1 December 2015

Metric Measurements: We Should Adopt Them Fully

Adopting metric measurements makes sense. Having two system running in parallel is nonsense.

In 2007 the EU Competition Commissioner announced that plans to force the exclusive use of metric measurements onto Britain were being abandoned. I welcomed the decision, even though metric measurements are more logical and are used widely across Europe. But if some stubborn people in England want to buy their potatoes in pounds and ounces, it does little or nothing to impede intra-EU competition. In that case there is no good reason for the matter to fall within the remit of the EU.

Britain, in fact, made the decision to “go metric” in 1965, but in over four decades the country has been unable to complete the job. Generations of school children have rightly learned the easy-to-use and internationally recognised metric measurements, only in daily life to be confronted with arcane imperial ones. The mixture of the two systems creates all kinds of absurdities. What nonsense is it to buy, as I once did, 10 cm wide shelves sold in lengths of 6 ft?

Those who say that Britain’s national pride depends on retaining imperial measurements are demeaning Britain because surely pride in one’s country should depend on more than retaining some illogical way of doing something. Britain should complete the job of going metric, not because of anything to do with the EU, but because it is a sensible thing to do.

1 November 2015

Indebtedness in Britain 1979-2013

By 2013 the indebtedness of ordinary working people had increased more than fivefold since Margaret Thatcher’s election triumph in 1979.

Unsecured debt – which is basically what people owe, excluding mortgages - has increased from 4.8% of household annual income to 26.3% in the last three decades. That means for the average person today for every pound he or she earns, excluding mortgage payment, over 26p would have to be paid for twelve months to clear the loans and credit card debt.

If we count in mortgages, then total household debt amounts to over 150% of household income. Bear in mind that 40% of mortgage lending in the period 1999-2005 was taken to finance consumption, not to purchase a property. That means that the equity to mortgage ratio is falling.

How has this situation come about which threatens personal financial meltdown for ordinary working people? First, borrowing has increasingly filled the gap left by the withdrawal of social provision since the 1970s. People need housing and higher education, which can only be acquired through borrowing. Periods in which income is reduced and expenditure rises (e.g. birth of a child, under-employment, temporary unemployment) have also increasingly been financed on credit. Second, the increasing commercialisation of every aspect of life has meant that more and more spheres are commodified: e.g. the use of leisure centres for recreation, shopping as a ‘day out’

Widespread indebtedness is something capitalism promotes – just think of all that junk mail we used to receive offering us loans, or our ‘right to buy’ our council houses. Not only does usury provide a steady flow of purchasing revenue for capital, but it also enslaves. The worker must work, not just to secure current consumption, but to pay debts to ward off bankruptcy. Weak, indebted and insecure people are far easier to control, just as debt-ridden developing countries are putty in the hands of the IMF.

25 October 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: Trident, Scotland and the Greens

Jeremy Corbyn faces concerted opposition from the right-wing PLP, but there are three issues he could have dealt with differently to strengthen the left: Trident, Scotland and the Greens.

We are in the strange position today where the leader of the Labour Party is a socialist, yet all but a handful of the Parliamentary Labour Party stand well to his right and differ among themselves only in how to contain or get rid of him. Stranger still is that since the New Labour era in the Party determining policy is de facto in the hands of the Leader alone. Yet in practice the PLP constrains Jeremy by the never uttered, but very real, threat of mass defection to form a new Party, which would return Corbyn to the back benches and split Labour in the country. So where could Jeremy have taken decisive action at the top to strengthen his hand, win allies and neutralise the right?

Calling for a referendum on the renewal of Trident. Jeremy is right: Trident is immoral and useless for any realistic defence purpose. It serves today only as a national status symbol of prowess, and as a huge subsidy to the US arms industry. The Labour Right, who dominate the PLP and shadow cabinet are wedded to the Britain-as-superpower narrative. Labour says it will have a review, but Jeremy says he would never push the button. Irrespective of whether you are for or against nuclear weapons, the current position is ridiculous. But there is a way out the mire which would help the left: call for a referendum on the issue. A referendum could be initiated either by the current Tory government (unlikely) or by a future Labour-led government. Letting the people speak would shut up the the Labour Right. The issue would be: should we spend the billions on bombs or the health service? Let the people decide whether during a Labour-led government there should be nuclear weapons which Corbyn won’t use - or whether the people want the money freed up for health and education.

Let Scotland do its own thing. The momentum is towards independence, and why should socialists worry about that and get into unnecessary conflict with a currently centre-left leaning SNP? Scottish Labour today, led by the Labour Right, has been reduced to a single Scottish Labour MP, partly because the Scottish Party was treated as a branch office of UK Labour. The solution is simple: bestow independence on the Scottish Labour Party and let them do whatever they want, but hoping of course for a left turn. The next Labour government - supposing there is one and Scottish independence has not been achieved by then - would be a coalition between the the Scottish Labour Party, the Labour Party of England and Wales, hopefully the Greens, and even possibly the SNP and Plaid.

Work with the Greens. If in the 2020 General Election Corbyn were short of a majority by say five seats and the Greens had say ten, would anyone be against a Corbyn-Green coalition? Of course not. In fact, most would positively welcome it. So if a coalition is OK in government, then why not in opposition? One step Jeremy could have taken was to call for a coalition in Parliament and in the country with the Greens and, if she were willing, appoint Caroline Lucas to the environmental portfolio in the Shadow Cabinet. Outside Parliament Corbyn and the Greens have a common interest in working together for a government which would end austerity, get rid of Trident, and protect the environment within which we all live.

Jeremy Corbyn’s problem is not that he is too left-wing, but that he is trapped into a Labour tribalist Westminster mindset. He should be bolder.

22 October 2015

Jeremy Corbyn needs the mandatory re-selection of Labour MPs

Jeremy Corbyn needs socialists in the next Parliament, so right-wing Labour MPs need to be booted out by their Constituency Labour Parties.

In the middle of October, Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, more or less told the Parliamentary Labour Party that he opposed any move by the party membership to replace Blairite MPs with socialists. He thinks by doing this he can stabilise the party and win support for his leadership. He is wrong: the Labour right will never support him.

The time for the left to act in the party is now. Already Corbyn is being pushed to the right by the PLP. In little more than a year, the call for unity in time for the next election will go up; and the left will be framed as wreckers, if they haven’t re-oriented the Party by then.

The next Parliament needs a contingent of socialist Labour MPs - if not there is no chance of a genuine progressive government. That’s why the left should seize its opportunity now, and Corbyn is foolish to side with the PLP against his own supporters.

3 October 2015

Surviving under ubiquitous surveillance

To protect their psychological health and to be free citizens, people need to encrypt their electronic communication.

“Once we know there’s a reasonable chance that we are being watched in one fashion or another it’s hard for that not to have a ‘panopticon effect' where we think and behave differently based on the assumption that people may be watching and paying attention to what we are doing.”

The mass of electronic surveillance details revealed by the CIA analyst and private contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 establish one indubitable fact: the NSA in the US, and GCHQ in Britain, want access to all diplomatic, commercial and private electronic data from their own countries and from the rest of the world. To that end, they have built facilities that hoover up electronic data in transit; they have hacked into telephone networks and in some cases have planted spyware into computers. If the correspondence of the average citizen - the recipes, shopping lists and notes to granny - are not sorted and stored, it is only because the spooks have decided not to retain it. Yet the mere fact that what one expects to be private is not private at all has deep psychological implications for the average citizen. We browse the net for private information and stimulation, and we communicate electronically for a myriad of purposes: writing love letters, talking honestly with friends about our workplaces, neighbours and teachers. Our surveilled data, even if of no interest to the spooks, lies copied on several servers with the danger of it falling victim to malicious hacking multiplied.

However, for people who are, were, or might wish in the future to be active politically, the damage is more immediately felt. If we take the now established fact that British police have over the last few decades embedded over 1200 long term double-life spies in civic organisations at a cost of millions of pounds each year, it would be absurd to assume that the much cheaper practice of collecting, sorting and storing the electronic communication of those who engage in politics is not endemic.

The law governing surveillance offers little protection. The fact is that by one means or another our data can become available to the institutions of the state. Only when the state needs to make public that it has our data (e.g. for a prosecution) does the issue of the legality of the state possessing it in the first place arise. It is thus reasonable to believe that the annual two and half million requests by police to access our data legally is only the tip of the iceberg - or the icing on the cake - of surveillance.

And who is targeted, legally or otherwise? Today, it is reasonable to think that at the very least the members of the Green Party and now Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in the Labour Party, as well as host of other campaigning groups, are under active surveillance - along with all those who campaigned for Scottish independence. Indeed, there are documented cases of police surveillance of people in these legal and democratic organisations.

Yet citizens do not stand completely naked before the state. And if one wants privacy, be it a matter of principle, for psychological health, or to campaign for political goals with as little state surveillance and impediment as possible, then people need to encrypt their data and communication. David Cameron has gone on record saying he wants to outlaw encryption for which the state does not have a backdoor, but without the help of the US, that is a non-starter.

When Alice sends an email to Bob the email travels through cables and is then stored in servers at Google, Yahoo or wherever. Scanning it at any point takes a microsecond, so the content is simply there for the taking. And until recently that was all the spooks had to do, but with the rise of https (the green text and the padlock icon), used by Google, Facebook and others, the content is encrypted between the user's browser and the service provider. But we can’t be sure that the spooks don’t have a backdoor to the encryption, that the service provider doesn’t hand over content, maybe unwillingly, or that the storage facilities have not been hacked or corrupted in some way.

But if Alice encrypts her email before it even leaves her computer with open-source algorithms and keys which are under the control of her and the recipient, the spooks are stymied. Hence Cameron’s concern. What is intercepted or stored on the service provider’s server is indecipherable. Alice and Bob can do this by using encryption software on their computers, such as PGP - or they can use web-based end-to-end encryption services, such as ProtonMail or Tutanota - or, of course, both in conjunction.

All that leaves the spooks with only one option: to hack your computer. Unless you take several complicated precautions they can probably do this, but they must want to target you personally as an important person because they will need to devote time an effort to the job. In other words the cost to the spooks of surveillance increases exponentially and the number of people (if they use encryption) that they can monitor falls dramatically. And even then their surveillance is not fully effective because you might be using several devices. So unless the state is really after you, the encryption of your communication and stored data is probably enough to maintain your privacy.

So fight for your privacy and encrypt.

20 September 2015

The case for symmetric encryption

There are circumstances when symmetrical encryption, that is where both sender and recipient use the same secret key to encrypt and decrypt messages, is the most practical and safest method for encrypting email.

Whenever a message sender, who is known by cryptographic custom as Alice, wishes to write an end-to-end encrypted email to a recipient, customarily known as Bob, one of two cryptographic systems can be used.

The simpler is symmetric encryption in which Alice and Bob have a single secret key, which is used by both of them to encrypt and decrypt messages. The obvious shortcoming of symmetrical encryption is that before Alice and Bob can email, they need to meet up – or have some other safe channel – through which to communicate the secret key. Asymmetrical encryption solves that problem. Both Alice and Bob have two mathematically related keys, one private one public. For Alice to send Bob an encrypted message she ascertains his public key and encrypts her message using it. The message can only be decrypted using Bob's private key, which he keeps secret and safe.

It would seem, then, that asymmetrical encryption, involving no prior secret exchange of keys, enjoys a clear advantage, and for many purposes it does. But there are a number of things that can go wrong with asymmetrical encryption, which can't happen with symmetrical encryption – or at least can’t happen when the secret symmetric key is agreed face-to-face. Let us look at what can screw up with asymmetric encryption:

1. Alice is sending Bob a message encrypted with Bob's public key. However she needs to authenticate it; i.e. prove the message is from her. Precisely because Bob's public key is public anybody could encrypt a message using it and then impersonate Alice. To prevent that, Alice “signs” the message using her own private key. To decrypt the message Bob uses his private key; and to verify the authenticity of the message he needs Alice's public key. The difficulty is solved, but only at the expense of complexity. With symmetric encryption signing and verification are not necessary because the ability to encrypt and decrypt using the single secret key is proof of authenticity.

2. Before Alice can email Bob she needs to find Bob's public key, which may be on his website or in some other public place. But how can Alice be sure that the website or key server has not been tampered with, and that she is not encrypting the message with a key that can be read by somebody else? Equally, when Bob needs to find Alice's public key from a public place to verify the message, how can he know it is genuine? If Alice and Bob had agreed a symmetric key face-to-face the issue of tampering and impersonation would not arise.

3. It could happen that Alice or Bob believe that their private key is no longer secret and safe. If someone else had acquired it, all his or her incoming mail could be read, but revoking the key from a public place is not easy. To be successful, everyone who has or might use it needs to know of the revocation and of the replacement. With symmetric encryption, compromising one key only affects the two parties involved; they can then easily set up a new key – and maintain different levels of security for each key used with different people. Alice's communication with Bob can be kept more securely than her communication with Bill, for instance.

Asymmetric public key encryption therefore brings with it a number of difficulties not suffered by symmetric encryption. The sole disadvantage of symmetric encryption is that Alice and Bob need to agree a secret key face-to-face or through some other safe channel. But in many cases that it is no difficulty at all. It may well be that Alice and Bob meet in person as well as send emails. Alice and Bob could be lovers, or they could be members of a political action group which is under surveillance by security agencies. There is no safer form of email encryption than for Alice and Bob to meet, agree a twenty-character long password consisting of random numbers and letters, and for both of them to keep it secret and safe and to use it to encrypt and decrypt their text emails.

13 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn's stunning victory

The stunning victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election on 12 September 2015 has changed the political game for the Left

One of the advantages of being a rather insignificant person is that I can be wrong about things without it having any great significance. I was among those who didn’t believe until it actually happened that the bureaucracy of the Labour Party, probably in cahoots with the security services, would allow Jeremy Corbyn to be elected leader of the Labour Party. But fortunately from my point of view the Labour Party bureaucracy screwed up to an extent that nothing could help them.

Ed Miliband thought that widening the leadership franchise to one-person-with-three-quid one vote would excite Britain’s middle class into choosing between a handful of New Labour politicians, and so bring them over to Labour. It failed: progressives and working people took up the offer and used it to batter New Labour. Then Labour MPs miscalculated in nominating Corbyn, thinking that a defeated left in the party would be better than facing a challenge to Labour from outside. But very soon they then had to contend with the fact that Corbyn was not about to be defeated. And even though they responded by disqualifying thousands of Labour supporters with the sole purpose of denying Corbyn votes, they failed to prevent his election. Corbyn won among party members, affiliate organisation members and registered supporters. And all together he won a stunning victory garnering just under 60% of the vote.

And I was wrong too about the Labour Party. I wrote recently: “[Since the 1990s] The Labour Party has swung to the right, and under the label of New Labour became a mere adjunct of capitalist power, while jettisoning any meaningful attempt to reform capitalism or the British state in a progressive direction. By the end of the 1990s, even before the Iraq War, I ceased to identify with Labour, and saw the way forward - if there were one - as outside the Labour Party.”

So I was wrong again. The election of Jeremy Corbyn with a quarter of a million votes is the greatest victory for the left since at least the defeat of the poll tax. But the way ahead is difficult. Not only will Corbyn face an onslaught from the media and the wider establishment, but also Labour MPs and and party bureaucracy will do what they can to undermine him. But all that underlies the key point: the coming political fight is now inside the Labour Party not outside it fiddling around in left groups. To the extent that parties like Left Unity played a role in bringing about Corbyn’s victory it won, but it no longer has a meaningful role opposing Corbyn’s Labour - certainly not in putting up a Left Unity candidate in Islington North.

24 August 2015

The passing of a mother

My mother moved to Haslemere at the beginning of 1963 and lived in the area for the rest of her life.

On Thursday 19 February 2015, a nondescript winter’s day, I had just stepped onto the pavement outside the cafe where I often had lunch when my mobile rang. It was my mother’s nursing home in Wormley just outside Haslemere. I knew something was wrong because they rarely contacted me about anything. A nurse told me that my mother, eighty-six and having suffered from advanced dementia for several years, was ill. I could not really tell whether she was just unwell, or whether her condition was life threatening.

In a telephone conversation on the Friday, a senior nurse confirmed that my mother would probably die over the weekend. Rushing back to England was an almost impractical possibility. She was unconscious - and even if she regained consciousness she had neither spoken nor acknowledged people or events around her for three years.

I had to work on the Saturday, but finished early around three. I drifted into a shopping centre out of the cold and phoned the nursing home. A nurse told me in heavily accented English that my mother was comfortable and stable, but the home would phone if there were any change in her condition. I went to bed on Saturday slightly comforted, but not knowing that mother was by that time already dead.

Unbeknownst to me, my phone was on silent. The following morning I went out to do some shopping in the nearby shopping centre where I glanced at my phone. I saw several missed calls from the home. It could only mean one thing. I dialled the number, my fingers slightly shaking, and was told by the duty nurse in a matter-of-fact way that my mother had died at around four the previous day, a mere hour after I had called.

I wandered across from outside McDonalds where I had been standing towards Tesco’s. Yes, it was over a decade since Mum and I had enjoyed a sensible conversation, or since she had recognised me. Many would say that the passing a speechless, reactionless person was a blessing. Yes, Mum and I had had our quarrels and differences, but she was my mother and she was now dead. Tears poured down my cheeks, and it was a while before I phoned my wife and older son to tell them the news.

4 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: a glimmer of light in the Labour Party

The promising levels of support for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race indicate that the Labour Party should not be written off too quickly.

I remember watching TV reports of the cliffhanger Labour Conference in 1981 when Denis Healey beat Tony Benn for the deputy leadership of the Party by a fraction of one percent. The cameras flashed briefly onto the conference floor highlighting a young bearded left-wing activist sporting a badge “Benn for Number 10.” It was Jeremy Corbyn.

In the years that followed the Labour Left was defeated and marginalised. The Labour Party swung to the right, and under the label of New Labour became a mere adjunct of capitalist power, while jettisoning any meaningful attempt to reform capitalism or the British state in a progressive direction. By the end of the 1990s, even before the Iraq War, I ceased to identify with Labour, and saw the way forward - if there were one - as outside the Labour Party. Thus in recent years I have welcomed the birth of Left Unity and the growing number of votes for the Greens and the SNP.

Jeremy Corbyn became an MP in 1983, and during the next thirty-two years, ignored by the corporate media, he was one of the isolated few who never abandoned socialist politics. I admit that I thought his cause inside Labour was hopeless. Yet in 2015 for whatever miscalculated Machiavellian reasons, he secured sufficient nominations from MPs to enter the race for the Labour leadership. Initially cast a joke outsider, his appeal to end austerity, militarism and to promote the cause of ordinary working people has won him widespread support. Aided by a new electoral system where party members plus any Tom, Dick or Harry who coughs up three quid can vote, he now, according to opinion polls, leads the pack in the race for Labour Leader.

I still fear that the Labour establishment in alliance with the security services and the corporate media will stymie his election. And even if elected he will head a parliamentary party in which the vast majority oppose him. Nonetheless something is happening here - and I might have been to too quick to write the Labour Party off.

14 June 2015

The curse of nations

The European, and particularly British, political left is incarcerated in national parochialism

In the mid 1980s a group of socialists in Exeter decided to set up Exeter Labour Briefing which soon morphed into Devon Labour Briefing. We identified with the politics of London Labour Briefing (the capital city of the UK) and adopted the Labour Briefing rubric. At around the same time there was a Brighton Labour Briefing, a Dover Labour Briefing and so on. There were surprises in the bag when an Isle of Wight Labour Briefing was in the pipeline, but nobody expected, nor was there any talk of, for instance, a Calais Labour Briefing.

If there had been we would have said in surprise, “Yes, but their situation is so different; they’re part of French politics - and anyway how can we understand them unless they write in English, and why would they do that.” Very much the same applies today: North Devon may get its own branch of Left Unity, but North Brittany will not. Let’s unpack the obviousness behind all this.

Since the French Revolution, but particularly since the First World War, the nation state has become the main terrain of cultural and political identity. The legal and political structures of the state are the focus of identity and meaning for the state’s citizens, even its socialist ones. Knowledge of the political position facing people in the neighbouring states is usually thin on the ground. In addition, everyone in one state knows (or should know!) the state language, but armed with single language literacy, meaningful communication with citizens from another is rendered difficult to impossible.

The political and cultural zenith of the nation state occurred in the years following the Second World War, when nation-statism was bolstered by state economic planning and the welfare state. Since the 1980s neoliberalism has undermined that dominance to some degree through globalisation at the economic and cultural level; yet the nation state remains the focal point of organisation for popular political activity.

So today the focus of all socialist and progressive activity in Britain is national. No significant political movement in Britain has its HQ outside the UK. British political organisations may affiliate to pan-European organisations, but the key unit of organisation remains national. In contrast, even if they have a national base, many corporations are international in their scope, while the left, trade unions and left-leaning political parties are stubbornly national. The asymmetry of this situation is noteworthy.

So long as pan-European political identity remains non-existent, and while the nation state remains the key unit of legal, political and financial power (even more so since the financial crisis of 2008), there is no option other than social struggle at the national state level. That much is clear. But the way out of the stranglehold of exclusive national identity can only be through downsizing national identification to bring it into balance with other identities: municipal, regional, European, international. To do that requires the acceptance of universal values plus opening up means of international communication.

1 June 2015

2015 General Election: the worst but one outcome

The outcome of the May 2015 general election in Britain was unpredictable. For the left the worst but one outcome came about.

Before the release of the exit poll on the night of 7 May, the result of the May 2015 election was uncertain and that uncertainty was one of the few things that gave the election some interest. I thought that the Tories might do better than the polls were suggesting, but I never dreamed that they would end up with an overall majority. One thing that still puzzles me today is the extent of the collapse of Liberal Democrat vote in Lib Dem seats, which is the direct cause of the Tory majority.

In the pre-election uncertainty I ranked the possible outcomes from worst to best. My logic was straightforward. I wanted to see the the political right as weak as possible - no UKIP whip hand on government, no Tory overall majority. And I wanted the left to be as influential as possible and I thought that best achieved with a minority Labour government pushed leftwards by being dependent on the SNP, Greens Plaid Cymru.

The actual outcome was my worst but one possibility.

Below is is the list of possible outcomes as understood before the result was declared. The actual outcome is in bold.

1. A Conservative minority government with a parliamentary majority thanks to support from UKIP and/or Ulster Unionists.

2. A Conservative Government with an overall majority.

3. A Conservative-LibDem Government with an overall majority.

4. A minority Conservative government where UKIP and Ulster Unions do not give it a majority.

5. A grand coalition of Conservatives with a Tory Prime minister.

6. A grand coalition of Conservatives and Labour with a Labour Prime Minister.

7. A Labour-LibDem Government with an overall majority.

8. A minority Labour government which does not command a majority with the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru.

9. A Labour government with an overall majority.

10. A minority Labour government which has a majority with support from SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru.

Socialists looking forward after May 2015

Following the Conservative election victory on 7 May 2015, the Left should be guided by the following points:

1. We all lament the new Tory majority government, and the electoral system that gave this party a parliamentary majority with 37 percent of the votes.

2. Socialism, meaning the ending of capitalism, is no longer on the political agenda in Britain, at least in the short and medium term. Nevertheless, we should campaign for a meaningful shift of income and wealth in favour of ordinary working people and struggle for the advancement and protection of civic freedoms and human rights. One only has to look across the Channel to some of Britain’s neighbours to see that such things are possible, even within the framework of capitalism.

3. When contrasted with the Tories, Labour is to be preferred - and there remain a small number of Labour MPs who are personally committed to Left causes. Yet the main logic of operation of the Labour Party is to reinforce the existing political system and to maintain and promote capitalist power. In the absence of any electoral pact with Labour (an unlikely possibility) we rightly challenge Labour in elections.

4. Left Unity or any other leftist party is unlikely to become a major electoral force, particularly within the framework of the FPTP electoral system. Progressive voters, even if they are willing to abandon Labour (and after all Labour is a serious contender to the Tories in many seats), have two left-of-Labour options ourselves and the much larger Greens. Exclusive electoralism cannot be an option: Left Unity must be as much a campaigning organisation as it is an electoral one, if it is to serve any purpose.

5. Although the Green Party is not a socialist party, we need to work with and within the Greens and strive for as much synchronisation of policy as possible. In some cases it makes sense for socialists to join the Greens as individuals and to work to build that party. In others building a separate Left Party is the best option. Dialogue between the Left and Greens is always desirable.

6. We must support the progressive demand for an independent Scottish state to be established for the benefit of all the people who live in that territory irrespective of their nationality or ethnicity.

7. We support the continued membership of the EU by all the component units of the British Isles (the UK, the Republic of Ireland and a future independent Scotland). Withdrawal could only benefit nationalist reactionary and ultra-free-market forces in the UK, particularly in England. The Left seeks to realises its objectives not just in the UK but in association with others across the EU member states.

An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori

A masterpiece which paints a portrait of multicultural and polyglot Central Europe between the World Wars.

The book is a masterpiece, and like many such masterpieces the text is often a struggle to read, in this case as a result of sometimes difficult language, obscure historico-cultural reference and complexity of plot and situation. But don't give up; for me even months after reading Rezzori’s novel the message and images of the book remain in the head.

The story is told through the eyes of a young boy, a character who is self-consciously modelled on the author, an Austrian German from a minor aristocratic family, now living in the interwar period in what had become a provincial town in Romania. Czernopol is the fictional name, but this is a thin disguise for the town, the name of which is Czernowitz.

We are introduced to a wide range of eccentric characters, who are surviving amidst the anomie and confusion of the epoch. Most poignant in the book is the episode towards the end of the growing anti-Semitism in the town which explodes into a pogrom.

Though always perceptive, throughout there is often an unreal quality to the writing. Although the narrator is a child, much of what is written is far from childlike observation. In addition, we are often given huge stretches of description and dialogue from which the narrator is absent.

The book was first published in German in the 1966, but only received its definitive English translation in 2011.

Von REZZORI, Gregor, An Ermine in Czernopol, Nyrb Classics 2011.

1 May 2015

Education is not employment skills

"There is no difference between academic skills and employment skills,"

This is such utter nonsense it is hard to take seriously a person who would say it. Why? A person with good employment skills is someone (rightly or wrongly) who can sell him or herself to those with money and power. A good academic is someone who can discover the truth despite money and power.

With the subordination of university academic life in Britain to money and power, it will soon be the case that serious academic work can only done outside universities.

I am not making any moral evaluation about seeking employment. We all do it. When I am at work I carry out tasks according to the instructions of someone else. I execute those tasks irrespective of whether I think what I am doing is effective or not, right or wrong.

When I study my state of mind is quite different. I am concerned with what is true. I answer to nobody. Money and power has no purchase. My state of mind is quite different.

Strong Passphrases to withstand brute force attacks

Single case alphanumeric passphrases consist only of small letters and numbers, and are particularly useful when you need to make, copy and write down a strong passphrase.

Here is an example:

6j1i kfmp 6k8v lwz5
    • Copy the passphrase. Keep the passphrase safely on a piece of paper and/or on your computer. DO NOT STORE ONLINE.
    • The characters are written down in groups of four for convenience. IGNORE THE SPACES WHEN TYPING IN. You type in this: 6j1ikfmp6k8vlwz5
    • The passphrase consists of 16 random characters. All the letters (a-z) are lowercase. The numbers (0-9) are in bold to help distinguish them from the letters. IGNORE THE BOLD WHEN TYPING IN.
    • The passphrase has more than 82 bits of entropy. (A cracking programme working at 350 billion guesses a second would take 400 000 years to work through the permutations)

How to make a strong single case alphanumeric passphrase

Here's what to do to make a passphrase which will be strong enough to protect you from a brute force attack - i.e. from a hacker trying millions of possibilities a second to crack your passphrase.

1. Take two dice. Throw the dice together onto a flat surface. The dice which lands further to the left is deemed dice 1 while the dice lying further to the right is dice 2.

2. The number shown on dice 1 determines the choice of the horizontal row (numbers in bold), while the number shown on the right-hand dice determines the column (numbers also in bold). From each throw of two dice the selected row and column intersect at a character, which is either a lowercase letter or a number. The character should be recorded on a piece of paper.


3. Throw the pair of dice 16 times and generate 16 alphanumeric characters. Write them down in groups of four to facilitate copying.

Example: 6j1i kfmp 6k8v lwz5

Writing down your passphrase

Writing down your passphrase onto paper means that it cannot be hacked, so you should do this. As Bruce Schneier, the security and cryptography, expert point out:

Simply, people can no longer remember passwords good enough to reliably defend against dictionary attacks, and are much more secure if they choose a password too complicated to remember and then write it down. We're all good at securing small pieces of paper. I recommend that people write their passwords down on a small piece of paper, and keep it with their other valuable small pieces of paper: in their wallet.

I wouldn’t go so far as keeping passwords in my wallet, but the point is well made. But when when writing down, please pay attention to the following:

Avoiding mistakes when writing down the passphrase: This is all too easy to do. It helps that it is already divided into 4-character chunks for copying. Write the numbers much larger than the letters so they are distinguishable. Put a small upward sloping line on on your 1, cross your 7, and place a diagonal line through your O. For the letters, put a big dot over your i, loop your l, write your o very small, round the bottom of your u, point the bottom of your v, and write your z small.

Losing Your passphrase: Loss can best be prevented by possessing a duplicate. Have a memorable place, not necessarily easily accessible, where you keep a backup copy; e.g. written onto the back of an old receipt in a box in the garden shed. Always ensure that there are two copies; it is unlikely that both will be destroyed or mislaid at once.

Others finding your passphrase: Avoid desk drawers, or anywhere near your computer. If you have thousands of books, writing it onto page 138 of one of them would probably be safe, unless a whole team of police are searching your house for it. The passphrase is also of no use to a finder if it is not known what it is the passphrase for.

Additional security: if you are worried about family, friends or colleagues stumbling across it, then you can can have a secret, non-written affix to your passphrase. If your passphrase would be 6j1i kfmp 6k8v lwz5, you can add, for example, a memorable word so it becomes catfish 6j1i kfmp 6k8v lwz5. You write down and store the passphrase without “catfish,” and remember what you have done. Non-specialists could never use your passphrase, even if they found it. And doing this also adds massively to strength of the passphrase.

Typing your passphrase

You may choose to store your password electronically, so when you wish to use it you can copy and paste. Theoretically, it could be hacked, but if you keep it in a passworded file (e.g. Word, Excel) on your computer - or on a memory stick, then it is pretty safe from hacking, unless the hacker is specifically targeting your passphrase on your devices. But remember that computers can break, get lost, be stolen or be confiscated, and once out of your possession the passphrase is accessible to someone else and no longer to you unless you have backup copies. Storing your password anywhere online is a big mistake, unless of course it is encrypted. When typing your passphrase into a file for safekeeping, it is a good idea to write the numbers in bold, so they are clearly distinguished from the letters.

What makes a passphrase strong?

The strength of a passphrase depends on how many combinations or permutations there are in which to hide the key. Let us take the example of a combination padlock with three dials, with each cylinder containing 10 digits (0-9). There are exactly one thousand permutations. If the lock had four dials there would be 10 000 permutations.

To make a passphrase stronger on a computer we can do three things:

1. Increase the number of characters of the passphrase (i.e. passphrase length).

2. Increase the range of characters we are using. Using only numbers alone (0-9) we have ten permutations per character. If we add in small letters (a-z) we have 36 permutations per character, and if we also use capital letters we have 62 permutations per character - and so on.

3. Make absolutely sure that the characters are random. That means that the choice of any character is not determined by any other. If there is a pattern (e.g. 2, 4, 6, 8) the passphrase is weak and can be cracked more easily. The human brain does not produce good randomness; it has to be achieved by throwing dice or using well shuffled cards.

How to measure the strength of a passphrase

The strength of a passphrase is measured in units called bits of entropy. If the passphrase is one of two permutations the passphrase strength is one bit of entropy: if it one of four equally possible permutations, then it is two bits of entropy strength. If there are eight permutations, then the entropy is three bits. A billion (1000,000,000) different possibilities to choose from is 29.9 bits of entropy.

How many bits are necessary for a safe passphrase?

At the present time, it is the opinion of experts is that a passphrase of 80 bits is sufficient for all practical purposes. It would take several linked computers running for decades to crack such a passphrase, not something that a hacker or even the state would undertake.

How many random characters do you need for an 80 bit passphrase?

The answer depends on the range of characters you use: if you use just numbers (1-0), then you need 25; if you use numbers and a single case, e.g. small letters (1-0, a-z) then you need 16; if you use both cases (1-0, a-z, A-Z) with numbers, you need 14 and if you use all the characters on the keyboard (e.g. =, + ?, etc), then only 13.

What is most convenient for you is a matter of choice, but I believe that using a single case alphanumeric passphrase is the most effective because a 16 character passphrase is manageable, and it not worth making it shorter by two or three characters, if the cost is having to use the shift key repeatedly and having to search the keyboard for special characters.

Is it certain that an 80 bit password is sufficient?

Well it is unless two things happen. First, computers become a lot more powerful than they are at present. And second, your adversary is willing to spend a great deal of computer power and time (that is months and years) on cracking your passphrase. So what can you do to make your passphrase stronger still?

First you can make the single case alphanumeric password longer by throwing more dice. Twenty-five characters takes you over the 128 bits, which is claimed to be an ideal. Second, adding an unusual word affix to the start of your passphrase adds around 10 bits of entropy. And/or you can add a few special characters in the password. Don’t add letters because you might make dictionary words which will lessen the entropy.

But when you enter the territory of 80 bits plus, your weakest link is not likely to be your passphrase any more.

19 April 2015

Ordinary working people and the working class

The term ordinary working people is better understood than working class.

Often in political discussion there is a slippage between the terms “working class” and “ordinary working people.” The distinction is important for social theory. In Marxist terminology the former refers to those who have surplus value pumped out of them because they make things, while the latter are people who simply sell their labour power in order to live (e.g. the call-centre workers, lorry drivers, etc). The word “ordinary” is added to exclude those whom Karl Renner called the Dienstklasse, persons who sell their labour power in exchange for high privilege, e.g. judges, and are thus economically and politically attached to, and advantaged in, the existing political order.

In political campaigning, if not in social analysis, the term (ordinary) working people does well enough. The point remains today, as it did a couple of decades ago, that a majority of ordinary working people have an economic and political interest in transcending (abolishing, going beyond) the existing structures of capitalism, and are yet frustrated in understanding that fact or, even if they do, being unable to do anything to effectively bring about change.

5 April 2015

The death of Margaret Thatcher: a cause for celebration?

On 8 April 2013, after over a decade suffering from dementia, Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister (in office 1979-90) died.

I have always felt it wrong to take Schadenfreude in a death. Nevertheless, news of the passing of Margaret Thatcher in April 2013 filled me with a sudden rush of satisfaction, contentment and even pleasure. The fact is human beings can control up to a point what they do, but never how they feel.

On a May morning in 1979, I was seventeen years old - and shattered after listening to the radio throughout the night - when Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative party won a forty-four seat majority in the House of Commons. Dad was glum, but optimistic that it might be a one term government - after all, there had been three changes of government in the 1970s, so one further change seemed distinctly possible. But it was Fred Coombs, the chairman of local Liberals, who on one of his regular Saturday morning visits to our house was nearer the mark with his pessimistic comment: “These bastards will be in for a generation.”

Worse, though, was to follow. Not only did Thatcher and her Tory successor, John Major, go on to win three more general elections, but such was the transformation in British society that Thatcherism was able to cause the remoulding of the Labour Party in her own image. That was the fate of Labour in the hands of Blair and his New Labour careerists and disciples in the mid 1990s.

However, back in the early days of the 1980s, the newness of Thatcherism and the personality of Thatcher herself divided the country into bitter hostile camps. While Thatcher asked, “Is he one of us?” we asked the reverse question, “Is he or she one of them?” and if so, we seldom had much to do with them. Culturally and socially we lived an anti-Tory existence and, until the mid 1980s, we had a Labour Party which had the purpose of reversing the market fundamentalism and petty-minded bigotry of the Tory Government.

Thatcher, her legacy and her successors beat us. She destroyed the mild gains of social democracy in post-war Britain, and her ideas, with only slight modification, were adopted by Labour under Blair after 1994. I despised her for who she was and everything she did. But I still think it is wrong to celebrate someone's death.

28 March 2015

The working class and socialist consciousness

Capitalism can, but does not inevitably, produce either class or socialist consciousness

There is debate among the left today about the passivity of ordinary working people in Britain and elsewhere in the face of mushrooming inequality and general economic insecurity. But what, if anything, do developments tell us about working class and socialist consciousness?

In the last two centuries, the development of capitalism in western Europe produced the preconditions for class consciousness, i.e. a relatively homogenous geographically-stable proletariat which experienced a shared sense of its own exploitation and oppression. The working class - if here understood to be all those who live by selling their labour power - came to comprise a majority of the population; and a majority of those who were working class saw themselves as such.

Class consciousness is a necessary but an insufficient condition for socialist (or even social democratic) consciousness: if self-recognition of class were all that were needed, then socialism would have been successfully achieved in Western Europe and in North America. What went wrong?

Marx was right to suggest that capitalism produced within itself the seeds (i.e. the potential) for its own destruction (i.e. a vast exploited working class with an interest in transforming the system), but was wrong in his prediction that proletarian concentration, homogenisation and universal impoverishment would (i) continue uninterrupted as an sociological fact, and (ii) that – even if it did – it would of itself lead to socialist consciousness. History has taught us otherwise.

The movement for social progress - whether for amelioration of conditions within capitalism or for the overthrow of capitalism altogether - is political. The production and reception of political ideas and practices are indeed influenced in major part by the class structure, but politics is not a mere reflection of class structure. Political structures and systems of ideas exist to some extent independently of class relations, have their own history and rhythms of development.

Looking at Britain in the last decades, it seems that the development of the working class, in all its economic and political aspects, can facilitate socialist consciousness, as it did in Britain in the last century up until the 1970s (Hobsbawm: The Forward March of Labour Halted). Or capitalist development can undermine both class and socialist consciousness in the working class, as has happened under market fundamentalism which has held sway from the 1980s. The actual situation depends on a combination of economic, political and ideological factors, which is why the answers are always going to be found in analysis not dogma.

13 February 2015

Police surveillance of Charlie Hebdo magazine purchasers

Police collected the names of those ordering the special edition of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, in all probability to include on a national database of people politically active in the UK.

On 7 January 2015 two marginalised and alienated French nationals - armed with guns and a Muslim-inspired fascist ideology - went on a rampage of murder in the editorial offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine. People in France and across the world were rightly outraged that journalists should be murdered for ridiculing religion. In defence of free speech and in solidarity people sought to purchase the special edition of the magazine which was published after the murders.

Nevertheless, in the Britain in 2015 people interested in controversial magazines from abroad - however understandable the motive - is not something which the police will ignore.

Four people ordered the magazine from a newsagent in Corsham in Wiltshire. Police visited the newsagent and demanded the names of the customers. When the police action came to light on 10 February, it was deemed a mistake and an isolated event. Names were to be deleted from police computers.

But the following day, it emerged that the same police enquires had been made in Presteigne in Wales and, by telephone, in Warrington in Cheshire. Two things became almost certain. First, that there were many investigations across the country into Charlie Hebdo readers, in addition to those we already know about. And secondly, the investigations were no isolated incidents, but a policy instructed from the top.

Police say that they were making “an assessment of community tensions.” Utter bilge! What community tensions involving militant Islam is there in rural Wales and in the countryside of Wiltshire. The idea that these police enquiries contribute to combating Islamic terrorism doesn't hold water, either: the Charlie Hebdo magazine is among the last things devout Muslims would purchase.

What this snooping is about, it would seem, is nothing more than the police and the security services building a database of all those who are in any way politically active in the UK. If they are prepared to go to such lengths, deploying police time in rural England and Wales to pick up a couple of names, then one can only imagine what effort is probably put into monitoring political activity on the internet.

7 February 2015

Cameron wants to outlaw encrypted messaging

David Cameron’s desire, however impractical, to outlaw the citizen’s use of end-to end encryption to enable the security services to view every private communication is a an assault on freedom.

Events in Paris on 7 January 2015 were truly horrific. Two marginalised and alienated people - armed with guns and a Muslim-inspired fascist ideology - went on a rampage of murder in the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. France and the world were rightly outraged.

In Britain, cashing in the terror, David Cameron took his chance to push for a ban on end-to-end encryption, even though the terrorists in France never used encryption. End-to-end encryption is the means by which you encrypt a message on your own computer and send the message to someone else who decrypts it on his or hers. GCHQ and the NSA can’t read the data either in transit or from the internet giants’ servers. Apple’s new iphone and several messaging apps do the same thing.

In fact, you can get a small file which enables end-to-end text encryption here.

In his speech Cameron asked, “...in our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” Well, yes we do. It is not just a matter of a fundamental right of people to be able to talk and write to one another without the security services reading and listening, but we know full well that state snooping of private correspondence is used to impede legitimate political activity by ordinary people.

Cameron and his government are a far greater threat to freedom than a handful of fanatical killers in Paris.

1 February 2015

Britain's war on investigative journalism

Free journalism is the last remaining source of opposition in Britain. That is why the state ranks journalists alongside terrorists as a threat.

With the demise of mass progressive organisations in the last few decades, one of the few remaining sources of critique of the existing political order is the writing of journalists. So today, it is the likes of Glenn Greenwald and George Monbiot who carry the torch of political opposition, rather than politicians.

It is hardly surprising that, according to documents from the Snowden cache, GCHQ in Britain ranks investigative journalists alongside terrorists and hackers as targets worthy of surveillance. In a single trawl in 2008 GCHQ harvested around 70 000 emails from journalists working for the BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, the Sun, NBC and the Washington Post. The results were placed on the GCHQ intranet for analysis by agents.

The mass hoovering up of electronic communication by the security agencies is now an established fact. The legality of doing so only comes into a play when some of these ill-gotten fruits of mass surveillance need to be brought into the public domain, such as for a court case. To this end, in Britain the state uses RIPA, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which inter alia empowers police to access journalists’ electronic communication without a court order with only the approval of senior officers. Just to take two instances: In the so-called Plebgate affair, police used RIPA powers to access the phone records of a journalist working for the Sun; and the records of a Mail on Sunday journalist were similarly acquired in the Chris Huhne speeding affair. Neither case involved terrorism or serious crime.

Investigative journalism remains one the last means of critiquing political power in Britain. It is under attack, and one small step of resistance is to achieve secure communication by encrypting phone speech and email, end-to-end. Of course that does nothing to hide the metadata - who’s contacting whom, when and for how long - but it shuts GCHQ and the police out of the content. David Cameron doesn’t like that, and that’s why he would like to ban it.

The end of student life

Student university life is a potent and necessary experience, but it is ephemeral.

I left university in 1983. Nearly a decade later in 1992, I found myself with time on my hands to do some thinking and realised that the emotional introspective life of our our university years had given way, for most of us at least, to an angst-ridden, time-conscious, but more focussed existence.

Back in 1984, in an act of catharsis while unemployed in bedsit land, I had written the novella University Years, which had sought to portray and parody student university life. And nine years later, still with a manual typewriter, I found the time to type up the the scattered and scrappy manuscript. While doing so, I was reminded repeatedly of the contrast between our current attitude to life and to each other, which we now experienced as young people approaching thirty, and how we had seen the world at the beginning of the the 1980s as students at Exeter University.

At the time it seemed impossible to complete University Years and ignore the extent to which our lives and outlooks had changed. So to give effect to this point, I planned to make all the events in University Years a flashback, and begin the novella with a scene showing my character Martin’s current married life as a university academic, a man who is now anxious, pushed for time, and put out by the inconvenience of meeting up with Brian, his former university friend and housemate. I wrote a new beginning for the novella and then dumped the idea, mostly because I did not want to fundamentally alter the original text written in 1984.

The planned opening of the novella, a mere 351 words, written subjectively form Martin’s viewpoint, is below. The chapter would have been entitled: Anxiety: meeting Brian.

How quickly he went downhill after leaving university.

I received a letter from Brian this morning. It’s bothered me all day at work because I can’t think why Brian should want to see me. He said he’d have to drive up from Surrey after work a week next Friday. He can spend the night here, of course, but why does he want to contact me after all this time? We left university over ten years ago now, and apart from the funeral the following year, I haven’t seen him since. All we do these days is exchange Christmas cards; we’ve even given up writing short letters on them. I suppose we don’t have much in common; he’s a solicitor and I’m a university lecturer. He has children and I don’t.

I’m not sure that I want to get involved with Brian again. I’ve got so much on – my third year course on East European politics. My European politics post grads are causing me to work like hell at the moment. I want to finish the paper on the history of Czech/Slovak relations for next month. I’m bogged down with marking.

It can’t be money he wants, and surely he wouldn’t come to me on account of his marriage. I’m not sure he’ll get on with Myra. We’ll have to do a shop for two formal meals. Brian is coming on Friday the fifth, and Ruth and Ivan are coming on the Saturday.

At least Myra is preparing some food this evening.

I’ve grown attached to this room in our house, which is now my office. I’ve got so much paper here, and I need a second filing cabinet. I also need to put bookshelves in that other alcove on Saturday. The carpet is almost worn through between the word processor and my writing desk.

Myra has just called me downstairs to eat. I wonder how her teaching went today. We’ll eat, have a coffee, do the washing up together, and then I really need to get back to work. I also need to let Brian know that he can stay here.

25 January 2015

Tony Benn (1925-2014): the death of a political giant

The death of Tony Benn in March 2014 was a psychological blow for the political left in Britain.

Tony Benn was the most admirable British politician in the whole post war era.

In the 1970s Benn signalled in the Labour Party a way forward, not just as an alternative to Thatcherism and authoritarian market fundamentalism, but as a solution to the shortcoings of 1960s and 1970s social democracy. His 1981 defeat to Denis Healey in the battle for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party sadly indicated the start of a process which ended with victory for New Labour in the Party in 1990s.

Benn, unusually for British politicians, was a great moralist and teacher, and invariably presented his ideas in spellbinding orations, rather than through the pen, with even his diaries consisting mostly of written up recordings. Some of his famous aphorisms will always stay with me.

“It’s man’s capacity for good that makes democracy possible. It’s man’s capacity for bad which makes democracy necessary.”

“I do ask people not to dwell too long on the theoretical differences between reform and revolution. I think if you added up all the reforms we want to make in the structure of society, people could not distinguish it from a revolution.”

“It’s not that we have reformed and failed, but we have failed to reform.”

Yet, Benn’s appeal to the moral high ground came at a price. Despite his position and influence in the Party, when his own Bristol constituency was abolished in boundary changes in 1983, he accepted defeat in the candidate selection process in the safe Bristol South seat. Rather than bunk off to a safe seat elsewhere, Benn remained loyal to the town of Bristol. He was accepted for marginal Bristol East where he lost to the Conservative candidate. Only then did he relocate to the mining constituency of Chesterfield, where he won a by-election in 1984, a seat he held until his retirement from Parliament in 2001.

Even after the left was crushed and marginalised in the late 1980s, he remained loyal to Labour – and I think mistakenly so - but he never capitulated to New Labour thinking.

Tony Benn’s death is a very great loss. He is sadly missed.

1 January 2015

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok shows us a closed world, but one with universalistic human values.

Like Potok's 'The Chosen,’ this book ‘My Name is Asher Lev’ is a highly readable glimpse into a world which is both open and closed. It is open in the sense that the orthodox religious Jewish community in the United States, in which the book is set, not only shares a meaning and context which spans the Atlantic, but allows though Potok’s pen for the presentation of universal human values. But in another sense this community is also closed and cut off – almost comically so - from most of the life and concerns of average Americans in the second half of the twentieth century.

Like much of Potok’s work, the novel is a Romansbildung, featuring a boy from a distinguished orthodox family, who discovers and takes up painting much to his father’s disapproval. His longing for the artistic freedom finally causes his unwilling but expected expulsion from his community into the wider society.

The book is well-paced, excellently written and highly enjoyable.

POTOK, Chaim, My name is Asher Lev, Penguin 1973

A national government for Britain in 2015?

Every time the political situation in Britain is not straightforward, there are voices saying that there will be a return to national government, last seen 1931-45.

Of course anything in the future can happen, but it seems highly likely that following the 2015 General Election in May this year either the Tories or Labour will emerge as the single largest party in Parliament with the other in second position. By British convention the party with the largest number of seats will be invited to form a government, and if not successful the remit will fall to second party. It is highly improbable that neither Cameron nor Miliband would be unable to form a government which would not immediately fall in a parliamentary vote of no confidence. UKIP and the Northern Ireland Unionists would lean towards the Tories, while the SNP (likely to emerge as a major player in 2015) along with Plaid Cymru and the Greens (if they win seats) would favour Labour. The Liberal Democrats would get into bed with anyone, and it is unlikely after an electoral beating in May 2015 they would want a second general election.

In any event, a coalition only between the Tories and Labour would be, to borrow German terminology, a “grand coalition,” not a national government. Such a government, if only because it was so unexpected and would deny the voters any say in the direction of the country, would be unpopular and would soon haemorrhage support to the left (mainly the Greens, but also the SNP in Scotland) and to the right (UKIP). Recent opinion polls put support for a Tory/Lab coalition as the preferred outcome of a hung parliament at a mere 9 percent. Anticipating low levels of public support and votes falling away, a grand coalition would be the last choice for both Cameron and Miliband, or their successors.

A “national government” is not impossible, but it is highly unlikely.