Tectonic Plates Or Losers’ Blues?

The last few weeks have been unlike anything I can remember in my life, politically.  There is a disconnect between people, and between the premises upon which they build their beliefs that is strange and unsettling.  Listening to the Today programme this morning, in which Labour’s calm Seema Malhotra was interviewed by an aggressive Sarah Montague, the thought suddenly hit me: it was like a discussion about the route to take on a long sea voyage between a flat earther and someone who believed the earth was round.  Montague was annoyed because Malhotra wouldn’t say where Labour would find the £15 billion needed to pay for tax credits, which Montague framed as an accounting question.  Malhotra was saying, economic policy is not accounting, and that growing the economy grows revenues.  They were talking about different things, with no point of contact whatsoever.  Montague was yelling that if they did what Labour was proposing, they’d fall off the edge of the world, and Malhotra was saying, “listen, I’m telling you we live on a bloody sphere!”

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been attending sessions at the Birmingham Literature Festival.  Nice, middle class people go to literary festivals.  So why so much angry political talk?  I’m not referring to the overtly political events, such as Martin Rowson’s entertaining tour of visual satire, or the Writing of Protest session that I blogged about last week.  Just in general.  On the stage, and in the bar, throwaway remarks and casual conversation seems infused with a barely suppressed rage.

Much of it swirls around the Corbyn Labour leadership.  No one seems much concerned with Corbyn himself, the accidental leader.  Perhaps some of the young Corbynistas, born too late to know the age when socialism was normal, and liberalism was quite right-wing, and conservatism was actually that – conserving the past with a pragmatic eye on the present, believe in their leader.  But for the rest of us it simply seems to be a matter of feeling that we’ve had it up to here with rampant selfishness and greed served up as fiscal virtue.  We long for a return to civic pride and public service.  We see the possibilities of technological change as collectively empowering, and we are frustrated by those who seek to ‘monetise’ every space, and keep us in our place – as passive consumers, not active citizens.  We’re mad as hell.

So who is mad as hell?  The people who lost the election?  Sore losers shouting impotently at the industrious victors who are simply going about their efficient duties, governing us all in the name of their well-mannered, unshouty supporters?

You see, I’ve been there, done that.  1992.

This doesn’t feel remotely like 1992.  In 1992 we were deflated, demoralised, but also partly infected with the very same mood that propelled John Major to his victory.  We were relieved that Thatcher had gone, and with her, we hoped, the Shouty Tendency of the right.  We didn’t much like the grey man with his underpants over his trousers, but we didn’t exactly feel he’d enjoy resting a sturdily shod foot upon a pleb’s windpipe.

For Major’s was a Tory government, not a Cultural Revolution led by the Maoists of Neoliberalism.  There’s an inchoate feeling all around now that this crisis is existential.  They have made it ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ by seeking to crowd out, fence off, make off-limits any thought or deed that doesn’t contribute to their project.

Yesterday I was in Brighton for a meeting.  Just work.  I’d never met any of the other people in the room before.  Polite strangers, all women, all ages, ethnically diverse.  People in the arts world tend to be fairly liberal, but overt political talk, as is the middle class way, tends to be avoided.  Not any more.

Impassioned ranting, sweary sincerity, explicit political passion were all unleashed. Something’s been let out of the bottle, I swear.

A number of people of late have ventured a tentative question about whether the political tide might be turning.  I’m always cautious about this.  And yet something does feel very different.  A slow, subterranean shifting, perhaps?

The Writing Of Protest

Last night at the Birmingham Literature Festival four highly political minds came together to share their thoughts with a large festival audience. Political theorist and pioneer of Women’s Studies, Mary Evans, Laura Townshend of 38 Degrees, and Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism, were chaired by the politically astute playwright, David Edgar. The evening had come about in part because at his Secular Sermon at Birmingham Cathedral last year, Owen Jones had raised the issue of Tories owning all the stories.  This was a chance for radical and progressive voices to pose alternative narratives.

Mary Evans began by citing Robert Michels, who in his book, Political Parties, formulated a rather pessimistic take on the prospect of a lively, democratic political praxis being sustainable in the face of the forces ranged against it. This jolted me. For one thing, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone cite Michels, who became a fascist, and who died in 1936.  I’d read Political Parties as an undergraduate, and had always remembered his ‘iron law of oligarchy’.  But Evans was convincing in raising the question of (political) culture and process, particularly formal structures. Political parties are the classic formal structures, with leaders, rulebooks, elections and so on.  Along with other structures, such as parliament, government, and the institutions of the state, parties have fallen out of favour with a cynical electorate.

In contrast, informal and nebulous forms of political protest have rarely looked more lively.  Things like 30 Degrees and Everyday Sexism facilitate debate and campaigning without the need for formal leadership, and enable participation to be spontaneous, and not bound by social or geographic divisions.

Laura Townshend chided the left for using abstract concepts, such as equality, fairness, redistribution, and so on, whilst the right used clear language with impact, describing Labour as “spending more than we earned”, and saying that they will “fix the roof whilst the sun shines”.  In the language of Creative Writing 101 she said that “show, not tell” worked better in political campaigning – that a campaign to stop restaurants stealing their waiting staff’s tips worked better when it was given as a specific example of a restaurant, and where the workers had names and faces.  Everyone agreed that the death of Aylan Kurdi on a Greek holiday beach brought the plight of refugees to public attention far more effectively than talk of political problems, complex wars, and numbers.

Interestingly it took the one crafter of fiction on the stage, David Edgar, to question this directly.  He warned of the limits of politics by anecdote, which had Mary Evans nodding vigorously.  This echoed a point made by Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, in his conference speech, when he accused the Conservatives of bamboozling the electorate with “misleading analogies”.  In any case, does not the right also use abstract language, sometimes of a deliberately obfuscatory sort, such as “austerity”, “fiscal responsibility”, and “aspiration”?  Whatever they are doing right, it isn’t simply that they tell better stories.

Laura Townshend seemed uncomfortably aware of the limits of a group like 38 Degrees when asked about issues around it wouldn’t campaign.  She confirmed that some issues – she mentioned fox hunting, and intervention in Syria – were too divisive to the membership for the staff to promote campaigns around them.  It was also clear from her description of how they functioned in practice, that for all the technological shininess of online petitions and campaigns, their ultimate purpose was much like that of any old school pressure group; to lobby MPs and ministers, or other powers that be to change their ways.  In other words, they are small ‘c’ conservative, working within existing power structures, rather that challenging them fundamentally.

Before the BLF session I might have wished Laura Bates well, but I wasn’t exactly a fan.  But hearing her last night did change my perception of what she is doing.  She seems shrewdly aware of the fact that her campaign is not one with specific, possibly legislative, ends, as with some of the 38 Degrees stuff.  Rather, she sees it as transformative and empowering political game-playing.  The use of personal stories by Everyday Sexism is not about evoking an emotional response from a sympathetic audience, but rather it is to build up layers of individual stories such that people make the wider links themselves.  Rather than feeling like a victim, the individual who shares their experience, and the person who reads it and thinks, ‘that happened to me’, comes to realise that a social injustice links them, and they become empowered to develop strategies of resistance.  She cited examples, such as the woman who was embarrassed and unhappy that men, strangers in the street, thought it acceptable to point out that she had large breasts.  Politicised by Everyday Sexism, she decided to use humour to expose these men’s idiocy.   Now, whenever someone tells her she has big breasts, looks looks down and shrieks in horror, as if she has never seen them before!  (Never underestimate the political uses of humour, a point tellingly made also by cartoonist Martin Rowson in a BLF session last Saturday.)  By changing perceptions, self-awareness, and by promoting a sense of solidarity between women, and the men who support feminism, Everyday Sexism is, if you like, revolutionary.

A large audience of all ages turning out on a chill Monday evening and spending their hard earned cash to watch a political debate – and the sense at the end that they’d had their money’s worth – suggests to me that there is a latent radical movement out there still in need of mobilisation.  Why had they turned up to an event like this, but might not have done so for something labelled ‘Political’, and organised by a party or pressure group?

I suspect that the answer to that is complex.  To be part of an audience of strangers is a reassuring form of group activity, whereas turning up to be an activist sounds like a worryingly open commitment.  Then there’s the non-sectarian and discursive nature of the debate, which gives space to difference and to doubt.  Even the fact that it was part of a cultural festival was probably significant, rendering it ‘respectable’, ‘aspirational’, even.  Nice people go to literature festivals, and can pat themselves on the back for their discernment and good taste (yes, that’s me).  Even the staging of the event on the Studio stage at the Birmingham Rep was attractive, like something from a BBC Arts Review programme.  And there was a bar and a restaurant…. Lefties, take note.  The Revolution Will Be Catered.

We Are The Builders!

Last night Compass and Equality West Midlands held a well-attended meeting on movement building, with Guardian journalist and writer Zoe Williams as keynote speaker.  It was, like so many ‘non-sectarian’ gatherings on the left, a meeting of hearts, but not always of minds.

Williams is, as her writing might suggest, a subtle and intelligent speaker.  She’s made a few appearances recently on programmes like The Daily Politics, where her straight talking and humour can make her more effective than other figures on the left, who get too exasperated with any departure from seriousness to make a successful transition from print to TV punditry.  She was also happy to let the meeting have a dual function, of celebrity talk plus a locally based activist agenda.  There was a slight awkwardness in this – were we there to hear Williams, or were we there to get on with building a movement?

Let’s attend to the former first.  Zoe Williams took certain things as read.  That New Labour was not the election-winning triumph of ‘modernisers’ whose legacy was squandered by Ed Miliband, but rather was the final abasement of the Labour Party in the face of the neoliberal ascendency.  That neoliberalism had gained that ascendency in part by the clarity of its vision and the capacity of its adherents to cast all their actions in the furtherance of their central tenets.  That Jeremy Corbyn was a good guy, but with limited vision and a doubtful capacity for transformational leadership, whose triumph as Labour leader was a necessary but not sufficient step towards realigning progressive politics more closely with today’s social cleavages.

Williams was explicit about the need for radical constitution change – something that Labour has always been reluctant to embrace, even though it has been clear for the last thirty years that such change is needed. There was a touch of Charter 88 redux about aspects of the analysis.  But that is good.  What Charter 88 did so well was to find a wide intellectual consensus for constitutional change which crossed parties and social movements. But Williams’ implicit message was that such change, particularly electoral reform, needed to be embedded in less abstract, more concrete demands, such as those around access to secure and affordable housing.

She also made telling points about the urgency to use even apparently dry or dull mechanisms as vehicles for popular engagement.  In Williams view, the rather boring question of Scottish independence was seized by broad currents on the left in Scotland to ask transformative and optimistic questions about what the future could look like. I’m not sure that this is wholly true.  The debate in Scotland around constitutional change, which led to devolution, but also included the prospect of independence, was a long-standing project.  But it is fair to say that the popular mood was galvanised around the independence referendum, and that this does suggest that we should seize all available opportunities – such as the EU referendum – to posit a new and optimistic vision of what could be.

Williams’ view seems to be that the nascent movement for change is there already, but needs to be mobilised, given a clear set of ideas and principles, and understood not as a disciplined party, but as a messy and often nebulous set of relationships.  She was also of the view that when things really started to change, they would change quickly.

One of the most arresting images of the evening was when Zoe Williams compared Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.  Miliband, she suggested, had been like a surfer poised for the wave that never came.  Corbyn, conversely, was no surfer, but had merely found himself, to his surprise, borne aloft on that unexpected wave.  She didn’t have to say it to last night’s audience, but that’s why dark mutterings about reliving the eighties, Trots, entryists, and the ‘politically motivated men’ of nightmares past are such nonsense.  There are no organised plots, only disorganised, un-organised, sometimes mobilised, sometimes latent forces for change.  Their motivating factors are likely to be specific and material.  The task is to hear and amplify those voices, and to link them as a movement.

I’m conscious of having left out a lot of what was spoken of last night.  Central to the whole evening, both in terms of Williams’ talk, and of contributions from the floor, was a need to change the terms of the economic debate, to challenge notions of ‘free markets’, the meaning of ‘value’, to question the narrow limits that have been set on what is deemed ‘possible’.  I’ve also glossed over some of the frictions in the room, which, to be fair, Zoe Williams did acknowledge (how left, how liberal, how green, how radical?)

In the midst of all this was our own ongoing project of finding the language and the means to address these tasks on the ground in our own region.  For if we are to move beyond rousing words in meeting halls, we are going to have to get back to what has always been the task of the progressive left – to educate, agitate and organise.

Who Cares About Democracy?

The key division in British politics today is between democrats and democracyphobes. There are democrats in all parties and outside the parties, and there are democracyphobes in all parties, too.  And the latter have the upper hand.

So what is democracy? And who fears it?

Democracy is not reducible to voting in free and fair elections, though that’s an essential part of it.  Russia has regular and lively elections, and plebiscites were a regular feature of Spain under the dictatorship of Franco. Neither is anyone’s idea of a functioning democracy.  For democracy is a culture, as well as a set of institutions.

Democratic political culture requires a broad acceptance of the legitimacy of differing opinions, a respect for minority rights, and a shared belief that argument is healthy and can lead to better decision-making and governance.  Political institutions – parliaments, councils, electoral systems, the machinery of the state – are there to facilitate the culture of democracy.

So who are these democracyphobes? Are there really people around who genuinely fear democracy?

Of course there are.  They may reject the label, but most of the political class, including politicians on the national stage, political journalists and commentators, corporate interests, and much of the media absolutely loathe the idea of democracy; the idea that other opinions and ways of doing things may be legitimate and deserve a fair hearing.  Indeed, democracy is a nuisance that gets in the way of building motorways, or flogging off public assets, or going to war.  Best leave decision-making and ruling to the Ruling Class.

Democracy came into being because people – those without power and influence – demanded it.  Men and women used the power of protest, they created movements and organisations, to get not just the right to vote, but the right to widespread political participation and freedom of speech and assembly.

The roots of our political parties, and their political histories, say something about the shifting sands of our political culture today.

The Tories were a party of government in parliament long before universal suffrage, and were often completely hostile to the idea of giving more people the right to vote.  Nonetheless, the Tories are the most successful political party in European history precisely because they are clever and flexible, and can come up with strategies to survive political change.  The Conservative Party invented modern democratic political practice.  When first middle class, and then working class men got the right to vote, the Tories set out to win their support, creating a mass membership party across the country which was both a social club and an efficient electoral machine.  But they kept the party in the country separate from the parliamentary party. Ordinary Tory Party members were essentially viewed as a fan club for the Tories in Westminster.  Internal party democracy was always resisted by the leadership.  They must be delighted now the day has arrived when they can win elections with hardly any members at all (the Tories haven’t been called a zombie party for nothing).

Liberals also pre-date the widening of the franchise, but having a preference for law over land came to see that democracy was wholly compatible with their beliefs.

Labour was a movement which created a party.  The achievement of democracy was integral to the party’s creation and development.  In that it is culturally different from the other major parties in parliament.

But party leaderships do become detached from the membership.  For the Tories this was never a problem, except when populist Tories tried to mobilise the membership for specific political ends, as Enoch Powell did in the 1960s.  Note that he ended his career as an Ulster Unionist, wholly estranged from the party he had once hoped to lead.

But the detachment of Labour leaders from the members is more problematic.  In the days of Old Labour, the party machine could use the trade unions as enforcers, but this was not intrinsically undemocratic.  Unions are, after all, mass membership organisations with an internal system of democracy.

New Labour changed all this.  They wanted what the Tories had – party members as electoral foot soldiers, a support system for a leadership which held a monopoly over policy-making.  The Labour Conference, which historically had been the party’s sovereign decision-making body, was downgraded to a cross between an American party convention, full of glitz and razzamatazz, and a corporate jamboree.

I have over-simplified here.  There was always within the Labour party a technocratic, Fabian strand which “knew best”.  New Labour to some extent had elements in common with that paternalistic tradition.  But New Labour went far beyond it, ultimately becoming as democracy-phobic as the Tories.

And so to today’s threat to democracy.  Democracy requires respect for the rule of law, and fair access to that law for all.  The attacks on rights at work, the severe restriction of legal aid such that legal redress is outside the reach of most people of modest means, all weaken democratic rights.  More is promised, including making it more difficult to vote, opt-outs from EU legal protections, and the repeal of the Human Rights and Freedom of Information Acts.  These are not mere legal changes, but are fundamental to the dismantling of democratic political culture.

More voting with less democracy is also a hallmark of the democracyphobes. Police and Crime Commissioners are a case in point. Police authorities used to hold local constabularies to account.  Imperfect, nonetheless they were woven into democratic political culture in a richly organic way.  They included elected local politicians of representative hue from across a county or region, lay members with an interest, such as representatives of Neighbourhood Watch schemes, and magistrates who are at the end of the process of maintaining law and order at a local level.  This sort of thing is integral to a democratic political culture.  Police and Crime Commissioners are a gimmick.  Sold as a means of clear accountability, in practice they are no such thing, because they shut down awkward democratic debate. Men and women, black and white, could hold Chief Constables to account on things like domestic violence or stop and search in regular meetings of police authorities.  A single individual – most of them middle aged white men elected on a dismal turnout of less than 15% – is clearly less democratic than the system they replaced.

And now we move on to elected Mayors.  Cities which voted in referendums to reject mayors now will have them imposed upon them by a party without a single MP in the city in many cases.  Councils have councillors representing wards, small neighbourhoods.  A range of interests is thereby represented in councils – different parties, men and women, different ages, ethnicities, sexuality, abilities, – and they can discuss their agreements and disagreements in a public arena which is the very essence of grassroots democracy.  Elected mayors, on the other hand are likely to be representative of much narrower, probably corporate interests.  They weaken democracy.  They also act as lightning rods taking the flack for cuts away from the real villains, plus it’s much easier for a Minister to call a mayor in for a dressing down than a whole council.

Democracy depends upon the existence of the state to give legal and institutional support to a whole political culture which is open, inclusive, responsive and fair.  Cutting back the state, which is the Tory project, and a broader consensus across the political class to contain the messy compromises of democracy are dangerous.  Now that the Tories have added to that a clear wish to completely neuter all political opposition by destroying the Labour Party (not my alarmist phrase – Allegra Stratton used it on Radio 4 this morning), it is fair to say that democracyphobes are on the rampage.