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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example, Katrine Marcal (2015) notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as Paul Mason reminds us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

val walsh / 07 02 2016





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

Reflections on ‘A Rebel Rant: Owen Jones on PEOPLE POWER.’

  • Political heritage
  • Stories: telling and sharing
  • Fragmentation, disconnection, defeat.

Journalist Owen Jones came to Liverpool’s WOW (Writing on the Wall) Festival to present WOW’s annual Rebel Rant (15 05 2014), at which a speaker is invited to talk on issues of serious contemporary interest and concern, and in a way that informs, stimulates and challenges the audience. Owen had previously spoken at the WOW Festival in 2011, to mark the publication of his book, CHAVS: The Demonization of the Working Class. The initial title for his Rebel Rant was: ‘What we’re up against and what can we do about it?’ The necessarily shorter title for the programme was: ‘People Power’.

Political heritage.
After establishing his credentials and status as someone northern, with ancestors/family who derive from Liverpool city region (always helpful if you look like an outsider for some reason), he started by going back in time to make the case for his initial theme that social change and improvements in people’s lives, workplaces and society had never been a ‘donation’ from those in power, but always conceded in the face of articulated and organized dissent, anger, aspiration, etc., by those with the least apparent power: whether economic / industrial, and / or social assets, and/or cultural capital; those who discern and/or experience disadvantage consequent upon inequity, inequality, social injustice.

Owen’s history lesson spanned events over several hundred years, as he highlighted how these historical challenges and achievements have always been a result of collective effort, and that today “we stand on the shoulders of those who were part of that heritage”.

I suggest the evidence also shows that the identities, ‘victims’ and visionaries (whatever their social class), were/are both separate and overlapping categories in these historical processes of challenge and change, and that co-ordinated action and political solidarity have habitually crossed social class and ethnic differences, perhaps increasingly in C20 and C21 campaigns and movements in the UK.

Owen’s introductory exposition was a timely and valuable contextualization of the crisis we now face in the UK, four years into the most vindictive, rightwing, aggressive Tory government ever, and its vital ‘human’ shield, the Lib Dems. It was a reminder of what we, the people, have already contributed to history, to social formations and institutions in our society: and the values that have driven so much of that social and political change over time, including C20 and C21 uprisings.[i] As such, I suspect his words induced political pride and personal hope!

In 2014 we are struggling in the face of acute government-induced personal suffering, social dislocation, environmental disarray, and political despair, specifically orchestrated to demolish the achievements and consequential social security put in place by post 1945 Labour governments. The ambitious Tory goal since 2010 has been twofold: first, the speedy fragmentation and privatization of the public sector (e.g. the NHS, education, social care, probation, prisons, the fire service, child social services, transport), expanding opportunities for personal profit, in particular for the already very wealthy; second, to set ‘different’ groups and constituencies, not just in opposition to each other, but to engender hostility, even hatred, thereby destroying any basis for mutuality, social compassion and political solidarity.

Owen’s audience of several hundred people gathered at The Black-E in Liverpool that evening, was no doubt comprised mainly, if not exclusively, of those most acutely aware of the severity of the current crisis, and desperate for forging a way out of what feels like imposed social and political demise, experienced as the deterioration and slow death of individuals, families, communities and democracy itself.

Stories: telling and sharing.
Owen’s historical panorama thus served to bind us together in the moment; to both acknowledge and perhaps mitigate the sense of injury and injustice, the frustration and anger this Tory world has stoked up. His implicit recognition of the significance of differences and divisions on the Left (the historical record of sectarianism, internal strife, personal animosity and ruthless competitiveness), prefaced a caution and a warning. But first, he developed a second key theme, that of narrative: the importance of our stories, of who gets to speak and who gets to be heard.

Hard data (statistics, tables and graphs) is of course important, and can be used to construct and present ‘facts’ about society, organisations, institutions, populations and governance. Such material can be compelling,[ii] and help make visible both the big picture and corners within the bigger picture. For example, Danny Dorling, previously Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, now at Oxford University, has built up a body of work, “deftly taking apart seemingly impenetrable statistics and using them to shine a light on some of the starkest wealth and health disparities round the UK and globally”.[iii]

Owen Jones contrasted the political strategies adopted by politicians and media on the Right and Left: the latter put out the stats, hoping the power of the numbers, the ‘facts’, will convince people about issues of inequality, injustice, inhumanity, etc.. This is the honest, evidence-based approach, but we know the disconnect that can remain for people between what the stats say (e.g. re. crime in an area) and what their own experience, or their own experience filtered via a relentless rightwing media, guides them to believe.

By contrast, he pointed out how the Right tells stories (mainly lies) with demonized lead characters (e.g. families with 50 children living in a mansion in London on benefits), designed to create feelings of horror, disgust, fear and hatred. He went on to suggest that the Left would do better to tell its own (true) stories, instead of simply parading statistics, i.e. to take a more qualitative, narrative approach to its political messages and its encounters with public and media.

Academics have been doing this for some years. Dorling’s brilliant statistical work on inequality, which has built his reputation, is undoubtedly powerful in its analysis and passionate in its concerns.[iv] But, introducing his next book, hard on the heals of Injustice in 2011, he notes:

I’ve always preferred numbers to words, but numbers do not make an argument.[v]    [Emphasis added.]

And this is exactly Owen Jone’s point. The result for Dorling is a text that is more widely accessible, not through dumbing down, but through his vivid handling of the data via discursive techniques and narrative strategies. And his passion and compassion continue to shine through: it is clear his concerns are not just academic.

Paul Mason is an economic and industrial journalist who also combines stories and analysis in his work (both written and investigative TV programmes) of corruption and the financial crisis, for example in what has been described as “a page-turning account”.[vi] Similarly, Guardian journalists Polly Toynbee and David Walker rushed out a short but vivid account of the government’s policies during its first two years,[vii] described as:

Combining meticulous research and interviews, bringing to light the experiences and attitudes of ordinary voters.[viii]
[Emphasis added.]

Guardian journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, works in the same way, regularly producing incisive, original and passionate pieces on the state of society, communities, economics, corruption, etc..[ix] Also outstanding is the work of Cambridge University economist, Ha-Joon Chang, occasional Guardian columnist. His brilliant, number 1 international best seller (2011), 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, was mentioned and recommended by a speaker from the floor during the follow-on discussion at Owen’s Rebel Rant. The speaker said he was is in the process of reading Ha-Joon Chang’s book and was obviously bowled over by both the information and arguments presented.[x]

There has been a stream of brilliant, useful books since the Tories and Lib Dems hijacked parliament and started to trash democratic process itself, and in the wake of the tsunami of major political, economic, media and sexual scandals in the UK.[xi] These recent texts variously encompass narratives, people’s stories, vital experiential data, thereby building on earlier experiential and narrative accounts.[xii]

So Owen’s emphasis on the role of stories and narrative within political discourse, within communities, as a way of renewing and refreshing our politics and social relationships, illuminates methodology on the Left as a key issue and strategy as we approach local elections and EU elections this month and a General Election in 2015. And it should be noted that, while stories involve telling and sharing, they also, importantly, entail attentive listening, not least to the stories of those who are different in some way from those doing the listening. So the ‘telling’ is not a form of domination or authoritarianism, but contributes to a conversation that enacts peer process.

Politicians could learn a thing or two from the best socially aware academics / researchers / writers / journalists with regard to both political courage and how to communicate beyond the circle of policy wonks. Knowledge production has been qualitatively changed over the years by such practitioners, including their theorization of the importance of narrative and storytelling, and their democratic and political significance.[xiii]

Fragmentation, disconnection, defeat.
Both in his presentation and in response to contributions from the floor afterwards, Owen re-iterated the importance of not allowing the Right to divide us, so that they (some combination of the BNP, UKIP, Tories, Lib Dems) slide back in for a second term. This was his third major theme, alluding to the importance of not attacking each other, not rejecting each other, not splitting up; the difference between critical engagement across our differences, that necessary, difficult conversation, and a brawl or withdrawal that disperses our political power and influence, and which gives up on solidarity, condemning us to a level of personal and social despair and depredation utterly out of place in an affluent, democratic society, with human rights and social justice as core values.

We know that many people will choose not to vote this year or next, for reasons that include evident élitism, not enough women, men-as-boys behaviour in the House, broken promises, lies, corruption, greed, etc.; and the feeling that all politicians are the same, i.e. greedy, dishonest, out of touch with ‘ordinary’ people, posh careerists who don’t care. . . . [xiv] Some of these, perhaps many, would never ever (normally) vote Tory.

Out canvassing on Saturday in Gateacre, Liverpool, we encountered people for whom a single issue, a single local cutback, for example, looked likely to keep them from voting or voting in a way that would, for example, ensure that we never again elect a member of the BNP to be our MEP in the NW. I also felt the grief and anger of individuals arising out of very specific experiences. And that’s personal.

At the post performance discussion at The Playhouse recently, after the NHS play, This May Hurt a Bit; in the discussion from the floor after Owen’s talk; on the door while canvassing on Saturday; and in the comments and verdicts recorded in the G2 survey of non voters this Saturday, certain issues stand out. There is evidence of people confusing anger and personal revenge with political strategy, either because they wish to (and imagine they can) give a particular political party ‘a bloody nose’, or because they “are not political” and do not care about the social and political consequences of not voting/how they vote.

But politics, like life, is messy. First, delusion: there is no such thing as ‘not voting’ (your absenteeism helps secure the success of a candidate on the Right); second, the abandonment of ‘romance’: the ‘protest vote’ sounds ‘cool’, but is largely a misnomer and rarely hits its intended target. Third, grief and anger generally corrode, derange, isolate and immobilize us, except where they become fuel for collective and co-ordinated action in the public domain, as with Liverpool’s Hillsborough campaign.

In a consumerist, neoliberal society, in which the Thatcherite discourse of ‘choice’ is all pervasive and the virtue, while simultaneously watchword, scam and illusion, it is hard to protect our politics from descending to the level of the supermarket shelf (or gutter). Choosing and contributing to our politics in these circumstances involves divesting ourselves of the idea that we have free ”personal choice” to vote for our ‘perfect’ candidate or Party. Facing up to ‘no choice’ as such, to withdrawing from individualist, self preening, consumerist values, in order to contribute to collective responsibility and achieve a politically strategic stance that could make a difference, is like being asked to wear or use out-of-date gear. Yes it sucks. It’s hardly an electoral sweetener.

Many of us have grown accustomed to the idea of ‘personal choice’ and shopping as the exercise of power, and as the feel good factor that takes minds of lack, dis-ease, disappointment, despair, coercion, and worse. But the alternative, of not bothering to act together this week and next year, will kill off friends and family faster than we thought possible. As two NHS medics (one young man part way into his career, the other after 30+ years in the NHS, declared last week in Manchester at a Labour Party gathering of several hundred, at which Ed Milliband and Andy Burnham spoke about the NHS and responded to questions, experiential testimony and comments: “If we don’t get this government out in 2015, there will be no NHS left.” And their evident grief was personal and political. They were also angry at the possibility that such a wonderful creation could be allowed to fail.

To return to the WOW Rebel Rant: there had been a roar of welcome at the start of the event. There was a longer and louder roar of appreciation at the end. Owen had informed and stimulated his audience, and set a serious challenge for us in the weeks and months ahead. So much is at stake. Above all, he urged us not to leave after an ‘enjoyable’ evening reflecting on the issues raised, and do nothing. He urged us to take action to rebuild our political culture, so that it doesn’t just work for the top 2%. And it was clear he thought that requires us to forge some kind of genuine, effective political alliances and togetherness, a genuine conversation, rather than indulging in the scrapping, snapping and fisticuffs in our separate corners that too many on the Left (particularly the guys?) are so used to and seem to enjoy. But in 2014, at whose expense?

val walsh / 19 05 2014

[i] See, for example: Paul Mason (2008) Live Working or Die Fighting. How the working class went global; and Richard Sennett (2013) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation.
[ii] For example, see Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone; andDanny Dorling (2011) Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists.
[iii] Mary O’Hara review (2011), The Guardian.
[iv] I’m sure this particular creative facility is at least in part a function of Dorling’s dyslexia.
[v] Danny Dorling (2011) Acknowledgements. p ix. So You Think You Know About Britain?
[vi] Will Hutton in his Guardian review of Paul Mason (2010) Meltdown: the End of the Age of Greed.
[vii] Polly Toynbee & David Walker (2012) Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at Half-time.
[viii] From review in London Review of Books.
[ix] For example, a special report, Aditya Chakrabortty & Sophie Robinson-Tillett (19 05 2014) ‘The remaking of Woodberry Down’, combines the narrative testimony of individuals affected by the changes (‘regeneration’), with description and analysis, and is the result of 6 months they spent talking to people on the estate. G2, The Guardian.
[x] Ha-Joon Chang has a new book due out in 2014: Economics. A Handbook. It occurred to me after the WOW event, that probably one of the best ways of for audience members to keep track of brilliant new books useful to everyone, and especially the concerned Left, is to regularly browse the shelves and displays at our precious independent community bookshop in Liverpool’s Bold Street: news from nowhere.
[xi] Including Dan Hind (2010) The Return of the Public; Susan George (2011) Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World; Bruce Nixon (2011) A Better World is Possible. What needs to be done and how we can make it happen; Andrew Simms (2013) Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to Prosperity.
[xii] Leading the way on the significance of stories as evidence and process was Ken Plummer (1997) Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds; and stories focusing on sustainability issues have also been exemplary, such as Jan Martin Bang (2007) Growing Eco-Communities: Practical Ways to Create Sustainability.
[xiii] This May Hurt a Bit is a brilliant play by Stella Feehily about the crisis in the NHS, and the Out-of-Joint production is a good example of how research-based dramatization can communicate powerfully to a wide audience: providing information, raising consciousness and engendering political conversation and debate. As well as being ‘a good night out at the theatre’. See ‘This May Hurt a Bit: Post performance discussion and reflection’ in Articles & Statements section of togetherfornow.wordpress.com
[xiv] See Susanna Rustin (17 05 2014) Big picture. Non-voters by Felicity McCabe. The Guardian Weekend. Full series and longer interviews in an interactive version at theguardian.com