Labour values, anti Semitism and UK electoral politics in 2018.

  • Political upheavals
  • Problems of definition and due process
  • Labour MPs (and Jews): It’s time to choose your sidekicks.

As we headed towards local elections across the country (03 05 2018), turmoil and conflict within the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party risked diverting attention from the party’s political purpose in opposition: different from and in fierce, concerted opposition to the Conservative administration and its venal Austerity politics; its chaotic and irresponsible ‘Brexit’ negotiations; its brutal and racist record on legal and illegal immigration; its responsibility for the Grenfell disaster, and its shameful treatment of the Windrush generation. In considering the upsurge of concern about anti Semitism in the Labour party, there are contexts that can be seen to underpin and frame the current allegations.

A reader of an earlier draft of this commentary, asks: “What has been happening in Israel and Palestine while the anti-Semitism protests have been promoted by the right wing press? Over the last month Palestinians have been demonstrating for their Right of Return to lands occupied by Israel – a right enshrined in the UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and subsequent UNGA resolutions. The reaction from the Israeli government is to order soldiers to shoot across the border at Palestinian demonstrators in Palestine. Over 40 dead and 5,000 injured.” “Imagine”, he says, “if the UK government had taken similar action during the troubles in Northern Ireland. There would have been huge condemnation of such action in the Press. But nothing is said about the deaths associated with Right to Return in the UK press.”

However, after a google search he found the following report on 29th April 2018:

“Most of the Israeli army’s killings of Palestinians during the Gaza-border protests have resulted from snipers aiming at demonstrators’ legs, with the killings an unintentional outcome after a protester bent down, a sniper missed, a bullet ricocheted or a similar phenomenon, a senior officer in the Southern Command said. The Israeli army has killed 44 protesters since March 30 …..” The source of this information is Haaretz newspaper, published in Jerusalem since 1918. Haaretz has called for the shootings to stop.” Full text at:  https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-officer-most-killings-during-gaza-protests-unintentional-1.6034421

A Jewish friend, on reading the above, offers a corrective note:
“An Israeli officer may have said this, but it’s not true – they are operating a deliberate shoot-to-kill-and-maim. Start here and follow the links including the interview with Zvika Fogel. It is not accidental”, see
https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/new-gaza-war-crimes-evidence-sent-icc

He also recommends this link: https://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20180404_refuse_to_shoot_at_unarmed_protestors  and adds: “These facts have been drowned out for the public here in a chorus about anti-Semitism, and for Guardian readers by the refusal of the letters page (unlike the news reporting) to publish anything about it until, eventually, a (good) letter appeared from former Israeli snipers – as if to say, it’s ok for Israeli Jews to notice this, but not for anyone else. In addition, something which appears to be missing below is the earlier phase (2015/16) of the “Labour anti-semitism” affair – in which it turned out that the Israeli Embassy was directly involved in stirring things up: https://electronicintifada.net/content/how-israel-lobby-manufactured-uk-labour-partys-anti-semitism-crisis/16481.

See also: https://www.aljazeera.com/investigations/thelobby/ “ And a recent article:  https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/asa-winstanley/jewish-labour-movement-worked-israeli-embassy-spy

Political upheavals.
The 2015 Labour leadership election (after Ed Miliband’s hasty resignation, following the Tory general election win), when Jeremy Corbyn was resoundingly (and shockingly for some) elected as leader, is the watershed moment in this story. There are those members of the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) who have yet to recover their equilibrium. The EU referendum in June 2016, called by then Tory leader, David Cameron, was another shock to the UK political system, seemingly exposing, not just a sharply divided country, but the power and pain of grievance politics, not least when ‘harvested’ and fuelled by secret far right data analysts, Cambridge Analytica and Analogue IQ.

When Theresa May called her snap general election in 2017, hoping to exploit what was perceived as weakness and disarray in the Labour party under its new, ‘unelectable’ leader, she was expecting a resounding mandate for a Tory, hard ‘Brexit’. Instead, to widespread media and political astonishment (on all sides), her majority was wiped out, the Labour vote soared, and she decided to pay the Northern Ireland’s DUP a large sum of money to secure their electoral support in Parliament, to give her any chance of a working majority.

There are members of the PLP whose political differences with Jeremy Corbyn are dwarfed by their personal venum towards him. This is hardly a secret. But at the last general election, to their astonishment, they saw their personal majorities soar on the back of the ‘Jeremy factor’. People were voting for change: for a Corbyn-led, anti Austerity, socialist Labour party, upholding a multicultural society. These MPs were shown to be completely out of touch with this (previously inchoate) desire. Remember Stephen Kinnock’s face, for example, as the hung parliament result was announced on the night? Labour had confounded everyone’s expectations, putting it back as a serious parliamentary contender; Kinnock’s own majority had increased; but he just didn’t look happy: more dumbstruck and uncomprehending. He was not celebrating, because he had expected to help bring the ‘unelectable’ Corbyn down after the election, and even replace him as leader.

Anti-Corbyn Labour MPs, like Kinnock, who saw their sometimes fragile majorities transformed, are now personally and professionally more secure. This has perhaps galvanised them to continue trying to undermine the Labour leader in Parliament and beyond, with no risk to their own employment status as MPs. It appears that the damage this might do to the likelihood of forming a Labour government, of allowing another Tory victory, with its promise of further and harsher Austerity politics; continued dismantling of our public services (e.g. the NHS); further privatisation of education and social care; further cuts in legal aid and criminal justice services, for example, is not a consideration, compared to the prospect of undermining Jeremy’s leadership. A friend recently shared a comment he found in an email correspondence with a former Lib Dem MP, who represented a constituency close to Jeremy Corbyn: “The right wing of your party hate JC and are quite happy to join with the Zionists to try to discredit him. I do not know a less racist, less anti-semitic person actually”.

The people who will be most damaged and disadvantaged by another Tory government do not apparently count. Nor does the further erosion of our multicultural values as a society concern them, even post Grenfell and the Windrush scandal. You would think that Tory derision and contempt for Corbyn as Labour leader, and Tory alarm in the face of his political impact so far, would be a clue to Labour’s potential electoral power. But these MPs, having perhaps internalised neoliberal, competitive individualism as a virtue, are prepared to collude with the Tories in their opposition to the possibility of a Corbyn-led government.

Problems of definition and due process.
“I have seen for myself how the need to prove the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part,  as the Genocide Convention requires, can have unhappy psychological consequences. It enhances the sense of solidarity among the members of the victim group while reinforcing negative feelings towards the perpetrator group. . . .  For some, to be labelled a victim of genocide becomes ‘an essential component of national identity’ without contributing to the resolution of historical disputes or making mass killings less frequent” (Philippe Sands [2017] ‘Epilogue: To the Woods’, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: 380). Emphasis added.

Philippe Sands’ compelling personal memoir / legal history / intellectual and political tour de force demonstrates the significance of the complexity of lived experience, social and cultural identities, and human rights law as an attempt at understanding, regulation and mediation between warring parties, as well as the achievement of social justice and human rights. The entwined stories he narrates, and his insights, are relevant beyond the book’s focus on how the (legal) categories of genocide and crimes against humanity came to occupy the place they do in contemporary societies and international governance.

Its relevance to this discussion is that the book illuminates the often fraught but powerful relations between individual identity and group identity, and the significance of the language we use to communicate with each other across our differences.

“It was no surprise that an editorial in a leading newspaper, on the occasion of the centenary of  Turkish atrocities against Armenians, suggested that the word ‘genocide’ may be unhelpful, because it “stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs”. . . . .  Yet against these arguments, I am bound to accept that the sense of group identity is a fact (ibid.: 381).

In one sense, there is indisputably a Jewish community and diaspora, in that anyone identified as Jewish is at risk of anti-Semitic attack in certain social environments and societies; in the way that any woman is at risk of sexism, sexual violence and misogyny, by virtue of being born a girl in a patriarchal society; and a person of colour is at risk of racism by virtue of the colour of their skin; and a gay man or woman will be subjected to imprisonment, torture or murder in many Commonwealth countries.

In another sense, however, despite the protestations of the Jewish Board of Deputies, there is no such thing as ‘the Jewish community’, defined and bounded and singular: like the rest of society, there is no Jewish organisation or group that harmoniously represents all Jewish people in their social, cultural, religious and political diversity. And the power struggle between various Jewish groups, in particular the desire for dominance exhibited by the Board of Deputies, is surely an attempt at control, not just influence. And that control extends to the Labour party: together with the Jewish Leadership Council, they refused to attend a meeting called by Jeremy Corbyn to discuss anti-Semitism and the Labour party, if the (anti-zionist) Jewish Voice for Labour group were also at the table.

The language used by Jonathan Arkush and Jonathan Goldstein, for example, in reporting the meeting with Jeremy in their search for “measures to rid the party of this blight (‘Sadly we still cannot trust Jeremy Corbyn over anti-semitism’, Evening Standard, 25 04 2018), echo Sean Morrison (‘Labour anti-semitism row: What is Jewdas and why is Jeremy under fire for Jewish group meeting?’ Online 03 04 2018): “The Labour party has come under intense fire for failing to “extinguish” anti-semitism within its ranks as a years-long row continues to deepen.” Kill the blight, put out the fire: emotive, inflammatory language that does not contribute to understanding where or who is the problem, and why.

Jewdas is a self-described radical leftist Jewish group, opposed to capitalism and fascism, as well as being vociferous in its criticism of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. Jeremy recently attended a Jewdas Seder (a celebration of Passover) with members from his local constituency. From the incendiary reactions from MPs and the media to this visit, you would have been forgiven for thinking that he had sat down to eat with known neo Nazis and anti Semites. Michael Segalow described this as “manufactured uproar” (‘Corbyn was right to attend Jewdas Seder, there’s no such thing as “good” and “bad” Jews’, 03 04 2018 online).

Referring to ‘fringe’ Jewish groups reveals a sense of hierarchy and superiority that is not helpful, as it mitigates against peer group relations, and compromises the chances of open and honest conversation and dialogue. Such determined rigidity (orthodoxy) borders on authoritarianism; and authoritarians don’t do dialogue or ‘conversation’ as such. Contrast this with Sands’ Afterword in the paperback edition, which ends with the invocation: “The power of memory and imagination is not easily cast aside”. So not one or the other, but both, working in creative and humane conjunction.

Being free to air our political differences is a democratic right in the UK, and must remain a Labour value. But acting in a way that amounts to collusion with the Tory party and rightwing media barons, constitutes social and political betrayal. In his eloquent and inspiring book, The Return of the Public (2010), Dan Hind scrutinises the social and political role of the media, and advocates “public commissioning” to counter its power. Writing before the attack on New York in 2011; before the UK EU referendum campaign and the discourse of ‘Brexit’; before the advent of the twittering Trump as US President; and before the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal, he reflects:

“Some might object that fascist or other groups would seize on public commissioning and use it   to spread distorted information or outright untruths. But this objection presupposes that the existing media don’t already seek to inflame commercially useful hatreds. It is clear, for example, that the current climate of hostility towards Muslims in Britain has been driven more by mainstream journalism and politics than by avowedly fascist agitation. . . .”  [And here Hind references Jonathan Githens-Mazer & Robert Lambert, ‘Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: a London Case Study’, 28 01 2010; available at http:/ / centres.exeter.ac.uk] (Hind: 167). Emphasis added.

Mainstream media silence, distortion and misrepresentation seem routine. In the UK there has been (17 04 2018) a Judicial Review of the IPSO ruling that took no action over the highly inaccurate reporting of a Palestinian Solidarity Campaign meeting in the press. (An anti-Jewish statement was made by a Rabbi in the audience; he was not permitted to speak again. The press reported his remarks as coming from people who had organised the meeting). The judge let the IPSO ruling stand on technical grounds e.g. it is not right for a third party (someone who was at the meeting) to bring the case. Full details of the case are on this website: https://www.freeexpressionforall.org/?utm_source=sendinblue&utm_campaign=Update1031onJoinmystandagainstIPSOtoincreasefreedomofexpressionApril182018&utm_medium=email

Press the button at the top of the page to read how the Judge supported the status quo rather than dispensing justice. This was the first judicial review of IPSO, fully supported by Hacked Off. The friend who drew my attention to this, commented: “You would have thought it was important enough to be reported in the mainstream press.”

At present, as Dan Hind notes, “the media indulge in stereotype and caricature more or less at will” (Hind, 2010: ibid.). An example closer to home would be the now infamous ‘hostile environment’ towards immigrants, with particular consequences for people of colour, which was / is a highly publicised Tory government policy. And unhappily, Jeremy Corbyn was, I believe, one of only six Labour MPs (the others presumably succumbing to Tory media pressure) who voted against Theresa May’s nasty immigration legislation when she was Home Secretary. To what extent is this media pressure, this political manipulation, being successfully exerted now? Giving in to that media pressure must be a hard habit to kick. Certainly, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be the target, rather than the behaviour of individual Labour members and MPs.

So how does the recent eruption of accusations of anti-Semitism within the Labour party fit within the scenario outlined here, given that the MPs talking up the problem are also those known for their hostility towards Corbyn as leader since he was elected (twice)? A number of these MPs are Jews for whom any criticism of Israel and/or sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians is considered anti-Semitic. In their eyes, this makes Jeremy Corbyn, as a long-term supporter of the Palestinian cause, an implacable political enemy.

Guardian journalist, Hadley Freeman, argues that “suggesting Jews make allegations about anti-Semitism for their political or personal benefit is, in fact, one of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes there is” (Freeman, ibid.). While this is undoubtedly true, it does not mean that such behaviour never happens. The focus of attack is Corbyn, as if he brought anti-semitism with him when elected leader. Hadley cites Ruth Smeeth’s claim that “she had really come up against anti-Semitism” (ibid). Such a general comment needs specifying if it is to become a formal complaint, subject to scrutiny, and if necessary, action taken against the perpetrator(s). Many Labour members doubt that this process has been followed properly in this case. But maybe the Labour party was insufficiently clear about its definition of anti Semitism before this storm broke.

As prominent public figures identified with Left politics and the Labour movement, film-maker, Ken Loach, and UNITE leader, Len McCluskey, both have considerable experience of being the butt of the media (Tory or otherwise). Both are well informed, articulate and fearless (you might say, principled); politically knowledgeable about how the Tory media operates in the interests of the Tory party, its funders and supporters, and how it seeks to put pressure on Labour MPs to destabilise Jeremy’s leadership. Both men are passionate about the Labour project and those it seeks to serve and benefit. I suspect this is why Loach dismissed Ruth Smeeth’s initially generalised accusations of being the object of anti-Semitism as “merely mischief”, not least because of The Daily Telegraph’s reported role at the time.

Similarly, the report by Jonathan Arkush in the Evening Standard (25 04 2018), provocatively entitled, ‘Sadly we still cannot trust Jeremy Corbyn over anti-semitism”, was framed by a large, close-up photograph of demonstrators at the anti-semitism demonstration outside Parliament. See https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/sadly-we-still-cannot-trust-jeremy-corbyn-over-antisemitism-a3823241.html

The placard taking centre stage in the photograph reads: ‘No place for antisemites in Labour, they’re already oversubscribed’. This shocking placard was very unlikely to be the work of a Labour supporter or party member. The organisers of this event were more likely Tory supporters, because the target was so clearly the Labour party and its leader, not anti-semitism in society, or even in Parliament itself. Looking at this placard, I understand the view that has been voiced, that Labour MPs who joined this demonstration should be suspended from the party. For Labour MPs to attend such a rally, and support its virulent attack on their own party, was either naïve or malign. Maybe both.

Bringing Labour into disrepute by suggesting that the party is riddled with anti-Semitism will not help achieve a safer and fairer society for Jewish people. The stats on Tory voters and Labour voters’ attitudes to Jewish people, supplied by Edie Friedman, who runs The Jewish Council for Racial Equality, and cited by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (‘Is criticising Israel always anti-Semitic?’ i@inews.co.uk, 25 04 2018), suggest that Labour is not the main problem. Viewed objectively, Labour is the only political party in a position to contribute to that change, and for the first time it has a leader with a long track record of opposing inequality, social injustice and racism at home and abroad (and when it was not fashionable to do so). However, if there are individuals whose behaviour and language is properly identified as anti-Semitic, allegations should be specific and reported to the police and dealt with through the courts (as Labour MP Luciana Berger did).

The Labour party has subscribed to the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism: “Anti-Semitism may be expressed as hatred towards Jews, but it is not behaviour that may be inferred as offensive by Jews” (Mike Silver, ‘Wadsworth expulsion: Did Labour just throw away its chance to take London?’ Vox Political – politics for the people, 29 04 2018). Behaviour or language “should not be deemed anti-Semitic because someone else took offence at it; it would have to be informed by and motivated by, hatred towards Jews” (ibid.). However, the IHRA definition, so eagerly grasped by Theresa May and the Jewish board of Deputies, for example, is highly problematic for many Labour supporters, as indicated by a letter to The Guardian (16 12 2016), signed by 63 people, in which they commend a definition from Brian King of Oxford University, that “Anti-Semitism is a form of hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews’.” It is clear, when you study the IHRA definition (which you can do online), that, as The Guardian letter states:

“The IHRA definition smuggles in anti-Zionism in the guise of anti-semitism, as a means of protecting the Israeli state and thus Western foreign policy.”

For detailed clarification and critique of the IHRA definition, see Hugh Tomlinson’s Counsel’s opinion: http://freespeechonisrael.org.uk/ihra-opinion/#sthash.fIJOtvSU.dpbs  

Hugh Tomlinson, QC, concludes:

“In my view any public authority which sought to apply the IHRA Definition to decisions concerning the prohibition or sanctioning of activity which was critical of the State or Government of Israel would be acting unlawfully if it did not require such activity also to manifest or incite hatred or intolerance towards Jews. If an authority applied the IHRA     Definition without such a requirement it would be in breach of Article 10 of the Convention and would, therefore, be acting unlawfully under domestic law in the United Kingdom.”

The Board of Deputies went into their meeting with Jeremy armed with a list of demands, including those related to the full IHRA definition. They then reported their disapproval of Jeremy’s refusal to be bulldozed down that road, and blamed him for a disappointing meeting, which was implicitly taken as ‘proof’ of his anti-semitism.

Hadley Freeman, cites a meeting in Bristol at which a motion was proposed that said any suggestion of anti-Semitism within the Labour party was absurd (cited, ‘If people don’t know about the Holocaust, it’s because they don’t really care’, The Guardian Weekend, 21 04 2018). The motion read:

“When people see inequality, ecological disaster and war alongside unprecedented wealth in the private hands of a few, it is reasonable they seek out explanations” (ibid.).

Maybe this is what Shami Chakrabarti meant in her report to the Labour party on anti-Semitism inside the party, when she “made recommendations to deal with ‘ignorant attitudes’ among some party members” (cited Alibhai-Brown, ibid.). You would hope that on hearing this statement, Labour members would audibly gasp in disbelief, despair and/or horror, put their hands up immediately, calling: “Objection!”. At which point, why the statement is objectionable and unacceptable would be clarified and discussed (without shouting), before its withdrawal. As Freeman comments in despair: “Yes, why are all Jews wealthy war-mongers?” (Freeman, ibid.). But she is wrong when she blames individuals for forgetting the Holocaust or just not caring about it.

In Philippe Sands’ Afterword to the paperback edition of his book, he brings together some of the considerable feedback he has received from its readers in the year following publication. From a school in England comes a request for assistance, arising out of research pupils have done ”which suggests that 80% of young people do not know what genocide is (let alone crimes against humanity) and have never heard of the genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur”. These young people have not been given the chance to care, never mind forget.

The recent BBC4 series, The Story of the Jews (last episode screened 01 05 2018), written and presented by historian Simon Schama, would provide excellent educational material for young people, as part of efforts within the school curriculum to support multicultural understanding and anti racism, and diminish ignorance and prejudice. Schama is a scholar who manages to model all the best qualities and attributes of a human being (an enquiring mind on legs): passionate about people and places, ideas and disputes; empathic and critical, in his desire to understand, as he roams the world, its histories and its crises. These qualities also make him a great teacher.

Labour MPs (and Jews): It’s time to choose your political sidekicks.
Responding to local concern amongst Jews and non Jews in the Labour party, ideas for a public meeting in Liverpool are being discussed, under the banner of Merseyside Momentum’s political education programme. In the UK, general election politics is largely binary, and never more so than since the Tory-led coalition of 2010 and the general election result in 2017 in which the Tories lost their majority. So we started with the idea of focussing electoral minds by posing the rather stark question: Will the next election be a choice between an anti-Austerity, socialist Labour Party, led by an anti-Zionist, or a pro-Zionist, pro-Austerity, pro-capitalist Conservative Party?

But the terms ‘zionist’ and ‘anti-zionist’ have become ‘dog whistle’ politics, given their historical baggage and slippage over time, as well as recent, hate-filled confrontational behaviour, so we decided to reword the question, avoid shorthand, and aiming to avoid outrage, achieve a more focused, socially and politically responsible conversation between Labour members who disagree about what counts as anti-Semitism, and Labour’s position on Israel and Palestine.

So, on the one hand, we can elect an anti-Austerity, socialist Labour party, historically rooted in internationalist and multicultural values; the party with the most established track record of political action resisting racism, homophobia and misogyny; committed to raising the level of the UK’s practical commitment to combating climate change alongside, for example, our European and Commonwealth partners; recommitting to people’s health and wellbeing through publicly funded public services (NB the NHS) and a housing policy not designed for profit-making for the few, but homes for the many; a party which is also, logically and morally opposed to the aims and methods of the IDF (the Israeli Defence Force); critical of Israel’s militarisation as a society, its internal and external racism and violence against Arabs, and its refusal to abide by UN resolutions designed to reduce hostilities and injustices in the region.

Alternatively, we have the option of electing a neoliberal, pro-Austerity, turbo capitalist Conservative party, hell-bent on continuing to turn everything, including health, into a commodity (for sale and profit), with a track record of social fragmentation and privatization, mental health chaos and crisis. This is a party indifferent to escalating climate change and widespread poverty, and which approves the dominance and violence of Israel towards the Palestinians, including the destruction of the Palestinian economy and the uprooting of its olive groves.

The Tory party approves the supply of military hardware to be used against Palestinian civilians throwing stones (including the murder of a journalist and a teenager most recently), in order to secure its illegal borders. This is also a party with members in cahoots with white supremacists: “Peter Oborne, a right-wing journalist, accuses the Tories of protecting politicians with far-right sympathies” (cited Alibhai-Brown, ibid.).

How does Jewish safety, wellbeing and dignity fit in with these very different political offers? It would be useful for the Labour party to explain and discuss the congruence or incompatibility of the Israeli military project with Labour movement values.

How can we reconcile the need and right for Israel to exist (but not in its current militarised and monocultural form), with the need and right of Palestinians to live in their homeland territories, in safety and security?

Many countries and some (distinguished) individuals, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, agree that Israel is currently an apartheid state. The Balfour Agreement 100 years ago devastated Palestinian rights. (See Simon Schama [01 05 2018] on the Holocaust and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel.) And in 1948 Palestinians were thrown off their land and from their homes, in what came to be called the Nakba (catastrophe). Anniversaries can be charged and painful affairs: potentially incendiary when justice is further postponed.

The histories of enslavement, ethnic cleansing, sexual violence and extermination act as both warnings of the atrocities we humans are capable of, as well as our capacities for developing and pursuing processes of conflict prevention, conflict resolution, reconciliation and peaceful co existence. The corrupting forces of hate, anger and revenge do not nourish or sustain lives, relationships or societies. This we know. I think it was gay campaigner, Tony Kushner, who advised: “We must love one another or die”. This poignant, personal, political (even apocalyptic) ethic and aspiration must surely be the underlying driver of Labour values and politics. It never has been and never will be a Tory ‘family value’.

So, echoing the American union song, written by Florence Reece and Daryl Hotter, and made famous by singer Pete Seeger: Which side are you on?

val walsh / 29 04 2018 / 04 05 2018 / revised 21 05 2018                             togetherfornow.wordpress.com

 

 

 

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“Far-left” and legitimate.

First Polly Toynbee, then Jonathan Freedland, two iconic Guardian journalists, write ‘Dear Reader’ letters, urging us to support Guardian values and practices by becoming Founder members of the Guardian. They are, as ever, persuasive, drawing down their familiarity as highly respected, long term Guardian journalists. As a long-term Guardian reader and subscriber I am susceptible; desperate to sustain media practices not determined by rich overlords or big business, and grateful on a regular basis for the courageous investigative journalism that has brought the Guardian international recognition and awards.

But that’s not the whole story for those of us firmly of the Left (i.e. not Lib Dem, Green, SDP, UKIP or Tory). And a clue to our dilemma may be found in recent readers’ letters to the Guardian (Bill McMellon and David Butler, 27 01 2-15) and Philip Clayton (18 02 2015), who note and object to the Syriza party and government being described by Guardian journalists as variously “far left”, “extremist” and “a threat to the stability of Europe”; i.e. as “illegitimate”. This stance exposes where the Guardian positions itself within UK politics now, in particular with regard to the upcoming general election, and why it falls short of being the paper that will help us bring this government down. Editorially its heart is not in it; it largely pursues its task as a journalistic exercise, a professional matter. By contrast, some of its reports voice otherwise: ‘for example, ‘Recessions can hurt, but austerity kills’ (G2, 16 05 2013, Jon Henley interviewing David Stuckler).

I have politically active friends who will not touch the Guardian now, no matter how brilliant its recent investigative journalism, because of the damage it caused in 2010 in its pre-election coverage and its explicit advocacy of the Lib Dems, which helped land us with the cruelties, destructiveness and venom of this Tory-led coalition (since meticulously analysed by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, and others). We fear something similar in the lead-up to the 2015 general election, as if it is a matter of lifestyle choice between similar ‘brands’, instead of the potentially most catastrophic shift in our society and the values that have protected the most vulnerable, expanded awareness of equality issues, social justice and human rights, and provided opportunities for young and old. Philip Clayton’s letter to The Guardian (18 02 2015 sums up Syriza’s preoccupations (bullet points added):

• Its policies of ensuring everyone receives health care is pure NHS;
• halting mass evictions of people on to the streets is common human decency;
• its determination to root out corruption and make everyone pay taxes, especially the super-wealthy, is what the Labour party, and any decent government, should support;
• its economic policies are mainstream Keynesian.

He makes two further observations in his letter:
• Germany has imposed 1930s economic policies on the southern countries of the EU with 1930s results.
• If Harold Wilson were around today, no doubt you would now label him far-left.

As David Butler asks in his letter (27 01 2015): “If what Syriza stands for is “far-left” (perhaps better described as conventional social democratic politics), why isn’t The Guardian “far-left” too?”

Perhaps because neoliberal assumptions have infected The Guardian’s unwitting heart?

val walsh / 20 02 2015

What is education for?

On the occasion of the COMPASS Education conference, London, 08 12 2012.

Responding to the question: What is education for?

 key words: education, creativity, the arts, experiential learning & intellectual development, social justice, environmental sustainability, diversity, gender, (mental) health and well being, multicultural society.

 The politics of creativity.

“Michael Gove’s desire for a greater military ethos in schools has taken another step forward”[1] (with funding for (ex) soldiers to work with excluded or disadvantaged pupils. The heart sinks. But it surely concentrates the mind in terms of thinking about this question. Gove has the mistaken idea that the only site of “self discipline and teamwork” is our armed forces, a statement indicative of extreme ignorance about pedagogic process, educational relations and learning, including the actual subject disciplines that make up a good school curriculum, such as the visual and performing arts and media (including dance, drama and music), which the Tories are seeking to exclude all together.[2] This is a mark of how ‘dangerous’ these subjects are, how potentially anti-fascist they are. It is no accident that dictators and tyrants target society’s creatives and improvisers (artists / intellectuals / teachers, etc.) as enemies of their fascist agenda.

These creative disciplines are core activities, not peripheral, in the development of the whole child / person, in terms of personal development, social awareness and the interpersonal skills involved by working collaboratively (in pairs, teams and groups): the discipline of working on your own; the discipline of working collaboratively; the challenge; the excitement generated; and the joy in relationship and creative achievement. Co-creativity. Not forgetting the honing of language and communication skills, including NVC, and the intellectual and emotional challenges offered by these practices.

In our class-riven society, ‘creativity’ has been historically, on the one hand, an éite concept, associated with ‘high art’, or high performance in, for example, science, and as such, the preserve of a white ruling class; and on the other hand, it has had the status and function of dancing bears, for the distraction and entertainment of this small but dominant, affluent section of society.

‘Art’ v entertainment, ‘art’ v therapy (occupational, talking or psychological) , ‘art’ v craft, ‘art’ v decoration, ‘art’ v design, mind v body; intellectual v manual, academic v practical, are a few of the binaries that have flowed from these dominant class, gender and cultural distinctions, which have continued to haunt policy and practice in education, business and industry. The expression ‘good with their hands’ evokes the nineteenth century feel of these distinctions, alive and well apparently, on the left as well as the right. And the language used to debate the issues and envisage alternatives is itself part of the problem: descriptors such as ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’ conceptualise and reproduce the very binary discourse being challenged.

This experiential learning and intellectual development are preparation for living and life, whether or not the child / young person goes on to pursue these interests professionally. For each child and young adult has the right to retain, develop and understand their own creative process: that capacity and impetus rooted in our earliest weeks and months of navigating the world by means of exploratory behavior and experimentation (often described as ‘play’), fuelled by the developing inquisitive mind, and driven in the first instance by the need to survive the unfamiliar, unknown and potentially threatening. This mutates over time into our active pleasure in new experiences, repeat experiences and innovation, as social life and cultural action expand and deepen.

We do not need (generally) to be creative to move a chair from one position to another; on a flat and clear floor; we need creative process when confronted with complexity, whether emotional, intellectual, social, cultural, political or practical, for example; where there are obstacles to simple action or decision. And we should note that thwarted creativity (akin to poverty: psychic and spiritual impoverishment) is a shortcut to mental health issues: to disenchantment, disconnection, despair and breakdown. Creativity is not just about problem solving, but about nourishing, healing and sustaining health and wellbeing, personally and socially. It is about being and feeling alive!

Creative process as both methodology and outcome.

Good education is inherently about fostering the imagination and ambition intrinsic to creative process and co-creativity. This kind of education is for the person, society and the planet, and bears on the relation between these three. It is not instruction, though there may be some of that. It is not a telling: more a series of invitations and provocations (to be, do, make, think, question and feel, for example). Invitations to experience, to reflect on experience, and to learn from experience (to store, retrieve and deploy); to be adventurous!

Good education is about emergence within a facilitative, supportive and challenging environment, imbued with loving and empathic values, including attentiveness and active listening; caring rather than competitiveness. You open up and learn, you develop courage, in a learning environment that diminishes fear as an instrument of control, and where you encounter adults who believe in you and expect something of you; who see your beauty before it shows itself in your actions and achievements. We know this to be true: we have variously experienced it as children and/or adults and as students; and we have experienced it and witnessed it in our roles as educators, carers, parents, mentors and friends, for example.

Understanding creative process and its role in healthy human development, social relations and educational achievement, makes clear that the register and mode of good education cannot be authoritarian, judgemental or threatening, for these are the ways of military combat and control; of the tyrant and bully; and the dominant, failing parent. These ways of ruling subdue, crush and undermine a person’s delicate spirit and heart, disciplining for the purposes of the controller, the powerful, the authority figure and/or institution. Obedience and compliance dominate. The feeling heart, the inquiring mind, a sense of adventure and the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions are all casualties of this fundamentalism.

Obstacles to being and learning are wide-ranging and numerous; and include fear, indifference, prejudice, shame, bullying, violence; as well as social circumstances, such as poverty, hunger, poor housing; lack of appropriate facilities, equipment and opportunities, and incompetent teaching. Just as the NHS, while contributing significantly to healthcare, does not in itself deliver public health, formal education must be clear what it can deliver: what are the conditions of its own making that the school or college can reasonably take responsibility for and determine, as its contribution to a good education for every child and student?[3]

Early education (pre-school, primary and early secondary) is about how to (be, do, make, speak, write, read, explain, question, etc.), and ways of doing and representing. Exploration, experiment and practice shape activities. Increasingly, there will be opportunities to understand the role of contexts (history, geographies, languages [linguistic, mathematical, scientific] and culture, for example), as learning becomes more differentiated at secondary school and in FHE. Those contexts, histories and power struggles provide evidence and understanding of legacy, in and for society today, expanding knowledge of the what and raising questions about the why, e.g. regarding social class stratification and élitism; disablism; racism and colonialism; heterosexism, misogyny and homophobia. These encounters invite us to position ourselves within these stories and grapple with our own multiple identities, and our tentative and/or dogmatic views and values. The research skills developed from primary school on are not just technical, but subject to this diversity and even urgency. As  the American philosopher, John Dewey, said of aesthetic experience: there is always something at stake.

Creativity, diversity, responsibility.

Education in C21 in the UK must provide experiences and skills in support of a fair and just, democratic and multicultural society: part dream, part reality. It has to acknowledge this complex challenge and equip children and students with the means to survive and thrive in a less than fair and just society; to live alongside one another without prejudice or violence; and to better cope with consumerist pressure.

These struggles are visible and real, and need to be addressed within the learning environment: both the culture of the school, for example, as well as via the curriculum. Michael Sandel, the American Philosopher, and Michael Rosen, the children’s writer, are good examples of adults and teachers capable of engaging the interest of children and young people (and adults) regarding the application of values, and the relevance of serious ethical questions for lives and societies, as well as modelling what it means to be what Dewey called ‘a live creature’ – as opposed to a compliant and unplayful bit of wood.

The organisation and culture of an educational institution must visibly embody principles of social justice and diversity, towards which its wider society strives. The tacit learning this affords is as important as explicit curriculum content. Showing, doing and making are powerful aesthetic and ethical components within the pedagogic environment, as opposed to telling. Militaristic values and practices, as promoted by Michael Gove, would make all this impossible.

Similarly, learning environments and our education system must also be off limits to profit makers. As Michael Sandel has demonstrated in his writing and public lectures on the limits of markets (e.g. LP Conference, 2011, Manchester), there are areas of human endeavour and society that are irretrievably damaged and altered by commodification and the operation of market values. Education is one such.

Almost certainly the most serious omission over the last 50 years within our educational system has been the refusal to address the problem of gender and heterosexism; the pervasiveness and impact of gender power relations and the dominance of élite white men; the exponential increase in the sexualisation of capital’s businesses, industries, cultural and media practices, and the commodification of the body, notably the female body (woman and child); the problem of misogyny and rising sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and violence against women and girls (VAWG).

Masculinity and femininity (and their playground, heterosexism) have been ignored as default positions: natural and inevitable. This has left children and young people unequiped / ill-equiped to understand their own gender and sexual identities, and the social forces that shape these. The personal and social costs of the resulting combination of vulnerability and violence are incalculable, destructive and heartrending. Given that the primary address by business, media, light entertainment and cultural industries foregrounds sex and (hetero)sexual identity as the overriding ‘business’ of life, as well as the source of self doubt / aspiration / crisis, this charged situation must be faced and something better offered than ‘sex education’.

Furthermore, in our multicultural and multi-faith society, these issues take on greater significance, given the epistemological and political centrality of heterosexism and traditional gender power relations within these ideological communities of practice, which in turn underpin, fuel and justify, at the least the control and subordination of women and girls, and at worst, institutionalised SGBV, too often resulting in the maiming and murder of women and girls, frequently by  family and/or intimates. (I recognise that these attitudes and behaviours are not the sole province of those of faith, and are also part of particular political configurations on the far right, but they are distinctive and problematic in that they are virulently promoted as cultural practice and ideology, in direct opposition to UK law and equality practices.)

If girls and women are to count as citizens in our society, free to be and to fulfill our potential, our physical and social safety must be secured within society’s institutions, public spaces and behind closed doors, by a shift in the culture of those social spaces. Likewise, if boys are to grow into men capable of friendship with and respect for girls and women, accepting equal status, it is clear that society and its education system have a contributing responsibility. I suggest a unified national education system has a key part to play in this process, and I welcome the ‘expansive and unified model’ for education in the 14-19 phase,[4] discussed at conference.

An education that empowers children and young people is one rooted in feminist-inspired experiential learning and critique for boys and girls, young women and young men, enabling them to better develop self protection and self respect; as well as the capacity for mutuality and reciprocity, within and beyond sexual relationships.

This is not peripheral to the question: ‘What is education for?’ On the contrary, it is central to the health and mental well being and social efficacy of individuals (female, male, transgender), as well as to our capacity as a society to incorporate and harness the values of social justice and environmental sustainability for the future.[5]

val walsh / 09 12 2012


[1] Peter Walker (07 12 2012) Ex-service people’s help for pupils gets £1.9m boost. The Guardian.

[2] How we miss Ted Wragg, who would have deconstructed Gove in a fabulous, life-affirming flash of intellect, irreverence and humour. Ah, the significance of irreverence as substance . . . . the creative (and hopeful) mind at work.

[3] See Val Walsh (1996) Terms of engagement: Pedagogy as a healing politic. In Louise Morley & Val Walsh (eds.) Breaking Boundaries: Women in Higher Education. London: Taylor & Francis, 187-207.

[4] Ann Hodgson & Ken Spours (16 11 2012) Rethinking the 14-19 phase in England in the context of economic and political change. Centre for Post-14 Research & Innovation.

[5] See Val Walsh (14 10 2012) Thinking through and beyond ‘sexism’: reflections on the challenge for the ‘Left’ (and willing others). Discussion paper.

Notes on ‘Storying Rape’, video installation, 2012.

Notes on Storying Rape, 2012.

Video installation.

The CUNARD Building,

Liverpool, UK.[1]

keywords: storying, rape, the media, stories of victims, stories as witness, gender power relations, culture of violence, gender violence prevention, the problem of language, de-gendered language, creativity, political agency, the bystander approach.

 Conditions of viewing.

I visited a darkened room in The Cunard Building on 23 11 2012 @ c15 30, to view artist Suzanne Lacy’s video of a roundtable conversation that took place in Chicago, USA.

I could discern a tall man wearing a hat standing halfway along the room to my right as I entered the gloom. There were no seats. He was leaning against the wall. I walked across the room in front of the screen, to position myself opposite him on the other side, at first leaning against the wall, then, after taking my mac off, sitting on the floor, legs outstretched in front of me, my back against the wall, notebook on my lap. I was acutely aware that I was sitting alone in a darkened room in a public building in the presence of a male stranger. I wondered if there were security cameras watching us.

He stood without fidgeting, and I think he remained watching the video until the point where he had come in. From this I deduced that his attention was serious and sustained. During this time, and the remainder of my viewing, several individual men, of different ages and nationalities, came in briefly and left quickly. Several women of different ages and nationalities came in and watched for a short while and left. This bothered me. I wanted to say: ‘Stop! Come back. You need to watch this to its end. It’s really important. You can’t just pop in and out like that.’

Were these tourists? On an art trail through the city, perhaps. Looking for amusement, entertainment, aesthetic daring, beauty, distraction. Just glancing at everything in passing. Cautious about anything that might puzzle, disturb or challenge them. The latter being exactly the experiences I hope to have in an art environment / encounter.

Having watched the three-screen film installation, The Unfinished Conversation, by John Akomfrah, at the Bluecoat, about the life and work of Stuart Hall, four times over a couple of weeks during the Liverpool Bienniale, it occurs to me that The Bluecoat Gallery is a more accessible venue; more central geographically, part of the arts centre, and as such it attracts a lot of passing traffic that is not only tourists, but lots of local people, because it has built up a history and presence in the city centre. It has a certain reputation. I would like to see this video rerun in that space. And as The Bluecoat does outreach work in communities, that might also be possible; perhaps funded as equality work by the City Council or the Chamber of Commerce.

Scribbled in the dark: issues, insights, obstacles.

I want to share some of these that I think could be usefully followed up, via discussion within the LWN (Liverpool Women’s Network), and as a basis for thinking about future process and action beyond the steering group.

the problem of the media:

Dr Francesca Polletta of CODEPINK spoke of “telling a story before it can be heard”. This leapt out at me; I had a powerful sense of recognition, as any activist, artist, writer, poet, storyteller, whistleblower would, who has trod that path: risking incomprehension, derision, disbelief, censure, punishment, even stigma. And any victim of oppression, abuse, injustice, or violence also faces that challenge: whether to tell; who to tell; how to story the experience of violation, terror and fear; or corruption and injustice; first to and for yourself, and then to and for others.

A recurring theme in the roundtable conversation was that / how the story of rape is not told in the media: whether literally, i.e. ignored, not covered as a news story; ‘covered’ but distorted as a news story; always told through the male lens, the heterosexual male life history; the trope of “the hero rapist”;the victim as the ‘accuser’”; and within drama and film, the problem of how, and the ease with which, “rape becomes a plot device”. The example was given of a room full of male writers, including a lone woman writer, asking: ‘What’s the twist?’, when faced with the task of maintaining tension and suspense, keeping the audience interested and watching.

Cinematic language (developed and guarded my men in the industry) itself bears the marks of historical gender power relations, heterosexism, misogyny, racism and disablism. Women as objects of the male gaze become victims to these ideological constraints; and “victims function as fetish”.  Women in representation (we are everywhere and everything), and women’s attempts to represent (speak, write, make, operate as cultural pracitioners / producers / artists) seem at times like two sides of a bad penny. But we must not give up in despair or frustration.

There was much discussion about the significance and impact of the language used within different discourses (legal, criminal/justice, medical, artistic, media, dramatic, feminist, etc.): victims, survivors, a ‘character’, the suspect and predator. And the fact that the victim has no control over how her story is told via/within these different discourses.

The impact of gender power relations was also raised in terms of the post rape experience of the victim: who is asking the questions affects (determines?) how the victim’s story is told. And this in turn is a function of how safe she feels, how believed she feels, which will influence how her story is heard / understood by these others. We know how hard it is in our society for a woman to be considered a credible witness; and how easy it is for her reputation, as a woman / citizen / human being, to be ruined.  The question was raised: “What are the kinds of stories people can tell that are heard?” For activists and policy makers, this is a crucial issue.

The problem of de-gendered language was highlighted. And those who have trawled through Liverpool City Council equality documents will have encountered this in abundance: erecting a blank wall of incomprehension in the face of women’s experiences and actual lives. LWN has started to challenge this.

I think it was the male police officer at the table who drew attention to the prevalence of the passive voice / tense in the reporting of rape, thereby emphasising the woman or girl as done to and hardly there, without foregrounding the active violence of the perpetrator: e.g. ‘A woman was raped by Xman last month in Yplace.’ Instead of saying: ‘A 17 year old / 38 year old man raped an 8 year old girl on Wednesday.’ Or, ‘A man / John Smith raped 20 women last year in the Liverpool area.’ The passive tense/voice has the effect of sanitising the violence, making it matter-of-fact, of only passing interest or concern. It’s a very ‘English’ way (grammatically) of distancing yourself from the action; of not taking responsibility; and avoiding the ‘I’ or ‘we’ subject pronouns.

It was agreed that “we must integrate the stories of victims into every conversation”. (Notice: not ‘the stories of victims should be integrated into every conversation’. See above.) The significance of this shift, this process, is that only by doing this can these voices / experiences truly inform and shape every policy and practice, i.e. be heard at the public and institutional level.

the power of storying

Similarly, perhaps both the culture of violence in society and the dysfunctionality of the media in this respect (or generally) – both discussed at the table – would be displaced by beginning to integrate the stories of victims into every conversation, so that all ‘bystanders’ consciously take over the role of storytelling from the media.

Stories do not just track and trace the past, but “allow you to imagine alternatives”.

In retrospect, this statement (part mine, part from the roundtable) triggers additional insights. First, this is the creative and political leap that is so significant and empowering. And we need to consider the problem of individuals (women and men) and/or organisations (mixed or women only) that deny women this breakthrough, in their preoccupation with maintaining a strict boundary between what they see as ‘therapy’ and what they designate as ‘politics’ and therefore out of bounds for victims.[2] Social class issues and differences of educational experience, cultural background and feminist consciousness may variously contribute to this dynamic.

Therapeutic process is kept separate from political consciousness and action as part of the social coercion of women: to curtail the process by which experience as a victim can fuel creativity and political agency. This stance may also be implicated in the maintaining of differential power relations, whereby women or men in positions of authority in relation to women as victims, un/consciously concentrate on preserving their own comfort zone: defending their own identity, role and territory (at the expense of victims / clients).

I found the suggestion that the effort to find more fruitful ways forward should involve paying more attention to bystanders: witnesses, friends, family, colleagues, peers, neighbours, etc., very pertinent to the situation in Liverpool. The bystander approach could be developed pro-actively via education and training, and more widely in our society, effecting a culture change, replacing the exclusive focus on the victim/perpetrator relation, as suggested.

We are all bystanders, potential witnesses; even as we watch this video / conversation. The bystander process could engender alternatives: unfixing stereotypes, destabilising established narratives, i.e. narratives rooted in and functioning to perpetuate historical gender power relations and heterosexist discourses; and activating us as human beings and citizens. This process “would help change the paradigm”, change the culture that produces, minimizes, normalises and tolerates misogyny / VAWG / rape.

Together, we have to co-create the conditions in which our stories can be heard, understood and acted on.[3] We do this by becoming public storytellers at every opportunity; not by staying silent; not by being polite and compliant. That ‘feminine decorum’ (into which we are variously trained as girls) has proved a divisive and depoliticizing obstacle in itself, and cannot help us out of this cultural hole.

A second strand prompted by the highlighting of the way stories allow you to imagine alternatives leads to the matter of feminist stories / storying as the imagining of alternatives, not just identifying a problem; something implicit in this whole conversation, that we need to make explicit if we are to understand better what we are up against. For the feminist consciousness that informs and shapes our narratives, our speaking, our imaginary, our relationships, is of course a prime / primary story that has been told before it could be heard: again and again.

It will always be ahead / beyond / outside of any male-dominated, misogynist society. Always to an extent taboo, off limits; even between women, as a function of our different personal, social and political trajectories. But it is now part of the materials with which we work and through which we can make advances. A wider conversation is opening up between women in Liverpool, and between women activists and men in Liverpool.

transparency, responsibility, political will.

Dr Jackson Katz, who works on gender violence prevention in schools, sports and the military, rehearsed his approach with male groups:

“Men and boys rape girls; men and boys rape boys; men rape other men; men and boys rape women. Men are the perpetrators. We have a problem”.

This stark, open statement constitutes his starting point, the trigger for working for change: uncomfortable for many. It attests to a degree of self-knowledge, social responsibility and political will; and indicates willingness to partake in and authorize resourcing the change process, the cultural and social transformation required. This consciousness, understanding and commitment have been reached through at least 30 years of gender and equality activism in Chicago and the US.  Liverpool has failed to build up these social, cultural and political resources in this way.

In the early stages of feminist activism in the 1970s, women did not identify themselves as part of the problem, which was ‘out there’: variously society and its institutions, and/or men. It was later we faced up to the full complexity of the feminist project, including the consequences of our own lack of confidence and courage as women; women’s differential social and economic positioning and its consequences; our training in heterosexual conformity; our capacity for complicity within a heterosexist, class-based culture; and issues of fear, shame, self hatred and competitiveness.

For men to develop a gender politics, they have to start by scrutinising and critiquing normative masculinity and its institutions: and how they themselves are positioned and rendered complicit within these practices, these gender power relations. This is a hard call, and cannot be done individually. Understandably, it has proved a less compelling prospect for most men, than women’s aspirations over the years for ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’: social justice and a fairer, kinder society.

But now, after all the years of denial, resistance and incomprehension, the costs of the status quo are so visibly unjust and brutal, with such severe consequences for a healthy and unsustainable society (and for the planet), that the need to work together, as women and men, has become incontestable: and our only hope at this social and environmental tipping point.

Has Liverpool city region even got as far as owning up to the problem in the way Katz states it? LWN is part of this process of transformation, to be effected by all who believe we have a serious gender-based problem in our city region, and who are willing to join forces in finding and forging new pathways of understanding and collaboration in our efforts to identify and challenge misogyny, patriarchal masculinity, VAWG and rape.

After the march and gathering with speeches on Sunday morning in the city centre, marking our political will to challenge and prevent VAWG, several of us thought that we should use that big screen in future. For example, how fantastic would it be to screen Suzanne’s video on that screen, on a loop, for a day or a week (paid for by the City Council)? Turning bystanders into witnesses, active participants in the process of change, must be our goal.

val walsh / 28 11 2012


[1] This was written as a report back to LWN and in the context of our subsequent collaboration with the artist, Suzanne Lacy, on a double page in the Liverpool Echo focusing on the issues raised by her project.

[2]I have previously touched on these issues in ‘From Tangle to Web; Women’s Life Histories and Feminist Process’ in Cotterill, Pamela, Jackson, Sue & Letherby, Gayle (eds) (2007) Challenges and Negotiations for Women in Higher Education. The Netherlands, Springer: 73-93. And ‘Gender, narrative, (mental) health: “the arduous conversation”’. BSA Auto/biography Study Group conference paper (2005) The Institute of Education, London.

[3] So many black American feminists have contributed to our understanding of the importance of voice and narrative: most obviously, bell hooks, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde; as well as white American poet, essayist and activist, Adrienne Rich. In addition, a host of feminist academics and researchers working in the field of life histories and autobiography have established the theoretical, methodological and political bones of women’ storying. Artists have played their part too.

Missing you. Again. And again.

Missing you. Again. And again.

key words: older white males, gender, heterosexual male desire, male dominance, intercultural voices, diversity.

It is May 2010. I attend a local hustings in north Liverpool, for my ‘new’ constituency (the result of a boundary change).

All the candidates (including the Labour and Tory candidates who fail to turn up) are white and male, as is the Chair for the evening.

So is the small audience. I am the only woman present. At another hustings, in south Liverpool, it is different: 3 white women candidates, 2 white men, and a white male Chair, face a large, mixed and diverse audience.

In north Liverpool, two of the candidates, and a man putting a question from the floor, refer to the ‘working man’ ……… then it’s apologies all round (but hey it’s 2010). Later, I reflect that it is not just that the term ‘working man’ so thoroughly obliterates women as citizens; it also marginalizes, even stigmatises, friends who are variously disabled, on benefits, unemployed, retired and/or holding life together on the home front as parents, carers and/or grandparents. And it reminds me of Cameron, Clegg and Browne’s mantra of ‘hardworking families’ as the only deserving. They mean families like theirs…………. White, affluent, heterosexual couples + kids (but not too many………).

I rush home to catch the second half of BBC1’s 3-part drama, ‘Five Daughters’, based on the lives and investigation into the serial killing of five prostitutes in Ipswich. I wonder, why isn’t everyone else doing the same?

I think I might watch the following programme, which is a local (NW)  panel of 3 prospective General Election candidates + audience participation, held in Blackburn. As the programme starts, I get that oh-too-familiar sinking feeling.

The candidates and the Chair are all older white males.

The first speaker from the audience, a retired white male police officer, opines on ‘the problem of immigration’. I switch off in anger, not just frustration: aware of the editorial decisions behind who gets to speak, both on the platform and from the floor, and which issues are foregrounded.

The previous day, I had browsed the latest WOW (Writing on the Wall) programme in anticipation. 2010 sees the Liverpool Festival celebrating its 10th year, presenting two concentrated weeks of cultural / political events, combining local and inter/national presenters / performers. But the stats are dismal:

There are over 45 male performers/presenters, and only 12 women. That’s a rough ratio of 3/4 male to 1/4 female.

14 of the 22 events are all male line-ups. That’s c2/3.

Only 2 events are fronted by women, each by a single individual (Bonnie Greer being the national figure).

There are no all-women line-ups, i.e. groups of women.

The featured faces of performers, that run as a chronological line along the bottom of the programme pages, tracking ten years of WOW (2000-2010), break down as follows. Of 20 faces, 17 are male: 14 older white men + 3 black; only 3 of the 20 faces are women, all white.

In 2003, 3 years after the start of the Festival, the first woman’s face appears; another in 2004; then we wait another 5 years for the wonderful Ann Enright to appear in 2009.

On 22 05 2010, at a Low Carbon Liverpool half day seminar, ‘New  Economy: New Business’, a speaker from the floor asks, in apparently genuine bewilderment, why plenary speaker, Miriam Kennet, of the Green Economics Institute, had highlighted the particular importance of gender and women in her (brilliant) opening presentation, for the move towards a low carbon economy, etc.. The questioner is a youngish white male, with a social conscience, working with the School for Social Entrepreneurs, and in the later panel discussion he emphasises his working-class credentials and preoccupations, and makes a very useful contribution. But in his question to Miriam, there is a sense, not just of not understanding, but of objection to the emphasis on gender / women.

After Miriam’s clear and detailed response to his question, I add, from the floor, that in 2010 gender is still the least acknowledged issue, and the area of most resistance, even hostility (compared, for example, to attitudes and action re. racism, homophobia, disability rights). Social class has long been a key area of denial, and I suspect this partly fuels his challenge.

There is no time to go into more detail, for example, that equality is not just a question of equal pay, but that the absence of the latter can be taken as a mark of the unresolved underlying issues of: girls and women coerced and marketed as bodies, as sex; as objects and targets of heterosexual violence at home, on the street, in war zones; and heterosexual male desire as the unregulated driver for ever more profitable practices and industries – whether computer games, lap dancing clubs, sex trafficking, prostitution. And victims of domestic violence and abuse, and women asylum seekers are part of this picture of neglect and violation, as a recent performance by a group of women asylum seekers from Manchester powerfully demonstrated to a stunned Liverpool audience at the CUC.

Back to the significance of ‘Five Daughters’ on BBC1.

This log provides a glimpse of one woman’s sense of persistent affront and marginalisation (to put it politely) over several significant days, which is not exceptional, more routine, for too many women, of all ages, backgrounds, roots and circumstances, not least in this City. This situation is political, not personal.

It is not just about numbers or representation; the issues go way beyond that, for example to the culture of organisations, and the routine conjunction of racism, misogyny, homophobia, class prejudice, ageism and disdain for disability that poison too many organisations and institutions. Yet we also know great strides have been made in many of these areas over the last 40 years in the UK, as a result of people’s activism; and nationally, the New Labour government was instrumental in its development of significant legislation as part of that process. There is much to be pleased about, no question.

Yet for too long, and for too many women, it has been a case of ‘put up and shut up’, or ‘be patient’. I have never warmed to the former as a way of life; and women’s (saintly) patience, while it may have its place, can also be understood as a form of internalised oppression and feminine deference, rather than a social and political strategy through which we channel our creative energies as agents for change on all fronts, ‘private’ and public. Either way, both ‘put up and shut up’ and ‘patience’ leave women stranded. As one male commentator, writing during the General Election, put it: ‘It’s as if feminism never happened’.

But with women near invisible on the public stage of the 2010 General Election, it is not unreasonable to ask: Which political party gives a damn? Which understands the connections between, for example, environmental issues and social justice issues? Between endemic, persistent poverty, social class wounds, prisons piled high with men who have grown up poor, illiterate and violent? And old style male dominance, whether in the home, in business, or in politics?

That the BNP has been routed nationally and locally in these elections counts as a significant achievement for people power: rejecting a version of brute masculinity, widely recognised as a threat to women, children and men of good will; as well as democracy itself. The recent, short-lived rise of the BNP has served to remind people what we as a society abhor; what we will not tolerate. Their agenda, its every detail (the racism, misogyny, homophobia, contempt for working-class people and other vulnerable groups, and its use of intimidation and violence on the streets), all this acted as a warning regarding the fragility of ‘society’, civility, co-existence, if we fail to make our intercultural voices heard.

The political changes of the 2010 elections, locally and nationally, must be seen as the opportunity to tackle these inequalities, disadvantages, human rights issues, and crimes against humanity (as women, members of BME, working-class and LGBTQ communities, and people with disabilities claim that status) with renewed determination and optimism.

With Liverpool City Council no longer in the hands of the Lib Dems, pressure must be exerted and progress made in rebalancing our public life and its organisations and institutions; not just to represent the city-region’s diversity, but to embody it in a process of authentic power-sharing and co-creativity. For this to happen requires our intervention, our partnership, working across and with our differences at every level. Building that rainbow. Believing that nothing less will do.

It is 2010, and I should not still be counting (and weeping or raging) every time I attend a public event or meeting in Liverpool…………….. And thinking, miss you. Oh, how I miss you.

val walsh / 25 05 2010

Differential educational achievement.

Differential educational achievement: the relevance of a politics of identity, a politics of education.

keywords: education, social class, racism.

The study reported by Jessica Shepherd (The Guardian, 03 09 2010) that social class affects white pupil’s exam results more than those of ethnic minorities felt familiar.

A recent pilot study by a local student researcher, which produced two autobiographical narratives based on individual interviews with two young women, both single parents and of same age, but from different social class and ethnic backgrounds (one white working-class, one BAME), revealed sharp aspirational differences, attitudes to education and educational achievement. What stood out was what seemed to be a correlation between being brought up black in Liverpool; being aware of racism, being subject to racism; having the concept; and a level of social and political consciousness in the young woman brought up around middle class values and expectations. She was articulate and fluent in interview, with plenty to say.

By contrast, the young woman who had grown up in a white working-class family and social environment, did not initially grasp the concept of ‘social class’, but once it was explained, she started to deploy it in her narrative. This lack of self-identity and social awareness had left her unequiped / ill-equiped to understand her own social positioning and the society around her. Indeed she showed little interest. So compared to the young black woman, she manifested a passivity, a sense of subjection, of being at the mercy of events.

This difference may be understood as either having a politics of identity or not. This is crucial to our understanding of education and its purpose, as Freire and others, including feminists, have argued. In my own earlier interviews with white women from working-class backgrounds, who went through higher education, there is an echo of this ‘absence’ or awkwardness. [i] Looking back , as women with a politics of being and education, they spoke of their sense as children and young women, that ‘education and class are mixed up’, that it is ‘like a collision’ (working class and education). They had complex relations with feminism, including early reluctance and resistance. Yet it was feminist writing, research and theory that later enabled them to properly understand their identities and social positioning in ways that were empowering. These opportunities have now been largely withdrawn.

‘Education’, formal or otherwise, is not enough; and is not neutral or technical, or about the absorption of ‘facts’ and figures. Children and young people must be able to find themselves in and through their educational experiences. Education is a political as well as cultural process. Our school system, by styling itself as ‘apolitical’ in its methods and purpose, not only teaches a lie, but betrays most of its pupils and students. Unlike certain other European countries, we have never really wanted all children to have the chance to soar, no matter what their class background. As a ‘developed’ and affluent country, this has been our dismal and lethal failure.

val walsh / 06 09 2010


[i]  See Val Walsh (2007) From tangle to web: women’s life histories and feminist process. Pamela Cotterill, Sue Jackson & Gayle Letherby (eds) Challenges and Negotiations for Women in Higher Education. The Netherlands, Springer: 73-93.