saturday night meant she got to talk about Johnson’s past offensive statements for one news cycle, and it got her attacked in the media for two news cycles, which activated tribal Labour feelings of protectiveness. (Want to get applause at conference? Reference some cartoon villain rightwinger/ “the MSM” being mean to you.) The same logic applies to Rayner’s cameo appearance at the LGBT Labour event, which was announced very late (at the previous day’s event on hate crime, which I also attended). For reasons I’ve never fathomed, to be Corbynite is almost always to be pro-self-ID, and so it’s vital for Rayner’s positioning to be vocal on this issue. The irony is that she’s copying the Starmer playbook: show some red ankle without exiling yourself to the Socialist Campaign Group rally, and thereby hope to pick up some hard left votes as well as soft ones.
The Keith Banter lives on. Tragically, I was at a dinner on Tuesday night and couldn’t attend the Socialist Campaign Group rally, which sounded very lively. I want to see this footage very much:
Readers of last week’s newsletter will also appreciate this moment of spontaneous knockabout comedy:
This was the first post-Corbyn physical conference, and if I’m honest, I’m surprised how marginal his presence felt. Perhaps that’s because, as Rob Hutton observed in this very funny sketch, Corbyn is now back where he’s always felt happiest.
Did Rayner overplay her hand? Related to the above, I think it’s easy to underestimate the fact that the average Labour activist. . . quite likes the Labour party? Shocking, I know. Just as Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna miscalculated their personal/policy appeal vs the power of tribal loyalty when they split off to form TIG/Change UK, so I think that the Corbynites are overestimating the current discontent with Starmer. The median activist seems to be at the “he’s hardly sparkling but let’s give him a bit longer” stage. Andy McDonald’s mid-conference resignation over the £15 minimum wage reminded me of Jamie Reed resigning at exactly the moment Corbyn was declared leader in 2015. It just came off as dickish and self-aggrandising, rather than principled and regretful. On that basis, I suspect Rayner might have been too obviously building a personal brand at the expense of trashing Starmer’s leadership; I’ll be interested to talk to shadow cabinet ministers about it. Andy Burnham has the same problem: being outside Westminster—and decrying Westminster/London—allows him to get on the telly a lot, and say things without clearing them with LOTO first. But while that is liberating, and helps him with appealing to the country, it also risks pissing off MPs at Westminster, whose votes he will need to get on the ballot.
Starmer’s secret weapon continues to be his tolerance for dull hard work. At the cost of some headlines about “Labour Splits” before the opening weekend, Starmer managed to achieve a series of boring but important procedural victories. He got his preferred general secretary confirmed. He got a mandate to implement the EHRC recommendations on anti-semitism. He drastically reduced the chances of shadow cabinet members and loyal MPs being tied up in deselection proceedings if they say something a bit Blairite (for example, Ellie Reeves, sister of shadow chancellor Rachel, was targeted in 2019 for criticising Chris Williamson.) Starmer’s tweak to the nominations process for the leadership election makes it harder for a Left candidate to get on the ballot — not least because you’d hope Labour MPs will never nominate someone they can’t stand “to widen the debate” again.
A quarter of the party are unreconciled Corbynites. In the 2020 leadership election, 27.6% voted for John McDonnell’s protegée Rebecca Long-Bailey. At conference, 26.36% voted against implementing the EHRC’s mandated rule changes to the party’s constitution (a legal requirement following its report on antisemitism in Labour). I would suggest the Venn diagram of those two similarly sized groups is basically a circle.
The Manchurian Blairite. This is how a friend described Starmer just after he kicked out Corbyn. The hard left seem to have believed that Starmer would basically hang on to the 2019 manifesto, albeit shorn of its Brexit waffling, and would stay committed to renationalisation etc. Instead, he has tacked to the centre on both tax and common ownership. Starmer also got ex-Blair speechwriter Philip Collins to work on his conference speech, and he has been talking to Peter Mandelson (thunder, ominous piano chords, a fork of lightning illuminates a cloaked figure at a window). He ran on a unity platform, but as one Corbynsceptic Labour MP said to me this week, “I’ve got my party back.” No wonder the Labour left are so angry. They feel like they’ve been had.
Labour are still screwed. People are queuing for petrol. Energy companies are teetering on the brink. Universal credit is about to be slashed. Furlough is finally over. And yet—the Tories’ poll ratings have notably not cratered so far. The SNP had a bad year in a couple of ways*, but there’s no sign of the sweeping Labour revival in Scotland that would make it so much easier for the party to win a majority in Westminster. (I finally met Anas Sarwar, Labour’s Scottish leader, this week and found him smart, funny and switched-on, but he will need to be a literal magician to succeed where his immediate predecessors have failed.) This did not feel like a Labour party on the brink of government, and the next election is a maximum of three years away.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Cervix. I have to mention the fact that senior Labour politicians spent the first two days of conference being asked whether it’s transphobic to say that only women have a cervix. The flannel and fluster with which they responded—and the way they kept getting cross with interviewers for asking the question—is a very bad sign for Labour’s preparedness for government. Sure, you’d rather talk about climate change or the Green New Deal. So come up with a better answer than claiming trans women have cervixes (you what, David Lammy?) or saying Rosie Duffield shouldn’t have said that, but declining to explain why (Keir Starmer). For my money, the correct answer is: “I don’t think shows fear or hatred when we talk about women as a biological category. It’s everyday language. But the Labour party is very proud of passing the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, allowing people to change their legal gender. So yes, there are people who are legally men who nonetheless have a cervix. This party believes in tolerance and respect, and in most circumstances we should simply treat people as they wish to be treated. But there are rare occasions when biology matters more than identity— in medicine, perhaps, or in competitive sport. These are tough cases of competing rights and both women and trans people deserve to be heard with empathy and good faith.” And then someone should make David Lammy sit in on a Year 9 biology lesson.
Hope at least some of you are still alive after all that. As a reward for reaching the end, let’s all enjoy a picture of Richard Burgon ROCKING OUT.
See you next time,
Why Is Every Young Person in America Watching ‘The Sopranos? (New York Times)
It is this quality of Tony’s — this combination of privilege and self-loathing — that I suspect resonates with a younger generation, whether we want to admit it or not. He’s not so different from us, after all. He has an anxiety disorder. He goes to therapy and takes S.S.R.I.s, but never really improves — not for long, anyway. He has a mild case of impostor syndrome, having skipped some key steps to becoming boss, and he knows that people who hold it against him are sort of right. He’s still proud of his accomplishments in high school. He does psychedelics in the desert, and they change his perspective on things. He often repeats stuff he half-remembers someone smarter than him saying. He’s arguably in an open marriage with Carmela, if a rather lopsided one. He liked listening to “Don’t Stop Believin’” in 2007. He’s impulsive and selfish and does not go to church, though he does seem open to vaguer notions of spirituality. He wishes his career provided him with meaning, but once he had the career, he discovered that someone had pulled the rug out at some point, and an institution that had been a lodestar to him for his whole life was revealed to be a means of making money and nothing more. Does this sound at all familiar to you?
Great piece, although the art makes Tony Soprano look like a downloadable expansion pack character from GTA:5.
“To reiterate, 80 years ago Newsweek journalists were filing stories from Iwo Jima, and now the paper’s reporting footprint consists of headlines that read, "Critical Race Theory is Repackaged Marxism," written by the woman who replaced Tomi Lahren on OANN.” Luke Winkie on the zombie media brands that just won’t die. (On Posting, Substack.)
Mark Ravenhill’s 101 Notes On Playwriting. Super interesting, and applicable to other types of writing. (Bruntwood Prize).
“To the extent that citrus juices were effective in preventing scurvy, it was because their acidity denatured ptomaines, or killed the bacteria that caused them. The real culprit was in the bad meat, and the casks of lime juice mandated by law on every seagoing ship were another example of outdated medical superstition that would now give way to a more sophisticated understanding of illness.” Among his other problems, Captain Scott probably had scurvy when he died, because western science “unlearned” the cure for vitamin C deficiency in the 19th century (Idle Words).
“After a few false starts, I learned that a good letter is defined by two opposing values: it must be plausible, but it must also be ridiculous. This is a delicate equilibrium to manage, and one that I botched frequently. Help! My Friend Thinks I Am Stealing Vaccines From African-American Grandmothers To Attend Sex Resorts ran, but was a disappointment; it needed another flourish of insanity to justify its existence. My Family Used to Call Me Auntie Christmas. Now They Call Me the Christmas Karen! was a personal favorite that never got published, likely because it failed on plausibility.” I so want this story of a man faking Dear Prudence letters to be true (Gawker).
The testimony from the witnesses in the R Kelly trial. Content warning. (The Cut)
Related: Sarah Ditum has a newsletter previewing her book, Upskirt Decade, about women and fame in the 00s. This post on how Lady Gaga memory-holed a song with R Kelly (with a video directed by Terry Richardson, because why not go for the creep twofer?) shocked me.
Oliver Burkeman foolishly posted the mean bit from last week’s newsletter about the Twitter Left to Twitter, so let’s all enjoy their response. Very much people who think it’s funny to shout “Come on Tim” when Andy Murray serves.
“She Bought Her Dream Home. Then a ‘Sovereign Citizen’ Changed the Locks.” (New York Times)
Insane story about how Cush Jumbo asked to have a wig made so she could stop spending 90 minutes a day having her hair straightened and style for The Good Fight (and therefore actually see her baby). The producers, she says, refused. (Twitter).
“Above all, Heying and Weinstein are really annoying. Their seen-it-all, know-it-all attitude is grating from around page five, and becomes increasingly irksome as they pontificate their way through each chapter.” Stuart Ritchie on a new book on evolution by two Intellectual Dark web stalwarts (Guardian).
“There’s no reason, really, for anyone to care about the inner turmoil of the famous. But I’ve come to believe that, in the Internet age, the psychologically destabilizing experience of fame is coming for everyone.” (New Yorker)
Duncan Weldon, author of a new history of the British economy which purports to be simple enough for me to understand, has launched a Substack about economics called Value Added. Check it out.
Wikipedia entry of the week: “Marie ‘Blanche’ Wittman (often spelled Wittmann; April 15, 1859 – 1913) was a French woman known as one of the hysteria patients of Jean-Martin Charcot. She was institutionalized in La Salpêtrière in 1877 and was treated by Charcot until his death in 1893. She later became a radiology assistant at the hospital, which resulted in amputations of her arms due to radiation poisoning.”
The Bond Film, briefly reviewed: I enjoyed it hugely, but is there anything more Peak 2020s than “woo yeah, girls can fire guns too” interspersed with “now watch this thinly disguised advert for a Range Rover”? I suspect in 30 years the woke-capitalist tone will feel just as dated as Roger Moore’s safari suit.
A Response To My Critics
After last week’s newsletter on Sally Rooney and Star Trek, Tom C writes: ‘I’m surprised to learn that “normal brain haver” is left-coded. I see a lot of “the virgin Rousseau fan vs the chad Hobbes appreciator”-type memes on the libertarian/right internet and it kind of feels like the same thing. Maybe it's the right aping left-wing tropes.’
Interesting point. Jonathan also pointed out to me that “normal brain” is used in places like r/WallStreetBets as the opposite of “smooth brain”.
It was my birthday this week. Can’t believe no one bought me this. See you next time!
*Edited after posting: Ian S points out that the SNP gained a seat in the 2021 elections, so it wasn’t fair to say they “slid back”. I’ve rephrased to clarify I was thinking about the failure of the polls to move towards decisive support for independence, and the SNP’s failure to secure an outright majority which would have been taken as a clear mandate for a second referendum. All that said, of course, it’s still a very good result, objectively, to be so dominant after so many years in government.