Understanding Anorexia: The politics of women’s mental health.

  • Louis Theroux: Talking to Anorexia (BBC2, 29 10 2107)
  • The ‘invisible’ and disappearing female body
  • Whose power?
  • The marginalization of feminist-inspired women-only practice and culture.

There is something both symbolic and literal about anorexia, a condition identified by its signs and symptoms only once these have gained visible momentum: loss of appetite (for food, life and living), rapid weight loss, a sense of powerlessness, physical frailty, often depression, and the highest death rate for any ‘mental illness’.

Louis Theroux: Talking to Anorexia (BBC2, 29 10 2017).
This is, like his other investigations of ‘difficult’ or disturbing human subjects, sensitive, thoughtful, probing and shocking. The camera shows the visible evidence of anorexia (the way it reduces and reshapes women’s bodies), and Theroux in its presence, in institutions providing mental health services, in the women’s familial environments and in personal interviews. Theroux doesn’t emote and is verbally gentle and non judgemental. At the same time, faced with these just-about-alive, emaciated bodies, Theroux’s eyes and face, ostensibly inscrutable, nonetheless convey his sense of disturbance and concern, and his own powerlessness, even as he and his crew witness and document the women’s experience of anorexia.

The ‘invisible’ and disappearing female body.
Anorexia is literally a visible shrinking and drying up: of body tissue and size, as well as social horizons. It is the reduction, even removal, of fat and muscle, for example curves and breasts, as well as organ function, such as menstruation. It is a hollowing out, physically, mentally and emotionally, and can be understood as an effort to become both less visible (increasingly skeletal) and the centre of attention/care (as a visibly undernourished, skeletal body that indisputably signals ‘distress’, crisis, lack, need).

The onset of anorexia is usually in the early/mid teens, a period of pivotal sexual and social transition from girl to woman. In Theroux’s report, the ‘accepted’ discourse applied to anorexia revolves around the concepts of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’. These gender-neutral medical norms obliterate the reality of anorexia in girls and women. There is no such thing as ‘gender-neutral’ health for girls and women, especially when it is the visible body that is the terrain on which the girl or woman’s trauma is (dis)played.

Given these circumstances, how do we define ‘healthy’ for a woman? In terms of organ function, physical development, the absence of ‘disease’? In terms of conformity to social norms regarding gender and sexuality: an absence of ‘deviance’? But we know that conformity to sexist, racist and misogynist social norms can be very damaging for a girl or woman, in terms of her sense of self, her sexual and social confidence and wellbeing. Anorexia speaks to these pressures.

The shrinking and drying up that takes place during anorexia is of the female body: it is a de-sexing. It can be seen as a literal withdrawal/denial of ‘femininity’ (which is a social and heterosexual category); a refusal to become or be a woman: to be “attractive”, as one of the women interviewed put it (which is a social and heterosexual category). The oldest woman interviewed (63) explains it cheerfully as “not wanting to grow up, wanting to stay a child”. This avoidance suggests that the ‘threat’ of adult sexual intimacy is experienced as coercive and dangerous. And if you choose not to perform heterosexual femininity, by starving your female body, you can avoid both danger and ‘failure’. These are clearly not ‘medical’ conditions or problems.

A report by the then government’s Women’s Unit in 2000, found that “Inside, outside and beyond, young men and women are under continuing pressure to conform to traditional behaviour” (Will Woodward, ‘Gender stereotypes still hamper young’, The Guardian. 20 09 2000). 17 years later, in the age of the internet and expanding sexualisation in every corner of UK society, and widespread sexual harassment and violence against women and girls, this problem looks worse.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal in the US and the UK, which unleashed accusations of sexual harassment and rape that range over a period of 30 years or so, has been followed by the eruption of similar testimony about the ‘inappropriate’ (i.e. sexist, invasive, abusive, violent) behaviour of senior men in the UK parliament towards women, particularly young women. (See earlier commentaries, ‘Sexism and activism: What’s the problem?’ and ‘Thinking through “sexism”: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others)’, both written over a period of weeks in 2012 and posted in category Essays 2013 at togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

Hadley Freeman summarises a culture that has endured unimpeded for way too long:

“By the time harassment stories were emerging from journalism, politics, the arts, it          felt like maybe this wasn’t about a single industry, a few bad apples here and there.         This is about men. Men harassing women, men dismissing women who say they’ve      been harassed and now men bleating that they don’t know how to behave around             women today, because not inserting sexualised banter into every conversation they            have with women is apparently too difficult a concept for them to handle” (‘The       evidence is mounting – a man’s place is in the home’. The Guardian Weekend, 04 11     2017).

Darren Jones, the 30-year-old Labour MP for Bristol North West, suggested in parliament: “It shouldn’t be hard for MPs to moderate their behaviour” (cited Heather Stewart, ‘How the drip of allegations turned into a torrent inundating Westminster’, The Guardian, 04 11 2017). He advised:

“It’s very easy to find out if someone’s interested in you without assaulting them: you just ask them; you don’t need to send them creepy text messages or press your groin         against them” (ibid.).

What Jones misses in his succinct recommendation, is that this problematic behaviour is not about sex (mutual sexual attraction and the possibility of dating), but the routine abuse of power and male dominance by heterosexual men. Is girls’ and women’s anorexia a response to this pervasive culture of sexual harassment, abuse and violation?

Whose power?
Sometimes the girl or woman knows and is willing to name the trigger for her anorexia. There are glimpses in Theroux’s report: for example, the pressure on a girl/young woman of religious expectations of marriage and children as a duty; the prospect of a forced /arranged marriage; early relational/sexual rejection; bullying or abuse at school.

“A report published a year ago by MPs on the women and equalities committee             revealed shocking levels of sexual abuse and harassment of schoolgirls, who                complained it was a daily part of life but was often dismissed as ‘banter’ by staff”         (Sally Weale, ‘Greening faces legal challenge over pupil-on-pupil sex abuse’, The   Guardian, 04 11 2017).

Solicitor, Louise Whitfield, highlights the lack of political attention being paid to this serious problem:

“Repeated promises of new guidance over the last year have not been fulfilled, and    every day dozens of schoolgirls are sexually harassed and assaulted without their               schools knowing how to handle it” (cited Weale, ibid.).

The above examples provide some idea of the social and cultural contexts/pressures that present a challenge to the mental health of girls and women in our society, including those living with anorexia. However, these may not be considered as part of therapeutic process. Food, on the other hand, figures prominently in the anorexia discourse.

Our primary experience of food/eating is as a social activity, an aspect of intimacy that nourishes us: we start out being fed, as nurture, by our primary carer (usually the mother, at her breast or in her arms). But food is more than essential fuel or nutrition. Reviewing food memoirs, columnist and food writer, Ruby Tandoh quotes Emily Nunn approvingly from her book, The Comfort Food Diaries (2017): “Food has become my touchstone for understanding what real love is”. Tandoh takes up this theme:

“Food pierces to the heart of identity, forging the stuff that makes the bodies and  bones   of us. . . . The people may be different, the flavours unusual or the places far-off, but the message – that food informs who we are, and how we love – stays true”      (‘A table shared’, The Guardian, 04 11 2017).

In the context of anorexia, this is a poignant observation. Anorexia is defined as an eating disorder (not psychosis), a term that rather makes light of its seriousness as a life-changing and life-threatening condition. It disrupts the model of food as nurture and the cultural values it embodies: eating becomes private, solitary, secret, feared and shameful, instead of a sustaining, guilt-free, sensuous pleasure, engaged in as part of human intimacy. It can also become a means of exercising power and control within familial relations, as Theroux’s report glimpses, with perhaps notable consequences for the mother/daughter dyad.

Anorexic process can create a fault-line in the mother/daughter dyad that goes beyond food, because anorexia models difference, implied opposition: that the daughter will not follow the mother’s example regarding heterosexuality / femininity / reproduction. This can constitute (and be experienced as) a rejection of the birth mother, as both a nurturing figure and as a role model, i.e. the means by which the daughter is inducted into normative femininity and its expectations. The mother may be experienced as an agent of social control, and therefore part of the ‘problem’/a trigger.

Anorexia can be therefore be understood as more than ‘disorder’: as a refusal to conform to social norms that require a girl/woman to embody heterosexual identity and male fantasy. This fear of, and aversion to, normative heterosexual responsibility/appearance, result in a closing off of options. It’s as if there is no perceived alternative, and starvation becomes a consuming and defiant distraction: imagined/experienced as power and control.

On the evidence of Theroux’s report, the emphasis of treatment is on stopping the symptoms: disciplinary regimes designed around improving and monitoring food intake (not necessarily appetite), so that the patient can be returned to “normal life”, as the lead therapist breezily summarizes. But there is no evidence of “normal life” being examined, or acknowledged as the source of the problem. (This would presumably be seen as ‘politics’ not healthcare.)

Theroux focuses on residential anorexia services (greatly diminished by Austerity cuts) in medical environments, promptly described by a couple of the women interviewed as “prison”. Treatment is coercive and strictly monitored. This disciplinary model appears to be a process of infantilisation rather than empowerment: guiding (or forcing) the anorexic daughter to become the obedient child, the unreflective ‘good girl’, who can accept ‘femininity’ and its consequences without throwing up. The punitive, disciplinary regime of the medical model reinforces a childlike status. “Do you want to get well?” is asked. “I want to get well” is uttered with varying degrees of conviction. But what does each party to this narrative mean by “well”? What, if any (shared?) meanings are in play?

The medical model of women’s mental health treats anorexia as a medical problem, a technical challenge, as opposed to considering the social determinants of anorexia, its causes and triggers. This inevitably institutes a parent/child hierarchy of victim and authority figure. There is no invitation to understand self and society, nor to achieve self care as self actualization, creative agency and social competence. Crucially, this institutionalised model works to ignore the role of powerful men and patriarchal values in the unravelling of girls’ and women’s mental health in contemporary society. (See footnote at end of this essay.)

Every girl and woman in society has to make her own accommodation with the potential conflict between self-determination and social conformity, between a functioning level of self respect as opposed to self loathing (the lack inculcated by all those industries selling   products to ‘cure’ girls’ and women’s [industry-defined] ‘deficiencies’ and ‘sexual imperfections’). Anorexia is perhaps the most extreme and complex of those accommodations: ‘normality’ experienced as trauma, triggers self harm, which leads to life-threatening frailty and vulnerability, mental confusion, and in many cases, death.

In a turbo consumer society in which girls and women are the centre of attention as means and end (as consumed and consumers), being a girl or woman can be a lonely and disturbing place if you do not have good friendship networks with other girls or women, and upbringing and education do not equip you to understand the social forces at work, relentlessly coercing you to ‘participate’ uncritically as a ‘girl’/woman in a market society that drives gender stereotypes as a basis for selling and profit. Defined as a ‘disease’ (a notch up from ‘eating disorder’?), anorexia requires/generates profitable pharmaceutical ‘solutions’, which in turn become legitimised and authorised by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). So it’s big business.

The marginalisation of feminist-inspired, women-only therapeutic practices.
Self harm, such as anorexia, must be particularly disturbing for clinicians to deal with. It’s not like a rash or bruise or broken limb. More like protest, anger, rejection, revenge. Anorexia positions clinicians and therapists as gendered, sexual human beings, not just as professional practitioners and figures of authority. Practitioners may not be aware they are deploying gender-neutral concepts of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ to frame anorexia as a medical condition, but in 2017 this cannot be viewed as incidental or an oversight. This gender-neutral narrative has become an institutionalized policy: a disciplinary practice (in both senses) that amounts to personal and professional displacement activity, its main function presumably being to enable practitioners to ‘manage’ their role and their relationship with their challenging and bewildering anorexic clients, without being reminded of what they have in common, for example, in terms of society and the social and sexual scripts on offer.

The medical model of mental health thus functions as a distancing device towards those in distress; and the “medicalisation of distress encourages us to see them as having a context-less ‘illness’” (John Read & Jacqui Dillon, ‘Creating evidence-based, effective and humane mental health services’ in Read & Dillon [2013] Models of Madness: Psychological, Social and Biological Approaches to Psychosis: 394).

As a society, as clinicians and therapists, are we identifying this dis-ease we call anorexia as ‘personal’ failure? Do we blame the individual for ‘embarking on’ such a destructive trajectory? Do institutional practices in turn punish her as a culprit? Why is there so much reluctance to scrutinize and challenge the ‘traditional’ social norms that act as obstacles to girls’ and women’s safety, confidence, creativity and ‘health’? Managerialism rules.

“The moral complexity and ambiguity that is inherent in the enterprise of policing        human conduct is neatly reduced to the morally neutral and more predictable activity     of managing a bodily disease” (M. Rapley et al 2011, De-Medicalising Misery: 4, cited John Read & Jacqui Dillon [2013]: 394).

Why is there so little political and professional acknowledgement of the accumulated evidence of women’s experiential testimony, feminist research and scholarship that already exists? Why have these experiential, analytical and critical women’s voices been so disregarded? The novelist, Carol Shields, provides a clue. The following is excerpted from a letter written by the narrator (mother/wife/writer) to Dennis Ford-Helpern, in Carol Shields’ complex and life-affirming, final novel (1996), Unless:

Ford-Helpern has written a book about moral problems, in which ‘All the problem-solvers in your examples are men, all fourteen’ (Shields: 219).  The narrator writes to protest, in the nicest way possible:  ‘I don’t think you intend to be discouraging in your book.  I think you have merely overlooked those who are routinely overlooked, that is to say half the world’s population’ (ibid: 220).  Unless is a book of multiple strands and meanings, one of which is what it means to be ‘real, ‘good’, ‘moral’, ‘sane’; and the conditions for and obstacles against these states of consciousness and being.  Shields offers us the means to explore ourselves, our world, in all our vulnerability, frailty, and strength.  We accompany her characters to the edge and beyond.  See also the work of Algerian-born, French writer, Marie Cardinal (1991; 1993; 1996).  The Words to Say It (1993) has been described as ‘world-renowned as the most important book ever written on the personal experience of psychoanalysis and the journey through therapy to recovery’ (The Women’s Press, 1996).

The women-only spaces, services and organisations, such as women’s refuges, domestic abuse services, Liverpool’s RASA (Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre), VAWG ( Violence Against Women and Girls) organisations, such as IMKAAN, a UK-based black feminist organization dedicated to addressing violence against women and girls, and women’s studies courses in colleges and universities, were developed as a result of feminist activism, research and analysis since the 1970s, explicitly and critically rooted in women’s lived experience of disadvantage: misogyny, racism, homophobia, poverty, subjugation, violence and despair. They openly articulate the importance of anti sexist, anti racist, anti lesbophobic practices supportive of women in our diversity, for example regarding social class, ethnicity, age, neurodiversity and ability. Feminist methodology is fundamental to overcoming fear, healing psychic wounds and achieving empowerment. (See ‘”Into the sunlight”: Gender, narrative, (mental) health. Resources for a missing conversation’ in category Conference Presentations 2005 at togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

A women’s mental health group in Liverpool, located within the statutory provider, Merseycare, brought together women from a range of services and sectors, as both service users and providers. Significantly, it called itself WWW: What Women Want. Over several years, it researched and produced powerful reports on a range of issues, giving voice to women’s experiences, sharing best practice and making recommendations to service funders and providers. In 2017 it was one of the many casualties of Tory Austerity cuts.

A user-led group of women and men that meets in Liverpool, significantly called, ReVision, continues to facilitate the sharing of experience, strategies and ideas, explicitly challenging the medical model of mental health. In both these groups, intellectual engagement joins with experiential sharing to supersede a ‘parent/child’, ‘victim’/disciplinary model of mental ‘disease’. This is in line with the work of ISPS (The International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis), and INTAR (The International Network Towards Alternatives and Recovery). (See ‘A shared “somatic crisis”: enough common ground?’, presented at the INTAR conference, Power to Communities: Healing Through Social Justice [25-27 06 2014]; posted in category Conference Presentations 2014 at togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

There is no evident intellectual dimension to the medicalised approach to anorexia. Treating the ‘disappearing’ woman as a child, reinforces her lack, rather than igniting desire and appetite. Yet it is possible to substitute disciplinary constraints as therapeutic practice, with a model based more in feminist-aware educational, therapeutic and creative practice. For example, by contrast, talking, reading, writing, drawing, singing and dancing variously feature in an environment that addresses the whole woman and her understanding of her context. Nor does treating anorexia as a medical problem appear to be a successful strategy, judging by the high remission rates and the average time taken to ‘recover’ (given as 7 years).

“A 200,000 strong study found that young people in the UK have the poorest mental wellbeing in the world, with the exception of Japan” (cited Moya Sarnev, ‘Campus confidential: the counsellors on the frontline of the student mental health crisis’, The Guardian Weekend, 28 10 2017). “ONS figures show that in the last 10 years, the number of student deaths by suicide has risen more than 50%” (ibid.). But as usual, these statistics are not disaggregated to make visible the different experience of women and men. And “The 2016 Hepi (Higher Education Policy Institute) report notes that in some institutions the funding for counselling services is less than £200,000. [The average pay for university vice-chancellors now exceeds £275000]” (ibid.).

While demand has grown across the country for mental health provision, and Tory rhetoric acknowledges the problem, services have been slashed by Tory governments since 2010. While demand has grown for women-only services over the years, these services have struggled to stay afloat in a political climate that has hardly eased its suspicion of women-only spaces and feminist initiatives and campaigns that seek, for example, to mitigate and heal the wounds inflicted on girls and women by heterosexual men’s sexual harassment, misogyny and violence: their unregulated gender-based power.

Yet there are young women students today who, offered mental health sessions that are “practical, positive and solution-focused” . . . with no suggestion of delving below the surface and into the past to explore where these problems might stem from, are not interested in therapy that might ask these sorts of question (Sarnev, ibid.): “I’m just interested in finding ways to deal with it, seeing if I can try to resolve it, rather than looking at why it started” (cited Sarnev).

This is an instrumental, problem-solving approach to mental health issues, which implicitly defines mental health as a technical challenge. Perhaps because of the ubiquity and power of hetero-patriarchal dominance in contemporary society, this may seem the ‘safer’ (i.e. least demanding, disturbing, disruptive) option, for both service user and therapist. A mutually acceptable pact. But in a neoliberal society, in which individualism and autonomy rule a market economy, girls and women (perhaps especially students) will be wary of identifying themselves as ‘victims’ in need of help: experienced as stigma, rather than as a political act, this can be seen as adding to their gendered disadvantage, rather than empowering them.

But in the context of a society seemingly determined to avoid confronting and articulating the politics of women’s mental health (i.e. our collective position and experience in society), this behavioural approach gets close to submission: a polite deferral of girls’ and women’s full and equal citizenship, not just as individuals, but as a political constituency with clout.

I have suggested that there are two (longstanding) limitations to the evidence presented in Theroux’s otherwise sensitive report, which together have significant consequences for our understanding of anorexia and its ‘treatment’: the acceptance of the medical model of women’s mental health as applied to anorexia; and the evident lack of feminist analysis and understanding within mental health services, which denotes a lack of feminist institutional presence and professional power, resulting in what could reasonably be described as culpable negligence and avoidable ignorance.

As a consequence, by politely displaying the evidence of anorexia in women’s lives through the lens of its official medicalisation, Theroux takes the MSM route, and avoids critical engagement with the evidence, and by extension, the politics of women’s mental health. The bestselling author on “race, fitting in and giving a voice to those without power”, Celeste Ng, asks:

“whether progressives who politely follow the rules yet give up nothing that really       costs will ever achieve meaningful change. The surface may appear smooth but         lurking problems will eventually rise: disruption is required for truths to be revealed” (cited in interview with Paul Laity, ‘”When you’re in a marginalized group, your existence is politicised for you”’, The Guardian, 04 11 2017). Emphasis added.

The disturbance we are ‘allowed’ by Theroux is mainly at the level of being positioned as appalled spectators: bystanders to a ‘context-less illness’, rather than having our own identities and lives thrown into the mix, thereby removing the protection of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ binary. But the social, cultural and political context in which we now view this report has been overturned: as I mentioned earlier, in the week of its screening, and since, UK society has erupted, forcing the issue of men’s predatory heterosexual behaviour and abusive power to the fore as never before.

The medical model of women’s mental health makes no sense (nor is it meant to): it is an act of denial regarding the role of men’s predatory heterosexual behaviour and society’s acceptance of a masculinity that seems to depend on the submission, subjugation and control of girls and women for its own ‘health’. Girls and women as collateral damage in the ‘war zone’ we call society, attests to a squalid and brutal inequality that no decent society should tolerate, and no political culture in 2017 should simply emulate, feign confusion – and then apologise for.

See, for example, a selection of unpublished letters to The Guardian at togetherfornow.wordpress.com: (02 07 2010) Opening a dialogue on rape, violence and gender [posted 19 09 2013]; (06 07 2011) Rape, violence and gender: the new normal? (posted 19 09 2013]; (07 04 2013) The Philpott case and the media: sensationalism, denial, obfuscation, irresponsibility. [posted 19 09 2013]; (17 05 2013) Daniel Cohn-Bendit: children of the ‘revolution’ [posted 19 09 2013]; (02 06 2013) Gender, violence and the media: free speech or irresponsible speech [posted 19 09 2013]; Anachronistic conduct [posted 21 01 2014]; Gender-neutral language ‘disappears’ men and masculinity [posted 20 04 2014]; Murder in a UK classroom [posted 02 05 2014]). There are other related posts in other categories since 2014.

val walsh / 07 11 2017













The learning curve that is the 2015 Labour leadership contest.

Val Walsh [25 08 2015]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan George also focuses on the damage done to democracy:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texts cited above in order of citation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selma James (19 08 2015) Guardian letter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary O’Hara (2014) Austerity Bites.

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

Paul Mason (2015) Post Capitalism.

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

Tom Clark (2014) Hard Times.

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

See also the following on togetherfornow.wordpress.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

val walsh / 25 08 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

val walsh / 31 08 2015