The UK general election result (06 2017): Labour as a progressive alliance.

Labour MP, Clive Lewis and Green MP, Caroline Lucas, have made no secret of their hostility to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour project; Lewis forecast “’an existential crisis” if [Labour] failed to embrace progressive alliances” (Matthew Weaver, ‘Tactical voting: Corbyn could have become PM in landslide’, The Guardian, 14 06 2017). But who are the (“frustrated”) “progressive voters” of which they speak in their most recent joint statement? And does the “best placed left-of-centre candidate” referred to by Compass, in its push for tactical voting and a progressive alliance, mean every candidate or voter who is not Tory-inclined can be identified as “progressive”?

Based on recent historical evidence, many do not see the Lib Dems, the SNP or the Greens as progressive, left-of-centre parties. And the GE result has brought a diminution of political heft and influence for all three. But certainly these small parties are all infinitely preferable political allies to the DUP, even given playwright James Graham’s cautionary reflections on what a hung parliament is likely to mean (‘A hung parliament? It’ll be the 70s again, and people will die’, The Guardian, 14 06 2017).

However, tactical voting in this GE did not find favour or success, as seen in Wells, Somerset (Steven Morris, ‘People went for security in the end’, The Guardian, 14 06 2017). Suddenly, across the country, people saw Labour as the most compelling and realistic repository of anti Austerity values. Conversations on doorsteps, street corners, trains and buses, in families, at political meetings and open air rallies, gave expression to this rejection of more of the same punitive authoritarianism, and a burgeoning desire to do better, be better together. Old and young discovered common ground. Confidence was forged. What followed – increased voter registration and turnout, and the size of the Labour vote in ‘unexpected’ places – was a form of civil and political disobedience.

At the same time, those of us venturing out beyond our own constituencies, to support Labour campaigns in seats identified by Momentum as Labour or Tory marginals, became aware that there were candidates being underfunded by LP HQ (see Dan Hancox, ’24 hour party people’, 14 06 2017, G2). And where Momentum could not fill that gap, there were negative outcomes for those candidates. This needs independent investigation.

But doesn’t Corbyn’s inclusive Labour campaign, conducted with passion and dignity, and the stunning GE result, show that the Labour party is now seen as the only serious repository, not just of hope, but of realisable economic, social, environmental and political transformation, which has not previously been on offer from any political party? So for Lewis and Lucus to warn (threaten?) the Labour leadership that “progressives will desert the party if they cannot see a change in the way politics is conducted” combines ignorance and arrogance.

To caution the leader, who has engendered the most open, honest and participatory political process the country has ever seen, and which has led to this Labour breakthrough, confirms that there is still a lurking desire within the Labour establishment, to denigrate Corbyn’s achievement as leader and to topple him in the name of a progressive alliance. By ‘progressive’, they seem to mean themselves, those who have actively opposed Corbyn’s Labour project of diversity, unity and campaigning, against the apparent odds, to put Labour back on the political map, not just as the largest political party in Europe, but as a radical and representative party, fuelled by a new participatory politics that has activated members and supporters, old and new.

The post election resistance and disbelief that Lewis and Lucas represent, mean they still don’t get it. They don’t welcome this opening up of our democracy, this people-powered campaign (as opposed to machine politics). They don’t see the unity of purpose, across so many social and cultural differences, that Labour’s unique campaign and astonishing result demonstrate. If they cannot see this electoral process and result as a new politics, is it perhaps because their part in it was so reluctant? Like the media George Monbiot castigates (‘The biggest losers? Not the Tories but the media, who missed the story’, The Guardian, 14 06 2017), Lewis and Lucas (and Compass?) missed the story. So instead of rejoicing, they feel gloom and a sense of defeat.

val walsh / 16 06 2017

[This is a slightly revised version of the letter sent to The Guardian, 15 06 2017.]

Personal, political and professional misjudgement. Being wrong, being sorry, being contrite. . . . in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s game-changing general election campaign.

Since the UK GE (08 06 2017), a number of MPs and media commentators (e.g. Louise Ellman, Lucy Powell, Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland, Robert Peston), stating the obvious, have admitted they “underestimated” Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, and his ability to inspire and steer a widespread and burgeoning campaign rooted in Labour values, based around a manifesto that addressed the circumstances, concerns, hopes and aspirations of all sections of our society, across differences of age, ethnicity, social class, dis/ability, gender, sexuality and geography.

Some (e.g. Owen Jones and Owen Smith) have gone so far as to explicitly apologise. But in the main, the expressions of approval at this extraordinary achievement fall short of acknowledgement of their own role since Corbyn was elected in 2015, in opposing and denigrating him and his supporters: they merely, they say, made a mistake. They now smile, many Labour MPs having achieved increased majorities on the back of Corbyn’s incredibly successful Labour campaign. And those they derided are also expected to smile, now we are all on the same winning side. Corbyn’s supporters are expected to overlook, for example, the damage the PLP inflicted on the Labour party by forcing a second leadership election, and sustaining hostilities and attempts at sabotage, throughout the period of Corbyn’s leadership.

But what will stay with Jeremy’s supporters is not the neoliberal ‘mistake’ of these MPs and commentators, in finding themselves on the wrong side of history. What will be remembered are their venomous bile, their relentless spite, aggression and contempt towards Jeremy and his supporters – possibly the worst personal, political and media attacks on a public figure, an elected MP, in living memory. Their seeming need to destroy, not just to disagree, was shocking. As well as instructive: exposing themselves to public scrutiny (intellectual and political). We know them better now.

As Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn never responded to or descended to, personal abuse, and there were those who saw this as ‘weakness’, a sign that he was not a proper leader, not ‘manly’ enough. Following his example, can we now move to outlaw extremist forms of communication in the pubic sphere – in politics and the media – where shouting, verbal dominance and mocking abuse seem to have been normalized as signs of ‘success’, the behaviour of a ‘winner’. Both Theresa May’s relentless personal abuse during the electoral campaign, and Jeremy Paxman’s loudmouthed recent media performance surely show us the way not to go if we are to engender the social and political conversations we need, to come together in respect rather than competition. These are the old ways. Parliament and the media need to learn from Jeremy Corbyn’s example and strength.

val walsh / 12 06 2017

 

 

 

Theresa May’s feminist gaffe.

 

In his first week in office, the new US President:

                  Trump has proclaimed war against the media, been accused of serial lying,      declared open season on environmentalists and undocumented migrants,                 outraged the Mexican president, begun stripping millions of Americans of healthcare coverage, removed funding to organisations that offer abortion advice or procedures, and revived the prospect of torturing terror suspects (Ed Pilkington, reporting from Michigan [28 01 2017] ‘Trump fans. ”I think he’s doing a phenomenal job”’, The Guardian).

Theresa May, UK Prime Minister, has shown haste in securing a meeting with Trump, at the head of the queue of other foreign leaders – except “all the others had thought better of it” (John Crace’s sketch [28 01 2017] ‘When the Donald met Theresa and not Teresa’, The Guardian). Given her increasingly hardline attitude to the UK’s Brexit process, this enthusiasm is disturbing.

Theresa May’s summit with Donald Trump conceals an ambitious, perhaps      desperate, British agenda: to enhance ties with strongman leaders in the US, Israel, Turkey and Poland as relations fray with key EU players, notably France and Germany (Simon Tisdall [28 01 2017] ‘Rights set aside as PM courts strongmen’, The  Guardian).

So is cosying up to leaders of countries with ultra-conservative and authoritarian domestic policies and rubbish human rights records going to replace established UK ties with, for example, EU social democracies? Do Trump’s claims that torture works and climate change is a hoax get to be sidelined in the building of the new ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK?

The advent of Trump’s administration exemplifies hetero-patriarchal masculinity on parade: armed and dangerous, and coming to a life like yours. . . .

Inclusive, bold, feminist activism.
Ahead of Trump’s inauguration, women were on the move, planning a Women’s March in Washington DC, for 21 January 2017, his first day in office. As Kaylin Whittingham, president of the Association of Black Women Attorneys, announced:

A march of this magnitude, across this diversity of issues, has never happened        before. We all have to stand together as a force no one can ignore (cited Joanna Walters, reporting from New York [14 01 2017] ‘Inauguration of Trump is expected to be eclipsed by huge protest march of women’, The Guardian).

Beginning as a feminist rallying cry via social media, the call attracted more than 200 progressive groups and partners, representing issues including: the environment, abortion rights, prisoners’ rights, voting rights, a free press, affordable childcare, gun safety, racial and gender equality, and a higher minimum wage (cited Walters, ibid). Jessica Neuwirth, who heads the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition, called it “a comprehensive call for social justice and equal rights” (cited Walters, ibid.) And so it came to pass, and not just in Washington DC, but in other US cities and cities across the world. .) See ‘This looks like defeat. But all is not lost’ in Category ‘Comment 2017’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com.

These worldwide demonstrations were not just protesting Trump’s social and political agenda as president. These demonstrations were feminist acts for all participants, as a stand against the man himself: the man who takes pleasure in threatening women’s rights (e.g. reproductive rights, going so far as to suggest that women who have abortions should be punished); the man “who mocks menstruation, and grabs vaginas’ (Hadley Freeman [28 012017] ‘No president cares more about size – let’s show Trump how many of us oppose him’, The Guardian Weekend).

 Misogyny and racism were key acknowledged triggers for these street uprisings in major cities worldwide. These were protests against the abuses perpetrated by hetero-patriarchal masculinity and sexualized male dominance. Widely described as narcissistic, Trump exemplifies the worst of this breed.

The problem isn’t men, but those men with narcissistic traits. Narcissists view their   needs, their entitlements, their ambitions, as far more real than anyone else’s. They brook no criticism, whether justified or not, and tolerate no humiliation. They will     punish those who try to thwart them . . . . to a narcissistic man such as this, no one               matters but himself. He is all-important. Because feeling superior is so essential to his being, and because his desire to have his superiority affirmed is bottomless, he is far more likely to casually indulge in misogyny, racism, class prejudice – you name it   – because the less like him you are, the less you could possibly matter (Deborah Orr [28 01    2017] ‘I grew up in a man’s world. I’ve seen the damage narcissistic men can do’, The Guardian).

Theresa May’s performance.
                  Their hands remained uneasily entwined as they walked down the colonnade                 towards the Palm Room. . . Trump started to creepily stroke and pat her hand. . . (John Crace, ibid).

The sight of May and Trump, hand-in-hand, in a ‘just-married’ pic, will have made a good few of the protesters on the Women’s Marches retch. She didn’t have to go that far; she chose to go that far, to display what she thought was her power as a woman prime minister. And in that display of heterosexual intimacy with this misogynist and racist, her ethical credibility was soiled; as a woman leader her efficacy was compromised; and any feminist awareness and commitment towards women as a diverse constituency, is dead in the water.

She chose to distance herself from the powerful feminist demonstrations of the 21 January, and the women and men who together bore witness to the importance of social justice issues, equality and human rights as central to democracies, and not mere ‘minority’ issues, optional extras. Her Tory individualism and personal ambition rule.

“Underpinning May’s approach was a kind of optimistic naivety tinged with arrogance” (Jonathan Freedland [28 01 2017] ‘Never mind the optics, May’s dash was mortifying’, The Guardian). Her deportment and body language, as well as her silence on key social justice and equality issues, made it clear she is prioritising the hard men of the extreme right (at home and abroad). She wants to be accepted as one of them, as equal: a populist and authoritarian leader. In a short skirt and heels.

29 01 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

This looks like defeat. But all is not lost.

The cumulative impact of political events in 2016 in the USA and the UK, specifically the UK EU referendum leading to the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US President, has left those who suffered ‘defeat’ in those elections, not just feeling defeated but bereft: agonizingly bewildered and disempowered.

The fact that so many white women in the US saw Trump’s misogyny, racism and cavalier disregard for facts and evidence as no reason not to vote for him, punches a big hole in the feminist project and any idea of political ‘sisterhood’, not just in the US.

The fact that such a man could seduce large sections of the electorate by means of his unabashed misogyny, racism and lies (now called “alternative facts”); his concerted incitement of hatred and contempt for so may social constituencies; and his fostering of fear as a means to social control: this violent onslaught laid waste the grounds for mutuality, reciprocity and inter-cultural co-habitation.

The wall of misogyny and racism these political events have exposed, intensified and glorified, is not new, but has suddenly acquired an ‘official’ status and institutional power that aims to undo and bury the achievements that equality, environmental, and peace activists have worked for over so many years. The crude triumphalism delivering this hetero-patriarchal surge of testosterone adds to the misery of his diverse opponents/ victims.

In the wake of this biggest of political upheavals, and the second time in recent history that the clear winner of the popular vote has been prevented by the American Electoral College from claiming the presidency, neither screaming nor silence will serve us. American stand up Alec Baldwin screamed his protest and pain after Trump’s triumph, noting that we, the defeated, were expected to give up quietly. To shut up, roll over and accept defeat in silence. But in response to his call, it was clear his audience, like him, had other ideas.

Given the unseemly, ugly and deceitful campaigns waged, and the central roles played by racism and misogyny; given that all the signs are that under Trump’s administration, equality and social justice, healthcare, environmental protections and social care, and international collaboration, for example, will be relinquished as democratic values and goals, what is the evidence so far that the populations on both sides of the Atlantic, who reject the authority and legitimacy of these election results, will acquiesce and submit quietly?

Women take the lead.
Amidst the outrage and despair, the fear and uncertainty, Saturday 21 January 2017 offered us a sign of hope. The Million Women March in Washington DC, called at short notice to protest the Trump agenda, triggered a wave of solidarity rallies led by women in other US cities, as well as across the world, including London and Liverpool in the UK.

In DC many more people turned up than had attended Trump’s inauguration the previous day. The televised evidence is clear. The aerial filming of the gatherings in these cities provided stunning evidence of women’s power to initiate and lead, and of people power, as these events attracted (e.g. in Liverpool) the participation of men, babies and small dogs, and not just seasoned feminists, but adults (women and men) who have never attended a public demonstration in their lives, but had been moved by the seriousness of the situation to act (I’m drawing here on a conversation with a couple of strangers at the Liverpool rally of 1000 people outside St Georges Hall.)

In Chicago, the streets were so jam-packed with demonstrators, people couldn’t march as planned, but bore witness, shoulder to shoulder, in their great numbers. And to see so many people sporting bright pink knitted beanies with ‘pussy ears’ felt like feminist insurrection! Don’t think Trump could explain or dismiss that with his “alternative facts”. In Liverpool, one of the small placards read: “Pussies for Peace”. There were many other heartfelt, passionate, pointed and witty messages. All defiant. As ever, humour was wielded as powerful political ‘talkback’. We all felt better for it.

It was women of colour in the US who had initiated this wave of activism, allowing so many angry, despairing and frightened souls to take to the streets, to demonstrate that courage, hope, determination and collectivity were not in short supply, despite Trump’s ascendancy. As a start to 2017, this uprising will have saved many of us, and not just women, from feeling that the odds against truth and justice, equality and fairness, and global mutuality and responsibility had just become insurmountable. The joy of being present at one of these demonstrations, and/or witnessing them on TV or social media, cannot be underestimated as political and politicizing. Good news.

Meanwhile, we brace ourselves.
As Trump overreaches himself in his first week of office, pounding out one astounding edict after another at breakneck speed, he is leaving individuals, communities, organisations, politicians, journalists, diplomats and countries reeling in fear and disbelief. The enormity of what is being attempted by this peevish narcissist and braggart, who, like all bullies and dominators is used to thinking he is fireproof, untouchable, will surely trigger national and international efforts at defence and containment, hopefully short of war. Early impeachment would be an honourable start.

Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister, Teresa May, alone among national leaders, rushes over to the US to make friends and ‘do deals’ with Trump, as if it’s business as usual. Given May’s passion for fashion and ‘femininity’, I mused to a feminist friend in a text: “I wonder what she will decide to wear. . . and what shoes?!” She replied tartly: “May needs to remember that, whatever she wears, she’s just ‘pussy’ to him.” Will this fact assist or hinder the ‘special relationship’ May seeks?

Well she chose to turn up in a skirt, with bare legs, arriving in freezing weather. She obviously thinks her ‘femininity’ (her legs) will serve her in this political encounter. By talking to journalists on the plane, ‘flirtatiously’, about “opposites attracting each other” (referring to herself andTrump), she exposes her inadequacy as a responsible and competent political actor: she’s just a personally ambitious, rather conventional, middle class, heterosexual Tory woman, who lacks feminist antennae or motivation.

May appears to be approaching her meeting with Trump (a known sexual abuser and misogynist, who sees women as sexual targets and trophies, who can be “grabbed by the pussy” without complaint), as a heterosexual woman displaying her knees, thinking she can challenge or seduce his male dominance and emerge unscathed and victorious. She may be overestimating her prowess, and the power of clothes to seduce or intimidate (neither a ‘winner’). The press has already referred, delicately, to her “charm offensive”. Is she seriously going to try to flirt her way into this new special relationship? As opposed to raising, for example, the issue of women’s rights (including reproductive rights) as human rights, on behalf of her ‘sisters’ worldwide. Where’s a feminist when you need her?

May has also chosen Holocaust Memorial Day for this significant first visit to Trump. Not perhaps her most sensitive decision yet.

27 01 2017

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

 

 

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.]

Wandering hands letters (The Guardian, 14 04 2016)

These were letters from women sharing their experiences of sexual harassment.
This is an extended version of my unpublished letter.

At 19, my first visit to France was 6 weeks en famille with my French pen pal. (We had corresponded since I started learning French at school @ the age of 11.) One day, before we travelled to Lyons city centre on our own, her father volunteered advice on how to deal with any men’s ‘misbehaviour’ on the train. So, when standing in the crowded carriage, I felt a man rubbing his hard penis and his torso against me, I turned, visibly shocked, and shouted, in my best French, the words my friend’s father had provided: “Ça suffit! Non?” The perpetrator jumped back, and other passengers turned to stare

Thus I learnt the value of explicit confrontation, which turns innocent bystanders into witnesses. I have continued to use this French expression, not just in France; it has shock value, and makes clear that a sexual offence has been committed, and that my words are a public termination of abusive behaviour.

A month later, my friend’s father, finding us alone, tried to grab me and kiss me, chasing me around the dining table, as I tried to escape his clutches. No words could protect me, nor was I ever able to tell anyone. His daughter? His wife? My parents? How could I justify the consequences of such a disclosure for them and their relationships? Who would believe me? He would deny any accusation, and could even protest that I had come on to him, and be believed.

For the remaining week of my stay with the French family, I had to behave as if nothing unpleasant or unnerving had happened. And when I got home to my family in England, that pretence had to be sustained: I had to perform a wholly convincing lie, and keep the secret to myself alone. Forever. After all, what could my parents do with the information? What action could they take? And how would it make them feel?

Thus I learned the fragility of a girl’s/woman’s reputation; years before I set about acquiring tools of analysis to understand the roots and impact of sexism and misogyny, and a public voice to challenge these enduring features of personal and public life.

14 04 2016

Postcript: No longer young but still a target.
Years later, during my time in France as an unattached adult and mother, I again had to fend off predatory ‘advances’ (mainly from married men), remain silent and carry on as if no offence or violation had been committed. Then, after 20 years, when the friendly local butcher (a husband and father) effected a lightening strike in my own kitchen, and thrust his hand down the front of my (loose) blouse, squeezing my breast, my silence broke. (I broke. And knew it was time to leave the village and leave France.)

When I raged to local women about what he had done, they all had stories about him. He was a repeat offender. He had a reputation. It was known and accepted. I was unhesitatingly believed. English women friends said, “Go public. Pursue him”. French women neighbours offered support, but advised against taking public action. And my heart cringed for his disparaged, long suffering wife, who I knew. It was clear this was not a marriage she could escape from, and for me to take public action against him would humiliate her (further).

val walsh / 15 04 2016

See also poem in Category ‘Poems 2016’ this blog.

 

See title in Category ‘Poems 2016’.