The learning curve that is the 2015 Labour leadership contest.

Val Walsh [25 08 2015]

  • The scene so far: democracy galvanised or trashed?
  • The shadow of the neoliberal years
  • The importance of evidence
  • Feminist values, neoliberalism, Austerity and solidarity
  • In and outwith parliament: Labour’s next five years in opposition
  • List of texts cited
  • Postscript (31 08 2015)

Following defeat in the 2015 general election, and the subsequent resignation of the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, UK Labour party members and supporters are casting their votes for a new party leader and deputy leader. The ballot closes at noon on 10 September 2015. There are four candidates for the leadership: Andy Burnham, Jeremy Corbyn, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper.

The leadership context has generated huge interest amongst members and supporters, many of them newly joined. In particular, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has attracted hundreds to each of his public meetings across the UK (c1400 in the ballroom at the Adelphi hotel in Liverpool), which have seen an excited, hopeful, cross- generational mix of experienced (and long suffering!) Labour supporters and lots of young people, who have either never voted for a political party, or perhaps voted Lib Dem or Green in 2010. Once Jeremy’s name went on the candidate list at the very last minute, the leadership campaign was quickly electrified. This took everyone by surprise: MPs, media, Labour party members.

Over the weeks, comment has become heated, as polls have tracked this unprecedented political participation and Jeremy quickly opened up what appeared to be a clear lead. Latterly, comments from the other candidates and their establishment supporters (such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and other New Labour politicians) have descended into scaremongering and open hostility towards Jeremy and his supporters. The bile and venom displayed will have done little to enthuse young people about the party or politics itself. This does a disservice to our democracy, at a time when so much is at stake. While there are areas of consensus, the differences between the campaigns and manifestos of the three other candidates and Jeremy are substantive, not flimsy ‘branding’ differences.

The shadow of the neoliberal years.
                  Thirty years ago, the United Kingdom was one of the most equal countries in the developed world. Today it is one of the most unequal. This shift started at the beginning of the 1980s and put into reverse a half a century of political and social change that had reduced the gap   between the top and the bottom to its lowest level in history. (Stuart Lansley [2012] The            Cost of Inequality. Why economic equality is essential for recovery: 13).

Three of the four Labour leadership candidates grew up during and were shaped by, this gendered shift: within the confines of a western society adopting a new, weaponised version of capitalism: moving beyond laissez-faire capitalism to neoliberalism, within which “to refer to ‘economics’ became synonymous with referring to ’rationality’” (Katrine Marcal [2015] Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A story about women and economics: 106), and emphasis shifted from exchange to competition. In hindsight, it can be seen that:

Neoliberalism doesn’t want to do away with politics – neoliberalism wants to put politics at the service of the market . . . . . It’s not true that neoliberalism doesn’t want to pursue monetary, fiscal, family or criminal policies. It is rather that monetary, fiscal, family and criminal policies should all be used to procure what the market needs (Marcal: 141 & 142). Emphasis added.

This is what is at stake in the current leadership and deputy leadership contests: the role of markets, the power of markets, and the role of government, after neoliberal years that have sought to redefine what government is for. American philosopher, Michael Sandel’s (2012) What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets, is surely central to any analysis of the profound impact of marketisation on human values, relationships and social behaviour. The language of this new economics permeates political discourse, especially of those who have internalised this paradigm shift, as the ‘there is no alternative’ argument, as if what we are dealing with is ‘natural’ and therefore ‘right’. But it’s not natural and it’s not right, and it’s not good.

Reflecting on his life and work as a playwright “on the left with a sense of humour” in ‘David Hare v the establishment. A memoir of the 60s and 70s. Rebel, rebel’ (22 08 2015, Guardian Review: 2) Hare observes:

Today’s state of affairs, in which everyone is resigned to social injustice, is far more unnatural than the protests of the 70s.

‘Austerity’ is not a ‘fact’ thrust upon us, but a persuasive discourse promulgated by the powerful for their own purposes: an ideological game-plan of the hard Right, which seeks to obscure the fact that “there are alternatives to austerity” (David Stuckler & Sanjay Basu [2013] The Body Politic. Eight experiments in economic recovery, from Iceland to Greece: 93). Stuckler & Basu’s conclusion is that: “Austerity is a choice. And we don’t have to choose it” (p141). To the apparent astonishment of many Labour MPs, the media, and the rest of us, the Labour party leadership contest is poised around exactly these issues. For after 30+ years of neoliberalism and five years of Tory-led Austerity, the experiential and research evidence is in:

Recessions can hurt, but austerity kills (Stuckler & Basu: xx).

In 2010, at the advent of the Tory-led coalition, the Labour party failed to challenge the chancellor, George Osborne’s, version of events: that Labour in government had overspent on welfare (e.g. social security, schools and health) and had thus caused the financial crash in 2008. The Tory scam, relentlessly re-iterated, was the idea of national debt as the same as household debt, which needed to be paid off asap: the compelling ‘we must live within our means’ catch phrase. But, as Stuckler & Basu (p5), alongside notable economists, have pointed out: “Government debt isn’t like personal debt”.

 And if, as a politician or economist (Chancellor even), you seek to promulgate this ‘common sense view’, you either lack intellectual heft and economic understanding, and/or you are in the business of seduction / deception: creating a convincing, ideologically calculated fiction as an exercise in power and personal / class advantage. When Labour voted for the government’s bill to cap welfare spending, economist Ha-Joon Chang (‘Welfare myths, not costs, are out of control’. 28 03 2014, The Guardian) saw this as a “decisive wrong turn” and challenged the view that “the UK needs ‘to prevent welfare costs spiralling out of control’, given the wasteful nature of such spending”. This, he said, “is not backed up by evidence”. But neoliberals lean towards ideology (and lies) rather than evidence-based policies, and:

Free marketeers and proponents of austerity tend to believe in paying off debt, regardless of the human price (Stuckler & Basu: xi). Emphasis added.

As Zoe Williams has pointed out, “the only people still cleaving to these ideas are the political class and the technocrats who support them” (‘Corbynomics must smash this cosy consensus on debt’, 17 08 2015, The Guardian). This includes, unfortunately, a number of Labour politicians.

The importance of evidence.
                  The(se) dangers of austerity are as consistent as they are profound. In history, and decades   of research, the price of austerity has been recorded in death statistics and body counts. . .    We now have extensive data that reveal which measures kill, and which save lives. (Stuckler & Basu: xv)

You would expect such data to be taken seriously by Labour politicians, in their efforts to develop evidence-based policy and practice, including effective parliamentary opposition to Tory austerity policies. However, the shock and disarray amongst Labour politicians and the media, as public support for Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity campaign gathered momentum this summer, and exceeded all expectations, indicates that our ‘political class’ were totally out of touch with what was happening across the country: the damage wreaked by austerity politics, to lives, communities and services; and the hunger that exists amidst the frustration, desolation and despair, for a different politics that will alleviate the pain and disorder, and restore hope, fairness, dignity and purpose. For example:

Clinicians set out on a 100-mile trek to highlight the devastating effect cuts to services are having on wellbeing (Dawn Foster [19 08 2015] ‘The psychologists walking to fight austerity’s impact on mental health.’ Guardian Society).

Referencing the response of Iceland’s government to the (banking) crisis, Stuckler & Basu remind us of “the importance of safeguarding democracy, even at a time when extraordinary responses are needed” (p73). The apparent ignorance, denial and/or disbelief of many Labour politicians has been exposed during the current leadership campaigns, and indicates a problem within the body politic around evidence: how it is recognised, gathered, understood and valued. How it can provide a basis for creative, corrective action: facilitative, non authoritarian and healing. And how a living bridge between academics, researchers, practitioners (including artists and writers), and activists can serve to nurture our democracy and our politics. Clearly relations between parliament and people, between politicians and knowledge producers outwith parliament, need reviewing and renewing.

It feels a bit crass to work with someone on their anxiety, when they’re at risk of losing their home or not being able to feed their kids (37 year old clinical psychologist, Stephen Weatherhead, cited Foster).

These practitioners turned activists are offering up evidence accrued at the interface with clients / service users / colleagues. Evidence-based policy and practice still have a certain status for practitioners in, for example, education, public health, social care, science and even business. Examining Iceland’s post crash situation, and the process of deciding how to proceed, in the face of potential IMF strictures, Stuckler & Basu note (p65):

This situation called for a reality-based, data-driven approach, not theoretical models based on untestable assumptions.

The backstory to such an approach lies in the work of John von Neumann. He trained as a chemist and mathematician, launched game theory in 1944, and died in 1957, having been Influential in the development of modern computing. “His game theory became the foundation for modern finance (see Marcal: 70-79):

Mathematical models should never be superordinate to reality in the way that they have become since John von Neumann’s time. This has had severe consequences – most notably it resulted in the 2008 global financial crisis. By the 1980s, the finance industry was almost entirely based on abstract mathematics (p74).

Evidence is something else. It can be experiential as well as statistical, and these are often valued differentially and hierarchically: the one accruing ‘feminine’ associations with the body and emotions; the other seen as intellectual, the work of the (masculine) mind. To encounter and understand this sort of evidence:

  • politicians need to get out and about
  • they need to pay attention to what is going on (beyond their own lives and habitat) in other people’s lives and communities and places of work
  • they need to scrutinize the impact of policy and legislation on lives, communities, working practices, and with a specific concern for existing or consequential inequalities, disadvantage and injustice.

Evidence is for sharing and also requires interrogation and critical engagement from our politicians: listening, questioning and dialogue, amongst themselves and with others beyond their immediate circle. And reading is vital. There is now a not inconsiderable body of work, by academics, researchers, journalists, practitioners (including artists, performers, playwrights) and activists, on the (inter/national) consequences of neoliberal policies, including Austerity, for example on inequalities, social class, poverty, (mental) health, workplace practices, the economy, the environment and democracy. (See list at end of this essay.)

Michael Sandel was an invited plenary speaker at Labour conference in 2013. Being already familiar with his work (for example, What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets) [2012]), I thought this was a brilliant initiative, not just because he is a superb communicator and teacher, but because of the importance of his themes and his discursive, critical, pedagogic methodology for the Labour party and any future Labour government. What, I now wonder, did Andy, Liz and Yvette make of his presentation? And did the shadow cabinet and/or Labour MPs formally follow it up via working parties or discussion groups?

David Stuckler, an American researcher in the fields of economics and global health, who is based in Oxford, UK, gave a presentation to students, academics and others at the University of Liverpool in 2015, based on The Body Politic (cited above, and written with Sanjay Basu, a professor of medicine and an epidemiologist based at Stanford University in the USA). In the session, I asked him whether he had presented their findings to Labour MPs (a matter of some urgency, I thought). He said they had not been approached, there appeared to be no interest.

Feminist values, neoliberalism, Austerity and solidarity.
               With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that the movement for women’s liberation pointed simultaneously to  two different possible futures. In a first scenario, it prefigured a world in which gender emancipation went hand in hand with participatory democracy and social solidarity; in a second, it promised a new form of liberalism, able to grant women as well as men the goods of individual autonomy, increased choice, and meritocratic  advancement (Nancy Fraser [14 10 2013] ‘How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it.’ The Guardian). Emphasis added.

Feminist philosopher, Nancy Fraser, identifies the historical predicament of feminist movement and campaigns during the two phases of capitalism: state-managed capitalism of the postwar era followed by neoliberalism, with its emphasis on individualism, ‘choice’ and privatising the public sector. Three of the Labour leadership candidates (now in their 40s) have been shaped (groomed?), even determined, by the dominant neoliberal ideology since 1979. This poses a dilemma for women (or men) wishing to elect a feminist / pro feminist / feminist-aware candidate who is not a pro Austerity neoliberal. As Selma James has pointed out (Guardian letter (19 08 2015), there is only one candidate who comes close, and he is male: Jeremy Corbyn.

Human rights, a work-life balance, open and balanced justice, wages that meet the cost of living, access to quality education, a welfare state, decent and affordable homes, labour laws that prevent exploitation of children and adults – all these things were not the result of capitalism. They were won from capitalism, by movements for social democracy, and   only very recently (Kerry-Anne Mendoza [2015] Austerity. The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy: 179). Emphasis added.

None of these features of what we call a civilised, democratic society is naturally occurring or inevitable if you wait long enough. For example:

Each protection in law was won by workers, not gifted to workers. They were not the trickle-down benefits of capitalism. They were won from capitalism” (Mendoza, 2015: 121).

Many people, for example, young people, those not born in the UK, and those failed by an educational system that does not cover this history, remain ignorant of these facts. Returning to the UK in 1979, after a year away, playwright David Hare records how:

Nothing had prepared us for quotations from St Francis on the steps of Downing Street –  “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” – being offered straight to camera as a ruling class piss-take. The effrontery was new. But the change of tone did not alert me, or indeed anyone else I knew, to the first shudders of a hairpin reversal that would last for at              least 35 years. Of all the things that might happen, we had least foreseen that capitalism might have the ability to renew itself from within, kicking up a gear by freeing up markets and tearing up workers’ rights. It had been ingrained in every aspect and in all the evidence of my upbringing that the gains made in the 1940s towards free education, free health and decent standards of welfare were permanent gains, lasting standards of improvement, the majority of the people finally imposing themselves on the minority (Guardian Review, 22 08 2015: 4). Emphasis added.

Three of the leadership candidates are not just tainted by association; they variously embody the neoliberal project and its assumptions. Liz Kendall is rigid in her acceptance of Osborne’s ‘commonsense’ framing of the economy and the nation’s ‘debt’: for her there is no alternative model. Andy has presented himself on You Tube as ‘man of the people’: as son, brother, husband, father, football mate (so many manly roles), throwing in a bit of sexism on the side towards Yvette (via her intimate association with Ed Balls). So not much self-reflexive, gender awareness or feminist consciousness there. And Selma James (Guardian letter, 19 08 2015) has seriously exposed the limitations of Yvette’s feminist credentials when she held the reins of power as a secretary of state.

Over the weeks, Liz has become more strident and shouty on camera, and more insulting towards other candidates; while smiling Andy and Yvette have floundered, as they have tried to second guess how any statement or policy might ‘play’ with the media and/or general public or specific sub sections thereof (e.g. UKIP supporters, former Labour voters, blokes, women, the unions, business, etc.). This mutability renders them not flexible, but unreliable, unknowable, likely to blow with the wind, which in turn makes trust difficult. So overall, this does not feel like the new politics many are looking for: a modern politics of integrity, underpinned by feminist and environmental values, human rights, social justice and fairness, and informed by some understanding of our political and economic history to this point, including the neoliberal turn engendered by Thatcherism from the 1980s. David Hare looks back (22 08 2015: 4) in disbelief (and horror?):

But for those of us who were committed to believing in the essential wisdom of electorates, the idea of the country agreeing to hand itself back to the laissez-faire barbarism of the years before the war was unimaginable (Hare: 4).

The idea that to be taken seriously as a politician, you have to be like them (Tories, neoliberals, UKIP): to ape their style (of ‘manly’, upper class dominance/buffoonery); echo their ideological outpourings as if they were ‘common sense’; and to suppress your difference – social, political, cultural – out of fear or politeness: these pressures are insidious and powerful, but to be resisted. Such ‘impersonation’ leaves too many constituents unrepresented, alienated, abandoned. And some MPs, bewildered in their role, find intellectual courage and optimism depleted in the effort to conform / be inoffensive and ‘loyal’. Whereas for Hare’s generation:

Up till now, for those of us born in 1947, the direction of travel, however erratic, had been towards social justice and equality. From this point on, it would be retreat (Hare: 4).

Born in 1949, 20+ years ahead of the other three candidates, Jeremy Corbyn belongs to Hare’s generational political cohort, and this has turned out to be a significant factor contributing to Jeremy’s appeal in 2015, to both young and old potential Labour voters. These distinctive neoliberal years clearly form more than a historical backdrop to the current Labour leadership contest, in a way that was not anticipated. Efforts by his opponents to characterize him as old-fashioned (with no fashion sense!), backward-looking and elderly (referred to as a grandfather figure at one point), do not appear to have dented Jeremy’s appeal as a candidate bringing fresh energy, values and integrity to what is widely seen as a crisis for country and party. This is fascinating to watch, as increasingly the leadership election has turned into Jeremy versus political and media rats in a sack, beside themselves at the prospect of losing power and not controlling the result.

Whatever else it is, the dismantling of the postwar welfare settlement and the public sector, including the privatization of the NHS, is an unequivocally anti-feminist project, and should be identified and challenged as such. In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A story about women and economics, Katrine Marcal exposes and critiques the “story about the inherent perfection of a market economy” (p77), and argues that it is not the means of production that have changed, as a result, “instead, the meaning of being human has changed” (p146). This is what is at stake in this leadership contest. As Nancy Fraser urges (14 10 2013):

Feminists need to break off our dangerous liaison with neoliberalism . . . (instead) integrating the struggle to transform a status order premised on masculinist cultural values with the struggle for economic justice. (And) we might sever the bogus bond between our critique of bureaucracy and free-market fundamentalism by reclaiming the mantle of     participatory democracy as a means of strengthening the public powers needed to constrain capital for the sake of justice. Emphasis added.

Susan George also focuses on the damage done to democracy:

Part of the multiple crisis is the assault against democracy. . . . Contempt for the ordinary person, assumed to be politically incompetent, is accompanied by the unbridled and privileged access given to private-sector interests (Susan George [2011] Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World:199).

Therefore:

As we confront the crisis, the enormous task before us is to restore both representative and                 participatory democracy in order to regain and exercise political control over our own affairs (George: 200).

No neoliberal-inclined politician is going to offer that route to citizens (now consumers) / the electorate. Such aims are viewed by the establishment as inherently destabilising, undesirable, and therefore declared “undeliverable”. Presumably along with social resilience:

Social resilience means consciously striving for more equal, more inclusive societies with more public services, more social protection and more democratic participation of employees and consumers (George: 276).

So not what Tories or other neoliberals understand as resilience: which is the capacity to endure and adapt to the punishment of Austerity (e.g. benefit cuts) without kicking up a fuss: i.e. to conform, alone and in silence. And if it is decreed that there is no alternative, what on earth is a Labour party for? There is also little compatibility between neoliberal values and purposes, and feminist values and purposes. Faced with the candidates standing for election, this poses a potential problem for women and/or feminists, including some men.

Angry at the failure of the Labour party to fully integrate and promote women as parliamentary candidates and MPs over the years, and to change Labour’s still sexist, male dominated, gendered political culture, there are Labour feminists who will not vote for a man to be the next party leader or deputy in 2015, and who dread the prospect of an all male pairing as leader and deputy. As a feminist activist of the Left, I have spent years railing against older white heterosexual men’s dominance and bad behaviour (see conference presentations, essays, articles, letters and poems on togetherfornow.wordpress.com). Jeremy is undeniably an older white heterosexual male, and over the years this is not a constituency that many women or feminists have looked to for good behaviour, never mind salvation. But as Selma James, commenting on the leadership contest (Guardian letter, 19 08 2015), concludes: “Better men against sexist austerity than women for it”. Nonetheless, I feel huge, feminist disappointment that in 2015 there are no anti-austerity, pro stimulus, non neoliberal Labour women putting themselves forward to lead the party.

In and outwith parliament: Labour’s next five years in opposition.
Given the tenor and sense of desperation of opposition candidates and supporters, their rants about Jeremy being unelectable as a prime minister in 2020, there has been a distinct sense that many MPs think that the only power worth bothering with is actually being the party of government; that what matters is getting hold of power (i.e. office), no matter what or how. I doubt this chimes with the mood of the nation or large sections of the Labour party and its supporters at this time. We need to be seen as effective in opposition now. And we need to effect change now.

The craving for power may not be seen as a virtue any more, and there may be a more qualitative approach emerging as to what the party and the wider Labour movement needs to do between now and the next general election. First we need a new leader and deputy leader in whom members and supporters have confidence and feel trust, who can help steer the party during the next five years of opposition. Then the process of reconceiving party organisation and its democratic processes must get going, overturning tendencies towards top-down, hierarchical, authoritarian structure. So a period of recalibration and opposition lies ahead. For when parliament reconvenes this autumn, the party faces a government with a majority of 12, in the context of the pressing social and economic reality across the country, for which that government is responsible:

Hunger, poverty and homelessness rising exponentially in a time of economic growth can only ever be a political choice. Austerity is planned hunger, planned poverty and planned homelessness. It is the deliberate destitution of the many, to benefit the few (Kerry-Anne Mendoza, 2015: 83). Emphasis added.

In these circumstances, members and supporters will expect Her Majesty’s loyal opposition to oppose effectively, rather than view the next five years as oppositional drift, while it holds its breath till the next big gig: the EU referendum (in 2016?) or the 2020 general election. Activist MPs, such as Stella Creasy and Tom Watson, have shown that much can be achieved against the odds in opposition, both inside and outwith parliament, and in cohort with other groups, organisations and parties, as new relationships are forged and existing ones sustained, the better to meet the political challenge presented by the Tories and their well funded backers and promoters across society, industry and the media. Merely being an ‘echo chamber’ for the Tories will neither nourish representational and participatory democracy, nor revive the fortunes of the Labour party.

The Labour and trade union movement must turn this crisis into an opportunity. Moving beyond neoliberal tyranny and its “economic man” (see Marcal: 2015) as the measure of all things (see also Richard Sennett’s alpha male [2012] in Together. the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation), requires the feminist values and action that neoliberalism cannot encompass or sustain.

Feminism’s best-kept secret is just how necessary a feminist perspective is in the search for a solution to our mainstream economic problems. It is involved in everything from inequality to population growth to benefits to the environment and the care crunch that will soon face aging societies. Feminism is about so much more than ‘rights for women’. So far only half of the feminist revolution has happened. We have added women and stirred         (Marcal: 197). Emphasis added.

Now we must go further, to “build an economy and a society with room for a greater spectrum of what it means to be human” (Marcal: 197). Katrine says “we don’t need to call it a revolution: rather, it could be termed an improvement” (p197). That will be ambitious enough, as it will require concerted co-operation between peers / equals, rather than individualist competitiveness. For the next five years it’s not about winning elections, but improving behaviour, organisation and lives as best we can: Do no harm. Repair damage and injury. Create better ways of being and doing. Above all, be clear about what Labour stands for and take back the political narrative from the Tories, in opposition, in conversation with the electorate, and in alliance with other progressive democratic agencies and individuals Then, together, win the 2020 general election. Because, finally, we’re worth it.

Texts cited above in order of citation:

Stuart Lansley (2012) The Cost of Inequality. why economic equality is essential for recovery.

Katrine Marcal (2015) Who cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A story about women and economics.

David Hare (22 08 2015) ‘Rebel, rebel.’ Guardian Review.

David Stuckler & Sanjay Basu (2013) The Body Politic. Eight experiments in economic recovery, from Iceland to Greece.

Ha-Joon Chang (28 03 2014) ‘Welfare myths not costs, are out of control.’ The Guardian.

Dawn Foster (19 08 2015) ‘The psychologists walking to fight austerity’s impact on mental health.’ Guardian Society.

Michael Sandel (2012) What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets.

Nancy Fraser (14 10 2013) ‘How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it.’ The Guardian.

Selma James (19 08 2015) Guardian letter.

Kerry-Anne Mendoza (2015) Austerity. The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy.

Richard Sennett (2012) Together. The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation.

Susan George (2011) Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World.

in addition, the titles below offer startling evidence / case studies, together with detailed analysis, critical insight and vision relevant to the issues and challenges touched on here.

Andrew Simms (2009) Ecological Debt. Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations.

Andrew Simms (2013) Cancel the Apocalypse. The New Path to Prosperity.

Danny Dorling (2011) Injustice. Why social inequality persists.

Ha-Joon Chang (2010) 23 Things They don’t Tell You About Capitalism.

Ha-Joon Chang (2014) Economics: The User’s Guide.

James Meek (2014) Private Island. Why Britain now belongs to someone else.

Mariana Mazzucato (2014) The Entrepreneurial State. Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths.

Mary O’Hara (2014) Austerity Bites.

Paul Mason (2010) Meltdown. The End of the Age of Greed.

Paul Mason (2015) Post Capitalism.

Polly Toynbee & David Walker (2015) Cameron’s Coup. How the Tories Took Britain to the Brink.

Tom Clark (2014) Hard Times.

And the journalism of Aditya Chakrabortty, Danny Dorling, Larry Elliot, Paul Mason, Paul Stieglitz, Paul Krugman, Seumas Milne, Tom Clark, Will Hutton and others.

See also the following on togetherfornow.wordpress.com

(09 09 2013) ‘Why set up a blog now?’ Homepage.

(09 09 2013) ‘Democracy in turmoil: lies, exploitation, corruption, damage, division, conflict, abuse. . . Is that all there is?’

(10 10 2012) ‘Sexism and activism: what’s the problem?’

(10 10 2012) ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”: reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others).’

(25 06 2014) ‘A shared “somatic crisis”: enough common ground?’ INTAR conference presentation.

(07 03 2015) ‘Friends, comrades, strangers: especially those feeling apathetic, cynical, confused, disillusioned and/or angry. Pre election reflections as May 2015 looms.’

val walsh / 25 08 2015

Postscript:
The day after posting this essay to togetherfornow.wordpress.com, I came across my copy of the theatre programme for a co-production by Headlong, Sheffield Theatres and the Rose Theatre Kingston, of David Hare’s play, The Absence of War, performed at The Everyman, Liverpool (24-28 03 2015). The Absence of War is the third in a trilogy by Hare that examines British society at the end of the 20th century: the first about the Church of England, the second about the criminal justice system, and The Absence of War about the Labour party. The programme notes include an edited version of a speech Hare delivered to the Fabian Society, following the play’s launch, which was subsequently published in The Independent (January 1994). In it, Hare identifies himself as:

Like George Jones, the hero of my play, I am stuck with the uncomfortable belief that the Labour Party is the only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people’s lives for the good.

Reflecting on the play’s reception in 1994, Hare reports:

I realized after just a few previews of The Absence of War that the only group I have ever written about which is not interested in having a serious dialogue is the Labour Party.

Hare observes that, following efforts to remodel itself “as a paragon of sobriety” in the 1980s, the Labour Party has been left “terrified of controversy, terrified of internal argument”. His verdict has heartrending resonance for some of us in 2015, not least during the current turmoil of the leadership contest.

The Labour Party has become convinced that for its own electability it must not let people in on the arguments it is having with itself. . . . Whereas clergy, lawyers and police all welcomed open discuss of their professions, it is only the political class which is threatened by a dialogue it does not control. Emphasis added.

21 years later, in 2015, is this still the case? Vituperative reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign suggest that internal hostilities (not just differences) and personalised insults are still default modes, as territory is claimed and power defended ‘to the death’.

Or: Has Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy and campaign, with its cross-generational combination of longstanding Labour members, supporters and voters, together with the high numbers of politically inexperienced but passionate young people participating, perhaps provided an opening to that necessary conversation and debate, which has the potential to revive and renew the Labour Party as a leading force for democracy, economic and environmental sustainability, human rights and inter/national social justice? Can the Labour Party relearn how to be creative and courageous (like its best stand ups), rather than confused/confusing and controlling? Welcoming and receptive, rather than guarded and suspicious?

As we near the end of the Labour leadership contest, two of my favourite commentators augment my own reflections at this time. First, Andy Beckett (28 08 2015) points out that:

One crucial sign of the success, or otherwise, of this Conservative government will be the accommodations people on the left make with it (‘How we all became Thatcherites’, Guardian Journal: 37).

Including the next leader, deputy leader and shadow cabinet. As Beckett highlights, this process of accommodation (and complicity) is already well under way. And it obviously has significant consequences for the future electability of any Labour government, after the next five years of an undiluted Tory government (as opposed to coalition). Beckett notes the unremarked but significant shifts that have occurred:

For a quarter of a century until the financial crisis of 2008, British politics was full of left-of-centre figures accepting weaker trade unions, broader property ownership and a stronger free market (ibid.).

Many of these were Labour MPs, very likely some of those now protesting vehemently against the idea of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader (or horror, Prime Minister!). And second, two days later, playwright and trade unionist, David Edgar (31 08 2015) cites another Labour failure that concerns him:

What Blair refused and Miliband failed to do was unite the middle with the poor against the rich (‘Corbyn’s opponents could be correct. But I’m still inspired’. The Guardian).

In the circumstances, of five years of brutal Tory-led Austerity (i.e. public sector cuts), and the range of local and national activism these have generated, this may be considered an extraordinary level of denial and refusal to take people’s political activism seriously: as authentic, if extra-parliamentary, politics. ‘Protest’ and ‘activism’ have been derided and stigmatised by those in uproar against Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy, implying ‘childlike’ behaviour/childishness, as opposed to their own grown up, adult (respectable) behaviour. Amongst other epithets, Corbyn’s supporters are described as “delusional’ (The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, who on another page urges me to become a Guardian member, not just reader and subscriber).

By contrast, Edgar shares his experience and analysis, as “a loyalist on the soft left of the party”, and concludes:

A Corbyn victory could open up the possibility of an alliance, within and beyond the party, between post-austerity economic thinking, democratic renewal, and social and civil libertarianism, and thereby regenerate the social-democratic project.

That’s what this Labour leadership contest is about, and that’s what the neoliberals (Labour, Lib Dem or Tory) are fighting to prevent. As Edgar adds:

Finally, for the first time in my life, a new Labour leader might be elected not by a deal or a campaign, but by a movement. What are we about, if not that?

Momentous.
val walsh / 31 08 2015

Friends, comrades, strangers:especially those feeling apathetic, cynical, confused, disillusioned and/or angry. Pre-election reflections as May 2015 looms.

Introduction

  • Quite simply, a UK general election
  • The economy and social values
  • Health, education, homelessness
  • An unequal power struggle
  • “This Groundhog Day election”
  • In conclusion.

It would be hard to miss the acceleration of discontent with politicians and politics, locally and nationally in the UK since 2010, during a period marked by public scandal after scandal. In 2014, actor and comedian, Russell Brand, made a splash when he urged people not to bother voting. More recently, 27 bishops produced a 52 page report in which they were highly critical of the government’s welfare policies (18 02 2015, The Guardian). Noting the impact of Brand – “we bishops don’t have Russell Brand’s sex appeal – but we must counter his doctrine” – they regretted that:

The election campaign is likely to entrench the apathy and cynicism with which many people approach politics today. To accept such attitudes is a counsel of despair.

Encountering apathy and cynicism at meetings and events in Liverpool, and in conversations and emails beyond, has disturbed and worried me. Not least because others (different ages, backgrounds, situations) have said they cannot face another 5 years of Tory rule: saying they will leave the country, or intimating defeat of a more terminal nature, on the back of their dependence on welfare / unemployment and/or disability benefits.

Recently I found myself round a table with several activist members of Merseyside Women’s Movement (different ages, backgrounds and health status), all bar one of whom were variously undecided about voting at all, hostile to Labour, and/or intending to vote Green. I fell silent, felt defeated, and left early, wondering whatever happened to the feminist imperative to use your vote, given the struggles and sacrifices of early suffrage feminists in the UK to finally secure votes for women in 1928. Here I break that silence, in the belief that this general election process is not just a crisis, but an emergency. Silence is not an honourable option.

Quite simply, a UK general election.
A UK general election is a first-past-the-post system for electing a national government by secret ballot, one vote per voter, voting for one local MP from a list on offer. At the last general election in 2010, the Conservative Party did not win outright, but they were able to negotiate a coalition with the much smaller Lib Dem party, and this gave them the necessary majority in  Parliament. This arrangement produced the most rightwing government in living memory, as the Coalition pursued wrecking-ball policies in their attack on the public sector and social security, for which they had no electoral mandate. See Michael Sheen’s speech at The People’s March for the NHS www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHgqAtmXuHU

 Because the UK does not have a proportional or alternative vote electoral system (such as is used in EU elections), we still have basically a two-party system, and it will therefore be one of the two main parties, the Conservatives or Labour, which will become the governing party in May 2015. It is a stark and significant choice.

The second feature of this system is the question of which party leader will govern the country as Prime Minister. In 2015, the leaders of the two main parties are very different from each other. David Cameron grew up in privileged circumstances, inheriting considerable wealth at an early age, was educated at Eton College, a public school for boys, before going to Oxford University, followed by working in public relations before entering politics. His father was an investment banker. Ed Miliband’s parents were Jewish immigrants escaping the Nazis in Europe, who arrived in the UK where they settled. His father was subsequently a revered Marxist academic in the US and the UK; his mother was also politically active. Ed Miliband and his brother attended a state primary school and a mixed (boys and girls) London state comprehensive school. Ed attended Oxford University, followed by two semesters at the Centre for European Studies at Harvard University in the US. He became MP for Doncaster North in 2005.

When deciding which party to vote for, we are therefore indirectly choosing the leader of one of the main parties as Prime Minister, so it makes sense to compare and evaluate their respective political track records, the values they espouse, their suitability as Prime Minister, including their decency (as far as we can judge) as a human being, and evidence of integrity. The ‘used-car test” is useful: “Would I buy a used car from that man?”

Personally, it also matters to me what kind of a man he is and to what extent he has been positively influenced by the feminist campaigns and knowledge production of the last 40+ years in the UK and beyond. Memorably, in 2014 Cameron chastised senior Labour MP, Angela Eagle, in Parliament, telling her to “Calm down dear”. . . . neatly combining sexism and ageism. I’d say such behaviour makes you unfit for office as PM or MP.

The economy and social values.
What was the great objective behind C19 liberalism? It was, as Marx never tired of pointing out, to separate the economic sphere from the political sphere and to confine politics to the latter, while leaving the economic sphere to capital. (Yaris Varoufakis [18 02  2015] ‘How I became an erratic Marxist.’ The Guardian.) Emphasis added.

We are living with the consequences of this, and the urgent challenge facing us is how to rejoin economics and politics, in the service of sustainability, before we reach meltdown. The outcome of this general election will be pivotal to this process.

On Tuesday 10 February 2015, Dale Vince, founder of renewable energy provider Ecotricity, announced he would donate £250 000 to Labour to fight “the existential threat” of a second-term Tory government. (Heather Stewart & Jennifer Ranking [14 02 2015] ‘The capitalists putting money on Labour’. The Guardian). Simon Franks, co-founder of LoveFilm, followed with declaration of his public backing for Miliband and his team.

Vince cites Cameron’s opposition to onshore wind and even solar power, his indifference to climate change and complying with agreed carbon targets. (Whereas the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, was formerly Secretary of State for energy and climate change.) Vince rages against “the proliferation of food banks”, the “spiteful bedroom tax” and “the hypocrisy of tax breaks and avoidance at the top and the merciless clampdown on benefits at the bottom”. He says he thinks “Cameron has turned out to be Thatcher with knobs on”.

That sense of fairness and social justice motivates Franks too. He thinks “there will always be a divide between those who want to represent the nation as a whole, and those who want to represent a certain group” (cited Stewart & Ranking, 14 02 2015).

Franks says Miliband was right to open the debate about business and its role in society – and understands why many voters are deeply sceptical:

There are absolutely some business people out there who seem not to give a damn about the environment, about fairness, about workers’ rights.

What these two entrepreneurs share is their criticism of the direction our society has taken under Cameron’s leadership, for example, towards increasing inequality and division. Joanna Mack & Stewart Lansley, authors of Breadline Britain: The Return of Mass Poverty (2015), are amongst those who have documented this deterioration and fragmentation.[i] Mack (18 02 2015) reports:

Poverty in the UK is at a 30 year high. The rise is not explained by a sudden explosion of a      culture of poverty, nor by out-of-control benefits. Rather, it is because of a surge in the numbers of working poor. It’s about the way that the politically driven shift in power from the workforce to corporations has shrunk the share of the cake going to the bottom half of the labour force, leaving growing numbers at the mercy of low-pay, zero-hours and insecure contracts. (‘How to eradicate poverty: spend more on wages and strengthen unions”. The Guardian.) Emphasis added.

So it’s either premeditated and deliberate, or careless. Mack points out that “no advanced economy achieves a low poverty level with low rates of social spending”. And social spending is funded by taxes. That was the UK’s postwar achievement. Politicians need to accept that “poverty is driven by an accumulated reduction in opportunities, in pay and in life chances”. It follows that poverty is neither ‘natural’ nor inevitable, and the current humanitarian crisis in the UK is no natural disaster, but man-made. Mack argues that the new economic model required means:

confronting corporate interests and reversing the sustained decline in workforce bargaining power in the UK. International evidence shows that the higher the level of trade union membership, the lower the degree of inequality. (Emphasis added.)

And that includes, she reminds us, targeting the persistent gender pay gap by raising women’s wages. According to the UN, the gender pay gap will not close for another 70 years (06 03 2015, The Guardian). Mack identifies the national turning point:

The 1980s decision to embrace the market, union-busting and deregulation, with the accompanying disinvestment in public housing and rolling privatization (was) one of history’s great political blunders.

This is a history that people have lived through or been born into, without necessarily realising that it was such a significant turning point in our society: not a tweak, but an overturning of values and practices that had underpinned it since the advent of Labour politics and government in the postwar period. (See Harry Leslie Smith (2014) Harry’s Last Stand).

Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and chair of the Big Innovation Centre, is also in no doubt about the extent of the transformation required (11 02 2015):

The country needs more innovation, enlarged opportunity, a step change in the quality and quantity of its public infrastructure, higher-quality education, a housing revolution and a new social settlement. These are indispensible preconditions for any mass flourishing and countering inequality. . . (‘British capitalism is broken. Here’s how to fix it’.          The Guardian.) Emphasis added.

Like Mack, Hutton stresses the importance of the role of trade unions in this recovery process:

The trade union, the cornerstone of worker voice, participation and representation, has to be reinvented and relegitimised to rebalance the new brutalities of our labour market  – to become a countervailing force to those generating ever-higher levels of inequality. (Emphasis added.)

This, he argues, means becoming more like guilds – “guarantors of skills and fair wages – rather than confrontational representatives of a shrinking working class”. Zero-hours contracts have increased by more than 100,000 in a year (see Phillip Inman [26 02 2015] ‘Zero-hours Britain: number who rely on jobs with no guaranteed shifts leaps to 700,000.’ The Guardian). Who can doubt the urgency of a revised and renewed role for the unions?

And the Labour Party is the only political party that has the established (if at times fraught) political links to the trade unions, which can provide a basis for productive dialogue and co-ordinated action: for example in the move towards a living wage, set pay rates that mean immigrant labour cannot be exploited and used to undercut other workers’ pay, and due attention to women’s rights / workers’ rights and protections in the workplace. This is a conversation about a renewed political economy that awaits our urgent attention, and we can expect TUC leader, Frances O’Grady, to play her part in this process of change and renewal.

Health, education, homelessness.
The history and fate of the most iconic and fundamental innovation instigated by the first Labour government, the NHS has borne the impact of 30+ years of neoliberalism: outsourcing and fragmentation in the workplace; individualism and competitiveness raised to ‘virtues’ and necessities; and subsequent inefficiencies, catastrophes, profiteering and corruption (of both society and politics).[ii]

Given the number of private health companies that have donated money to the Tory    party or with Tory links that have won NHS contracts, the corporate feasting overseen by Cameron’s coalition can hardly be a surprise. (Seamus Milne [08 01 2015] ‘Corporate feasting will devour the NHS’. The Guardian).

And while Blair’s New Labour government bears responsibility for accelerating this shift on its watch, Milne concludes:

What can’t be seriously doubted is that if Cameron returns to Downing Street in May, the NHS will be dismembered as a national service. . . . . Far from scaremongering, that’s the choice we face. (Emphasis added.)

This stark fact must surely figure in any rational voting decision at the general election, because this will be our last chance to save the NHS from such dismembering. (See Peter Bach’s film, Sell Off. The Abolotion of your NHS. www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvUIobKvXJg)

Remember that before he became Tory Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt described the NHS as “a failed experiment”. And anyone unsure of what the NHS replaced, should read (or watch his 2014 LP conference speech on utube) 91 year old Harry Leslie Smith’s book (2014) Harry’s Last Stand. How the world my generation built is falling down, and what we can do to save it. See: http://harry’s%20Last%20Stand%20Labour%20Party%20conferencewww.youtube.com/watch?v=ultKvnw2h3Q

David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu (public health specialists) have studied the impact of austerity programmes administered by western governments in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis (see The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, 2013). Stuckler (16 05 2013) states:

If austerity had been run like a clinical trial, it would have been discontinued. The evidence of its deadly side-effects – of the profound effects of economic choices on health – is overwhelming (cited Jon Henley, ‘Recessions can hurt, but austerity kills’. The Guardian.)

By contrast, Laurence Rossignol, French minister for the family, elderly people and adult care, states in interview (04 03 2015):

France hasn’t entered the age of austerity. We have made the choice to reduce our public expenditure and to encourage growth while at the same time maintaining solidarity and the welfare state . . . . We are reducing other spending but we are not reducing spending on sickness, ageing or education. It is a choice. (Kate Murray, ‘Vive la différence on the welfare state. The Guardian.) Emphasis added.

It is clear that the implementation of rapid-fire Austerity by the Tory-led coalition (their political choice) has reached into the very heart of society, with consequences that go beyond the economic and the production of poverty, including the working poor, as Mack & Lansley (2015) highlight. Like our health service, the education system has been purposefully stripped back and reformed by the Tories. The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, produced by the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick, and a year in the writing, found that:

Creativity, culture and the arts are being systematically removed from the education    system. (Mark Brown [18 02 2015] ‘Creativity draining away from schools and access to arts too restricted, report reveals’. The Guardian).

One of the commissioners, David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic, said that pupils’ involvement in dance, theatre, music and film would enhance their success in other non-arts subjects and “encourage young people to be hungry for equality and democracy” (cited Brown, 18 02 2015). A Tory government has never understood the role of creativity across the board, in life not just entertainment or industry; or creativity as a human right central to health and wellbeing (rather than an elite entitlement). Nor has it ever genuinely enthused about equality and democracy and their interconnectedness. It is not part of their DNA.

Defending the status quo of inherited power and entitlement is the Right’s enduring reflex agenda, and expanding profit-making opportunities for the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the population. These historical facts should not be forgotten as we decide which party to elect to government in May 2015. It’s not just about choosing between a clutch of policies, but about what a party stands for; whose interests it represents; who it cares about (based on available evidence); and what kind of society we want to be. Asked to compare France and the UK, Rossignol responds (04 03 2105): “Perhaps we could say France is still a welfare state; we are more at ease with public spending in these areas”.

Will Hutton understands the connection between the arts and sciences and technology, and has long focused his attention on the importance of creating “the smartest economy for Britain”, which “cannot be constructed without enfranchised citizens” (11 02 2015, The Guardian):

The smart economy and the smart society are two sides of the same coin – and smart societies are impossible to create without fairness, justice and enfranchisement.

Fairness, justice and enfranchisement have never been preoccupations of the UK Right. Historically, these are Labour movement values, human rights and social justice discourses, which have sprung from the liberation campaigns of C19 and C20, including anti-racist politics, feminism, gay liberation / LGBTU actvism. But historical forgetfulness, youth and/or ignorance of the facts obscure this reality for many voters in 2015.

The neoliberal years have cultivated cut-throat competitiveness, dominance and submission, where personal greed functions as both means and ends. This is the world of the “apex predator” (so powerfully captured by sociologist, Richard Sennett (2012) in his wonderful book, Together.The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Co-operation), where there is no reciprocity and winner takes all. This produces an unsustainable economy and society, manifesting the “irrationality” Yanis Varoufakis ascribes to (turbo) capitalism (see final section below).

Like Dale Vince and Simon Franks, Hutton supports Miliband’s critical agenda re. business and the economy:

To argue for the reform of capitalist enterprise should not be interpreted as ‘anti-business’; rather it is to be anti-dysfunctional business.

Put another way: “We should not confuse a pro-business stance with a pro-rich stance”. (Ha-Joon Chang [04 03 2015] ‘Leave aside the tired old mantra – here’s what ‘pro-business’ really means’. The Guardian).

Hutton sees Labour as “in transition”, and urges it “to complete its transition, to pick up this programme (see Hutton, How Good We Can Be, 2015) or something like it, and implement the change we need to show how good we can be”. But there are countervailing forces: powerful vested interests, whose influence and affluence have been allowed to soar into the stratosphere on the back of neoliberal marketisation and its rampant inequality.[iii]

Their sense of entitlement knows no bounds (as recent financial scandals since 2007 in particular demonstrate), and like most predators, their lack of remorse, guilt or shame expose the ethical void at the heart of their actions. This makes them dangerous (like the psychopath), not just greedy; and enemies of democracy itself, which they see as an obstacle to their profit-making and their drive for dominance and absolute control. They must be stopped, or at the very least reigned in, and the next general election is a crucial strategic stage in that process. Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang (04 03 2015) contends:

We have allowed the idle rich parading as wealth-creating, rule-breaking business people, and powerful industry lobbies, to abuse the idea of being pro-business for their own sectional interests for far too long.

An unequal power struggle.
Perhaps more than any previous general election, the 2015 general election is a mighty power struggle for a very big prize: democracy itself. Rafael Behr (04 02 2015) notes that:

Labour has the ground troops; the Tories have the media and friendly tycoons. It’s hardly a fair fight. (‘Can Miliband’s foot soldiers withstand Tory air supremacy?’ The Guardian.)

He details the inequality:

(The Tories) have more money, more press support and a simpler message than Labour. Twice in the last week, Conservative-leaning newspapers have given front-page prominence to business barons, one of them a Tory peer, foretelling apocalypse if Miliband is elected.

If the Tories are that alarmed, doesn’t that indicate that Ed Miliband and the Labour Party are, unlike the Green Party, seen as a real threat to Tory vested interests and practices? For example, the dismantling of public sector values and workplace rights and protections; the marketization of health, social care, probation, education and housing; withdrawal of support for environmental protections and green technologies; and their calculated demonization and impoverishing of the poor, the unemployed and those with disabilities.[iv] Alan Quinn, a skilled fitter at BAE and Labour councillor for Prestwich, when asked why he thinks Miliband attracts so much hostility, instantly replies that it’s because he stands up to vested interests, and lists a few examples of Miliband’s initiatives as Labour Party leader.

If Ed Miliband is that useless, why do the press spend so much time vilifying him? I think they see him as a threat, as a man who will stand up for the ordinary people (cited  Simon Hattenstone [07 03 2015] ‘Ready, steady Ed.’ The Guardian Weekend).

Behr (04 02 2015) notes that “the constituents from whom we have heard the least are the ones who feel neither tribal loyalty nor visceral loathing; the ones who don’t even know there’s a war on”. (Emphasis added.) This detachment has political consequences for everyone, and always benefits the Right. “Why we must stand up for the homeless”, says UK comedian Josie Long on the front cover of The Big Issue in the North: i.e. the disenfranchised, those without a vote to cast, because they have no fixed address. Long is clear that Tory policies are “there to service the rich”. “They have no interest in eradicating poverty,” says Long (talking to John Stansfield, The Big Issue in the North. 23 02 2015 – 01 03 2015) and she expands her point:

The government has a responsibility to the most vulnerable people all the time. We   should judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, and we’re not doing very well at that.

Seeking election in 2010, Cameron made the same pronouncement, almost word for word. His government’s record since constitutes more than a technically ‘broken promise’, and voters should take this into consideration. It’s hard evidence of venal contempt for those who require society’s support in order to lead a dignified life.

With individual voter registration replacing whole household registration, the Tories can anticipate that many non-Tory voters will have dropped off the electoral register before the 2015 general election; the poorest, the most isolated, those suffering ill health or disability, and/or the young and inexperienced, for example. Those referred to by Behr above as “the ones who don’t even know there is a war on”. So for those of us who will vote, it cannot simply be like a ‘shopping expedition’ involving a feel-good consumerist choice: picking what we want for ourselves as individuals off the political shelf.

Rob Ford, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, thinks that for a certain proportion of the electorate, voting is an “expressive act. . . . . they are thinking: I want to send a message, make an expression about what sort of person I am”. (Cited Esther Addley [28 02 2015] Guardian profile: Natalie Bennett. ‘Her selling point is strategy – there’s more to leadership than interviews’.)

That the biggest spike in Green Party membership came immediately after Natalie Bennett’s recent media performance, widely described as “the worst political interview in history” (Addley, 28 02 2015), suggests there is truth in Ford’s observation. On the face of it, this spike is evidence of political incompetence or human frailty eliciting support. As coded protest? But Ford fails to make the link between such “expressive” behaviour and the ambient neoliberal consumerism that nurtures it, turning a potential act of political engagement into individualist consumer performance.

Vijay Patel (25 02 2015) has a reason for voting at the next general election. He has a learning disability, volunteers at MENCAP, and got involved with Mencap’s general election campaign, Hear my voice:

Because I think it is important for people with a learning disability to vote. That way the government can understand the issues and challenges we face. (‘Second thoughts’, Society Guardian.

This is the move away from disempowerment towards enfranchisement, from victim status towards social participation and equality. Women’s suffrage campaigns from C18 on were similarly driven by a sense of being marginalized, ignored, disadvantaged and stigmatised (see for example, Amanda Vickery’s exhilarating new TV series, ‘Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power. BBC2: from 25 02 2015). C20 and C21 campaigns against racism, homophobia, misogyny and sexism, for example, have all had an impact on national and local politics and society, partly through exercising suffrage and exerting pressure on parliamentary representatives and process.

However, Patel is still undecided about who to vote for (as are many young students when questioned on camera). Being unaware of the historical record of the main parties with regard to social justice, equality and disability issues, for example, Patel’s uncertainty bespeaks a lack of information and political awareness, as if there were a range of rational options amidst the cacophony of opportunistic spin and rhetoric. This private, ‘consumerist’ approach will dilute the political impact of a defined public constituency, made visible when people act collectively and strategically on the basis of relevant information.

Fragmentation rules in the market place; market segmentation ultimately reduces us all to ‘one’: competing against other ‘ones’ for attention, status, legitimation. In addition, those unaccustomed to thinking politically about their lives and society, may recoil from taking that next step, and continue to define the issues that concern them more simply (e.g. as “wanting better services”). This inhibition can manifest itself in (mental) health groups and among working-class pensioners, for example. The hold of years of internalised deference, subordination and sense of inferiority can be hard to break.

Digital strategists complain that it has proved almost impossible for those who come to politics through a single facet of their identity to subsume themselves in a wider movement: good luck persuading that pro-choice activist to become a Labour party member (Helen Lewis [28 02 2015] ‘Young people don’t vote’. The Guardian).

Single issues do not necessarily provide sufficient contextual understanding and analysis of power and power relations. Referring to campaigning and action on climate change, Bill McKibben realised:

This fight, as it took me too long to figure out, was never going to be settled on the grounds of justice and reason. We won the argument, but that didn’t matter: like most fights it was, and is, about power (cited Alan Rusbridger [07 03 2015] ‘Why we put climate change on the cover’. The Guardian).

Behr (04 02 2015) found that in every marginal seat he visited, “there is disdain for politics in general rather than focused rage against the Tories” (Behr, The Guardian.) Disdain is not a political response, but a kind of inertia. It makes no demands of us to think, to struggle with the issues that confront society, whereas political awareness entails some form of engagement that disturbs our status quo; as well as engendering uncertainty, that most difficult and pregnant of existential states. By contrast, it is certainty that marks out the authoritarian, the fascist, the fundamentalist and the powerful.

MENCAP may have set up a campaign, Hear my voice, to encourage those with disabilities to get registered and vote, but perhaps it has sought to maintain a certain neutrality, and not facilitated access to good quality historical and policy information, because this is indubitably political and seen as out of order for a charity. Cameron has accused charities (and recently the bishops) of overstepping the mark in this regard. Keep out of politics is the message. And charities are more vulnerable to intimidation than bishops.

The political scandals continue to roll out – latterly, a tale of two former foreign secretaries, Malcolm Rifkin (Tory) and Jack Straw (Labour), displaying greed, arrogance and vanity in equal measure in secretly filmed footage from an undercover investigation into cash for access (22 02 2015, ‘Politicians for Hire’, Channel 4 Dispatches). Unfortunately, public disdain may turn to contempt and anger, but not necessarily dissent and votes, and thereby effects a compounding of the neoliberal-induced democratic deficit, as people turn away from the ballot box, letting the powerful through unimpeded. As 91 year old, lifelong Labour voter, Harry Leslie Smith cautions (2014):

Each time we are silent, we encourage those who are more powerful than us or who have a vested interest in the policy of austerity to profit from our silence. If we are tempted to say to ourselves, “I won’t vote, it’s not worth it”, we have to remember who among our numbers will vote, and whose voices will be heard above ours.

His strategic counsel contrasts sharply with that of George Monbiot (28 01 2015) who is sanguine about the fate of Labour in 2015:

Whether it wins or loses the general election, Labour is probably finished. . . . If Labour wins in May, it is likely to destroy itself faster and more surely than if it loses, through the continued implementation of austerity. That is the lesson from Europe (George Monbiot, ‘Follow your convictions – this could be the end of the politics of fear’. The Guardian).

Certainly, if it’s a “dismal choice between two versions of market fundamentalism” (Monbiot), many voters will feel frustrated (myself included). But what are the likely consequences of following Monbiot’s exhortation to vote Green in 2015?

According to Alberto Nardelli (19 02 2015), “Cameron’s best hope of a Tory-led stable government in May is that the Greens will add to their 7% support”. (‘How a Green surge could spell disaster for Miliband.’ The Guardian):

With an outright majority seemingly out of reach for both main parties at this stage in the race, the path to a Tory-led stable government would most likely need to be paved by UKIP receding and the Green surge escalating.

On the basis of a yougov overall voting intention poll, Nardelli reports that “The Greens led by Natalie Bennett, could influence the election results in at least 18 seats, helping David Cameron survive”. (Emphasis added.) This won’t bother Monbiot, who chirpily speculates that:

Whichever major party wins this election, it is likely to destroy itself through the pursuit of policies almost no-one wants. Yes, that might mean five more years of pain, though I suspect in these fissiparous[v] times it won’t last so long. And then it all opens up. . . . Stop voting in fear. Start voting for hope. (Emphasis added.)

Five more years of pain for whom, George? As I said, my friends and others cannot take five more years of this. And that is not an intellectual, ideological or lifestyle choice. How distant you are from the most damaged lives, the newly vulnerable, the working poor, the chronically desperate.

Similarly, lone Green MP, Caroline Lucas, while saying that another Tory government is the last thing she wants to see, admits that “in the long term, it could be the best thing possible for the Greens if Labour lost” (cited Simon Hattenstone [28 02 2015] ‘The only Green in the village. The Guardian Weekend.) So it’s the future prospects of the party (or the careers of individual MPs – Lucas only has a majority of 1,252 in her Brighton constituency) that matter, not the country, not the survival of the NHS, the welfare state and its public sector, and not the swaths of victims of current Tory policies.

The idea of the Green Party as somehow an ethical counter to current politics, concerned with “the bigger issues”, as Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently put it: “the soil, the loss of biodiversity, climate change” (cited Addley, 28 02 2015), would seem to fly out the window at this point.

Monbiot tells us to dump “the politics of fear”. However, there are reasons to be fearful; the evidence has mounted (not least on people’s nerve-endings). But the public schoolboy is trained to see fear as weakness, a lack; whereas fear is also a function of hard experience, of brutality, cruelty and exploitation, a mark of awareness and understanding. It alerts us to danger. Monbiot’s rhetorical flourishes appear to be rooted in his own privilege and experience of entitlement that provide him with intellectual and emotional distance and cover. His customary intellectual flight this time leaves those with clipped wings behind, in the gutter. And some of his previously devoted readers, gutted at his disregard for the expanded numbers of the dispossessed, disadvantaged and damaged created by this government’s policies.

By contrast, Alexis Tspiris, the new Greek prime minister, and Yanis Varoufakis, new Greek finance minister, have been paying close attention to the “humanitarian crisis” of the Greek people. And they recognise the urgency of relief for those who have suffered most from imposed Austerity measures. Recalling his years in the UK as a young man as Thatcher came to power, Varoufakis discloses how he had thought that perhaps her election was a good thing, that it would provide the short, sharp shock to Britain’s working and middle classes that would re-invigorate progressive politics:

Even as unemployment doubled and then trebled under Thatcher’s radical neoliberal interventions, I continued to harbour hope that Lenin was right: “Things have to get worse before they get better”. As life became nastier, more brutish and, for many, shorter, it occurred to me that I was tragically in error: things could get worse in perpetuity, without ever getting better. (Adapted reprint 18 02 2015.) Emphasis added.

Monbiot has clearly experienced no such epiphany.

‘This Groundhog Day election” (Behr, 25 02 2015. The Guardian).
The choice between Labour and Tories at the next election is stark, with great     consequences for the country, yet they are drifting into a campaign that feels in some ways eerily like the last one, only more desperate. (Behr, 25 02 2015. ‘British politics isn’t so much rotten as past its use-by date’.) Emphasis added.

Behr is routinely a perceptive and probing political analyst, but this analogy is glib and potentially dangerous: likely to re-enforce the apathy, cynicism and despair already evident and being talked up by the media (here The Guardian). He deploys neoliberal, consumerist discourse: identifying something as past its use-by date means we throw it out. But this is not a political option at a first-past-the-post, UK general election, as explained earlier. So Behr’s statement has to count as another disappointing, Guardian rhetorical flourish. It would seem to fall into the trap identified by Steve Richards (26 02 2015): “The BBC reports bewildering events but it fails to help us understand them” (The Guardian). Richards expands his point about the lack of analytic depth, insight and courage:

There tends to be a bias in favour of the latest political fashions as long as they cannot be defined as ‘left’ or ‘right’.

Similarly, Martin Kettle (06 02 2015) points to the role played by “the fashionable conceit that the two main UK parties have nothing significant to say about the modern world and that there is no difference between them anyway” (‘Britain is slowly breaking up yet it seems no one cares’. The Guardian). He contends that “Both parts of this claim are false”. Similarly: “the SDP’s recurrent claim that Labour and the Conservatives are joined at the hip – a pair of indistinguishable English parties – is an astonishing audacity”: a political ploy. Yet this idea persists as a reason for either not choosing at all (not voting) or for not voting Labour.

South of the border, the media preoccupies itself with the presumed symmetry between UKIP on the one hand (seen as mainly a threat to the Tories) and the Greens on the other (seen as a threat to Labour). Certainly UKIP is a party of the (extreme) Right (mainly comprising Tories and funded by the same very rich people, bankers and hedge funds). But is it correct to see the Greens as a party of the Left? Suzanne Moore (28 01 2015) demurs:

If the Greens are the protest vote of the Left, then the Left has become a             fairly   meaningless term. Half of them are about as left as the Lib Dems. The innate puritanism of the Greens is in itself conservative (‘Forget the Greens – if the UK wants a truly leftwing party, it might have to grow its own’ The Guardian).

During my years attending CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology) members’ annual conferences, and national FoE (Friends of the Earth) events, I noticed this conservative culture: unlike Labour, these were overwhelmingly white, middle-class participants, many of whom seemed untouched by the liberatory campaigns of the C20 (black activism, gay liberation / LGBTU activism, feminism, etc.), never mind labour and trade union politics. Like all other public spaces during these years, they were male-dominated, with no evidence of gender analysis or understanding of sexual politics, for example. I was aware of being seen as ‘political’ in a way others were not at the time.

Although this has changed for the better, with more women and different men involved, and greater acknowledgement of the connections between environmental and social justice issues, for example, Moore’s critique stands, as the Green party rushes to identify itself as a political party rather than a protest group in time for the general election in May 2015, fielding a hugely increased number of candidates across the country, ahead of having the necessary infrastructure, coherent political reach or enough suitably experienced candidates.

And in the context of Tory-led ‘coalition’ politics, the demise of the Lib Dems, the rise of UKIP and the SNP, this expanded electoral presence constitutes an explicit challenge to one party only: Labour. Moore (28 01 2015) pinpoints the Green Party’s political deficit:

What is missing from the Greens is the actual thing I want from a progressive party. It’s the economy, stupid. A theory of class analysis, an understanding of the mechanism of redistribution and a sense of connection, not with plants but the very poorest. (Emphasis added.)

When you attend Labour Party annual conferences, the party’s diversity is manifest: women and men of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, social class, sexual preference, ability and health status. These gatherings really look like our society, as well as presenting a microcosm of the kind of society we want to be. No other party is as genuinely inclusive; and no other party has been changed by anti-racism, gay rights and feminism, for example, in the way that Labour, particularly since Ed Miliband became leader, has responded.[vi] And with Ed as leader and more women Labour MPs and local councillors, loads of diverse prospective parliamentary candidates in the pipeline (including just selected, Naz Shah, chair of the mental health charity, Sharing Voices Bradford, who will challenge RESPECT MP George Galloway in Bradford, Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, is no longer such a lone feminist star.

I rejoined the Labour Party in 2010, in order to vote for Ed as leader: here was the chance to avoid electing an alpha male, a stereotypical, testosterone-fuelled ‘bloke’, prone to gender-blind gaffes, misogynist attitudes, wandering hands, homophobic and racist slip-ups and disablism. This guy seemed intelligent, intellectual, a decent human being; I detected integrity and compassion.

Miliband recently declared: “Don’t mistake decency for weakness” (cited Wintour & Hattenstone). And pertinently, Hattenstone offers his theory (07 03 2015, The Guardian Weekend): “We, the public, hate alpha-male politicians, but we don’t trust them when they aren’t alpha males”. Miiband responds: “I often disagree, but I don’t take delight in being disagreeable. That’s probably where I am like my mum”.

American David Axelrod (16 02 2015) worked as Barack Obama’s aide for his two successful elections, and has been working with Miliband and the Labour Party towards the UK general election in May 2015. He draws a sharp contrast between the Tories and the Labour leader:

The Tories just don’t look at the British economy through the lens of everyday people. They don’t have a kitchen table philosophy of economics and that’s why recovery hasn’t reached kitchen tables around Britain (cited Ed Pilkington interview with David Axelrod, ‘Obama was a once-in-a lifetime candidate. . . Miliband’s a smart, earnest guy’. (Cited           ‘Ed Pilkington meets David Axelrod’. The Guardian).

Miliband, adds Axelrod, “understands a healthy economy is not one where a few people do fantastically well”. Miliband has openly criticised New Labour for failing to tackle inequality, for “failing to narrow the gap between rich and poor. . . It was more that as long as the people at the bottom are doing ok, does the gap matter? New Labour was too sanguine” (cited Patrick Wintour & Simon Hattenstone [07 03 2015] ‘Miliband: Don’t mistake decency for weakness’. The Guardian). Miliband thinks the gap does matter.

In conclusion.
In 2013, Yanis Varoufakis, now the new Greek finance minister, who has worked as an academic economist in the US, Australia and the UK, wrote “a searing account of European capitalism and how the Left can learn from Karl Marx’s mistakes” (‘How I became an erratic Marxist’ [18 02 2015] The Guardian), which was originally delivered at the 6th Subversive Festival in Zagreb. In it he seeks to convince radicals that:

We have a contradictory mission: to arrest the freefall of European capitalism in order to buy the time we need to formulate an alternative.

As Greek finance minister for a ‘far-left’ party in 2015, he is now involved in the complex, practical politics of this mission; and he cites he importance of his time in the UK, as Thatcher took over, as part of his preparation:

The lesson Thatcher taught me about the capacity of a long-lasting recession to undermine progressive politics, is one that I carry with me into today’s European crisis.

Victims (the oppressed) without a politics do not leap to the barricades, do not participate collectively in political struggle, when day-to-day lives are struggle enough. They are more likely to withdraw, fall silent, self harm and/or lash out indiscriminately, as opposed to targeting the political ‘enemy’.

Varoufakis is all too conscious of the likely consequences of the ‘radical’ option: advocating dismantling of the eurozone and breaking up the European union, and asks:

Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive Left . . . . ? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neo-fascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the Eurozone.

His analysis is relevant to UK politics, our general election in May 2015, and our continuing participation in the EU. The nature of our participation and which groups we align ourselves with within the EU depends on which of the two main parties is elected to government in May. There is a lot at stake. Varoufakis deploys his “erratic Marxism”:

The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational, as it habitually condemns whole generations to deprivation and unemployment . . .

This irrationality breeds inequality, instability, unsustainability. It disenfranchises and disempowers swaths of the population as both citizens and consumers. It is therefore both an attack on democracy as well as capitalism: poor people are less likely to participate socially, culturally and politically in society and they cannot buy enough stuff to keep the economy afloat. So Varoufakis risks advocating his approach, of trying to “save European capitalism from itself”:

Not out of love for European capitalism, for the Eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis. (Emphasis added.)

How different this is from Monbiot‘s stance as bystander, contemplating with equanimity the prospect of the pain being allowed to run on for a few years more. . . .

Like Varoufakis, American playwright and gay Jewish activist Tony Kushner (most famous for his brilliant, epic film c25 years ago about the US and Aids, Angels in America) is no bystander with regard to progressive politics. He has refused to go along with the disillusionment in Barack Obama. “Instead, he accuses his Democratic detractors of political narcissism”, declaring that “the Left is shooting itself in the foot”. (Cited Charles Laurence [01 09 2010] ‘It’s a crazy time’, The Guardian):

I don’t want to sound contemptuous, but there is a tendency to see politics as an expression of your own personal purity, a character test. It’s not. It’s about learning to advance a progressive agenda by understanding the workings of democracy. (Emphasis added.)

A progressive agenda is never just individualistic, vested interest politics (that’s for the Right). Kushner feared that as a consequence of this development, his “community” would damage the Democrats’ chances of fending off a rightwing resurrection in the form of Sarah Palin, or worse. And that might send gay rights, his core issue, back to the Regan era (cited Laurence).

Varoufakis’ reflects on the debilitating legacy of the Thatcher years (18 02 2015):

Instead of radicalizing British society, the recession that Thatcher’s government so carefully engineered, as part of its class war against organised labour and against the public institutions of social security and redistribution that had been established after the war, permanently destroyed the very possibility of radical, progressive politics in Britain.             Indeed it rendered impossible the very notion of values that transcended what the market determined as the ‘right’ price. (Emphasis added.)

Overnight, kindness, generosity, mutuality, reciprocity, cooperation, love, for example, were rendered ‘old-fashioned’: signs of weakness, lack of status, ‘beyond their use-by date’ in market language. This change was a gendered shift, as politics and society disparaged these ‘soft skills’ and adopted the ‘hard’ values and practices of the predatory alpha male – Sennett’s “apex predator” (Sennett, p85). Dominance and control have become bywords for ‘success’; exploitation and violence normalised; commodified and sold on as video games and films. Meanwhile the environment is exploited, exhausted and sold off for profit and power. Divisions and sectarianism on the Left have flourished.

Those who lived through Thatcher’s years as adults will remember “the neoliberal juggernaut that crushed all dissent in its path” (Varoufakis), even after she was removed from office. Cameron’s Tories have since taken up where she left off, and cut further and deeper into civil society. In May we can reclaim our dignity and humanity, by making sure this is a one-term Tory government. We can learn from Varoufakis’ retrospective analysis of the UK and the broader, contemporary European challenge. But we also need to prove him wrong about Thatcher’s indelible, irrevocable legacy. A Labour government led by Ed Miliband can facilitate that revival and renewal of our democracy and our society.

In addition, the next climate change negotiations take place in Paris in December 2015. For the UK to be represented by a second-term Tory government would be disastrous, making binding targets and constructive negotiations impossible. Naomi Klein hopes these negotiations can be:

a moment where there is convergence between climate justice, anti-austerity and labour movements. And unless we see that coming together of movements and the convergence – we don’t stand a chance (cited Kim Bryan [Spring 2015] ‘This changes everything: a chat with Naomi Klein. Clean Slate. The Practical journal of Sustainable Living, No.95: 14-16).

So there’s a great deal more than usual at stake when we cast our votes in the May 2015 general election: nationally, internationally, and globally.[vii]

val walsh  / 07 03 2015

[i] See also Stewart Lansley (2012) The Cost of Inequality. Why Economic Equality is Essential for Recovery. See also Andrew Sayer (2014) Why We Can’t Afford the Rich.

[ii] See Jacky Davis & Raymond Tallis (2013) NHS SOS. How the NHS was betrayed and how we can save it). Also Kerry-Anne Mendoza (2015) Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy.

[iii] See Andrew Sayer (2014) Why We Can’t Afford Rich People.

[iv] See Mack & Lansley [2015], and Mendoza [2015].

[v] Fissiparous: C19 word, from Latin fissus (split) + parere (to bring forth). The use of this adjective tells us who Monbiot assumes his readership to be, and/or his attitude to us. Orwell would have cringed.

[vi] But see Val Walsh (10 10 2012) ‘Sexism and activism: What’s the problem?’ Also, ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others).’ togetherfornow.wordpress.com

[vii] See Val Walsh (10 08 2014) ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritising renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region.’ (Submission to Mayor of Liverpool’s Commission on Sustainability.) togetherfornow.wordpress.com