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.