Promoting fair and sustainable co-habitation: exploring grounds for progressive politics as the political landscape implodes.

 

(Written for Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) Members’ Conference, ZERO CARBON: Making It Happen, 7-9 10 2016. Extracts presented to conference, 08 10 2016. Some additions made after conference.)

  • Learning the hard way: the social and political climate
  • Significant complications: women, feminism, neoliberalism, environmentalists
  • Grounds for progressive politics: agreeing the basics.

It is two years since I attended the annual CAT Members’ conference, and presented an abbreviated version of my submission to the Liverpool Mayor’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability (posted at togetherfornow.wordpress.com in Category: Conference Presentations 2014).

The reflections presented here start with the story of those years, October 2014-October 2016, a period of unusually intense and dramatic electoral politics in the UK. Such storying presents a linear chronology of highlights that invite interpretation, ‘assembling’ and interrogation, in the effort to better understand their collective significance. But in the middle section, the ‘smoothness’ of linear narrative breaks up, becoming disrupted by what I refer to as ‘significant complications’ sparked by the initial narrative. Despite the intellectual and political turmoil created by this unfolding process, the assumption is that progressives must pursue the possibility of piecing together the means to sustainable co-habitation, as opposed to mutually assured destruction. It is a case of one or the other.

Learning the hard way: the social and political climate.
The Scottish referendum in 2014 was the first political upheaval, as the population, including a high percentage of young people, decided politics was interesting after all, and that something important was at stake. Electoral action started in 2014 for me, when my local Constituency Labour Party (CLP) was set the task of choosing a new parliamentary candidate. He was elected in the 2015 general election with an increased constituency majority. The LP general election defeat led to Ed Miliband immediately standing down as leader, which in turn precipitated an unanticipated leadership contest, involving four candidates, including two women.

Jeremy Corbyn was a late entry to the candidate list. His victory was gob-smackingly unexpected; in addition, the margin by which he won (just short of 60% of the votes) was unprecedented. His success was the result of a surge of new Labour voters, together with older, long term Labour voters, both those who had stayed in the party for many years (despite sometimes grave misgivings) and those who left (some for the Green party) and have now returned (in joy, relief, hope – and wonder). A national organisation, Momentum, was immediately set up to build on the surge of enthusiasm and optimism unleashed by Corbyn’s election.

In Liverpool, Merseyside Momentum was ahead in the autumn of 2015 in bringing together the diversity of Corbyn supporters, and in the last 12 months has held many public events (meetings, rallies, conferences, political education events, and demonstrations / parades), variously involving hundreds and thousands of enthusiastic Corbyn supporters, often at very short notice. Each time we took ourselves by surprise, both at the numbers participating, and the confident, serious and ecstatic atmosphere. Across the UK, LP membership has gone through the roof, and CLPs have seen greatly increased numbers attending their meetings, sometimes so many they have had to hold ‘serial’ meetings in order to include everyone (see Greg Hadfield [September 2016] ‘Brighton and Hove: epicentre of the battle for the soul of the Labour party’. Labour Briefing: 10/11), where “the annual meeting included three sittings to accommodate over 600 members”.

Merseyside Momentum has had a similar experience, with half of those attending upstairs and half downstairs at Jack Jones House, and the speakers swopping round halfway so everyone was included and got the chance to contribute. Alongside the euphoria of Corbyn’s supporters, his political opponents in the Labour party and beyond immediately set about what has been a relentless process of vindictive personal and political manoeuvring. It should be noted that these attacks were triggered by the fact of his election as leader, not by his subsequent performance as leader.

Jon Trickett, Labour MP, was a panel speaker at a packed event, hosted by Jacobin, ‘What Can a Left Government Do?”(27 09 2016), part of Momentum’s The World Transformed (four days of politics, art, music, culture and community at the 2016 Labour Party Conference Fringe, held at the Black-E Community Centre in Liverpool). Other panel speakers were James Meadway, Laura Horn and Aditya Chakrabortty. Trickett spoke of his 50 odd years as a Labour member, who had seen how Labour leaders always faced concerted criticism and attack, but he said that he had never witnessed anything as ferocious as the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn: from the Tories, from the media, and from inside the PLP. He added, quietly: “But he is not defeated, he is not broken, he is not bent. And he will not be bought off.” Trickett’s sombre assessment triggered a standing ovation from the several hundred attendees, who roared their appreciation.

The political landscape in 2016 has been dominated by the EU referendum, which turned out not to be a referendum on the EU, but, on the one hand, David Cameron’s (unsuccessful) attempt to resolve divisions within his political party and re-assert his authority as leader, and more widely across the country, the chance for people to howl in rage at national politicians (“They’re all the same!”) and London’s perceived neglect of the regions, in particular coastal areas, the midlands and the north. It was social class grievance calling out what has been a class war engendered and ignored by parliamentary politicians and the media for too long.

TV and video coverage of the campaign and its immediate aftermath (e.g. Faisal Islam’s film for Sky News), bore witness to a surge of anger, together with evidence of feelings of abandonment and fear (of migrants), fear of the Other / the stranger, and for many of those who had never voted before, an ignorance of history, society and politics – of facts, processes and institutions. These were people, many of whom looked overfed and undernourished, who had endured punishing economic poverty over many years, almost certainly food and fuel poverty, education poverty and experiential poverty (e.g. of diversity and difference, via travel and intimacy).

The indelible impression was of people who had been deprived of safety/security, dignity, opportunity and reward; and then been punished by politicians and others for their deprivation: not just publicly stigmatised, but materially further deprived of the means of dignified survival, wellbeing and social / cultural participation by Tory Austerity politics. And “people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made” (FDR, cited Ben Fountain [17 09 2016] ‘How Donald Trump feasted on the corpse of the American dream’. The Guardian Journal: 40). This is not news, but since 2010, Tory Austerity politics has delivered hunger, unemployment, homelessness, social isolation and desperation on an ominous and reckless scale.

The UK EU referendum campaign was vicious, manipulative and dishonest, variously inviting contempt for politics generally, as well as, on the Brexit team, explicitly inciting fear and hatred of migrants, asylum seekers, Muslims, people of colour, foreigners, for example. And ‘experts’ (at the behest of Tory MP, Michael Gove). It was conspicuously relevance and evidence-light on both sides. The Brexit result exposed a sorely divided, fearful, angry and resentful country. There was an immediate spike in hate crimes and racism: 46% in the week following the Brexit vote, and the rate of such attacks has continued to escalate since (Andrew Solomon [17 09 2016] ‘Wall stories. From Mexico to Calais, why the idea of division is taking hold’. The Guardian Review: 1-3). The duplicity of the Leave campaign in particular, was immediately exposed, as well as the alarming fact that there was no plan in place, or even part-imagined. As Ian Birrell, former speechwriter for David Cameron, observed after attending Tory party conference, following the EU referendum result:

Most dismaying is the mixture of naivety, arrogance and rank hypocrisy found behind the Brexit bravura. No one seems to have a clue as to what sort of agreement can be achieved with our closest trading partners in Europe (‘The delirium of these Tories: it’s like a UKIP convention.’ The Guardian, 04 10 2016).

The EU referendum process confirmed that turbo-capitalism / neoliberalism is a gendered project: the “bravura” of which Birrell speaks is elite patriarchal masculinity and male dominance in action; brokered by mediocre men (several already well known as dishonest public figures) with an inflated sense of entitlement and power. For those fronting the Leave campaign (as opposed to those funding and organising it behind the scenes), it had been a ‘game’, a bit of fun, as Tory MP Boris Johnson’s stricken grey face revealed on hearing that they had won. Nigel Farage’s reaction, by contrast, exposed his deeply personal exultation, as he triumphantly berated MEPs in Brussels, identifying UK rejection of the EU as a one-man, personal victory: his. Formerly discredited Tory MP, Liam Fox, now appointed by Prime Minister, Theresa May, as one of three Tories responsible for negotiating the actual conditions of UK withdrawal, would vie for that accolade.

In Liverpool, the EU referendum was quickly followed by the selection of party candidates for the new role of Liverpool Metro Mayor (elections to follow early 2017). This ran alongside the second Labour leadership contest, as a result of the PLP deciding that the organised attempt to remove Corbyn as leader should be brought forward after the Brexit result, rather than turning their fire on a Tory government in disarray after the referendum and the resignation of their party leader, the Prime Minister, David Cameron. The result of the second Labour leadership contest was announced at the start of Labour party conference in Liverpool (24 09 2016): Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as leader.

At a CLASS (Centre for Labour and Social Studies) Evening Reception and Review of the Year fringe event (25 09 2016) at Labour conference, chaired by Dr Faiza Shaheen, writer and journalist Paul Mason observed that one of the differences between now and last year is that a year ago Corbyn was “an accident”; this year, re-elected after a gruelling campaign, with an increased majority and strengthened mandate, everyone (the media, the Tories, the PLP, together with his own supporters across the country) know he is not an accidental leader.

Throughout this period of electoral activity, as well as anti Austerity candidates, I was looking for those whose political platform demonstrated awareness of environmental issues and feminist values, and their interconnections. I found greater awareness and acceptance on both counts than previously. However, there were also . . . .

Significant complications: women, feminism, neoliberalism, environmentalists.
Like philosopher, Nancy Fraser:

I’ve always assumed that by fighting to emancipate women I was building a better world – more egalitarian, just and free. But lately I’ve begun to worry  that ideals pioneered by feminists are serving quite different ends (Nancy Fraser [14 10 2013] ‘How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it’ The Guardian).

Since October 2014, I have helped elect a series of white males to office: as my MP, as leader of the Labour party, as candidate for Metro Mayor, and again as Labour leader. What my experience has revealed is the dearth of suitable women candidates. I know loads of brilliant women in the public domain (feminists, social justice champions, anti racists, environmentalists, running organisations, leading campaigns): but all unwilling to enter the male-dominated bear pit of English parliamentary politics.

The 2015 Labour leadership context exposed my dilemma: the two women candidates espoused neoliberalism, which I understand to be incompatible with feminist and social justice politics. So I had to vote for the only anti Austerity candidate: an older white male with a beard. Adrienne Roberts, Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester, draws attention to:

a neoliberal ‘common sense’ that assumes that greater access to the financial       market, like other markets, will automatically lead to the erosion of discrimination – undermining gender inequality while simultaneously improving profitability. They also assume that there is no alternative to neoliberal finance-led capitalism, which imposes important limits to critical feminist praxis (Roberts, ‘The limitations of transnational business feminism:  the case of gender lens investing’. Soundings: A journal of politics and culture, Issue 62 Spring 2016, Alternatives to neoliberalism: 69). Emphasis added. See also Stuart Hall & Alan O’Shea, ‘Common-sense neoliberalism’, Soundings 55, Winter 2013.

Elisabeth Prugel argues that:

The neoliberalisation of feminism occurs as feminism is increasingly co-opted        into neoliberal projects (‘Neoliberalising feminism,’ New Political Economy 20 04 2015, cited Roberts, Soundings Issue 62 Spring 2016: 78).

The only Labour woman candidate for Liverpool Metro Mayor was a neoliberal MP, with problematic views of the Israeli / Palestine conflict, as well as having signed up to remove Corbyn as Labour leader. So again, I had to vote for one of the men. There were not just not enough women offering themselves for political positions, they were the wrong women, even those adopting the label ‘feminist’. What a cruel world. I returned to Nancy Fraser’s critique with renewed awareness and despondency:

In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society. That would explain how it came to pass that feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms (Nancy Fraser [14 10 2013] ‘How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it’. The Guardian). Emphasis added. [See also Nancy Fraser refs in ‘The learning curve that is the 2015 Labour leadership contest’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com in Category: ‘Essays 2015’.]                            ).

The liberal-individualist scenario, which emphasises “individual autonomy, increased choice and meritocratic advancement” (ibid.) – how personally seductive and politically virtuous does that sound? – uncritically endorses a free market society, within which participatory democracy and social solidarity fall by the wayside as political priorities, and the limitations of equality as a discourse are cruelly exposed.

Never mind that the reality that underlies the new ideal is depressed wage levels, decreased job security, declining living standards, a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, exacerbation of the double shift – now often a triple or quadruple shift – and a rise in poverty, increasingly concentrated in female-headed households (ibid.).

The last 30+ years have provided irrefutable evidence that neoliberal individualism cannot be endorsed as liberatory, fair or just: nor as embodying either Labour or feminist values of equality and social justice. But it has fuelled consumerism, which has variously (and differentially) fed, clothed, shod, employed and housed women in ways that have felt personally liberating for many women in the West. Much of the ‘neoliberal common sense’ that seeks to align gender equality with finance-led capitalism as ‘smart economics’, “reaffirms a particular Western version of liberal feminism” (Roberts, op cit: 74), and within this discourse:

The incorporation of women into the workforce does not have to involve    identifying and challenging historically constituted gender power relations, because the issue is framed around ‘diversity’ (ibid.: 75/76). Emphasis added.

In 2016, divisions on the Left for feminists have hardened:

Transnational Business Feminism seeks to work through neoliberal capitalism rather than to challenge it (op cit: 74).

And the ‘business case’ for gender equality “legitimises the growing power of corporations, and naturalises and normalises the fusion of gender equality to participation in the capitalist market economy” (ibid.: 72, emphasis added). But as Roberts reminds us:

From a critical feminist perspective, however, gender equality is important for reasons that surpass corporate profitability (ibid.: 75).

In addition, neoliberalism (or free market fundamentalism) is powerfully implicated in the destruction of habitat and species, climate and community, social and economic security, and the privatization and fragmentation of the NHS. As well as being hostile to democracy itself. As feminist activism, research and increased participation in the public domain got under way in the 1960s and 1970s, and as the neoliberal project later hit town and started to swallow all in its path, women did not anticipate the significance of this new source of difference and division, and its consequences for feminist, Green and Labour politics in the UK.

In the early years of the UK environmental movement, variously taking shape as the Countryside Alliance, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, for example, social justice issues were not part of environmental discourse and debate; social class issues were embodied by the (all white, middle class) membership, but power relations were not examined as theoretically or politically significant; and while women were members, feminist values, critique and analysis seemed off limits.

To speak of gender power relations was to speak in an incomprehensible ‘foreign’ tongue, and be identified as a ‘troublemaker’ ruffling feathers. To an extent, early environmentalism in the UK embodied middle-class apolitical decorum. It did not count itself as ‘politics’, which was seen as something intrusive and contentious – ‘party political’. It felt as if environmentalism was ‘safely’ in its own, non political box, and was for people who did not ‘do politics’, or at least anti establishment politics.

And this may still be part of its attraction. Young female students, on being asked by a TV reporter how they intended to vote at the 2015 election, replied: “I’m not political. So will probably vote Green”. For these young women, ‘political’ seems to mean party political, and that means Labour or Conservative or Lib Dem – the parties of government, and perhaps, by implication, scandals, corruption, deceit, broken promises, and older, elite white men in suits.

In the UK, the intellectual and political standing of both early feminism and women’s environmentalism, echoed women’s social and political position more generally, which meant we were Other to ‘mainstream’ (i.e. elite white male) ideas and action; and women activists and scholars in the West were almost exclusively white.

CAT embodied gender awareness and gender parity in its early working practices on site, and more recently explicit political analyses have begun to emerge in Clean Slate, CAT’s practical journal of sustainable living. For example, ‘Why zero carbon needs women’ (Jenny Hawley, pp27-29) and ‘Equality, diversity and the creation of a zero carbon future’ (Helen Atkins. pp3-31), both in Clean Slate, No 100, summer 2016. And the latest issue, No. 101, Autumn 2016, is headlined, ‘Brexit: What now?’ and includes articles on poverty and climate change. Amidst political turmoil and social carnage, environmentalists and feminists could do with mapping some serious common ground in the context of anti Austerity politics, which post Brexit look set to become even more challenging.

Paul Allen, CAT’s lead on Zero Carbon, notes how the Tory government has rolled back on practical support for renewable energy and zero carbon building, while encouraging fracking, and the potential significance of the fact that many of the leading Brexit campaigners are climate sceptics (‘Climate policy’, Clean Slate No.101 Autumn2016: 21). The reduced influence of the UK on EU climate policy as a result of leaving the EU is also a serious concern. Dr Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), surveying a year in which climate policy has gone backwards in the UK, finds further disturbing evidence in a Committee on Climate Change (CCC: the UK government’s advisory body on this issue) overview of research comparing ‘production’ emissions and ‘consumption’ emissions (‘How big is the average Briton’s carbon footprint, really?’ Clean Slate No 101 Autumn 2016: 16). He concludes:

So there is absolutely no justification for the UK government cutting back on climate action. Quite the reverse – we need to accelerate transition. Much more ambitious policies on energy conservation, energy generation from renewable sources and sustainable consumption urgently need to be pursued (ibid.). Emphasis added.

Katherine Knox, Policy & Research Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, currently leading the JRF’s programme on climate change, social justice and community resilience, re-iterates that:

Recent policy has been moving in the wrong direction. We also need to start thinking more holistically about climate change mitigation and adaptation (‘Poverty, disadvantage and climate change – finding solutions’, Clean Slate  No 101 Autumn 2016:19).

Josh Fox, film-maker, playwright and environmental activist, offers an even more explicit verdict: “Fracking is a form of climate denial” (11 10 2016, The Guardian), at a time when the evidence is in: “climate crisis is upon us” (ibid.). He argues that:

Courage is what the movement fighting climate change and fossil fuels needs most now. Lack of courage by western governments is having devastating consequences (ibid.).

It is courage that can move us, individually and collectively, beyond narrow vested interests and beyond our personal comfort zones. Fox cites activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, who estimates that:

We have 17 years to replace all fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy. That means no new fossil fuel projects. Period. We burn down what we have, and we build renewable energy sources as fast as we can. That means no new pipelines, no new fracking fields, no new offshore drilling, no new tar sands or coal mines (cited Fox, ibid.).

As Fox summarises:

The neoliberal promise that we can both prevent catastrophic warming and allow energy companies to get rich extracting and burning more fossil fuels is a fallacy. We can’t (ibid.).

In 2016, it is resoundingly clear that facing up to climate change is a national and international political project, a challenge for the Left and progressive politics. What will be the contribution of the environmental movement, the Green party, the Labour party and the trade unions to this political process now that the EU referendum decision to leave the EU has been taken? In 2016, facing up to climate change entails challenging neoliberal assumptions, values and practices, undoing the internalisation of that ‘neoliberal common sense’ that there is no alternative, and developing practical alternatives.

At a national and local level, Knox cites the importance of tackling social justice issues, such as poverty:

The issue of low-income households paying disproportionately more towards the costs of policy measures paid for through energy bills has been widely reported. But the answer is not simply to avoid taking policy measures; it is an argument for a fairer application of the costs, and the use of taxation as a more progressive route to fund policy measures (Katherine Knox, ibid.: 18). Emphasis added.

This is politics: parliamentary and international politics. Political action at the local level is also an essential part of national and global change. However, as you participate in environmental events, such as the CAT members’ conference, you can find yourself caught up in discussions that are fundamentally consumerist, predicated on lifestyle options and choices; sharing information and experience, for example, regarding insulation, passive solar heating, photovoltaic (PV) technologies, heating systems, energy consumption and costs, ‘waste’ (excess) disposal, recycling, composting and personal zero carbon ambitions, etc..

This sharing is important, but it is not environmentalism as politics, but rather a lifestyle discourse mainly by and for those who have some material prosperity (land, property, disposable income, capital, etc.), relevant education and training, and a measure of independent control over their lives, plus disposable time. This demographic and its accompanying culture could constitute an obstacle to the sharing and social co-creativity required if we are to develop an effective progressive politics that goes beyond the constraints (and pleasures) of neoliberal individualism. This cohort may occupy a (privileged) comfort zone that they (understandably) wish to maintain and/or defend. As one woman explained in a small group discussion: “I don’t want to be harangued or told what to do. I already do a lot of things”.

The issues raised in the last two issues of Clean Slate highlight the significance of the relation between environmental action and environmental politics, on the one hand, and electoral politics and parliamentary action on the other, at a time when, post Brexit, the UK political landscape is imploding, social relations are in upheaval, and our relations with other countries and cultures could be on the skids.

Grounds for progressive politics: agreeing the basics.
The events of these last months have left progressives tearing our hair out in despair (and fear) at the sight of such polarisation: politics as unregulated vested interest / greed / male dominance / triumphalism; and politics as grievance / self harm / defeatism / helplessness: incoherent and coherent rage. John Harris has offered this ominous summary:

The rising inequality fostered by globalization and free-market economics manifests itself in a cultural gap that is tearing the left’s traditional constituency in two. Once, social democracy – or, if you prefer, democratic socialism – was built on the support of both the progressive middle class and the parts of the working class who were represented by the unions. Now, a comfortable, culturally confident constituency seems to stare in bafflement at an increasingly resentful part of the traditionally Labour-supporting working class (John Harris [06 09 2016] ‘Does the left have a future?’ The Guardian Journal: 25).

By contrast, film-maker, Ken Loach, asked about the criticism that Jeremy Corbyn is more interested in growing the movement than in winning power, replies:

I think that is nonsense. The stronger the movement, the greater chance of winning an election. It has to be a movement, in that it isn’t just an electoral machine . . . . What the Labour movement is about is a broad mass of people actively engaged in a democratic process (cited Simon Hattenstone interview, ‘Here comes trouble’ The Guardian Weekend, 15 10 2016: 48).

Loach compares the present situation to his experience in the 1960s of small groups just talking to each other, and “he loves the fact that there are now so many people engaged in the debate” (ibid.).

Age and social class can certainly be mapped on to the divisions mentioned by Harris, but education has emerged as a distinctive factor, and not just as a function of age and social class:

            Voters with postgraduate qualifications split 75 to 25 in favour of remain.   Meanwhile, among those who left school without any qualifications, the vote was almost exactly reversed: 73 to 27 for leave. A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last month confirmed that ‘educational opportunity was the strongest driver’ of the Brexit vote (David Runciman, ‘Degrees of separation’, The Guardian, 05 10 2016: 32).

Drawing on a report on the 1983 general election, Runciman notes:

Graduates, even in the 1980s, tended to be much more concerned about the         environment than other sectors of the population. They were also strikingly more internationalist in outlook (ibid.).

And this constituency certainly congregates within environmental groups and organisations, for example CAT members. It appears that higher education introduced “values distinct from class experience” and “related to issues that were not straightforwardly economic” (ibid. 33). Runciman concludes that the significance of education is that:

Education does not simply divide us on the grounds of what is in our interests. It sorts us according to where we feel we belong (ibid: 33).

In the autumn of 2011, I attended three national conferences in quick succession: I had an urgent need to be among crowds of people with whom I felt I had some values in common, and with whom I felt some sense of belonging. In the event, I noticed that the Friends of the Earth residential conference in Nottingham was overwhelmingly white and middle class, but there were plenty of women. The CAT members’ conference in Machynlleth, Powys, was exclusively white and middle class and rather male dominated. The Labour party conference, held that year in Liverpool, was gloriously mixed: all ages, backgrounds, sexual preference, ethnicities, and a real mix of women and men. I remember thinking that this was because it was national, and that if it had been a local event, it would have been exclusively white. The Labour party experience was exhilarating and filled me with hope. (Perhaps I should explain that I had moved to Liverpool in 1973 from multicultural south east London and had missed that diversity.)

The demographics of our groups and organisations have social and political consequences that, if too monocultural and fixed, constitute an obstacle to building a sense of sufficient ‘common cause’ and ‘shared identity’ beyond ourselves. It is clear that it is the Labour party that already embodies and represents our diversity as a people and society, across differences of social class and ethnicity, for example. Environmental groups, and even many women’s groups, have some catching up to do, and too often reproduce the structural differentials of social class, race and sexuality for example, that operate as divisions in wider society.

But crisis – and this is surely a time of social, economic and political crisis – can afford opportunity and clarity; new determination and courage; new strategies and alliances: co-creativity. Ceri Hutton, human rights researcher and activist from Ulverston, Cumbria, offers this neat summary:

The Corbyn campaign for me is about changing social and political tack. Unless we do, we will sell off more public assets, lose our NHS, turn our children into automatons, devalue art, watch more and more people lose support and dignity, trash more human rights and keep pumping money towards the rich in the laughable hope that somehow, some day, they will hand it back. And we continue to thunder towards the cliff of climate change (cited, ‘Cumbria for Corbyn’, Labour Briefing, September 2016: 6).

John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, attests:

It is unimaginable that Labour could ever go back to supporting austerity; to            endorsing attacks on benefit claimants, supporting aggressive wars or scapegoating migrants (‘What does the Labour leadership election tell us?’ Labour Briefing, September 2016: 5).

He concludes that the campaign to remove Jeremy from office wants:

a return to a politics where Labour leaders may make bold statements about changing society but are easily incorporated – a return to a politics where elections are simply a rotation of political elites (ibid.). Emphasis added.

What is therefore required is a substantial change of political culture – custom and practice – a rebuilding of trust:

banishing the era of spin, triangulation and sharp suited politicians saying   whatever they think we want to hear (ibid.).

The other Labour leadership candidates in 2015 all tried that and were roundly called out. Many in the PLP failed to understand why Jeremy was favoured above those other candidates. They had only to listen to the voices of his supporters, old and young, experienced and inexperienced, across the country, who, given the chance, demonstrated understanding and could explain with straightforward eloquence. Like victims of childhood sexual abuse, many had waited a long time to be heard and believed, instead of disregarded, blamed, exploited, managed and/or suppressed.

In 2014/15, The Kilburn Manifesto (2015) team (headed up by the Soundings journal founders, Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin) defined the central problem as the “character of the entire neoliberal system, with whose advance the New Labour government (this is not to deny its achievements) had been complicit” (Michael Rustin ‘Alternatives to neoliberalism: a framing statement’, Soundings, Issue 62, 2016: 13):

We did not think it useful to be engaging in debates over ‘policies’ when what needed to be addressed were the fundamental assumptions on which any specific policies needed to be based (ibid.).

Examining fundamental assumptions can produce a list of obstacles and barriers on the one hand, and ‘solutions’/services/practices on the other, about which agreement could be reached, first in terms of their importance/priority, then in terms of how to tackle the obstacles and barriers, and how to fund and organise the ‘solutions’/ services/practices. Such a process can work to avoid waffle, spin, power play, sloganising and abstraction. Internal Labour debates and cross party conversations could usefully address attitudes to the following:

  • poverty (economic, food, fuel, education opportunity) NB children
  • inequality (see above + attitudes to difference and disadvantage)
  • gender power relations
  • social class disadvantage NB children
  • scarcity (clean air, water, food, energy, land, housing)
  • climate change
  • violence & violation: abuse / conflict / terrorism / war NB children
  • violence & violation: misogyny, homophobia, racism, disablism
  • fundamentalisms
  • militarism, the arms industry
  • neoliberalism
  • corruption & exploitation.

‘Solutions’/services/practices could include attitudes to, and social and political practices regarding:

  • tax: revenue, regulation, fairness (redistribution)
  • investment
  • economic policy and practice NB power relations
  • employment issues: conditions, protections, rights NB power relations
  • public sector: values & services
  • privatisation
  • technology
  • energy: renewables & nuclear
  • digital citizenship (users as citizens not just consumers)
  • education for life & democracy, not just employment/work
  • land: ownership, use, responsibility
  • housing
  • arts
  • NHS
  • public health, mental health, social care & welfare support
  • regulation, e.g. H & S, social justice, inequality, corruption
  • food: production, distribution, regulation
  • transport
  • social justice & human rights
  • democracy / the body politic.

None of these ‘headlines’ occupies its own discrete box, but partakes of a range of conjunctions and scenarios. Exploring fundamental assumptions and priorities together, as part of peer process, helps establish areas of potential consensus, controversy and practical political action, as well as the lines in the sand for individuals, constituencies and political parties. It can help generate a meaningful and honest conversation, a different political methodology, which is genuinely capacity building.

For example, do we want a society in which poverty, inequality and climate change are accepted as unavoidable and immutable? By contrast, do we want a society that is organised in ways that alleviate, eliminate or arrest economic poverty, inequalities and climate change? Or one in which poverty and inequality are used as political tools, a form of control, dominance and punishment; a source of personal, public shame? These are political decisions for us to make.

Pursuing this approach, do we see tax as an imposition and burden, a curtailment of individual freedom, or as “about how to make collective choices that work best for the communities we all live in” (Richard Murphy, The joy of tax: how a fair tax system can create a better society, 2015; cited Doreen Massey, ‘Tax: a political fault line.’ Review, Soundings, ibid.: 161). Massey argues:

At the broadest (and deepest) level, tax and tax policy should be, explicitly and politically, about constituting the society we want. It is about the constitution of our collectivity (Massey, ibid.: 163. See also Tax Justice Focus [2015], The greatest invention: tax and the campaign for a just society.) Emphasis added.

Each of the obstacles and barriers listed here can be fruitfully interrogated in this way, moving us towards greater transparency and potential mutual understanding. This process also has the effect of democratizing the political parties, organisations, communities and groups that take part. More people understand what is at stake; and more people feel they have a stake in decision-making and parliamentary policies. More and better information circulates as a basis for understanding and decisions. Complexity is more likely to be acknowledged than denied. (The Carbon Conversations project described by Rosemary Randall and Andy Brown sounds like something similar. See Randall & Brown, ‘In time for tomorrow?’ Clean Slate No 96 Summer 2015:30/31).

Compare this methodology to the ‘post truth’ politics of the populist Brexit campaign.
Progressive politics in 2016 must encompass an anti-populist strategy, not least because:

Populists deny, or wish away, the pluralism of contemporary societies. When they say equality, they mean sameness. . . (Jan-Werner Muller [03 09 2016]  ‘The fantasy of populism’. The Guardian Review: 5). Emphasis added.

Fear of difference, hostility towards the Other, and the emphasis placed on purity, drives racism and its violations.

It is a profound illusion to think that populists . . . . can improve our   democracies. Populists are just different elites who try to grab power with the help of a collective fantasy of political purity (ibid.).

Step up Nigel Farage with his talk of “the (little) people”, and he is one of them, in opposition to the establishment!

But liberals also have to tread on the dangerous territory of identity politics.They have to argue against the populist fantasies of a ‘pure people’, and instead fashion attractive and, above all, pluralist conceptions of Britishness and Americanness (Jan-Werner Muller [03 09 2016] ‘The fantasy of populism’. The Guardian Review: 5).

On the central concern of this commentary, the relation between environmental issues, feminist values and anti Austerity politics, and their productive conjunction as a basis for progressive politics and a new political methodology as suggested above, there is a further complicating factor that has become visible during these politically charged months.

Education has historically been a key feature of the Labour project: hence the importance of free postwar state education and later the introduction of comprehensive secondary education that was meant to supersede the tripartite system of grammar schools, technical schools and secondary schools, which divided and categorised children at the age of eleven. Politically, education was seen as a core right within equalities campaigns, for all marginalised and oppressed constituencies. It has been seen as central to self-determination, economic and social advancement, and creativity. In practice, however, children attending technical schools and secondary schools (i.e. the overwhelming majority of children – 98%?) were generally not expected to apply for university, and in the main were not allowed to know such places existed. Ignorance about higher education opportunities may have been more common in the north of England, where poverty was more extreme and the comprehensive revolution took longer to establish.

Formal education in a class-based society in which the instruments of social class hierarchy (public schools) were left in place by the 1945 Labour government, could variously be conceived as the shedding of disadvantage, as ‘empowerment’, ‘escape’, as ‘access’, as part of the ‘knowledge is power’ discourse. But notice how the language of escape, upward mobility and access connotes entry / getting in / gain, and a move away from working-class lives and values, perceived as in ‘deficit’.

Hardly surprising then that there always remained working-class communities that resisted the charms of education, seeing it as ‘social makeover’, as a giving up of and disowning of working-class culture, values and practices. Education as middle class would remain hostile territory, and many working-class children would experience disadvantage and damage within the system, at the hands of white middle class teachers, for whom they represented ‘lack’ and/or ‘deviance’. (See references at end.)

It is October 2016, and David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, offers a summary of what could prove to be a cruel new twist on English anti-intellectualism. With more graduates than ever before, after years expanding higher education and access to it, he speculates whether education has mutated to become a mark of privilege; knowledge a perk of power; a moral assumption of superiority; self interest dressed up as expertise, an expression of self righteousness (see ibid.: 33). If this is the case, our society is in big trouble, and progressive politics just hit another buffer. The public political conversations envisaged above test levels of shared conceptual language and analytical skills. And these are skills, aptitudes and practices (research, analysis, communication, debate) associated with creative early years and secondary education, but in particular post 16 education, and especially good university education. A vivid example of this political challenge post ‘Brexit” is food.

Noting that “in the UK . . . our food system is fractured by gross inequalities of access, cost, health and culture”, Tim Lang, of the Centre for Food Policy, conjures the technical, intellectual, diplomatic and political complexity facing government (and the rest of us) in the wake of the referendum decision to leave the EU, and the incredible complexity of “unravelling decades of food law and regulations” (Tim Lang, ‘The food system’, Clean Slate No 101 Autumn 2016: 20) amongst other things, at a time when:

The UK, European and global food systems ought to begin a complicated process of restructuring to reduce food impact on climate change, biodiversity loss, water and food waste, at the same time as shifting the diets in the rich and poor worlds (ibid.)

These are public health issues, as much as environmental and economic concerns, none of which were discussed during the referendum campaign, despite the fact that the UK imports 30% of its food, and migrants are established and prominent workers in farming and horticulture . This whole-society process requires a host of experts (and there is serious doubt that these actually exist in the numbers required, not least because of entrenched Tory mistrust of intellectuals and experts, who exert critical intelligence that can cause political discomfort). It also requires wide-ranging public participation, understanding, consent and behaviour change. Lang calls for us “to get our act together, to be calm and analytical” (ibid.)! You sense he dreads further uproar and widespread panic. There is both a sense of crisis and urgency in his observations and analysis, as he asks: “What are our tasks right now?” (ibid.).

Faced with such complexities, Lang emphasises the importance of “creating new working alliances” (ibid.), which speaks to the central challenge those of us face who are politically active in whatever way and to whatever degree. But if, as Runciman speculates, education, previously prized on the Left as a right, power and pleasure, as nourishment for mind and soul, has become commodified as an instrument of neoliberalism, as a mark of privilege and superiority, then rising to the challenge of building new working alliances will be harder, not least because neoliberalism is quintessentially hierarchical and sets us in competition with each other, rather than nurturing the skills of cooperation and collaboration.

To be effective, new working alliances must be heartfelt, meaningful and strategic: and they demand our best efforts and expertise. Ken Loach provides a relevant example. He is still a member of Left Unity, not the Labour party.

But since Jeremy Corbyn took over as leader, it hasn’t stood in elections. It is not standing in opposition to Labour (cited Hattenstone, ibid: 48).

And it’s possible that Loach might leave Left Unity and rejoin Labour: “Because that’s where the big discussion will be happening” (ibid.). (Emphasis added.) Lang’s concluding counsel and sense of urgency and opportunity clearly have relevance beyond the politics of food:

We need to talk widely. . . We have much work to do and there will be many who share our concerns. This may be a time for unlikely bedfellows and unholy alliances (ibid.). Emphasis added.

This cultural shift towards what Loach describes as “a broad mass of people actively engaged in a democratic process” (cited Hattenstone, ibid.48) will take personal and political courage and stamina, as well as discrimination and organisation. The current Tory government, with a leader neither elected by her party nor the country; with a majority of 12; escalating internal divisions, acrimony and disorder, variously arising out of unbridled ambitions, personal laziness and political incompetence, should not be viewed as unassailable. To challenge and overcome the government demands a process of togetherness and co-creativity on the part of opposition parties, and we need to imagine and begin to forge this movement well ahead of the next general election.

val walsh / 17 10 2016

References re. state education and social class in the postwar period:

  • Mary Kennedy, Cathy Lubelska & Val Wash (eds) (1993) Making Connections: Women’s Studies, Women’s Movements, Women’s Lives.
  • Val Walsh, ‘Terms of engagement: pedagogy as a healing politic’ in Louise Morley & Val Walsh (eds) (1996) Breaking Boundaries: Women in Higher Education: 187-207;
  • ‘Interpreting class: auto/biographical imaginations and social change’ in Pat Mahony & Christine Zmroczek (eds) (1997) Class Matters: ‘Working-Class’ Women’s Perspectives on Social Class: 152-174;
  • ‘Digging up tangled roots: feminism and resistance to white working-class culture’ in Pauline Polkey (ed.) (1999) Women’s Lives Into Print: The Theory, Practice and Writing of Feminist Auto/biography: 197-215;
  • ‘From tangle to web: women’s life histories and feminist process’ in Pamela Cotterill, Sue Jackson & Gayle Letherby (eds.) (2007) Challenges and Negotiations for Women in Higher Education: 73-94.

end

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

COMPASS-NUT Education Inquiry (18 01 2014) Conference follow-up. Extract

 

  • Preamble
  • My educated self
  • Pedagogy as a collaborative, creative and political process
  • 2014 and beyond: gaps, omissions, rights and necessities
  • Education for safety/survival, agency and democracy.

It is, as several people observed later, a great pity that Tristram Hunt did not arrive in time to attend the introductory session, ‘My educated self’. He would have found out a lot that is relevant to his responsibilities as Shadow Minister for Education, and it would have better prepared him for his subsequent interview, and perhaps helped him respond more convincingly to participants’ questions, comments and concerns. As others noted afterwards: where was the evidence of his passion for education and what it can do for children and adults, and in particular for those disadvantaged by life circumstances not of their own making? He sat in the midst of several hundred attendees (practitioners all?), who all know so much, have so much experience of education in the UK (as ‘products’ and practitioners), and who care so passionately about education and its fate at this time, faced with the wrecking ball of the Tory-led government and its dire Education minister, Michael Gove. We have so much to offer a Labour government that wishes to take the side of the people and salvage something positive from the wreckage the Tories and the Lib Dems will leave in their wake. This day-long Saturday event was part of this process.

Everyone in the room on the day was in considerable part evidence of their education (because education is that powerful and enduring in its influence); and each could provide testimony on reflection, as to its value and its failures; the obstacles and the achievements; the joys and sorrows. Critical self-reflexivity is a well established process / methodology for researchers and practitioners of all kinds now, and it is in this spirit I have made my own contribution to the Inquiry, of which this is an extract, expanding on my brief contribution from the floor in the opening session on the day:

My educated self.
I have been fortunate. My education narrative is a generally happy and fruitful one. I loved school from the off and at all levels: I achieved joy in learning, sharing and helping others at infant and junior school, which further developed into a sense of adventure and intellectual challenge at my grammar school. Here there were opportunities outside the official curriculum, for example for drama, formal debating, music and art. And within the timetabled curriculum, in the later years, there were several non-subject-specific slots allotted for ‘discussion’. So communication, research and creative skills (oral, listening, writing, performing, making, doing, critical thinking and reflection, investigating) were variously fostered, and by teachers who were overwhelmingly stimulating, well organised, good humoured, supportive, and generous with their time and attention.

Learning and memorising were also important across a range of subjects, but always contextualized and relevant, rather than as rote learning as preparation for a test. Education was not just about learning stuff, but about expanding horizons as well as skills; of doors opening on the world of knowledge and culture, and the self.

Pedagogy as a collaborative, creative and political process.
The importance of role models is often over stated, but looking back I see that my years at school provided a number of these, and I benefitted throughout from a culture of encouragement and challenge. My favourite teachers were not just intellectually stimulating, but people with personality and a sense of humour, those I could identify as human beings as well as teachers. As my son would say in 2001, just after his 17th birthday and a month at Liverpool Community College studying music, when I asked him what he thought made a good teacher (he had had brilliant teachers in infants and junior school, as well as at his comprehensive + several duds): “It’s not just that they make their subject interesting. They are interesting.”

Looking back in my twenties, I came to understand my educational experience as a creative process (aided by early American research and writing on creativity that enabled me to recognize myself within its narratives and theory, and get over the binary western split between thinking and feeling that I had been so aware of during my years at grammar school). And there were inspirational writers / theorists / activists (mainly American + Paulo Freire) who helped me forge my own philosophy of education, experiential learning and creativity, and to understand the importance of the social and political contexts of education for all ages, including what we now refer to as the social determinants of education, health and wellbeing.

As a child and young person I had witnessed and benefitted from good practice; I had noted poor or bad practice; I had subsequently reflected on both; and as a creative and politically conscious person, I sought to go further in making a difference as an educationist.

2014 and beyond: gaps, omissions, rights and necessities.
Sitting within the embrace of the COMPASS-NUT conference opening session, ‘My educated self’, listening to the stories / evidence of others, and responding to the question posed to us: ‘What would I tell myself then about what I have learnt about education now?’, I found myself reflecting on what was missing from my own very good education, which is even more relevant in 2014 and beyond. Here is my list of priorities (unranked):

  • First and most obviously, I was taught nothing about my own history as girl and woman, in my own country / society and within the larger world. I had to start to piece this together in my twenties through reading and postgraduate study. I would now identify this as an absolute right and necessity as part of the education of all children and young people.
  • Second, I identify the importance of the history of the Labour movement and the trade unions as a right and necessity within the school curriculum for all children and young people. This too I began to piece together in my twenties, although with a Labour and trade unionist father, I was more knowledgeable about class struggle than I was about women’s historical feminist struggles.
  • Both the above open up for consideration a range of social, cultural and political issues pertinent to individual pupils and students, and societies today, contributing to the development of research skills, critical thinking, social and personal awareness, and a basis for understanding the crucial relation between the ‘personal’ and the structural, including concepts such as internalisation, mediation, subjugation, oppression, dominance, empowerment, power. These are essential for personal survival in C21, as well as a healthy, functioning democracy.
  • Third, only in retrospect can I name my worst experience at school in my teens: bullying at the hands of white working-class girls in my own year. This language was not available at the time, and though not religious, I had already internalised the moral imperative of ‘turning the other cheek’ to attack or injury, and this is what I did. I would not fight back. I endured the repeated experiences (bullying always involves repetition) silently and on my own, discussing them with no-one, including my parents. I attempted to maintain dignity and carry on, hoping it would pass. It was only years later that I could identify the name-calling and shoving as bullying. Similarly, today, girls and boys benefit from the availability of the discourses of sexual harassment and (sexual) abuse (of power), which can help them seek help, set boundaries and keep safe. Without the language we remain unable to describe or understand our lives and experience, in particular the negative or traumatic.[i]
  • Today, I hope that the culture in schools, colleges and universities is moving beyond ‘bystander’ culture (itself an important concept), and includes teachers and other staff sufficiently versed in the needs of those who are bullied, to both prevent bullying happening, to notice when it is, and to provide effective support when it does. It must be a whole school / institution commitment and ethos. These are not ‘technical’ skills, and require CPD (Continuing Professional Development) for staff, facilitated not by bureaucrats, but by activists / artists / practitioners in the equalities and child protection fields.
  • Fourth, the social and political movements of the C20 and C21 that have challenged racism, homophobia, misogyny, social class disadvantage and prejudice, for example, have changed UK society for the better in ways that are significant for how we might now identify the function and philosophy of education. To prevent the unravelling of these achievements (which seems to be the aim of the current government) requires understanding, commitment and everyday action on the part of the populace, as individuals and as constituencies. This cannot be achieved and sustained within education without staff who are fully aware of these issues, and confident in their ability to act appropriately in their roles within school, college and university. For everyone, children and adults, this process of understanding (consciousness-raising) is unavoidably a process of politicization that goes beyond subject specialism.
  • Fifth: probably the most significant and far-reaching change over the last 50+ years is that UK society has become overtly hyper-sexualised and an increasingly coercive and violent environment for women and children: gender power relations now loom as a serious pervasive problem; an obstacle to the health and wellbeing of children and young people (the most vulnerable) in particular, producing a high-risk social environment beyond school and FHE. Scantily dressed or naked girls and women, pouting or twerking to camera, are used to sell almost everything, not least sex and heterosexual norms themselves. Girls and women are routinely objectified and commodified for profit. While adverts, the media, films and videos encourage boys and men to be predatory, dominant, even violent. And now their bodies too are up for commodification. These changes distort and undermine mental health, as well as relationships, as the boundary between ‘reality’ and fantasy, private and public becomes crushed by fear-inducing ideologies glossing ‘glamour’, ‘success’ and ‘celebrity’ as the goals. Many girls bypass education for self determination, career goals and life skills, and instead aspire to be WAGS or simply ‘famous’. And it’s all about sex (appeal) and the body. As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett recently noted: “the sexual landscape has changed and under no circumstances can it be called freedom”.[ii]
  • At the moment, young people leave school and even higher education variously unprepared, ill-equiped and disadvantaged in the face of a powerful political economy that positions them in (mainly) binary opposition to each other (as female and male, masculine and feminine), and without the knowledge, skills and confidence to cope with the consumerist, heterosexist onslaught that works to shape and determine them as avid, dependent and sexual consumers: the market the neoliberal capitalist economy requires to make its profits.
  • Sixth: In particular, the perceived problem of sex and sexual relationships, now further complicated by the digital economy and social media and expanding opportunities for the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children and young people, requires an educational response that goes beyond ‘sex education’. In these charged and disturbing circumstances, ‘sex education’ is not the answer (as Cosslett and others have suggested); whereas Media Studies, Communication Studies, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies begin to look like basic educational rights and necessities, rather than subject options. But how do we staff such programmes, when these subjects have been systematically plundered, derided and closed down over the last 20+ years in our universities?[iii]

Education for safety/survival, agency and democracy.
The neoliberal, consumerist attack on children and young people (and the rest of us) prioritises sex and sexual identity as all-consuming, overriding concerns, and is part of a process of depoliticisation and distraction from the real issues and enemies; part of the “there is no such thing as society” rhetoric. It is a politics, not just an economic position, and therefore requires a politically conscious response by both the body politic and our education system. To be fair and just and meaningful, education cannot be ‘neutral’ in the face of these forces and the ensuing damage to individuals and to society.[iv] We have for too long had an educational system (and a society) that has left social inequalities in place. In 2014, those inequalities, and the damage and despair that ensue, are being flaunted and re-enforced as ‘natural’, ‘right’ and ‘necessary’, by a government  bloated by privilege, indifference and a venomous sense of superiority. As one academic, who has done more than most to expose the extent, function and consequences of inequalities in societies, has observed:

“We have an educational system that is designed to polarise people, one that creates an élite who can easily come to have little respect for the   majority of the population, who think that they should earn extraordinarily more than everyone else, and defines the jobs of others as so low-skilled that it apparently justifies many living in relative poverty.”[v]

In his inaugural lecture this week, as Halford Mackinder professor of human geography at Oxford University, Dorling boldly hit the spot:

“The 1% are disproportionately made up not of people who are most able, but of those who are most greedy and least       concerned about the rights, feelings and welfare of other people.”[vi]

From my experience as a mature postgraduate Sociology student in my twenties (while working as an art teacher in two London comprehensives); later as a Women’s Studies student, and as a feminist academic with years of experience teaching Art, Communication Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and creative writing for women, I know that these are among the educational opportunities that afford development of the whole person (women, men, transgender),[vii] empowering them to better understand how, for example, they got from A to B as girls / boys and arrived at specific sexual and gender identities, as well as the pressures exerted by society, culture and power, including for example, racism, heterosexism, homophobia, misogyny and social class.[viii] These academic programmes are among the ‘Studies’ that Thatcher loathed, because she knew they changed lives, put real power into the hands of ‘ordinary people’ disadvantaged and disempowered by society’s arrangements and structures.

In addition, in a democratic society that has signed up to the values and practices of human rights and social justice, children and young people need an education that provides an understanding of democracy itself, its value and distinctiveness, and what it needs for it to be sustained and maintained: i.e. an educated population, willing and able to participate.[ix]

And in a fair and just society that purports to promote an equalities culture, within which disablism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, social class prejudice and other ‘hate’ agendas are both illegal and culturally unacceptable, the education of children and young people needs to openly confront and engage with these issues, in preparation for life beyond school and FHE.

The question of ‘difference’ cannot be left to the media and other vested interests to define, control and foment.

Being a citizen in 2014 and beyond, as opposed to being defined simply as a consumer or subject, means something more complex than before. More political. Education must rise to that challenge. And this too has implications for the CPD of teachers, academics and other staff in education.

  • We must design and implement a state education clear about its core values; an education that supports democracy via human rights and social justice, mutual respect, the encouragement of creative agency, environmental awareness and understanding, and the (mental) health and wellbeing of both individuals and populations.
  • Essential to the process outlined here is the value placed on education itself within and by society and its members, including its governments, and not just a narrow definition of education for employability and the economy.
  • Education should not feel like a joyless imposition, but a creative opportunity, a springboard. For this to prevail, people must feel a sense of belonging and self worth. This is a collective achievement.[x]
  • For many working-class children and young people this is still not the case, and in some of their families and communities, education is perceived as ‘Other’, as inimical and irrelevant to their own class culture and communities.

Governments have a social responsibility towards the education of the people, rather than simply promoting the interests of the rich and powerful, attacking teachers in state schools, and deriding, determining and controlling the work of artists, researchers, academics and other professionals, such as lawyers and journalists (perceived as dangerous intellectuals). The responsibility of the latter must be to be sufficiently dangerous to the prevailing enemies of the people and our society at this time.

val walsh / 07 02 2014


[i] When, on my first visit to France at 19, staying en famille with my pen pal’s family for a life-changing 6 weeks, after writing to each other since the age of 13, towards the end of my stay her father chased me round the dining table when no-else was around, trying to grab and kiss me, again I told no-one, including my parents, until many years later I shared the memory with my adult daughter and women friends, by which time it could be told as an amusing anecdote. He was, after all, in loco parentis for those 6 weeks. How could I tell my friend (his daughter) or her mother (his wife) at the time? How could I tell my mother or father on my return? Or ever. Imagine their horror. I saw the consequences of disclosure/exposure as worse than the incident itself. I was shaken, and perhaps also knew that I might not be believed, and could even be blamed, his word against mine. It felt sordid, but is nothing compared to the experiences we now know children and young people have been subjected to by predatory older heterosexual men in what was (still is?) a climate of sexual laissez-faire.
[ii] Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (28 01 2014) Porn’s influence is real. Sex education is the answer. The Guardian.
[iii] Jake Beckett (01 02 2014) responding to Cosslett’s article (28 01 2014) in a letter to The Guardian shares his concern (as a recently retired science teacher required to teach reproduction but not sex education): “It was obvious that boys had been watching porn by the questions they asked”, and he suggests that what is needed is “an outside agency that employs teachers, actors or other suitable persons . . . to deliver theatre and talks that engage pupils and encourage discussion about a topic that is damaging their ability to judge what are normal relationships”. He notes the difficulty that many older teachers have addressing these issues.
[iv] A similar argument can be made for eco-awareness and environmental values to be embedded within the culture of schools, colleges and universities.
[v] Professor Danny Dorling (04 02 2014) Our education system is designed to polarize people, to create an élite. Guardian Education.
[vi] Ibid..
[vii] And I would add Drama, Literature and making music to this list for schools.
[viii] See Mary Kennedy, Cathy Lubelska & Val Walsh (1993) Making Connections: Women’s Studies, Women’s Movements, Women’s Lives. London, Taylor & Francis; Walsh (1995) ‘Eye witnesses, not spectators / activists, not academics: feminist pedagogy and women’s creativity’ in Katy Deepwell (ed.) New Feminist Art Criticism: Critical Strategies: 51-60. Manchester, Manchester University Press; Walsh (1995) ‘Transgression and the Academy: feminists and institutionalisation’ in Louise Morley & Val Walsh (eds.) Feminist Academics: Creative Agents for Change. London, Taylor & Francis: 86-101.
[ix] Attending a Co op Education conference in Cardiff last year, I saw inspiring examples of how cooperative schools practise democracy, as well as talk about it.
[x] See Walsh (1996) ‘Terms of engagement: pedagogy as a healing politic’ in Morley & Walsh (eds.) Breaking Boundaries: Women in Higher Education. London, Taylor & Francis:187-207. See also ’What is education for?’ and ‘Differential educational achievement’ in articles & statements section of togetherfornow.wordpress.com. Also, in the photos section of togetherfornow.wordpress.com are several photos of an NUT installation at Labour Party conference in Brighton (09 2013): an ‘apple tree’, where each apple contains a statement from a conference attendee, in response to the question: “What is education for?” Tristram Hunt should take a look at this as part of his research and preparation for his future job.