Rocking the neoliberal boat: feminist politics and the Labour party.

 

  • Labour’s all-male lists
  • Yes, numbers matter
  • “It’s a man’s world”: local government and devolution
  • ‘Blair’s Babes’: it’s a neoliberal world. . . .
  • Opening up political discourse: democracy and Labour.

Labour’s all-male lists.
Labour MP Jess Phillips has accused Jeremy Corbyn of placing more importance on securing jobs for ‘his brothers in arms’ than advancing the cause of women, after the party selected male candidates for all three of next year’s regional mayoral elections (cited Heather Stewart [12 08 2016] ‘Call to tackle all-male list “ignored”’, The Guardian).

Phillips personalises the issue, which suggests it is an opportunistic attack on Corbyn as Labour leader. She shows a failure of awareness of both history and culture within Labour, in particular the impact of the New Labour years. The issue Phillips draws attention to is neither recent nor of Corbyn’s making, and more complicated than she seems to understand. [See ‘Sexism and activism: what’s the problem?’ and ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”. Reflections on the challenge for the “Left (and willing others)’. Both (10 10 2012) posted in ‘Essays’ category.] Does this mean her attack is disingenuous or malicious? Given that she has said that in an exchange with MP Diane Abbott, “I roundly told her to fuck off” (cited Rachel Cooke [06 03 2016] ‘Jess Phillips: someone to believe in’. The Observer), it’s probably the latter.

This commentary provides contextual evidence and analysis that helps explain (and negate) Phillips’ accusation, as well as providing a basis for constructive next steps to improve the situation.

Yes, numbers matter.
Let’s start with the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, which brought together world leaders for two weeks in March 2016 to review and debate progress on ending gender inequality. Sascha Gabizon, executive director of Women in Europe for a Common Future, and co-facilitator of the Women’s Major Group, which represents the views of women in UN processes, speaking in New York before the talks, stated:

It is evident that policies, laws, public budgets and institutions need to be     improved and often changed, to ensure women’s and girls’ human rights are insured (cited Liz Ford [15 03 2016] ‘UN talks seek cash and “concrete action” on women’s rights’, The Guardian).

Ford warns that “world leaders face test on commitment to equality” and that there is “concern that nations may water down agreements” (Ford, ibid.). (For ‘nations’ read male politicians.) She concludes her report with this summary:

Over the next fortnight, more than 8,000 activists will attend more than 650       events at the UN and around New York. Most will be braced for attempts by member states to roll back previously agreed commitments to uphold women’s rights (Liz Ford, ibid.). (Emphasis added.) (For ‘member states’ read male politicians.)

The UN Commission on the Status of Women, in this its 60th session, is testament to women’s and feminists’ patience, political stamina and determination over the years, pursuing the goals of gender equality, social justice and human rights for girls and women.

Meanwhile, in the same month, Charlotte Proudman, barrister in family law, reports on gender equality in the UK judiciary:

A statistic that must give us serious cause for concern is that of 47 Council of     Europe nations, only Azerbaijan and Armenia had lower proportions of female members of the judiciary than the UK in 2014 (Charlotte Proudman [16 03 2016] ‘Women cannot wait 50 years for justice’, The Guardian).

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s mantra more than a century ago recognized that the law constituted one of the greatest obstacles to women’s rights. More than 100 years later, the people writing and enforcing the law are disproportionately male, white and upper-class (ibid.). (Emphasis added.)

These statistics have been made visible since the 1970s via feminist scrutiny, analysis and critique. Proudman’s verdict is damning: ‘the law infantalises women, and denies them agency and autonomy over their own bodies (ibid.). But Supreme Court Justice Sumption claims that a rush for gender equality would have “appalling consequences for justice” and women should simply be “patient” and wait half a century for equality (cited Proudman). Proudman argues that quotas are needed “because men will not give up their privileged positions of power unless they are made to” (ibid.). She concludes;

For fundamental values of freedom, equality, liberty and justice to flourish, we need women to be represented in meaningful numbers among the judiciary. We can’t afford to wait until I’m 77 (bid.). (Emphasis added.)

Kate Green, shadow minister for women, commenting in the wake of a Fabian society report examining women’s representation within Labour party structures, declared:

We are proud of our record as the party that has led the way, with more women MPs than all the other parties put together, a majority of women in the shadow cabinet, and Labour women leading in Scotland and the House of Lords. Our party is determined to remain at the forefront of gender equality and women’s participation (cited, Rowena Mason [16 12 2015] ‘Women “face barriers” to reach top in Labour’, The Guardian).

The Fabian study found that “Labour has increased its proportion of female MPs to 43% through the use of all-women shortlists. But . . . found that where there is no positive discrimination, representation of women falls away” (ibid.). (Emphasis added.) The latter can be understood as evidence of men’s resistance (to women’s increased participation) and/or women’s reluctance (to participate).

There was disappointment among some senior Labour women that three elected leadership positions – leader, deputy and London mayoral candidate – went to men (ibid.). In his party conference speech in 2015, Tom Watson, having been elected as deputy leader, boldly declared:

We have to be a feminist party. A party for gender parity, equal representation in the House of Commons and in local government. Rooting out abuse and misogyny wherever it occurs (cited Rowena Mason, ibid.).

Speaking at the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, who last year unveiled a cabinet with an equal number of men and women “because it’s 2015”, announced:

I am going to keep saying loud and clear that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug (Agencies, New York [18 03 2016] ‘It’s natural that I’m a feminist, says Canadian PM’, The Guardian).

It is obvious from the examples cited above, that numbers matter, women’s participation matters, our representation matters in the effort to shift organisational culture, to better represent society, and to improve fairness and deliver social justice. But, feminist values and purposes go beyond the rhetoric of equality, and mean more than just saying you believe in the equality of men and women, a discourse that anyway always takes elite men as its model and bench mark, unavoidably implying that women have to mimic or behave like men to be taken seriously, offered opportunities, achieve recognition, etc..

The feminist project also has implications for men and masculinities, and change in these ‘ideals’ and paradigms of manliness (see ‘Trident: are you manly enough?’ posted in ‘Presentations 2016’ category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com). Labour men like Watson demonstrate less awareness that women’s equality involves more than representation, more than numbers and bodies on parade. (See ‘Sexism and activism: what’s the problem?’ and ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”. Refections on the challenge for the “Left” [and willing others]’. Both posted in ‘Essays’ category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com).

“It’s a man’s world”: local government and devolution.
When Dorothy Thornhill won the election to become the first directly elected mayor of Watford, in Hertfordshire, her opponent [presumably a man] said, “you won’t last six months”. “Thirteen years on I’m still here”, she says drily (cited Susanna Rustin [03 02 2016] ‘It’s a man’s world: the council leaders driving the northern powerhouse’, The Guardian).

Apparently, in the chamber Thornhill was not seen as “big and tough enough” to survive the combative culture and succeed as a leader. “No wonder Thornhill calls local government a ‘pale, male world’” (ibid.).

Rustin’s report is accompanied by a photograph that makes the feminist heart sink: the leaders of Greater Manchester, all in dark suits and sombre ties – nine older white men (all smiling broadly), two unsmiling younger white men, and the instigator, George Osborne, the then Chancellor, beaming triumphantly – on the occasion of the announcement of its devolution deal in 2014, promoted as the beginning of Osborne’s much vaunted “northern powerhouse”.

If, as Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council, observes, “diversity brings with it different skills and judgements” (cited ibid.), in other words not just a numerical change, but a qualitative shift, then this line up denotes stasis: basically, we can look forward to more of the same for the foreseeable future, which means women and BAME participants, instead of being on the inside and able to put their creative energies into the work itself, will continue to have to divert time and energy battling the organisational culture to get in, before they can be fully effective and confident in any new roles. Here is justification for Jess Phillips’ dissatisfaction and anger with Labour party culture and practices.

The suggestion that ministers could make greater diversity at town halls a condition of future devolution deals, is resisted. David Simmonds, the deputy chair of the Local Government Association, “supports elements of positive action” (whatever that means), but says:

Rather than affirmative action, we must make politics more appealing and accessible (cited Rustin, ibid.).

This innocuous and evasive statement sounds sexist to me (akin to suggesting you paint a bike pink to get girls cycling). It’s as if he’s talking about children not adults, and it echoes the infantalising sentiments of the judge quoted earlier, who recommended women be patient, i.e. no change during his tenure or in his lifetime. And age is an issue: “Simmonds points out that at 39 he is 21 years younger than the average councillor, whose age has crept up to 60” (ibid.). But though so much younger than other councillors, he disappointingly refuses to step away from the patriarchy and show leadership: preferring to perpetuate opposition to making organisational and cultural changes that would effect improvement in the diversity of councillors. This bears out Proudman’s observation above about men in positions of power refusing to cede that power to others unlike themselves.

In Merseyside Momentum, one of the first things we elected to do was introduce gender parity: sharing posts between women and men, having joint secretaries and co ordinators, i.e. one woman, one man working as a team, and requiring area groups to nominate equal numbers of women and men to the main co-ordinating committee. This worked immediately to counter only men stepping forward for roles, and it has been achieved without rancour.

We have seen over the last months, how many older white Labour men (e.g. Mandelson, Kinnock, and members of the PLP and Progress group), previously influential, even powerful within the party, have reacted to Jeremy Corbyn’s unanticipated election as Labour leader on an anti Austerity, anti- neoliberal, equalities-focused ticket: they will not leave the stage, and keep reiterating aggressive words of doom and bitter hostility. They are incandescent with rage and frustration, as they flounder around in a new reality they don’t understand, and which provides them with diminished political status. The latter is probably the key to the intensity of their personal disarray.

Momentum supporters are damned as variously “hard left”, “far left”, ”hardcore”, “Trotskyite”, ”far left fellow travellers”, compared to the “moderates” of Progress, the “party’s historical mainstream”, “the centre ground” (as if, post Thatcher, that’s never shifted) and “the legitimate left, led by Neil Kinnock” (Peter Mandelson [01 01 2016] ‘A Corbyn-led Labour will divide and fall into the abyss’, The Guardian). The venom that has run through the cries of Corbyn’s Labour and media opponents from the moment he was elected leader in September 2015, is staggering:

Parliamentarians demonise those who have rallied to Jeremy Corbyn as an entryist rabble, and ask themselves what one described as “the only question: when will we get rid of him?” (Tom Clark [11 12 2015] ‘Blair’s frail legacy shows why Labour must win arguments as well as votes’, The Guardian).

And the attacks have intensified in the six months since Clark’s report was published, culminating in a leadership challenge from MP Owen Smith. (See ‘Troubling Labour: the Labour leadership contest’ [04 08 2016] and ‘Renewing Labour’s terms of reference: crisis and turmoil begat opportunity and political creativity’ [09 08 2016], both posted in ‘Commentary 2016’ category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

Recent comments by Tom Watson about a peaceful protest involving Labour members have been described as intimidation by those who participated, and were told they should be removed from the party (see Nadia Khomami & Francis Churchill [05 12 2015] ‘Deputy leader accused of intimidation’, The Guardian). This would seem to be another ‘bruiser’ in action, rather than a man taking on board feminist insights and critique regarding male dominance, authoritarian behaviour and aggression.

But the venom against Corbyn and his supporters is not just the preserve of the men in the PLP, as Jess Phillips’ conduct has shown. Women MPs, including self defining feminists, have withdrawn their support, 44 even banding together “claiming they feel intimidated within his party” (Hadley Freeman [30 07 2016], The Guardian Weekend). And Freeman goes as far as to speak of Donald Trump and “Labour’s hard left” in the same breath, as “cults of personality” that “demand devotion and prompt vilification” (ibid.). Phew.

‘Blair’s Babes’: It’s a neoliberal world. . . .
The last two years or so have been a period of intense electioneering for Labour members and supporters. It has proved instructive in relation to the issues of gender parity and all-male lists. I illustrate this here with reference to three recent situations, which throw further light on Phillips’ accusations against the Labour leader.

First, in 2014/15 the selection and election of a new local Labour MP. The rules stated that women candidates had to be included on the shortlist. After candidates had circulated their bids for our approval, including email contact and doorstep conversations, the CLP held meet-and-greet events. I disclosed to our branch sec that I thought all the women candidates were appalling and I couldn’t vote for any of them, as it would knock out better candidates who happened to be male. As a long term feminist activist, this situation shocked me. I voted for the best person for the job, who was one of the men, and he was duly elected.

Next up, in 2015, the candidates for the Labour leadership, after Ed Miliband resigned, included two members of the PLP, who were feminists prominent at the women’s Labour conference each year I had attended (2011-2014) after rejoining in 2010. The leadership campaign provided close-up media exposure of their neoliberal politics, their conformity with an Austerity-lite approach. I had to vote for the only anti-Austerity candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, an older white male with a beard, who was the only candidate not just promising more of the same.

And most recently, in August 2016, Labour members and supporters in Liverpool city region had to choose a candidate for the upcoming Metro Mayor elections in 2017. There were three candidates, all ‘white’: the current Mayor of Liverpool (a local, older male), and two younger Labour MPs, a woman and a man (local). The woman is a neoliberal politician opposed to the values and politics that got Corbyn elected last September. She is one of those working to defeat and remove Labour’s elected leader.

As I have shown through the examples presented at the start of this commentary, numbers do matter. But qualification as a candidate, whether for the leadership or deputy leadership of the party, as shadow chancellor, or as a Metro Mayor, cannot be based on gender (or ethnicity or social class) alone. If suitable women candidates are not forthcoming, as members we have to vote for who we think is the best, or the least worst in the circumstances. The serious problem of the quality and composition of these lists lies further upstream.

As a party we have failed to create a sufficiently feminist-friendly culture at all levels, national, regional and local. While much has been achieved, as Kate Green claims, the party has failed to create structures and environments in which women, BAME and working class candidates (women, men or trans) could be nurtured and supported in greater and sufficient numbers. We have also failed to shift enough Labour men away from conventional masculinities towards something more humane, less controlling, less anti-feminist. (See various posts at togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

But above all, the deficit is political as well as numerical: in 2016, there appear to be too few Labour women, working-class and BAME MPs whose political values chime with the new leadership and his supporters, rather than with the Tory government. The party is paying a high price for this deficit, this fracture in its historical purpose. And it means Corbyn has a smaller pool of talent and support to draw on to put together a united and effective shadow cabinet, than might reasonably have been expected: a shadow cabinet that can be an effective opposition to government Austerity politics.

Opening up political discourse: democracy and Labour.
            In sum, New Labour never showed quite the same zeal for taking on the arguments of the right as it did for smashing the unelectable left. The 1997 landslide suggested a country that was open to new arguments, but it heard too few of them (Tom Clark, 11 12 2015, ibid.). (Emphasis added.)

For example, “the principled case for social security has rusted away from lack of use” (ibid.), and has been replaced by rhetoric that stigmatises need and vulnerability, using labels (scroungers, skivers, immigrants, etc.) designed to pit people against each other. This has inflamed fear, personal hatred and contempt, rather than contributing to an adult public conversation about social, political, economic issues that locate and explain personal and social responsibility and power. Instead, a Labour woman MP declared in 2015 that the Labour party was not the party of benefits claimants, not the party of welfare. 

The New Labour mantra for the public services was ‘investment and reform’.  . . . Now, slowly yet seamlessly, ‘reform and invest’ is giving way to privatize and starve’ (Tom Clark [11 12 2015] ibid.) (Emphasis added.) (See also Tom Clark with Anthony Heath [2015] Hard Times: Inequality, Recession, Aftermath. After a decade at The Guardian, Clark was recently appointed editor of the political magazine, Prospect.)

Privatise and starve can never be the Labour way. Clark emphasises the importance of making the argument for policy, for change; the importance of explanations as part of political process and governing, if Labour is to be successful in effecting lasting change in future. This is about democratizing the Labour party and the trade unions, shifting existing power relations within and across the party, and fostering a meaningful and open conversation about the kind of society we wish to be and how we can best achieve that together.  

Of course, it is exactly the beginnings of such a process across the country, in CLPs and Momentum groups, since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader, that have provoked such a storm of protest and panic in the PLP. (See Paul Mason, ‘The sound of Blairite silence’, for a summary of the current, mind-boggling situation.

https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/the-sound-of-blairite-silence-aed2ef726c8a#.ig2fz5vfz

Yes, many progressive policies were pursued, but instead of being won, progressive arguments were dodged around. The truth is that New Labour failed to change anybody’s mind about much apart from itself (Clark, 11 12 2015, ibid.).

This observation perhaps bears on a tension arising out of a discrepancy between Labour MPs and party members, supporters and activists, in terms of experience, knowledge and understanding. Two examples spring to mind.

First, Heidi Alexander, when shadow secretary of state for health, held a meeting with Labour health activists from across the country. It was by all accounts rather an unsatisfactory encounter, as she sought to control the agenda and discussion. She found herself ‘outnumbered’ by longterm activists who knew an awful lot about the NHS and public health, who could have been appreciated as a significant intellectual and political resource by the new shadow minister. She has since admitted that, when she accepted the health brief, “despite having helped run a campaign to protect services at my local hospital, I knew little about the NHS”,  (Heidi Alexander [19 08 2016] ‘Why I had to leave Corbyn’s dysfunctional shadow cabinet’, The Guardian). People who had travelled long distances to attend the meeting with her in London, representing their local KONP (Keep Our NHS Public) and DONHS (Defend Our NHS) groups, reported back with dismay and astonishment that it wasn’t the sharing discussion they had hoped for, and that, to make matters worse, she didn’t seem to know what neoliberalism is!

I witnessed something similar at a Saturday COMPASS symposium on education, held in London and attended by over 300 people from across the UK. Tristram Hunt, the then new shadow minister for education was the guest speaker in the morning. Sitting in the centre of the room on a swivel chair, he was surrounded by attendees whose experience in and passion for education is deep and wide-ranging, as was evident in the first early morning session when people shared their experiences and concerns. Hunt was received politely in the circumstances, given that it was obvious to everyone that he knew very little about his education brief and, perhaps worse for those attending, seemed to be devoid of passion for the subject. Both these concerns were noted with dismay and a little incredulity during informal conversations during the rest of the day. The verdict was that he should have turned up earlier, to listen to and learn from the wealth of evidence shared in that first morning session, instead of arriving just in time for his own slot.

What Corbyn’s Labour opponents seem not to get is “the activists’ frustration at everything that didn’t change in 13 Labour years – in particular Britain’s political discourse” (Clark, 11 12 2015). (Emphasis added.) This is a process, not a quick fix, and the party is now caught in the legacy of its own New Labour history, which includes neoliberal ‘Blair’s Babes’, when what the extraordinary, expanding numbers of people joining the Labour party since Jeremy’s election, and again since the PLP’s challenge to his leadership, want is a leadership and PLP willing and capable of owning that history and challenging the current Tory government’s intensified pursuit of more of the same, only worse. This is an intellectual as well as political process, and if the intellectual and experiential resources lie outwith the PLP (in academia, business and the community, for example), then bridges must be established, alliances built, the better to engage economists, political analysts, strategists, community organisers and activists.

As Paul Mason has pointed out, compared to the 1980s, “we are at the other end of the neoliberal era, and as an economic model it is broken” (Paul Mason [16 08 2016] ‘The parallels people draw between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot are almost all false’, The Guardian).

This generation, by contrast, understands that the most revolutionary thing you can do to neoliberalism is to put a party in government that dismantles it (ibid.).

And while in the 1980s the main and overpowering event was Thatcher, “the main event of 2016 – in England and Wales at least – is that 300,000 people have joined Labour” (ibid.). That’s people (not Trots) looking for an alternative to Austerity politics, neoliberal desecration of the public sector and its values, including the privatization of the NHS, and the continuing financialisation of the economy.

In a neoliberal world, just changing the ratio of women and men will not in itself effect the fundamental political change required, not just because it’s proving a historically painfully slow process, but also because we now know that women and other political constituencies can be co-opted into existing power structures, cut loose from any commitment to disadvantaged communities in society, to deliver neoliberalism against these communities.

What is newly significant in 2016 is not women refusing to identify as feminist, but the now established phenomenon of women and feminists choosing to uncritically deliver the neoliberal project, even if they can’t name it. (See Nancy Fraser [14 10 2013] ‘How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden and how to reclaim it’. The Guardian. See also references to Miller’s article in a subsection on ‘Feminist values, neoliberalism, austerity and solidarity’ in ‘The learning curve that is the 2015 Labour leadership contest’, posted in the ‘Essays’ category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com).

Increasing women’s presence as politicians, of whatever flavour, is not just about opening up the job market to women. It’s not just about women’s job opportunities and careers. It has social and political consequences for society, arising out of their politics not their gender. MP Jess Phillips seems unaware or in denial of these developments and their consequences for the PLP and its relations with the wider electorate, including the issue of Labour’s all-male lists.

A further shock to the system is the realization that all-women shortlists guarantee neither gender-aware, anti-racist feminist candidates, nor anti Austerity candidates who understand that the neoliberal project is neither woman-friendly, child-friendly, feminist or generally politically progressive. How cruel is that in 2016?

Suppressing women’s political differences in search of extra numbers of women to flaunt, is neither strategically coherent nor does it make political sense. It’s also demeaning to women: lumping us all together as women on the basis of breasts / ovaries / heels, whatever, discounts our brains / intelligence, our social and political experience, awareness and values: our diverse political identities. For example: feminist / non feminist or anti feminist; socialist / neoliberal; anti Austerity / pro Austerity or Austerity-lite; environmentally conscious / consumerist; religious / secular; anti racist, anti homophobic / heterosexist and fearful of or hostile to difference; internationalist / nationalist. . . . This glorious political diversity undermines women’s power as a single political constituency, as differences of social class, education, ethnicity, disability and sexual preference, for example, too easily harden into divisions: and all but the most privileged women are disadvantaged by that.

The urgent task now must be to start repairing the democratic and political deficit, by democratizing Labour party structures, and creating pathways and opportunities for Labour candidates (as councillors and MPs), who would not decry Nye Bevan’s founding statement and values, for example on the NHS, housing, land, education, the economy and the environment, as ‘hard left’ and ‘illegitimate Left’, etc., and as ‘unaffordable’ and ‘undesirable’. For those born into the neoliberal years, and the New Labour shadow, this may be unfamiliar territory, but it’s possible to catch up on Labour’s founding political credo by dipping into In Place of Fear (Nye Bevan, 1952, reprinted 2008). It’s not a bad place to start as we square up to the real and enduring enemies Nye identified so fiercely, and with such eloquence and humanity.

To finish with four questions:

  • What are Labour values and purposes, and can they be reconciled with neoliberalism? (See ‘”The trouble is . . . . ” Economics, economists and the Labour Left’ posted in ‘Commentary 2016’ category at wordpress.com)
  • What are feminist values and purposes and equality and human rights issues, and can they be achieved via neoliberalism?
  • Ditto environmental protections and sustainability.
  • Will the neoliberal legacy result in the destruction of the Labour party, or is it triggering its revival and re-incarnation?

These questions open up political discourse, trigger useful conversations and functional alliances, and can help frame and clarify the nature of the political and organisational challenge facing all would-be feminist-inspired, anti racist, progressive democratic parties, not least the Labour party / Labour movement in the decisive months ahead.

See Paul Mason, ‘The sound of Blairite silence’ for a chilling update on Labour’s current internal machinations, and the wolves at the door.

https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/the-sound-of-blairite-silence-aed2ef726c8a#.ig2fz5vfz

val walsh / 21 08 2016

 

 

 

 

 

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Renewing Labour’s terms of reference: crisis and turmoil begat opportunity and political creativity.

  • The equalities slate and Labour in 2016
  • The problem of old words
  • Language, identity, Labour politics
  • Meanwhile.

The equalities slate and Labour in 2016
             So many of the opportunities that the British people have had over the past  half     century – the best schooling, the best of health care when ill, and for many of us the best chances at university –owe their origin to the decisions of the 1945 Labour government to build decent public services that reflect our obligation each to the other in society; to create a welfare state that has taken the shame out of need; and to deliver a national health service free to all (Gordon Brown, then Labour Prime minister, in his introduction to the republication [2008] by The Aneurin Bevan Society in association with UNISON, of Nye Bevan [1952] In Place of Fear: ix). Emphasis added.

The roots of the Labour party lie in taking up issues of inequality and social injustice: and writing 60 years later (in 2008) Gordon Brown, then Labour Prime Minister, reiterated how, in the aftermath of a devastating war, the unpredictability of need (for example health care) and the rising costs of new health technologies:

It is more important than ever to pool risk and share the cost of those interventions fairly across our whole population (Brown, ibid: xiii).

This was Labour’s 1945 ethic that its politics would seek to serve and deliver. And at the centre of Bevan’s vision was a National Health Service, “a uniquely British creation, and still a uniquely powerful engine of social justice” (ibid: xiv), not just health care. Labour’s NHS underpinned a distinct vision of society (together with social housing and state education) and the politics required to create that new reality. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, current Labour leader, stand by this ethic.

The years since have seen wave after wave of liberatory / equality / social justice / environmental and community campaigns and movements help make significant improvements in our society to the lives and rights of previously marginalized and/or exploited constituencies. In 2016, we stand on the shoulders of those campaigners and activists who made parliamentary legislation and social change possible, bettering so many lives and communities.

When Tom Watson came to Liverpool in 2015 campaigning to be the Deputy Leader of the Labour party, I told him (from the floor at the end of the meeting) that I had waited most of my adult life for a Labour party that did not see environmental issues and feminist values as add-ons, as opposed to being integral to Labour values and progressive change. On his election as Deputy leader, Tom declared that “The Labour party must be a feminist party!” Wow, I thought. So what happened next?

Most Labour MPs supported the renewal of Trident in July 2016. 184 Labour MPs did not vote against the Tory Health & Social Care Bill, which will further the privatization of the NHS. 1945 Labour values have taken a concerted Tory thrashing. Most recently, for example:

Education experts have expressed fears that the abolition of the student maintenance grant for the poorest young people, combined with increasing tuition fees, will set back widening participation and deter those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds from going to university.

Students from low-income homes . . . are no longer entitled to a maintenance grant to support their living costs, but will have to borrow the    money in the form of an additional loan, further increasing their debt. (Sally Weale, ‘End of student grant “could deter disadvantaged from university”’. The Guardian, 02 08 2016).

The architects of austerity have left government, yet disabled people still face inhumane benefit cuts (Frances Ryan, ‘Peter has a lifeline – why remove it?’ The Guardian, 04 08 2016).

Ryan provides harrowing examples of what Nye Bevan referred to as “unnecessary deprivation” and “preventable poverty” (Bevan, ibid.: 3) – not to mention humiliation and indignity – which Ryan damns as a “reflection of a system that has decided the disabled are fair game” (Ryan, ibid.). The ease with which the Tories, with a piddling majority of 12, are getting their political programme through the House, is in part an indictment of a PLP unwilling to act collectively and decisively as an opposition party.

The Labour history outlined above is a significant part of the backdrop to the second Labour leadership contest in a year, brought on by a Parliamentary Labour Party determined to bring down the current elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn (as opposed to the Tory government). The Labour leader (and those early Labour values and purposes) are identified by the media and the PLP as not just “leftwing”, but on the “hard left”, now that the centre of British politics has shifted so far to the Right since Thatcherism. So what remains of the relevance of the conventional binary ‘left / right’ distinction?

The problem of old words.
            The student of politics must . . . be on his (sic) guard against the old words, for the words persist when the reality which lay behind them has changed. .  . . thus we talk of free enterprise, of capitalist society, of the rights of free association, of parliamentary government, as though all these words stand for the same things they formerly did (Bevan, ibid., chapter 2: ‘The role of parliament- active or passive?’: 13).

‘Rightwing’ is a pretty stable term: the interests represented and the methods used have remained fairly consistent and familiar over time. ‘Preventable poverty’ and ‘unnecessary deprivation’ are to the Tories mere collateral damage: and unacknowledged political tools of social control. By contrast, the term ‘leftwing’ lacks stability, belonging to a politics of change and challenge, designed to shift the status quo, its norms and its power relations.

Whereas racist views are historically more readily associated with rightwing politics and fascism, and the Labour party and trade unions have increasingly identified themselves with anti racism and anti homophobia, Labour’s commitment to multiculturalism and anti-racist values has tumbled somewhat in the wake of the EU referendum result (Brexit) and the rising dominance of the UKIP narrative, that actively sought to engender fear of difference, under the banner, ‘Take back control’. The EU campaign exposed a sense of grievance and abandonment felt by mainly elderly working-class communities, in particular in the north and midlands.

White working-class communities, dominated by people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, who mainly left school at 14, 15 or 16, between 40-70 years ago, used the referendum to convey their acute sense of social class grievance, their fear of and hostility to migrants, and seething anger at the British establishment, identified with Parliament and London, as distant elites. They managed to outvote young people, many of these college and university-educated, who overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU. And it is the latter constituency that will have to live with the consequences of the Brexit vote, not those older voters who so exultantly celebrated the result. And now, the promotion of Owen Smith by the PLP as leadership candidate further calls into question the centrality of the equalities slate to Labour politics.

No matter that equality issues (including VAWG, FGM, sexual trafficking and disability issues] have crept on to the political agenda, ostensibly becoming cross-party concerns, if the PLP embraces and promotes MPs whose reflexes are sexist and/or homophobic, glossing over their behaviour in a haste to label them ‘leftwing’ or centre left, or mainstream, what does being Labour actually mean? While anti-racism (including hostility to anti-semitism – see letter from 110 correspondents in The Guardian, 09 08 2016, on Shami Chakrabarti’s report for the Labour party on antisemitism and racism in the Labour party. Full list at gu.com/letters) may reasonably be considered historically as part of Labour DNA as a party, this is obviously not the case regarding sexism / misogyny / homophobia or disability issues (see ‘Troubling Labour: the Labour leadership contest’ in ‘Commentary 2016 category, togetherfornow.wordpress.com) 

Sitting opposite young Corbyn supporter, Sam             , on C4 News (09 08 2016), an older, long term Labour man, lauded Tom Watson’s attack on Corbyn supporters as “Trotskyite entryists”, and described Watson as “a bruiser”, who would sort things out. Here was old style hetero-masculinity strutting its stuff, indifferent to gender issues, male dominance and aggression as problems not virtues: a Labour man seemingly unaware that being a “bruiser” is no longer a desirable category of masculinity, marking you out for stardom, but part of the problem the Labour party must tackle. Many of us, women and men, young and old, have had enough of ‘bruisers’ and bullies ‘sorting things out’, on the street, in the workplace and in politics. 

That core Labour values seem to mean different things to the PLP and to the wider membership (including those who favour Jeremy Corbyn and the values he represents), is now out in the open. ‘Leftwing’ quickly became a term of abuse rather than a mere adjective (including in The Guardian). Although the situation in the PLP looks frought, chaotic and nasty, this new transparency can also be seen as a good thing, as it means that clarification (even revival) could follow. And the internet and social media are helpful to supporters who want to track how MPs are voting on particular issues. This was not possible until relatively recently.

This split burst to the fore with the ‘shock’ election of Jeremy as leader in 2015, after Ed Miliband’s resignation, following Labour’s (‘shock”) 2015 general election defeat. Politicians and the media did not see his election coming: all the ‘experts’ were thwarted, because they were collectively so out of touch with what was happening to people’s lives and communities across the country, as a result of the neoliberal project and its lethal manifestation, Austerity politics.

Neoliberalism (sometimes known as market fundamentalism) had been internalised as the ‘natural’ order (past, present and future) instead of being understood as a chosen political project of the Right at a specific time for their own purposes. Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, notes:

The founders of the euro were guided by a set of ideas and notions about how economies function that were fashionable at the time, but that were simply wrong. They had faith in markets, but lacked an understanding of the limitations of markets and what was required to make them work (Stiglitz, ‘The future of the eurozone?’ The Guardian, 06 08 2016).

And he suggests that:

On both sides of the Channel, politics should be directed at understanding the underlying sources of anger; how, in a democracy, the political establishment could have done so little to address the concerns of so many citizens, and figuring out how to do that now: to create within each country, and through cross-border arrangements, a new, more democratic Europe, which sees its goal as improving the wellbeing of ordinary citizens. This can’t be done with the neoliberal ideology that has prevailed for a third of a century. . . (ibid.) Emphasis added.
(See ‘”The trouble is. . . ” Economists, economics, and the Labour Left’ in ‘Commentrary 2016’ category, togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

The neoliberal credentials of the three candidates standing against Jeremy Corbyn for leadership in 2015, including two women who self identify as feminist, left them exposed as part of the problem, not the solution, as well as problematising the identity ‘feminist’ for many Labour supporters.

Language, identity and Labour politics.
            Social institutions are what they do, not necessarily what we say they do. It is the verb that matters, not the noun (Bevan, ibid. chapter 2: ‘The role of parliament – active or passive?’: 13).

Writing over 60 years ago, Nye Bevan’s counsel remains astute:

As we fumble with outworn categories our political vitality is sucked away and we stumble from one situation to another. . . This is the real point of danger for a political party and for the leaders and thinkers who inspire it. For if they are out of touch with reality, the masses are not. Indeed they are reality. For them their daily work is an inescapable imperative (Bevan, ibid.:       14). Emphasis added. [In 2016 their daily work / their reality is more likely to be un or underemployment, zero hours contracts and insecure jobs.]

So what does it mean, for example, to be a feminist and not vote against the Tory Health & Social Care Bill? What does it mean to be a feminist and vote with a Tory government for more, and more brutal, Austerity, including privatising the NHS and dismantling support for people with disabilities? To vote for cuts that result in the closure of Sure Start centres, a reduction in support services for women victims of men’s violence and sexual coercion? Cuts that make women and children poorer and less able to survive and thrive with dignity. The removal of educational opportunities for young and old. Cuts that plunge people into hopelessness and despair, mental health problems, even suicide. Many neoliberal women in the PLP (‘Blair’s Babes’, feminist or not) appear not to understand their role as Labour MPs in this crime scene.

Similarly, what does it mean in 2016 to be a ‘leftwing’ Labour MP, and not vote in opposition to Tory policies (perhaps because you fear being labeled ‘leftwing’ or ‘radical’, not a proper politician, a ‘pussy’)? Owen Smith, for example:

supported Osborne’s devastating benefit cap because of its popularity with voters, and abstained on a welfare bill that was expected to negatively affect 330,000 of the country’s poorest children” (David Wearing, ‘Labour’s bitter battle isn’t about Corbyn – it’s a fight for change’. The Guardian, 27 07 2016).

Owen Smith is being described as ‘leftwing’, and seems to want to present himself as a leftwing contender for the 2016 Labour leadership contest: more Corbyn than Corbyn, only not Corbyn. What does it mean to be a male leftwing MP who indulges in the odd sexist or homophobic outburst? And Angela Eagle, whose voting record and actions suggest she is not leftwing, is now glued to his side on the leadership campaign trail, trying to look cheerful as her credibility as a senior Labour MP crumbles.

Neoliberal Labour MPs seem not to understand that offering a political platform labeled TINA (there is no alternative), is offering no political expertise, effort or commitment on their part, to people they are meant to represent. Such a political offering from Labour perpetuates a raw sense of betrayal and contempt, as was evident during the EU referendum campaign. By contrast, Corbyn’s leadership has drawn older, ex Labour voters, previous non voters, and those too young to vote previously, back to the Labour party or into the Labour party for the first time. The anger at injustice and the neoliberal project felt by this diverse body of people is fuelling a collaborative political movement aimed at democratizing the Labour party and building effective political alliances, rather than the gesture politics of grievance, rejection and victimhood.

The ‘leftwing’ and ‘rightwing’ binary may have taken a nosedive with this contest. In 2016, it would appear that a politician whose reflexes are sexist and/or homophobic can be either ‘leftwing’ or ‘rightwing’. The current complexity and shifting sands of progressive politics needs language and a naming that bring together new constituent elements as a convincing and vibrant political narrative and political agenda. A sense of the complexity of the challenge made of us as we variously face up to difference, privilege, gender power relations and racism, for example, and strive to achieve heightened awareness, to behave with sensitivity, respect and understanding – true empathy – is suggested in a recent conversation between two authors.

Discussing translation, ‘travelling while black’ and how to avoid classification, author Teju Cole in conversation with Taiye Selasi, responds to her question about how he “writes often and explicitly of race and nation, but more allusively about gender” (‘Afropolitan, American, African. Whatever. I’m “local” in many places’ (The books interview, The Guardian, 06 08 2016.) He responds:

Misogyny is atmospheric. What does an embodied commitment to the equality of women look like for a male writer? I think the central conflict of my novel, Open City, is about how this smart man, this occasionally charming man, is also guilty of an atrocious act of violence to a woman. . . . but writing in a non-fictional mode, as in the essays of Known and Strange Things, permits me a more straightforward expression of what’s at stake – and part of what’s at stake is getting to the point where we say, “Come the fuck on, this should all be self-evident by now.” You can say that seriously, or with bitter irony. But of course, it’s not self-evident. Most men, even the feminists among us, still swim merrily along in all the advantages that masculinity proffers (ibid.). Emphasis added.

And if you think that being a ‘bruiser’ is still a useful category of masculinity, please step off the Labour bus now, and make room for those women and men who have worked hard over many years to show how wrong and dangerous that old masculinity and male dominance is to our society and an inclusive progressive politics.

Meanwhile.
It seems clear that in the wake of the social and political movements of the C20 and C21, the term / identity ‘leftwing’ has been voided of meaning, if it can gloss over and not prioritise as fundamental to Labour values, the social justice and human rights issues obscured by racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and disablism. But the political and democratic deficit extends further: the term ‘leftwing’ provides little or no purchase on other challenging and interconnected political issues, and may even be an obstacle to clear thinking, effective action and alliance building regarding the following, for example:

  • asylum
  • refugees
  • movement of peoples
  • environmental issues, such as renewable energy, water conservation and distribution, pollution, climate change and decarbonisation of the economy
  • consumerism
  • new economics
  • electoral reform.

All of these issues have implications for the practices of democracy and sustainability: keeping nature, people and communities alive and well, as opposed to exploiting / killing them off / using them up. A recent clutch of letters in The Guardian (06 08 2016) speaks to ‘Our collective amnesia on climate change’ and the lack of engagement by the media, politicians and universities.

Parliament in Britain is centuries old, and “so many people confuse the existence of Parliament with that of democracy” (Bevan, ibid.: 8). But we’ve only had political democracy since 1929. It is clear we need new ways of talking politics in order to respond to its contemporary complexity adequately. The search for meaningful, ethical and political terms and practices is urgent. A new collective effort, across old demarcations and boundaries towards a progressive politics, could prove to be inspiring as well as lifesaving, rather than something to fear.

val walsh / 09 08 2016

 

 

Troubling Labour: the Labour leadership contest.

Expanded version of letter published in The Guardian (04 08 2016).

  • Preamble.
  • More than mere words.
  • Desperation, futility, duplicity. What a shameful mess.
  • Crushing Labour’s progressive potential: the neoliberal mindset that is Blair’s legacy.
  • Reviving Labour’s progressive purpose.

Preamble.
Angela Eagle approves Labour MP, Owen Smith’s apology for his recent, aggressive, sexist comments about prime minister, Theresa May (Guardian, 30 07 2016), when he suggested Labour should “smash” the prime minister “back on her heals”. This was described as “his recent slip-up” and as “a clumsy promise” (Anushka Asthana interview, ‘There’s no point being sore’, The Guardian Journal, 30 07 2016). In this interview, Angela recommends “sensitive use of language” and comments: “Owen has shown a capacity to recognise and apologise for insensitivity, and that’s important”.

More than mere words.
But this is not, as her stance implies, a question of rude, unkind or cruel language, or even language that offends. Her own language about Smith’s “slip-up” is distinctly cautious, conservative and apolitical: uninformed by years of theory and research (especially feminist and post colonial), which has reframed and extended politics in terms of the politics of, e.g. food, violence, sexuality, health, housing, multiculturalism and language. I suspect she is concerned not to be identified with the idea of ‘political correctness’, within which issues of language and behaviour have played such a big part; a label used by politicians and the media to rubbish and ridicule equality and social justice initiatives, especially those pertaining to gender issues, racism, homophobia and misogyny.

Angela’s stance fails to acknowledge that the issue is about language as a function of and constitutive of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and incitement to hatred. It is about language as social power and as an abuse of power and privilege, which in turn contaminate the body politic and public spaces, rendering these less safe for their targeted constituencies, and making society and individuals less welcoming and accepting of difference and diversity, and more fearful of each other.

The recent EU Referendum campaign exemplified how months of public figures, including politicians, relentlessly demonising ‘foreigners’, and/or those whose difference was visible (skin colour, facial features, dress), as the enemy within, as Other, have consequences. Recklessly racialising political discourse resulted in an overnight change after the Brexit vote, in terms of what was seen as allowable speech and behaviour. People of colour and others suddenly felt less safe, less accepted, more at risk as citizens, even if they had lived and worked here for many years.

Owen Smith’s reaction to Theresa May on this occasion, like previous ‘gaffes’ by Cameron (“Calm down dear!” to Angela Eagle herself), Boris Johnson, Farage, et al, was no mere linguistic misdemeanor. Such behaviour exposes the inner workings of these men’s minds: their lingering heterosexism, racism, homophobia and/or misogyny; who they are as men. For the Labour party to think an MP who exhibits such attitudes is fit for office, never mind being considered as leadership material, is beyond belief. As reported in the New Statesman, the Independent and elsewhere online, this man has form. www.newstatesman.com/2016/07/four-times-owensmith-has-made-sexist-comments
27 Jul 2016 –
http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-owen-smith-labour-leadership-dodgy-copy-theresa-may-smash-her-back-on-her-heels-a7159621.html

Desperation, futility, duplicity. What a shameful mess.
The acceptance of Owen Smith as a leadership candidate confirms that the entwined issues of racism/misogyny/homophobia as both legitimate political targets for Labour (as important as social class and poverty) and as serious issues for the culture of the Labour party and the trade unions, still have a way to go. In the unseemly rush by the PLP to support any MP prepared to stand against the current elected Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the Parliamentary Labour Party has exposed its lack of commitment to equality and social justice issues, and democratic values, in particular regarding misogyny and homophobia. The sight of prominent Labour women embracing (literally) a candidate whose back story and political conduct display ignorance of and/or unconcern for those hard fought historical campaigns and political issues and values, made me catch my breath in disbelief.

It’s 2016, but these values are clearly not part of his personal and political identity and practice as a man. Citing Owen’s track record so far, David Wearing doubts that Owen Smith is “the man to drive through root-and-branch reform of British capitalism, and to challenge majority views on issues including welfare and immigration” (see David Wearing, ‘Labour’s bitter battle isn’t about Corbyn – it’s a fight for change’.The Guardian, 27 07 2016).

So, at Saturday’s Liverpool Pride (30 07 2016), there was Owen swinging along, busy with damage limitation: having his smiling photo taken with as many women as he could fling his arm around (it looked as if he had brought his own photographer). In view of his leadership bid, he really needed to be seen mingling with gay activists and other non “normals” (having previously described himself as the “normal” candidate – heterosexual, married with kids – as opposed to Angela, ‘the gay candidate’). Meanwhile, Wallasey CLP members were out in force behind their banner, but there was no sign of Angela, their MP, who this year presumably felt she couldn’t afford to be seen with them, given her complicity in the accusations of homophobia and intimidation in the LP and by Wallasey CLP members.

She has been reported as saying that “Jeremy Corbyn had created a ‘permissive environment’ in which Labour MPs who opposed him faced abuse, on and offline” (Hadley Freeman, The Guardian Weekend, 30 07 2016). And she has said that “Corbyn’s failure to deal with bigotry and intimidation had ‘tarnished the party’s reputation”’ (cited Peter Walker & Rowena Mason, ‘Up to 50,000 new Labour supporters face vote bar’. The Guardian, 03 08 2016). By contrast, there are Wallasey CLP members who see things very differently (see www.newstatesman.com/…/homophobic-slurs-against-angela-eagle-wallasey-ive-only…

Crushing Labour’s progressive potential: the neoliberal mindset that is Blair’s legacy.
The latest smear against Jeremy Corbyn, the claim that before he became leader there were no such problems, is laughable (but not funny), mendacious and vindictive. Those MPs (and Guardian journalists) adopting this stance, could do with reading some evidence to the contrary, posted in October 2012: ‘Sexism and Activism: What’s the problem?’ and ‘Thinking Through and Beyond “sexism”. Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others)’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com in the Category ‘Essays’.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015, Corbyn supporters / Momentum, have been variously demonised as the ‘hard left’, as ‘extremists’, and more recently, akin to Donald Trump as a “fringe group” and “cult” (Hadley Freeman, ibid.). Hadley ties Corbyn and Trump together as heading “cults of personality”. This is quite nasty stuff, not least from a journalist I have previously respected. But I suspect that Labour MP, Diane Abbott, is better informed, as she describes a scenario I recognise from these last months of my involvement with Merseyside Momentum (public meetings, rallies, demonstrations, conversations, debates, and great warmth and good humour between us):

Like (Bernie) Sanders, the left insurgency Corbyn is associated with is not about one man or a cult of personality. The insurgency on both sides of the Atlantic is about millions of people realising that ‘a better way is possible’ and wanting to move beyond neoliberalism. That realisation is not going away (cited Walker & Mason, 03 08 2016). Emphasis added.

Similarly, Wearing argues that:

Jeremy Corbyn’s support unites around clear basic principles: the need to break decisively with neoliberalism, in favour of a new egalitarian economic model, and to defend migrants, minority-ethnic people and those on social security from the rising tide of bigotry and the effects of spending cuts (Wearing, ibid.). Emphasis added.

“A burning rage at New Labour’s politics of inequality widens a divide that goes well beyond the leadership” (ibid.) Wearing notes that New Labour’s agenda was never transformative, but was “primarily about deference to the established order (ibid.).” He cites an illuminating example from a Fabian society conference in 2010, when:

A pitch for a Green New Deal to provide a Keynesian stimulus, create good jobs and    decarbonise the economy was greeted enthusiastically by delegates but rejected by Gordon Brown’s pollster, Deborah Mattinson, who said that while climate change was ‘the biggest issue facing humanity” this was not an idea she could sell to voters (Wearing, ibid.).

Wearing describes this as the essence of Labour’s current civil war:

On one side a grassroots bursting with ideas, determined to tackle the most urgent    issues; on the other a party establishment so deferential to ‘political reality’ that the             survival of human civilisation has to take a back seat (ibid.).

This, he says, is the struggle between small-c conservatives and progressives, and Corbyn “represents a head-on challenge to a status quo that a broad swath of left-progressive opinion now considers intolerable” (ibid.).

Reviving Labour’s progressive purpose.
The fact that Owen Smith is 46 would seem to have disadvantaged him, in as much as he was pretty much born into neoliberalism, and appears untouched by critical feminist and social justice values, for example. By contrast, like many longstanding Labour supporters, or those returning to the fold, 67 year old Jeremy has lived through and been part of many of the liberatory political campaigns of the past 40 or 50 years. He has been that relatively rare being: an activist, as well as a politician.

At the same time, the unprecedented, burgeoning support from young people, their wild enthusiasm for Jeremy as Labour leader and what he stands for, suggests that, even despite the power of consumerism, they have not internalised the neoliberal mantra (TINA – there is no alternative), that pits us against each other, dismantles the public sector and its values of service rather than competition and exploitation. For them TINA makes no sense and is a call of despair, an invitation to accept powerlessness.

When Angela and Owen publicly agree that Austerity is the right way, perhaps they should pause and reflect on how Austerity politics positions, not just young people, but the majority; and the contempt for them that adopting even an Austerity-lite position conveys. Labour can never be the party that deploys poverty as social control and as a political strategy. That’s the Tory way.

Born into a period shaped by feminist and environmental activism, multiculturalism, heightened LGBTU and disability awareness and confidence, and improved understanding of mental health issues, for these young people (and oldies who have stayed awake and sentient during these cruel neoliberal years), climate change, the importance of gender power relations, multiculturalism, racism and public health issues, for example, are no longer niche political abstractions but lived realities: a new ‘normal’ that nonetheless needs defending, not rolling back.

And after 6 years of first the Tory coalition, now full blown Tory war on the very idea of society, including human rights legislation, and post the EU referendum result, there is surely more urgency in working towards proportional representation, and the strategic building of alliances between anti Austerity social democratic parliamentary parties, if the Tories are not to be left (with their tiny majority) to settle in for the long, foreseeable future (which is no future for the majority).

This is not the 1980s and this is not a journey back to what has gone before. It is a movement to create a different and better future, rooted in the contemporary realities and social movements cited above, starting by changing how we do politics now, together, for example by democratising the Labour party. Peer process, not hierarchy: all ages, all backgrounds, all circumstances.

(See also ‘”The trouble is . . .  ” Economists, economics, and the UK Left.’ Posted 07 02 2016 in Commentary 2016 category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com. And ‘A “shared somatic crisis”: enough common ground?’ Posted in Conference Presentations 2014 category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

val walsh / 04 08 2016

 

 

The 2016 EU Referendum.

 

The recent homophobic and racist murders in Orlando, and the misogynist, fascist murder of UK Labour Party MP Jo Cox, are not incidental to the EU Referendum this Thursday (23 06 2016). These violations have not just added urgency to the Referendum decision, but, I suggest, changed the substance of that decision-making process.

Since November 2012, we can and must speak of a post Savile era: a necessary cultural and political break with a shameful past of uninterrupted child abuse in and around public institutions, and paedophile denial and collusion over many years, that protected Savile and left children exposed to sexual abuse and its lingering psychological aftermath into adulthood, as victims were blamed and silenced. Four years later and UK society is openly predicated on that past as it seeks to become a social and political refutation of those historical presumptions and denials: a different society. 

No longer a referendum on the EU.
The way in which the Leave camp has conducted its EU Referendum campaign, escalating distortions (on immigration, housing, employment); reiterating lies (notably the £350M EU price tag and its devotion to the NHS); and misrepresentation (e.g. regarding EU democracy and its legislative process, the relationship between EU directives and UK social, environmental and industrial practices and safeguards, and the movement of peoples), makes this, just days before the vote, another such pivotal moment for the UK.

Faced with the combined rhetorical efforts of media favourites, Michael Gove, Boris Johnston, Ian Duncan Smith, Nigel Farage, and sundry other poisonous political ‘heavies’ on the Right, the virtues or otherwise of the EU, even the facts we might wish to consult or highlight, such as: ‘There’s no hope of saving the planet without making rules together against scorching ourselves to death” (Polly Toynbee, ‘On Friday I’ll get my country back. We will vote remain’, The Guardian, 21 06 2016), have become incidental. Not to mention international, fascistic ‘stars’, such as Vladimir Putin and Marie le Pen, aligning themselves with the Leave team. As John O’Farrell presciently (and hilariously) declared back in April: ‘Never mind the EU arguments, just look who’s talking’ (The Guardian, 25 04 2016). Two days away from the actual Referendum, it’s no longer funny and right, but seriously, frighteningly right.

It is not a matter of different opinions and choices: shopping cannot be the model for our politics. It is rather the difference between values and behaviours that uphold and nourish (however imperfectly) social democracies, against anti-democratic behaviours that embody authoritarianism, elite heteropatriarchal male dominance and violence, as ways of doing life’s business. And that business is the annihilation of difference, via homophobia, misogyny, racism, together with institutionalised and escalating inequality: the enforced impoverishment of the majority and the runaway wealth of a tiny number:

The system is designed to transfer wealth from the people who create it to the               people who already have it” (Paul Mason, ‘Executive pay is obscene – restructuring               the economy is the only way to curb it’, G2 14 06 2016).

So the task for us in the EU Referendum on Thursday is quite simply to demonstrate our understanding that these are the enemies of democratic and peaceful co-habitation and that as a society we will not endorse that path. We will stop these elite white men’s triumphal ascent in the UK to even more power at the people’s expense.

Orlando and Jo Cox
These most recent murders teach us that our individual votes should not be dependent on how we value and evaluate the EU as an economic / social / cultural / political project or dream. More urgently, it has become about how best to avoid violent social meltdown in England and the wider UK. How best to interrupt the momentum of those politicians, media and other power brokers on the Right, who, in particular since 2010, have been promulgating fear and inciting hatred, to further their own vested interests, their desire for untrammelled personal and political power, dominance and control.

How to stop them ripping us out of the EU; breaking up the UK; and finishing the job the Tory government has set itself, of dismantling our precious post 1945 welfare settlement and the public services that underpin our democracy, including the NHS?

Voting Remain is surely our only hope of blocking their exuberant and well funded attacks on our society and democracy, and buying ourselves time to come good on the values and priorities that informed the life, the love and the work of social justice activist and Labour MP, Jo Cox. It will not be sufficient, but it is a necessary step in turning the tide against this Tory government and the bigotry, racism and social divisions it has been instrumental in fostering as tools of social control.

val walsh / 21 06 2016

[This is an expanded version of a statement presented from the floor at a public meeting organised by ‘Another Europe is possible’, at The Liner Hotel, Liverpool on 20 06 2016.]

Trident debate in 2016: catalyst or just protest?

 

  • Preamble
  • What’s different for CND in 2016?
  • Changing political / technological / environmental pressures
  • Trident: old technology
  • Trident as a feminist issue
  • Making connections, building alliance
  • New politics? Or just resistance?

Preamble.
The well attended public meeting (100+, with other attendees hanging in and outside the doorway), ‘Stop Trident. Decision Time 2016’ (16 02 206 @ 19 00-21 30) was organised by Merseyside CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). Peter Wilson, Co Chair of MCND, expertly chaired the lively comments and discussion that followed the presentations by the panel of four speakers, two national, two local: Bruce Kent, Vice President, CND, Chris Nineham, National Officer, Stop the War Coalition, Liverpool Councillor and Green Party Mayoral candidate, Tom Crone, and Kim Bryan, General Secretary, Socialist Labour Party. The panel of four speakers included no representatives from the Labour party or Momentum.

It was agreed that this is a moment of political opportunity regarding the replacement or cancelling of Trident, and attendees, especially longstanding CND campaigners, were pleased at the increased media coverage and debate taking place nationally. More explicit acknowledgement of the role of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in creating the space for this shift towards open public debate on nuclear weapons and defence, after years of virtual silence and political suppression, would have been just.

Cost was seen as a key strategic concern, not just a moral issue. The need (for the Labour party, for example) to spell out how the money saved from cancelling Trident could be spent, was stressed, and how important it was for displaced workforces to be redeployed, for example in expanded areas of green technology, alternative energy projects and other social and technological innovations. The escalating and apparently incalculable costs of replacing Trident, are actually useful to the Tories in their determination not to spend on health, social care, welfare, education, and infrastructure projects (such as technological innovation and supporting employment beyond city finance) that probably most of those in the room wanted to see. The language used to effect the political scam is also key:

 When the 2008 economic storm hit (a metaphor which itself does ideological work, implying an act of nature rather than a   crisis of human folly) the then shadow chancellor Osborne reached for a tried and tested script. ‘The cupboard is bare’, he sternly announced, likening bankrupt Britain to an over-indebted home (Tom Clark, ‘We need a new language to talk about the economy’. The Guardian, 19 02 2016).

Eight years later, Osborne sticks with the ‘storm’ metaphor, as he prepares to outsource his own economic incompetence and brutality, now as chancellor: ‘Osborne warns of further spending cuts as global “storm clouds” loom’ (Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, 27 02 2016). He seeks to prepare the electorate for his economic failure, but wants to make sure we don’t attach blame to his policies since 2010, but instead identify the responsibility for any disappointment or disaster as ‘out there’, beyond our borders, where ‘foreigners’ reside.

At this ‘Stop Trident’ meeting in Liverpool, people were aware of the need to challenge language, rhetoric and lies: the oft-repeated presented as ‘truth’ / ‘facts’, for example, the questionable posture that Trident is a ‘deterrent’; and the mantra that security and defence depend on weapons. Evidence suggests otherwise: that aggression and violation begat more of the same, and that in 2016 security and defence are not secured by weapons and militarism, let alone weapons of mass destruction. The safety of societies and communities are better served via education, economic investment (not exploitation), skilled diplomacy, professional spies, cultural exchange and other peace-making initiatives.

But as a CND supporter since being taken to my first CND rally as a girl by my father, on this particular occasion my interest centred on how CND discourses have matched and responded to the dramatic developments of the intervening years. At the end of the evening, not very well was my worried conclusion.

What’s different for CND in 2016, compared to the 1950s or 1980s?
This is a new crisis, not a rerun. We haven’t been here before. So what are the distinctive features of the contemporary context for the Trident debate? And what’s new in our experience, in our thinking and understanding? And in our politics.

New political / technological / environmental pressures:

  • UK society has suffered 40+ years of neoliberal brutality (spun as economics), and its consequences for lives, communities, the economy and democracy itself (see my blog: togetherfornow.wordpress.com).
  • The UK Tory government is on its way to dismantling / privatising the NHS and what remains of the welfare, public sector values put in place in 1948 by a Labour government, after a war that had devastated society’s institutions and infrastructure, as well as traumatised its people.
  • Without the NHS, without social housing and affordable homes, and without access to free education, for example, democracy in the UK will also collapse, for democracy depends on health and wellbeing, access to education, the economic viability and dignity of the general population, as well as the rule of law, not as commodities or purchases, but as human rights. Democracy depends on and is a function of, national efforts towards equality and social justice, in a non-militarised society.
  • The NHS is not just a service provider, not just about our bodies/minds, but embodies the core values of our society. (See, for example, Michael Sandel [2012] What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets.) As such, the NHS is foundational, for example, to the mitigation of poverty, social class differences and disadvantage: to survival, dignity and opportunity of the poorest and most vulnerable, not just the richest and most powerful.
  • The latest neoliberal turn of the screw is the discourse of Tory Austerity since 2010: the Cuts being made to services and social support, ostensibly to pay down ‘the deficit’ produced by bankers’ misbehavior (see the film, The Big Short, 2015). This is not economics but Tory politics. The general population is meant to internalise this scam as ‘necessity’ and as ‘right’, and a reason why there is less and less money for the public services and institutions we had come to accept as central to a civilized and fair society. Meanwhile:

In the US, the top 1% grabbed more than half the total growth in the first five years of recovery, while in the UK, George Osborne, a chancellor who saw no choice to imposing the bedroom tax, still found room to trim the tax rate on top incomes (Clark, ibid.).

Mistakenly, free education and healthcare, sufficient and affordable housing, were assumed as ‘natural’, ‘normal’, permanent: unquestionably part of our social reality. In fact, they are political commitments made by social democracies, as opposed to militarized, totalitarian states. Discussing “water rights and water fights”, Susan George concludes:

 Privatisation means nothing more than handing over the results of the work of thousands of people over decades with virtually no guarantees. The word itself is a lie, and the phenomenon should be called, rather, ‘alienation’, or simply a ‘sell-out’ or ‘give-away’ (George [2010] Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World: 151).

The break up of the NHS is important for a neoliberal Tory government, not just because of the range of business opportunities made available by ‘privatisation’, but because of ‘collateral damage’: its impact on democracy, on the population’s ability and motivation to participate as active, critical and effective citizens, who believe they have power to influence events and their society.

  • Neoliberalism has not just contributed deregulation, privatization, financial corruption and growing inequalities in this period. Its invasions and wars have contributed to a rise in terrorism rooted in religious and political fundamentalisms. The nature of inter/national conflict and threats to national security has altered since the inception of CND in the 1950s. (See BBC1 adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1993 novel, The Night Manager, in which the action has been shifted from a drama about Columbian drug barons, to Middle Eastern warlords. Being screened from 21 02 2016.) The rise of terrorism, of extremist jihadist groups, presents threats to the UK that Trident can play no useful part in combatting, as opposed to increasing the risk of the UK as a terrorist target.
  • In addition to refugees fleeing terrorism and war zones, these years have seen a growing awareness of the plight of environmental refugees (see George [2010: 182-184), and “the resource scarcity issues guaranteed to provoke conflict” (ibid.: 188). Food, water and shelter must figure prominently on that list. (See George, chapter 4, ‘The wall of conflict’: 161-193.)

These structural issues, such as what and who governments choose to fund, foster, starve or destroy, position and shape individuals differentially and collectively, as well as hierarchically, as social constituencies attributed with different social and political value and status. The rising power of the Davos class during the neoliberal years (named after the Swiss resort where they congregate to discuss futures) encapsulates these issues: George deploys the prison metaphor as a guide:

 You can find the Davos class in every country – . . . . They run our major institutions, including the media, know exactly what they want and are much more united and better organized than we are. . . . The Davos class, despite its members’ nice manners and well tailored clothes, is predatory. . . they are also well versed in prison management and they hire the best-trained and most clever guards to keep us where we are (George [ibid]: 7 & 8).

Trident: old technology.
There are other key ways in which 2016 is not a rerun of the 1950s or 1980s: technological innovation is overtaking Trident. Trident is already old technology:

 Forget Trident. Modern warfare means a country can be brought to its knees with little more than a finger on a mouse (Julian Borger [16 01 2016] ‘One false click’. The Guardian).

Pretending otherwise could be a dangerous as well as disingenuous stance. Politically inept and corrupt, when the future is “hybrid warfare”, “cyber warfare”. Borger is not alone in arguing that: “This is the new reality” (ibid. 23). “Big subs can be picked up” (ibid.: 26). Given that secrecy, undetectability have been supposedly key features of the efficacy and power of Trident as a ’nuclear deterrent’, this puts its claim to fame under severe strain. (For more information, see scientist, Dr David Hookes, ‘The truth about Trident’, power point presentation at Merseyside Momentum Political Education event , 09 02 2016.)

As the UK parliament approaches a decision on Trident’s renewal in 2016, Green MP, Caroline Lucas, argues:

Britain must now take this opportunity to use evidence, rather than bravado, as the basis for this historic decision (Letter to The Guardian, 16 01 2016).

And in 2016, new evidence and understanding relevant to the Trident debate extend beyond the impact of neoliberalism, technological innovation, fundamentalisms, terrorism, climate change and environmental crisis. The meeting in Liverpool exposed orthodoxy and conservatism; generational and political issues internal to anti-Trident discourse and activism. The meeting, while alive with knowledgeable, impassioned and concerned participants, nonetheless constituted problematic evidence of significant oversight, absence and ignorance, as if time has stood still.

Trident as a feminist issue.
As well as no Labour or Momentum presence on the panel of three men and one woman, none of whom were young any more (the generational make-up of the panel may be significant in relation to my next questions), there was no evident feminist presence on the panel.

  • Does this mean that the organisers fail to see Trident as a feminist issue?
  • Are they unaware of relevant feminist critique, analysis and activism from the last 40 years?
  • Or, aware of the latter, do they prefer to ignore and exclude these perspectives and insights, in which they have played no part, and therefore have no platform: to silence these (mainly) women’s voices and carry on as before?

For example, Bruce Kent argued that Trident was all about British nationalism, and he cited the initial desire by the UK government to obtain nuclear weapons after the 1939/45 war, and to stick a large union jack on Trident. But Trident is not just about British nationalism, or rather nationalism is not a gender-neutral phenomenon, but represents manliness and elite masculinity as the emblem of power internationally. Nationalism and its invasions and wars are these men’s favoured fighting projects / games. In 2016, we have the means to better understand these patriarchal structures, behaviours and projects, in ways not publicly possible in the 1940s and 1950s, when women’s voices and feminist insights were largely unheard in the public domain, and in particular within politics, militarism, foreign policy and defence.

The murder of civilians, the majority of whom would be women, children and elderly men (as a speaker from the floor pointed out) should make the immorality of the enterprise indisputable, and help us make the arguments for not renewing Trident. This fact alone identifies nuclear weapons as a feminist issue, for:

  • incorporating premeditated violence against women and girls (as ‘collateral damage’), as military policy at an international level and
  • training men into a predatory, violent hetero-masculinity that will do that job without demur. (See Val Walsh [10 02 2016] ‘Trident: Are you manly enough?’ togetherfornow.wordpress.com, ‘Presentations 2016’ category.)

In Wounding the World. How Military Violence and War-Play Invade our Lives (2014), Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, examines:

not only the most direct and brutal mechanisms of military power (as seen in times of war), but also the processes by which soldierly values and martial organisations wield progressively more power within civilian society (Bourke: 7). See also Bourke (1999) An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to Face Killing in C20 Warfare.

It is critical voices and feminist analysis that have helped us see war, terrorism, militarism, religious and political fundamentalisms, capitalism, and neoliberalism, for example, as feminist issues: involving the cultivation of a predatory, misogynist masculinity, producing institutionalised violence against the most vulnerable in a society: unarmed civilians, not soldiers or mercenaries. And these cross-disciplinary and holistic critiques and analyses help make connections between, for example, social organization, environmental sustainability, economics, peace, democracy and social justice, thereby breaking orthodox demarcations that prioritise, for example, weapons, war, ‘defence’ and sovereignty, and widening public discourse to the larger questions:

  • What kind of society do we want to be?
  • What kind of world do we want to help create and sustain?

These questions and issues require a probing, interdisciplinary approach; multifaceted, holistic awareness; peer process rather than hierarchy: co-production. The tick box mentality promoted by consumerism, for example, will not do this political job. The depth of the probe required is conjured by Katrine Marcal (2015) in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics:

We can criticize economic man as much as we like. As long as we can’t see that he is a gendered theory of the world based on our collective fear of the ‘female’ we will never be free (Marcal: 184). (Emphasis added.)

In her ambitious historical overview of the workings of patriarchy in C19 and C20, German journalist and feminist activist, Marielouise Janssen-Jurreit, critically considers ‘Women without a platform’ in Part 3, starting with a chapter on ‘The fathers of socialism”. She notes:

Marx. . . never directly criticized women’s legal incapacitation, which John Stuart Mill, in 1869, characterized as nothing but bondage legally sanctioned (Janssen-Jurreit, Sexism: The Male Monopoly on History and Thought. Originally published in German in 1976; reprinted in a shorter English translation in 1982: 104.)

In a chapter on ‘Socialism and feminism’, her accounts:

 illustrate the value attributed to the situation of women in everyday life by male party comrades, Social Democratic editors, and labour functionaries. For socialist men class liberation was primarily a liberation of men; women’s emancipation was a secondary promise of historical development [as opposed to politics]. In the more than hundred-year history of the European workers’ parties this has not changed (Janssen-Jurreit, ibid.: 115). (Emphasis added + bracketed insert added.)

Has this orthodoxy softened at all since Janssen-Jurreit wrote these words in 1982? (See Walsh [10 10 2012] ‘Sexism and activism: What’s the problem?’ and Walsh [10 10 2012] ‘Thinking through and beyond sexism: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others)’, both on this blog in ‘Essays 2013′ category.)

Katrine Marcal, a young Swedish journalist, writing 40 years after Janssen-Jurreit, i.e. after 40 more years of feminist activism, research and analysis, re-iterates and further illuminates the historical dilemma underpinning how working-class women and men are positioned within these debates, and in particular in relation to feminist projects and politics:

 Dependency has for centuries been seen as shameful. It was something that slaves and women were. When working-class men demanded the right to vote they did it by arguing that they were indeed independent. Before, dependency had been defined through ownership. Those who were owners were independent. Those who worked for someone else were dependent. But the workers’ movement redefined that which was previously called wage-slavery as a source of   pride. Independence came to be defined as having a job with a salary that could support a family. Then one was doing one’s duty. So one could also demand rights.

        Woman, on the other hand, couldn’t do this – because she was still dependent.

 That for working-class men to be ‘independent’ by working full-time they had to depend on women to take care of the  home was not part of that history. Just as Adam Smith failed to tell us about his mother (Marcal [2015]: 185/186).

How this narrative positioned gay working-class men, as socially and politically Other / ‘invisible’, implicitly ‘deviant’, also remained unspoken, unexamined.

Social class positioning and working-class politics do not have to exclude or override feminist analysis and politics. Issues of social class stigma and disadvantage, gender power relations, homophobia, misogyny and racism (the fascist package) are entwined issues, not least because we are all more than one thing, we are all hybrid and multiple in our identities. Yet in contributions from the floor at this meeting, from women and men, it was working-class ‘family’ men’s lives and prospects that underpinned comments and concerns, though the word men was not used.

Making connections, building alliance.
The heavy industries that are mourned locally in Liverpool, such as engineering and dock work, were traditionally men-only working environments. The talk at the meeting of re-instating manufacturing and industry seemed to look back and echo that. Yet the reality of new, high tech industries (such as digital, sustainable energy) will not involve a return to those working environments, even if some of the existing skills, such as those of the Barrow nuclear workers, are transferable and can be a basis for redeployment. Nor will the numbers ever be replicated, due to technological changes (see ‘The trouble is. . . . Economists, economics and the Left’ on this blog: togetherfornow.wordpress.com in the ‘Commentary 2016’ category).

The challenge is, for example, to:

  • restructure the UK economy, including
  • reducing the financialisation of the economy
  • decommission Trident
  • redirect finance towards economic and social investment that supports job creation, communities, the environment and democracy
  • reduce the militarization of society
  • reduce / eliminate the privatization and commodification of public services.

[See Walsh (25 06 2014), ‘A shared “somatic crisis”: Enough common ground?’ Presentation at INTAR conference, University of Liverpool. Also, submission to the Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability (05 2014): ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritisng renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’. Both on this blog in ‘Presentations 2014’ category.]

The underlying narrative of the ‘plight’ of (heterosexual) working-class men, and by extension their wives, partners, families, and communities, is a significant component of these debates and changes, not just in their own right as a question of economic and political equality, but because of the call of UKIP in 2016, as it targets angry, disenfranchised, mainly white male, unskilled and unemployed voters, promoting misogynist, homophobic and racist attitudes, towards muslims, for example, as part of its rhetorical flourish. Will non political and political working-class women both choose UKIP in 2016? Or will they split?

In 1976, Janssen-Jurreit saw women’s historical lack of feminist solidarity as self-inflicted social and political disadvantage:

 From a feminist point of view, the splitting of female human rights into class interest and special women’s interest is unacceptable and in effect discriminatory (Janssen-Jurreit [1982]: 124).

And:

This comparative presentation of the early socialist movement with the early women’s movement shows how two political currents, both based on emancipation, on liberation from oppression, and on the conquest of human alienation, failed to unite their efforts (ibid.: 127).

These statements still have relevance for UK progressive politics today, not least in relation to the need to build effective alliances across our differences of origin, upbringing, identity and circumstance. As Susan George shrewdly observes:

 And, let’s face it, progressives love to bicker and create fratricidal factions so that they become incapable of confronting power other than rhetorically (George, ibid: 9). (Emphasis added.)

Towards the end of the ‘Stop Trident’ meeting, Bruce Kent, Vice Chair of UK CND, drew attention to the importance of involving other campaigning groups and organisations in anti-Trident activism, such as the forthcoming march and demonstration in London. He lamented their apparent resistance to joining the struggle. Conversely, on the night, the speakers’ panel appeared to be untouched by feminism (in 2016!). When I spoke from the floor, I was faced, not with hostility, but gentle incomprehension, and unwillingness or inability to engage with the feminist issues I raised.

It seems that too many experienced anti-war activists can ‘include’ racism, fascism and the plight of asylum seekers on their agenda, but avoid feminist-initiated campaigns that implicate men’s power and misogyny (on the home front, on the street, in the workplace and in war zones), such as against violence against girls and women, the trafficking of girls and women, supporting equal pay and access to free childcare. Is this a form of political decorum that leaves feminist issues and sexual politics aside, not just as uncharted territory, but taboo?

It reminded me of attendance at CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Powys, Wales) members’ conferences 15+ years ago, where I encountered an exclusively white, middle class, male-dominated culture, in which considering social class issues, gender power relations, sexual politics, masculinities, etc. in relation to environmental issues was apparently literally unheard of: an insubordinate act. At the time, environmental issues were strictly demarcated, and seen as unconnected to social justice, poverty, public health, oppression or social class. Eco discourse was ‘apart’ from the politics of everyday life it seemed. The narrowness and compartmentalization of its ‘specialist’ concerns have since shifted, and I now feel less of an intruder / trouble maker! (At the CAT members’ conference in 2014, I presented a shortened version of my submission to the Liverpool Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability, which was well received: ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritising renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’. In ‘Presentations 2014’ category on this blog.]

The culture of CAT has responded to the participation of a more diverse membership, including feminist-aware men, and the instigation of a listening culture has produced development, creativity and innovation, that are not simply technical or technological. These developments have in turn enabled CAT to reach well beyond its original base and remit, to influence individuals, communities, organisations and institutions in the UK and beyond, while also benefiting from what is a reciprocal learning process. CAT has proved itself more relevant now, than when it was set set up 40 odd years ago.

New politics? Or just resistance?
Tory Cuts (packaged as Austerity) are designed to divide, subordinate and derail us. We must resist repeating history, and work to establish and strengthen our bonds, our shared humanitarian values and purposes. To do that, we need to acknowledge and understand the problematic history alluded to above.

Social class, gender and ‘whiteness’ have been key, if unacknowledged, determinants of the culture of environmental, peace and social justice groups in the UK from their inception. And in the wake of revelations over the years, we know that the sexual politics of some of these groups has been less than impressive. In 2016, these groups have to confront that history and their own purpose, if they are to attract new, younger and more diverse members, for example. In the light of turbo capitalism and the changes and new pressures described above, CND, along with other oppositional groups, also has to work out its political identity and allegiance, and how best in 2016 and beyond, to contribute to the social and political transformation that can be kick-started by the decommissioning of Trident. This is not a technical matter. Nor are we, as a society, on a leisurely stroll into the future. The enemies are real, rich, organised and militarised.

Like identity politics, single issue campaigns serve both a revelatory and developmental purpose , personally and politically. But they don’t have to stop there. At the moment there exist a plethora of campaigns: including VAWG, trafficking of girls and women, anti-Austerity, Keep the NHS Public / Save our NHS / mental health / Stop the War / Palestine, and campaigns against homophobia, fascism, racism, sexism and misogyny, amongst others. I have argued elsewhere for recognition of the interconnections between various social issues, as well as for the strategic importance of building alliances across differences, seeking common ground. (See Walsh [25 06 2014], ‘A shared “somatic crisis”: Enough common ground?’ posted in ‘Presentations 2014’ on this blog). The Davos class, of course, is content to see us remain in those discrete activist silos. It makes managing and controlling us a doddle.

The growing inequalities in our society and internationally are increasingly visible inequalities, due in large part to the advent of digital and social media. The expanded availability of this evidence has the potential to foster resentment, anger and conflict. Or, it can provide a basis for organised alliance and political action. Meanwhile:

All the elements of the systemic crisis – casino economy, massive inequality, the environment, resource shortage, ‘failed states’, and so on – increase the dangers of military response (George: 182).

Add “risk-increasing European responses” (George: 184-186) and “risk-promoting international financial institution policies” (George: 186-188), of which there have been more than a few since George offered her analysis in 2010, and the context of CND activism becomes differently and distinctively complex, compared to the 1950s or 1980s. George cautions that powerful nations:

 are not focusing on the real sources of future conflict and are consequently spending their military budgets in the wrong way and on the wrong things. . . . Defence budgets are more a part of the problem than of the solution (ibid: 180). (Emphasis added.)

In her introduction (2010), George looks back and ahead:

My own list of public or common goods would start with a new kind, which would not have appeared a decade ago: a climate fit for human beings (George: 14).

The male dominated Davos class will never deliver this, nor do they care to. But in 2016, it is surely a key focus for all those activist silos mentioned above: not separately, but together, in political co-ordination.

After the ‘Stop Trident’ meeting, and the evident energy and optimism it generated, I was nonetheless left with the weary feeling that peace activism / anti-Trident activism / CND suffer the same limitations as those I have identified as still entrenched within the orthodoxies and conservatism of Labour party and trade union cultures. These limitations pertain to resistance to taking women’s lives and experience seriously as a basis for theory, politics and organisation; resistance to power sharing; the resistance of heterosexual men to changing their attitudes and behaviour towards girls and women; the continuing evasion of the critical self reflexivity feminist critique and analysis require of women and men, if we are to build effective political alliances between environmental and social justice activists, including feminists, that are sufficient to the task of decommissioning, first Trident, then the current UK Tory government, as we continue to work to mitigate and overturn neoliberal orthodoxy and its mantra: TINA (There Is No Alternative).

val walsh / 22 02 2016

For follow up, see Selected Recommended Reading list, Joanna Bourke (2014) Wounding the World. How Military Violence and War-Play Invade our Lives: 294-297.

 

 

 

Non compliance in the face of affront, bullying, coercion, and violation.

  • The government’s proposed new contract for Junior doctors in the NHS 
  • “Hospitals may refuse to impose Hunt’s new contract”
  • Preventing Prevent: “students not suspects”
  • “Met signals a shift in attitude to rape claims”
  • Non compliance and democracy in 2016.

Recent events, including twice being on the picket outside The Royal Hospital in Liverpool, in support of the UK Junior Doctors’ strike (12 01 2016 & 10 02 2016), have caused me to reflect on the question of non compliance. Four examples clarify how we might understand the concept and practice of non compliance in 2016.

The government’s proposed new contract for Junior Doctors in the NHS.
Months ago, a young Junior Doctor friend described the proposed new contract to me as “medieval”. He was agitated, anxious and angry. So was I. We had met through helping organise Liverpool’s People’s Health Assembly in 2013.

Junior Doctors in the UK have been driven to strike by one of the Tory government’s attack dogs, Jeremy Hunt, a man with the permanent stare of a rabbit in the headlights, and a man who once described the NHS (treasured by 92% of the population since its inception in 1947) as “a failed experiment”. This is the man David Cameron judiciously decided to put in charge of the NHS, in place of his previous ill-judged choice, Andrew Lansley, who had himself managed to create havoc and widespread professional hostility within the NHS as he mismanaged its reorganisation. (See Mark Steel’s incisive and hilarious summary online of Hunt’s political progress, including his earlier disastrous period as Culture minister, when his political career just missed becoming toast by a mere Tory whisker.) As Steel puts it, speaking of the Junior Doctors, there they go again, another strike after the last one, only 40 years ago. . . .

Hunt‘s chosen ‘strategies’ have been bullying and coercion: old style male dominance, but dressed up as metro elegance and feigned dismay. It is about crushing those who deliver NHS services, those who train and study over long years to deliver excellence and save lives. It is about control of a professional cohort that has ‘dared’ to assert its professional expertise and commitment against government diktat. Their offence is in part that they have demonstrated their capacity for professional integrity, personal responsibility and non compliance.

Unfortunately for Hunt, the Junior Doctors are knowledgeable (and better informed than him about the jobs they do and the conditions required to do them well); they are articulate (clear and convincing on camera) and passionate (demonstrating authenticity rather than shifty duplicity and spin); and as their witty and moving placards declare: “Ain’t afraid of no Hunt“ (only his new contract), and “One profession. We stand together”.

At this point, it should be noted that Junior Doctors live and work in a world in which evidence counts; it’s part of their training as well as the ethic that underpins best practice. By contrast, Tory politicians don’t do evidence, preferring to get by on the back of a highly honed sense of entitlement and superiority, backed up by unlimited funding from friends in the City, and Tory-dominated media. The Tories may commission evidence, as a PR gesture, but generally bury it or ignore it once it’s handed in, hoping the media will forget it was ever commissioned, that questions were ever asked.

Negotiation is supposed to involve sharing information and knowledge; identifying issues together, in a spirit of cooperation; partnership in problem solving; and listening. Negotiation is best conceived as a peer process, in which all sides care about that third thing they have in common (the enterprise, project, challenge, problem, relationship) rather than a parent-child power struggle or conflict, premised on the idea of one side ‘winning’, overpowering the other. Negotiation should not resemble arm wrestling. Hunt went one better from the outset, when he publicly threatened to impose his new contract without consultation or agreement. He assumed threat would induce fear and panic in the doctors. He was opting for what constitutes an abuse of power within a social democracy: force.

Democratic accountability flounders in these deep waters. And, as the Junior Doctors have found, like many previous groups of employees, negotiation may be the name on the can, but the can gets kicked down the road till it is unrecognizable and not fit for purpose.

So the doctors strike twice (so far) in an orderly and careful manner, to best limit inconvenience and damage to normal service in hospitals. Theirs may be described as an example of non compliance as social responsibility, personal and professional integrity; simultaneously survival strategy and political clout as a result of collective action. It is also importantly a way of communicating their values and the detail of their professional complaint to the wider public, who, in their work, they serve. After 40 years without a strike, their action has genuine shock value for the public, as citizens and service users. Most of us are both at various points in our lives.

‘Hospitals may refuse to impose Hunt’s new contract’ (James Meikle, Denis Campbell & Jessica Elgot, The Guardian. 13 02 2016).
Heidi Alexander, shadow health secretary, says this “underlines the extent to which the decision to impose a contract that nobody wants would destroy morale in the NHS” (cited Meikle et al.) And morale is no mere trifle in a health service, but can make the difference between excellent, inadequate or dangerous practice; fragmentation and disengagement or effective team work. This second example of non compliance moves beyond individual non compliance, into institutional or corporate non compliance, and hospitals may act independently or in an act of country-wide institutional / professional co-ordination. This measure retains features of the Junior Doctors’ non compliance: for example, as social responsibility, survival strategy and the public exercise of power in refusing to obey what amount to orders from the government. Their act of non compliance also serves to demonstrate allegiance with their own staff: a tentative (and desperate?) act of solidarity across professional demarcations and power relations.

Preventing Prevent: “Students not suspects”.
My third example is in relation to the government’s Prevent scheme for implementation by schools, colleges and universities. The rhetoric speaks about “delivering fundamental British values”, and exhorts individuals and organisations to identify signs of potential “extremism” in their peers and colleagues (along the lines of the Stasi in postwar Eastern Germany, where a considerable percentage of the population were required to act as government spies against neighbours, friends, colleagues and intimates).

New concepts and terminology have been invented by the Tory government, such as “non violent extremism”, and “domestic extremist”, and the language of safeguarding is used to emphasise “cohesion’ and “managing risk”. At a meeting held at the University of Liverpool (10 02 2016) to advocate against this scheme, speakers on the panel and from the floor described the policy as racist and in particular anti-muslim, arguing that it implicitly identifies all Muslims as terrorists-in-the-making. Staff and students in schools, colleges and universities are organizing to oppose Prevent, claiming that it will poison and undermine peer and staff and student relations, distort the educational environment, creating fear and mistrust all round, without reducing risk or increasing safety. In fact, speakers all thought it would make race relations and social cohesion far worse.

These staff and students therefore advocate non compliance with the legislation, and this can be understood as an act of social and professional responsibility; as an humanitarian act, refusing to ‘other’, for example, Muslims; as an act in defence of the open practice of education for democracy, acknowledging the intimate and essential interconnections between education, equality and democracy.

‘Met signals a shift in attitude to rape claims’ (Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, 11 02 2016).
My fourth example comes in the wake of the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, announcing that he wishes to see the policy of police automatically believing victims of rape and sexual assault dropped (see Dodd).

Vera Baird, the police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, said her force would not be adopting the policy of not automatically believing an alleged abuse victim” (Sandra Laville, ‘Hogan-Howe under fire for abuse comments’. The Guardian, 13 02 2016).

Baird explained: “Thousands of victims of sexual abuse have been denied justice through the attitude the Met commissioner now advocates” (Laville, ibid.). Similarly, the College of Policing chief executive, Alex Marshall, “put distance between the rest of UK police and Hogan-Howe” (ibid.):

While careful consideration should be given to ensuring the integrity of the evidence, to begin an investigation from a position of doubt is unlikely to encourage victims to come forward (cited Laville).

Vera Baird’s speedy declaration of non compliance with Hogan-Howe’s proposal for a reversal of what has been implemented as best practice in the wake of the Jimmy Savile revelations in 2012 (followed by many others), may be variously identified as an act of personal and professional integrity; an act of conscience; an act of social responsibility; and an exercising of the political power vested in her position as a police and crime commissioner.

Baird is so far the only police and crime commissioner to declare non compliance with Hogan-Howe’s proposal. It remains to be seen whether others in her position follow suit, in which case it would become another example of collective non compliance by a professional / political cohort (cf the hospitals cited earlier). It will also be of interest to see if there is a political split on this issue across party lines. Baird is a Labour party member, but we know that on gender issues and sexual politics, consensus does not necessarily follow party political demarcations, being itself subject to those tensions and differences. For example, women are a tiny minority as police and crime commissioners. There were 192 candidates standing for election in England and Wales (not including London) for 41 posts. Of these, only 35 candidates were women, and only 6 of these were elected. And those in post (women or men) with gender-aware, feminist values will be an even smaller minority.

Non compliance and democracy in 2016.
Democracy requires people’s vigilance, our active engagement. Without that participation, it can be high-jacked by those with vested interests democracy fails to ‘serve’; those who relish their own power and who see democracy as their enemy. Dr Rachel Clark, a core medical trainee, sums up the current impasse and its destructive consequences for Junior Doctors and the NHS after Hunt’s decision to impose his new contract:

I don’t think the relationship with the government can get more poisonous. And really, all I really want to do is get on, and go to work, and care for patients. I don’t want to be speaking to the media, or protesting, or fighting the government (cited Jessica Elgot,‘Defied doctors weigh future’. The Guardian, 13 02 2016).

I sympathise, I really do. For example, as a fellow human being, as a woman, as a mother, as an anti-Tory activist and anti-fascist, and as a worn-out feminist and anti-racist campaigner, amongst my multiple identities. But I am also tempted to observe: welcome to the real world we share under a Tory government using Austerity as its cover for imposing its malign will on the people.

Another doctor, from one of the poorest constituencies in the country, describes the imposition of Hunt’s new contract as “the final nail in the coffin for some of them” (Dr Stephen Hitchin, a registrar in emergency medicine, cited Elgot, ibid.) “Medicine” he says, “is already dominated by people from wealthy backgrounds, this will make it worse” (ibid.). And it is also likely to particularly disadvantage women doctors with caring responsibilities for young or elderly relatives. So gender and poverty, for example, are relevant issues in debates about the Junior Doctors’ contract.

The despair and exhaustion Junior Doctors feel are widespread across society now, not confined to those most disparaged and victimized by government policies, such as those with disabilities, those on welfare benefits, the unemployed and the homeless. And as one young Merseyside Momentum supporter asked me after the last picket: “How many of the Junior Doctors actually voted for this government in 2015?” I had to admit to him that, on the picket on that freezing cold morning, I had forgotten to ask.

So acts of non compliance can also be identified as urgent and emergency actions: refusals to accept, for example, injustice, cruelty, corruption (material as well as of the spirit), and above all, the rule of force and coercion. The examples discussed here are all responses to imposition, to force (legal or otherwise), to politics and governance as dominance and coercion (you can make your own list), designed to create subservience, and inculcate a sense of inferiority and powerlessness (no matter what your social, economic position or circumstances). I have the following words on a postcard, cellotaped to the front of a ring-bound shiny silver notebook that I currently carry to meetings;

When INJUSTICE becomes Law,
RESISTANCE becomes Duty.

Democracy necessarily involves critique and dissent, as opposed to silent obedience, endurance and conformity in the face of violation, for example of someone’s human rights. Non compliance can therefore be understood as a civic duty, as a defence of democracy, equality and social justice. By acting together (and for safety and greatest impact, we need to act together, not in isolation or discrete constituencies), with both small gestures and collective movements, we can turn non compliance into widening ripples of creative agency for social justice, equality and human rights. And bring this Tory government to an end. Please participate.

val walsh / 14 02 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The trouble is. . . .” Economists, economics, and the UK Left.

  • Denial and inequality
  • Please, not more of the same
  • Privileging power, maintaining dominance
  • Learning the lessons
  • Challenging TINA (There Is No Alternative)
  • The trouble is . . . . .

Looking back over the news in the previous week (from the beaches of Lesbos, “the panicked trading floors of Shanghai, to jihadi massacres in Pakistan and Burkina Faso”, then “seamlessly” to Davos for five minutes), economics editor of Channel 4 News, Paul Mason, comments:

As the world goes to hell in a handcart, the elite of policymakers and financiers
remain convinced everything’s going to be all right. (Paul Mason, Guardian G2, 26 01 2016).

And if you have seen The Big Short, Adam McKay’s (2016) film about the men who made millions by betting on the 2008 banking / housing crash in the US, you will have glimpsed inside that bubble of elite, turbo-masculine certainty and power.

Based on a book by former banker Michael Lewis, it illustrates not just the ingenuity of a few mavericks, but the stupidity, complacency and amorality of the financial and political elite (Mason, ibid.). (Emphasis added.)

Denial and inequality.
Cambridge economist, Professor Ha-Joon Chang (one of the Labour party’s new economics advisers), offers his verdict:

In truth the west failed to learn from the 2008 crash. Any economic ‘recovery’ was built on asset bubbles (‘Don’t blame China for these global jitters’, The Guardian: 22 01 2016).

The refusal to restructure their economies, he argues, means that “the rich countries have wasted the last seven years propping up a bankrupt economic model” (ibid.). (Emphasis   added.) So, he recommends:

Before things get any worse, we need to replace it with one in which the financial sector is made less complex and more patient, investment in the real economy is encouraged by fiscal and technological incentives, and measures are                           brought in to reduce inequality so that demand can be maintained without creating more debts (ibid.).

These are three clear strategies, evidence-based policies, for a future UK Labour government. The shadow cabinet should be making the case for these now: explaining them and preparing the country and its institutions for the change. Of course, a PLP                  (Parliamentary Labour Party) stuffed with unreconstructed neoliberal MPs, who adhere to the Tory Austerity agenda (or scam), will find that difficult, as they appear to lack the will or conscience to examine and challenge prevailing economic and political orthodoxies, and the threat they present to a just and fair society, to international relations, and to the global environment. Perhaps they just don’t care.

Meanwhile, The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, analyses ‘The promise and peril of Industrial Revolution 4.0” (The Guardian, 25 01 2016), and warns that, contrary to the oft-promoted idea of trickle-down wealth and prosperity:

All the evidence so far is that the benefits of the coming change will be concentrated among a relatively small elite, thus exacerbating the trend towards greater levels of inequality (Elliott, ibid.).

Elliott notes that this was a point stressed by the Swiss bank UBS in a report launched a Davos, and that a similar argument is made by Klaus Schwab, who runs the World Economic Forum, in his book (2016), The Fourth Industrial Revolution. The structural changes in employment and unemployment that are a consequence of the technological change that is driving the fourth industrial revolution, mean that it is easier to make money (and lots of it, quickly) with far fewer workers than it was a quarter of a century ago.

Please, not more of the same.
Elliott describes the 2nd myth (of three) about Industrial Revolution 4.0: ‘that the process will be trouble free provided everything is left to the market’ (ibid.). (See also Larry Elliott & Dan Atkinson (2008) The Gods that Failed: How Blind Faith in the Markets has Cost us our Future.) Elliott quotes Philip Jennings, general secretary of the global UNI union:

We need some governance to ensure a democratic evolution and that requires public policy discussion. There is the opportunity to shape technology to improve people’s lives – through connectivity, education, health. We shouldn’t be fearful and fatalistic about it (cited Elliott, 25 01 2016). (Emphasis added.)

What is technology for? Is it just about money making? Is it just a means for excessive personal or company profits for elites? Is it just about expanding consumerism? Or is there an alternative model, which sees technological change and innovation as about social, environmental and geopolitical problem solving? Improving lives, supporting health, enhancing wellbeing, protecting nature, underpinning harmonious relations, nationally and internationally, i.e. reducing hierarchy and inequality, those differences that can be exploited and turned too easily into discord, conflict and wars. The UK Labour party and the trade unions should be espousing this alternative model, and working with business, industry and communities to realise its social, economic and environmental potential.

Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever since 2009, is conscious of the bigger picture:

Actually, that is one of the key issues in the world right now – the lack of global governance in a world that has become far more interdependent (Polman, interviewed by Graham Ruddick, ‘We can show there is a different
business model out there and satisfy shareholders’. The Guardian, 26 01 2016). (Emphasis added.)

Polman draws attention to the distinctiveness and complexity of the current global and inter/national challenge:

Increasingly the issues that we are facing – climate change, unemployment, social cohesion, food security – these are issues of global proportions. We are often trapped in short termism . . . or other things (ibid).

Klaus Schwab (cited Elliott, 25 01 2016) also takes a holistic view:

The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril. My concern, however, is that decision-makers are too often caught in traditional, linear (non-disruptive) thinking or too absorbed by immediate concerns to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping our future.

Elliott translates this to mean that “the current political framework is no longer fit for purpose and its shortcomings are likely to lead to a backlash that could turn very nasty” (Elliott, 25 01 2016). (Emphasis added.) Paul Mason cites evidence that the very nasty is already too close for comfort:

A Belgian minister, in an EU negotiation, is alleged – by his Greek counterpart – to have demanded the Greeks “push back or sink” the boats coming from Turkey, in breach of international law. . . . These demands are demonstrating to the rest of Europe the incapacity of its leading powers and institutions to face facts: the next million refugees could only be stopped by a policy of pushback that would break all humanitarian law (Mason, 02 02 2016. The Guardian). (Emphasis added.)

Privileging power, maintaining dominance.
In the UK in 2016, the level of political incompetence and lack of good governance is already stark and disturbing. Three topical examples illustrate the extent of the democratic deficit. First, the government’s lack of an energy policy (as opposed to allowing the markets to create shareholder profits at the expense of both energy efficiency or fair and adequate supply to the population) is about to be exposed as a lethal combination of lethargy, neglect, ideological nepotism and economic incompetence:

Under current (government) policy, it is almost impossible for UK electricity demand to be met by 2025 (Jenifer Baxter, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, cited Fiona Harvey, ‘UK faces 2025 energy crisis, say engineers’. The Guardian: 26 01 2016).

This advancing crisis is truly scary, and is the result of both government inaction / not doing things, such as not replacing exhausted and/or harmful sources of energy to make up the coming energy deficit, plus doing (the wrong) things, such as scrapping energy efficiency schemes (e.g. home insulation) and cutting subsidies for onshore wind and solar power. As a consequence:

With little or no focus on reducing electricity demand, the retirement of the majority of the country’s aging nuclear fleet, recent proposals to phase out coal-fired power by 2025, and the cut in renewable energy subsidies, the UK is on                           course to produce even less electricity than it does at the moment (Jenifer Baxter, cited Fiona Harvey, ibid.).

Government in/action has reduced supply, made it more expensive, undermined UK businesses and jobs in the renewables sector, suppressed technological innovation, and created social and economic uncertainty. But shareholder profits are holding up nicely. As George Monbiot shows, taking oil as his example (03 02 2016), this is no accident:

As these new crisis bailouts for fossil fuels show, the least deserving get the most government protection (‘We’re drowning in cheap oil – so why throw public money at the industry?’ The Guardian).

Tory government policy and actions expressly discriminate between and against ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’:

An energy transition threatens the kind of people who attend the Conservative party’s fundraising balls. . . . As they did for the bankers, our political leaders ensure that everyone must pay the costs imposed by the fossil fuel companies – except the fossil fuel companies (Monbiot, ibid.)

The power to object to fracking is suppressed, while the power to dissent against renewable energy projects is facilitated, both via changes in legal procedures designed for the purpose (see Monbiot, ibid.)

The third domestic example of Tory lack of governance is the tax case of Google, which has, after years of avoidance, agreed to pay what many see as a derisory 3% tax on its considerable UK business.

Google’s sweetheart deal has provided an unusually clear glimpse into the working methods of the corporate-political establishment that sits at the heart of our national life (Jonathan Freedland, ‘Google crosses borders. The tax collectors should too’. The Guardian, 30 01 2016).

It seems that the most powerful corporations, such as Google, have such a close relationship with this government that they can set their own tax rates, while the Tories busy themselves reducing life support for the poorest and most vulnerable in society, such as single parents, children, people in ill health and/or with disabilities, as well as the unemployed, under-employed and the working poor. And anyone unable to afford to either rent or buy shelter: a home.

It’s into this cesspit that public opinion has peered this week, stirring up yet another wave of the emotion increasingly shaping politics in Europe and across the Atlantic: raw loathing for political-corporate-media establishment that seems to be all in it together, scratching each other’s backs while everyone else struggles to get by (Freedland, ibid.). (Emphasis added.)

These examples of free market manipulation, willful neglect, fuelled by ideology and greed (and there are many others, from ‘policies’ on housing to refugees and asylum seekers) are closer to corruption than good governance. So how close are we in the UK to the situation described by Mark Baum, the designer of the “short”, in the film, The Big Short:

We’re living in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking. But in government, education, food, religion, journalism, prisons, baseball . . . [For the UK read football.] Somehow, American values became: Fuck it, let’s grab what we can for now and the hell with tomorrow (cited Mason, 26 01 2016). (Emphasis added.)

Learning the lessons.
Baum’s words neatly summarise the neoliberal mindset, and its economic and political methodology: the ruthless individualism and competitiveness, the unbridled greed, nerveless exploitation and rampant inequality. Commodification, cruelty, injustice. In the introduction to Post Capitalism. A Guide to our Future (2015), Mason sums up neoliberalism as:

The doctrine of uncontrolled markets: it says that the best route to prosperity is individuals pursuing their own self-interest, and the market is the only way to express that self-interest. It says the state should be small (except for its riot squad and secret police); that financial speculation is good; that inequality is good; that the natural state of humankind is to be a bunch of ruthless individuals, competing with each other (p xi).

The Big Short shows such men in action and the gendered economic and political environment that has fed and rewarded their greed, opportunism and lack of empathy. Adam McKay, The Big Short’s director, noticed that:

“The biggest thing I see (in audiences) is this hunger to know. A lot of people lost houses and jobs and most people still, in our country at least, didn’t really know why.” McKay says much of the reason for this ignorance must be laid at the feet of  the US media: “They didn’t even try to explain”. (Cited Paul MacInnes, ‘Crash! Bang! Wallop!’ The Guardian Guide, 23-29 01 2016). (Emphasis added.)

This brings us to Robert Peston in the UK, who came to prominence when reporting the banking/housing/financial crisis in 2008/2009, for the BBC on a near daily basis. During      those many months, he described and explained, what were unprecedented and shocking events, which would have catastrophic, life-changing consequences for so many people, communities and economies. He was outspoken and relentless in pursuit of the unfolding story.

He has recently taken up a new position as political editor on ITV’s News at Ten, now hosted by Tom Bradby (also a new appointment). In the light of the publication of two reports on why the Labour party lost the 2015 general election, Bradby asks Peston if he thinks the Labour party has learnt the lessons of that defeat (ITV News, 25 01 2016). Before turning to Peston’s response that evening, it is important, for the purposes of this commentary, to contextualize Bradby’s question and its underlying assumptions.

Since the election of Ed Miliband as Labour party leader in 2010, the Tory-dominated media   (press and broadcasting), as well as the Progress group of Labour MPs and commentators, including Guardian journalists, have promulgated a relentless narrative about the Labour party moving to the Left and therefore becoming unelectable (as well as a ‘national security   risk’).

‘Leftwing’ and ‘socialist’ in these circles means: backward-looking (to the 1980s or earlier), childish, off-the-wall, not credible, etc.. By contrast, UKIP, Tories and sundry other neoliberals, including supporting economists, are generally treated as repositories of reason, rationality, and sober manly political competence (a rhetoric that gained purchase, despite the historical evidence – political, economic, social, and now filmic – to the contrary. For example, commenting on the track record of free market economics, Ha-Joon Chang (2011) notes:

Over the last three decades, economists played an important role in creating the conditions of the 2008 crisis. . . . More broadly, they advanced theories that justified the policies that have led to slower growth, higher inequality, heightened job insecurity and more frequent financial crises that have dogged the world in the last three decades (Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism: 247).

In other words, economics has been worse than irrelevant. Economics, as it has been practised in the last three decades, has been positively harmful for most people (ibid: 248). (Emphasis added.)

This is a serious charge, one not to be ignored or denied if we care about people and their communities more than profit; if we care (and for human / species survival we need to care) about environmental sustainability and global justice. (See also Ha-Joon Chang [2007] Bad Samaritans: Rich Nations, Poor Policies and the Threat to the Developing World.)

Since the ‘shock’ election of longstanding MP, Jeremy Corbyn, as Labour’s new leader in 2015, taking almost 60% of the votes in a very high turnout leadership election, party membership has soared nationally, and activism (e.g. via local Momentum groups) is widespread, concerted and cross-generational. This stunning ‘revival’ runs counter to the consensus on the Right, that Labour needs to ‘learn its lessons’ and move closer to Tory and UKIP values and policies, if it is to win future elections (local, national or EU). The discourse is very parent/child: they (on the Right) are sensible ‘adults/parents’, Corbyn’s supporters are misbehaving children.

Since Corbyn’s election as leader, personal attacks on him and those who elected him have   been unbridled, relentless and toxic, demonstrating disturbance and incomprehension of those on the Right (including Guardian journalists and members of the PLP), who were clearly so out of touch with what was actually happening across the country in people’s lives as a result of wrecking-ball government policies, that the last thing they expected was for Corbyn to be elected at all, never mind by such a resounding majority.

The other three candidates, Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper, were routed, not just defeated, as their leadership campaigns increasingly revealed their neoliberal values. To vote for any one of them was to vote for more of the same. Voters understood that and delivered their verdict: that’s not what we want, not what is needed, and should not be the limits of Labour’s vision. Clearly, there are rising numbers of Labour members, voters and supporters who are looking for something different not similar. Many of us are probably driven by the “raw loathing” identified by Freedland (30 01 2016). And are we the only ones who feel a sense of recognition when he refers to the “cesspit of the corporate-political-media establishment”?

Chiming with economists critical of the free market economics of the last 40 years, Corbyn supporters had decided: ”We need a new model” (Mason, 2015: 29). This surge of political will suggests that Corbyn supporters have experienced and learned from the consequences  of the reversal Mason describes:

The big financial empires of the past 500 years were making profits from unequal trade, slavery and usury, which were then used to finance decent lifestyles at home. The USA, under neoliberalism, boosted profits by impoverishing its own citizens (Mason, 2015: 19). (Emphasis added.)

This is one of the reasons neoliberalism is not just about the economy, but constitutes a concerted attack on democracy itself.

In 2013, surveying the slow progress of austerity in southern Europe [i.e. Greece, Portugal, Spain], economists at JP Morgan spelled it out: for neoliberalism to survive, democracy must fade. . . . In other words, peoples who insisted on decent welfare systems in return for a peaceful transition out of dictatorship in the 1970s must now give up these things so that banks like JP Morgan survive (ibid.: xx). (Emphasis added.)

After Corbyn’s election as leader, words such as ‘leftwing’ and ‘socialist’ ceased to function as descriptors and became ‘objective’ terms of abuse, part of an intensified demonizing (and scaremongering) of Labour politics generally. Corbyn and his supporters are routinely identified as extremists (close to terrorists), while neoliberal politicians within the Labour party are described as ‘moderates’. The behaviour of these ‘moderates’ (moderate used to signify sensible, dignified, restrained and acceptably mainstream) has been akin to rats in a sack, as they scrap with each other about the best way to remove, defeat or undermine their party leader, rather than turning their firepower on those identified by banker Mark Baum, in The Big Short, as predators and criminals, or by Jonathan Freedland as the “corporate-political-media establishment” (30 01 2016).

When asked by Tom Bradby (25 01 2016) whether he thought the UK Labour party has “learnt the lessons” from the two reports on why Labour lost the 2015 general election (apparently for being too leftwing and not trusted on the economy), Peston appeared to hesitate before replying, as if he couldn’t quite get the words out. Well, he pointed out, the shadow chancellor has set up a panel of economists to advise the party. “And they are all brilliant”, he went on. Then he uttered the words that would trigger the writing of this commentary: “But the trouble is they are all left wing!” (Emphasis added.) In this single sentence, he gently echoed every other Tory, UKIP and Progress spokesperson, as he delivered what was meant as a damning dismissal (of “brilliant” economists and the Labour politicians who had decided to bring them on board as advisers on the economy).

Peston could have chosen to provide some political analysis (part of his job description?), for example by contrasting this Labour process of consulting economists, whose (award-winning) work is published, in the public domain and available to scrutiny, with the preferred Tory approach, which is to submit to the influence of lobbyists and favoured rich friends. Simon Jenkins is not alone in contesting that ‘Business lobbyists have corrupted the very heart of government” and in asking: “Who can police global capitalism?” (‘The big shortfall: how British taxpayers are being cheated’. The Guardian, 28 01 2016).

Instead of political analysis, Peston chose to align himself with the economics that got us into this mess. Which begs the question: what has he learnt as a result of these years of neoliberalism, including the 2008 crash and the follow up? After all that privileged access to the 2008 housing/banking crisis and the catastrophic workings of neoliberalism, his words reveal that he has after all internalised neoliberal orthodoxy, as the only way: TINA. Market dogma rules. Let’s not bother with examining the available evidence. Now, whatever else it is,  for a political commentator, that’s lazy.

Challenging TINA (there is no alternative) as the world goes to hell in a handcart.
By contrast to this supine submission to neoliberal dogma, Ha-Joon Chang quotes Goethe, artist and scientist], who said: ‘Everything factual is already a theory’. “Facts, even numbers, are in the end not objective” (Chang, 2014: 453). (See pp 453-456.) The assumption of free market economics as immutable, inevitable and right (as implied by Peston), is itself a political argument. Denying the political nature of economics is a sleight of hand, designed to disguise its purpose (in the service of those holding the reins of power).

Economics is a political argument. It is not – and can never be – a science; there are no objective truths in economics that can be established independently of political, and frequently moral, judgements. Therefore, when faced with an economic argument, you must ask the age-old question ‘Cui bono?” (Who benefits?) (Ha-Joon Chang [2014] Economics: The User’s Guide: 451). (Emphasis added.)

For example, Katrine Marcal (2015) notes:

Today the standard theories of economics maintain that economic outcomes are gender neutral. And they look incredibly neutral when they are expressed as abstract mathematics (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A story about women and economics: 172).

This is surely a good example of something factual already being a theory; in this case, rooted in historical gender power relations and unacknowledged / unexamined sexual politics.

By the 1980s, the finance industry was almost entirely based on abstract mathematics (ibid.: 72)

Cui bono? Who benefitted from this turn? Make your own list. Economists should keep their eyes on the lived reality of people in the society, and pay attention to prevailing power relations and inequalities, not just mathematical equations. Not doing this has actual, not abstract, consequences:

So, instead of seeing justice, equality, care, the environment, trust, physical and mental health as fundamental parts of the equation that creates economic value, they are construed as something that is in opposition to it (Marcal, ibid.: 183).

Which bits of that argument does Peston not understand or disagree with?

The trouble is. . . .
This brief overview of economics and the Left has thrown up many warnings:

  • warnings (and not just from the so-called ‘hard Left’) about existing and hardening hierarchy and inequality and their consequences
  • warnings about the impact of structural changes brought on by technological innovation and the role that the body politic and society must play in implementing and managing those changes for the common good, rather than individual vested interests
  • warnings that, in the context of international / global interdependence, hyper individualism and competitiveness as core vales and practices are dysfunctional and dangerous to survival and harmony (these being connected). (See Richard Sennett’s brilliant exposition (2013) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation.)
  • warnings about the failure of market ideology and the need to regulate and mediate the impact of markets, to understand where and when they are inappropriate, socially and economically divisive, and damaging to lives, social cohesion and peace. (See Michael Sandel [2012] What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets. This was American philosopher, Sandel’s theme for his brilliant keynote address at Labour party annual conference in 2013, at the invitation of Ed Miliband, then Labour leader. I thought at the time: what an inspired choice, as I was already familiar with his work.)
  • warnings about the vital importance of good governance (local, inter/national and global) and by implication, the role of ethics within politics
  • warnings about the problem of orthodoxy, traditional linear thinking and short termism.

How many red flags do we need before paying attention to the dangers, before declaring an emergency, before heeding the urgent need to change direction? As Ha-Joon Chang argues:

Political and ethical judgements are present even in ostensibly value-free exercises, such as defining the boundaries of the market. Deciding what belongs in the domain of the market is an intensely political exercise (Ha-Joon Chang [2014]: 452). (Emphasis added.) See also Sandel (2012) on the role and significance of non-market values.

As one of the economists asked by The Guardian to comment on whether we are heading for another global crash, economics professor at Sussex University, Mariana Mazzucato, (another of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell’s, New Economics advisers) judges that:

The biggest problem is that the financial sector is not working for the real economy, but against it. On top of that, companies are increasingly financialised, focusing on areas like share buybacks to boost stock options and executive pay, rather than on investment (The Guardian, 29 01 2016).

This is clearly a key target for change by a future Labour government. Like Ha-Joon Chang, Mazzucato demonstrates the importance of political and economic analysis, and the role of evidence, if we are to identify problems and come up with the tools for transformation, as opposed to coasting and drifting without effecting interventions. Marcal (2015) expands on this challenge:

Neoliberalism is not at all the same thing as laissez-faire, the economic school that thinks that if you just let things be the economy will blossom . . . . Neoliberalism doesn’t want to do away with politics – neoliberalism wants to put politics at the service of the market (Marcal, p 141). (Emphasis added.) See also Ha-Joon Chang [2014] ‘1980-Today: The Rise and Fall of Neo-liberalism’ in Economics: The User’s Guide: 90-106.

And this surely is the line in the sand between Tory, UKIP and other Right-inclined political parties, and the values and purposes of a Labour party and the trade union movement. But the charge against neoliberalism goes further and is even more profound:

The conflict Marx spoke of dissolves, but not in the way he imagined. It’s not the means of production that have changed – instead, the meaning of being human has changed (Marcal: 146). (Emphasis added.)

And as Paul Mason reminds us:

The elite and their supporters are lined up to defend the same core principles: high finance, low wages, secrecy, militarism, intellectual property and energy based on carbon. The bad news is that they control nearly every government in the world. The good news is that in most countries they enjoy very little consent or popularity                                              among ordinary people (Mason, 2015: xx).

Meanwhile, Peston appears to feel no “raw loathing” of where neoliberalism has brought us to or how we got here, or fear of what comes next. And he has company.

The Big Short is an important, brilliantly choreographed film, about a very serious subject and a most dramatic sequence of events. The American director, Adam McKay, has drawn impressive performances from his star-studded male cast: Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell. The publicity for the film stresses that THIS IS A TRUE STORY.  It is, it doesn’t mention explicitly, a story about elite men at work, and their unregulated power. It includes, as is customary, selected quotes from approving reviews. I read these out over the phone to the friend with whom I had been to see the film at my local community cinema the previous evening. She reacted with shock and disbelief as I quoted the following verdicts:

  • “A comedy to make your blood boil” (Robbie Collin, Daily Telegraph)
  • “Stupendously funny” (Tim Grierson, Screen International)
  • “Hugely entertaining. We love it” (Charles Gant, HEAT)
  • “The Big Short is fascinating, sexy, compelling and scathingly funny” (The Spectator).(Emphasis added.)

My friend and I had not realised we had been watching a funny, entertaining and ‘sexy’ film. A barrel of laughs. We found it chilling, stomach-turning. It had barely started when I whispered that we should have brought dark chocolate (and brandy). I guess for us it triggered feelings of “raw loathing”. . . . as well as powerlessness and defeat.

The review comments quoted are evidence: of both a disconnect (from the issues raised by the film / the ‘true story’, and a process of identification (with the characters / the men. These reviewers are probably men identifying with other men behaving recklessly / outrageously / aggressively and irresponsibly, as a gang. Men being ‘manly’ (see ‘Trident: Are you manly enough?’ in the ‘Presentations 2016’ category of this blog). Gaming the system is, after all, being extra clever. But at whose expense? If you don’t ask that question, then I guess you could find the men’s antics funny and entertaining. ‘Sexy’? Well, for two political women on the Left, that one is beyond baffling. And distasteful too, in its trivialising of the enduring human suffering that was caused by these men’s behaviour and their system.

I wonder how Peston and his friends understood the film? Did they find it entertaining and funny? Reassuringly ‘sexy’?

val walsh / 07 02 2016