28 February 2013

Pest Control, Puke and the Monster of Growth

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on 18th January 2013.

When I was nineteen I did some work experience in the economics and strategy office of a City investment bank.

Though my four months there confirmed that investment banking was not for me, the office was an interesting place to be, with real characters possessing real brains which they enjoyed pitting against each other and the world outside.

A nugget of wisdom from one of these characters, a quiet and unassuming man called Leo Doyle, has stuck with me ever since.

It was about Rentokil, the pest control company.

Leo explained Rentokil’s role in the economy as being to eradicate something, to clear up a mess that needed getting rid of. This activity earned money by meeting a social need, but it did so by removing something bad and not by creating something new and useful.

If I recall correctly, Leo held up Rentokil as an exemplar of the British economy, which he saw as devoting a large proportion of its energies towards dealing with internally-generated problems and clearing up mess rather than actually creating economic goods.

The argument applies to a great many businesses and organisations which provide services that are necessary only because of problems that need clearing up.

Security companies, car alarm makers, CCTV system firms, waste management businesses, pharmaceutical and healthcare providers and, moving into the public sector, the police, courts service, the NHS and street cleaning – all provide necessary functions, for the most part. But they are all devoted towards clearing up problems, just like Rentokil.

From crime to liver disease to the rubbish-strewn, vomit-soaked streets of our major towns and cities every Friday and Saturday night, Britain has its fair share of these social problems that we spend a lot of time, effort and money clearing up. Yet, as a society – and as an economy – we keep the same processes going on a loop, from day to day, night to night.

We have whole industries supplying these social problems with their fuel, and then others feeding off the unfortunate by-products. One bunch of people makes its money selling booze, drugs, fast food, packaging and a culture of greed. Then another bunch gets paid to clear up all the debris afterwards.

Leo’s general point sits uneasily with the prevailing narrative of our political-media class: that “Everything else is a sideshow to economic growth” as Jonathan Todd put it over at Labour Uncut.

Economics is bound up with everyday life and culture; the two are inseparable. What is ‘wealth creation’ for one group of people can be a living nightmare for others.

We can see these dynamics in the growth versus ‘NIMBY’ (not in my back yard) battle going on currently over the prospect of a new tunnel under the River Thames from Silvertown to Greenwich.  The two Labour local councils on either side of the river are both in favour and claim businesses are too, but people down in Greenwich (including David Gardner, the chair of Greenwich Labour Party) are up in arms at the prospect of yet more traffic and pollution in their local area.

This same interminable story has been played out ever since the Industrial Revolution, and is becoming increasingly international.

Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony told a tale about how industrial progress transformed Britain forever, and not completely for the best. The tale stands true not just for Britain then, but for now and worldwide as well.

The Indian tribes of North America, for example, could be forgiven for not welcoming the influx of wealth creators from the 17th Century onwards.

For the sake of new lands to populate, buffalo to kill, farms and searches for minerals, native tribes were kicked off land they had lived on for generations and hunted down indiscriminately when any of them dared to protest; their culture was then relentlessly suppressed, mentally and physically, to confirm their defeat.

They were not alone then, and are not now.

A different version of the same process is currently happening in London, where prime land is being progressively sold off to oligarchs, oil-rich Arabs and other foreign billionaires who are not citizens of our country and do not spend much time here, let alone vote. This has knock-on effects all the way down, sending property prices ever upwards and making it harder for ordinary people and especially the young to get by, even without a Conservative-led government around to make it more difficult.

Will it ever stop? Will this monster of indiscriminate growth stop eating someday?

The signs are not good.

Far from representing ordinary people, the London Evening Standard tells commuters every day how we need to do more to tempt the über-wealthy like Gérard Depardieu to come and live here, thereby squeezing people further.

This is ultimately a tale of democracy, about what society we want to live in and, not least, who owns it.

Political parties seem to have largely given up on these cores issues of land and ownership though, having capitulated for the most part to the dominant ideology of our times, that we need more wealth, more money.

The ‘super-casinos’, the ‘strips’ of bars that have helped turn our town centres into a different type of ‘wild west’ every weekend, the betting shops that blight our high streets and the payday lenders that profit from poverty; all suggest that not all ‘economic activity’ is “socially useful” as Mervyn King might say.

We should respect NIMBYs. We should respect people exercising their right to have a say about the communities they live in.

A bigger problem is that so many of us do not participate and do not show care for the areas we live in. This is a problem of democracy, made worse by the transitoriness of so much modern life.

We lack something that the American Indians had and still try to maintain.

As the Lakota (Sioux) saying goes, “The Earth is our Mother. One does not sell one’s Mother.”

26 February 2013

One Nation: The London Olympics and Opening Ceremony Revisited

This article has been published previously on Shifting Grounds and then LabourList.

I had just finished my last (official) shift at the Paralympics. Sitting down alone with my last plate of food from the wonderful staff at the Copper Box canteen, I got talking to another volunteer who was at the same table.

As with just about every conversation in those few weeks, we spoke about how it had been for us – and I quickly discovered that this woman was no ordinary pleb volunteer like me.

She had been a volunteer from almost the beginning, from years ago. Retired and keen to do all she could, she had ended up in the midst of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, in charge of one of the maypole groups in the Green and Pleasant Land opening sequence.

She loved her experience of course. It was special. And she said a huge part of what made it special was a guy called Danny Boyle.

In those precious few minutes while we ate and talked, she told me how Boyle had gathered all of the volunteers on her sequence together in rehearsal and explained to them the point of it: that it was about the story of modern Britain, in which life and landscape had been transformed forever by the tumult of the Industrial Revolution. Several of her colleagues apparently wept at his description.

It is almost a cliché now for any public figure looking to impress their audience to wax lyrical (or not so lyrical) about how the Olympics and Paralympics were special and brought us together as a country. But they did. The emotions that it evoked in many of us were powerful and genuinely unifying.

Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony [best in Spanish translation on the link] laid the ground for this outpouring of spirit. A beautifully flawed masterpiece, its opening sequence, from the Green and Pleasant Land to Pandemonium and the forging of the Olympic Rings, is surely one of the greatest, if not the greatest, piece of public art that our country has ever seen.

But the whole ceremony spoke to us in a way that politicians on platforms cannot, and perhaps could not, ever do. For me, its overriding theme was: you are welcome here. Wherever you come from, whoever you are, and whatever nation you come from, you are a part of this. You are part of us.

These fundamentally political (not party) messages were conveyed with a wonderfully light touch in the initial movements. From the bright and fun countdown to the journey down the Thames from country to city, the local children popping their balloons and the folk songs of the different parts of the British Isles with footage of them competing against each other on the rugby field, the message remained constant without being preachy: we are different and diverse, and we all belong here.

Then, as the smoke stacks reached into the night and Underworld’s stunning soundtrack pumped out, the epochal slogans of the Suffragists and Suffragettes were forced upon the world just as they forced themselves on the Establishment of the day: Votes for Women; NUWSS Kendal; Deeds Not Words; 1st Woman Suffragist Arrested in London; Women Demand the Vote.

We remembered the fallen of our wars and witnessed the first West Indians emerging blinking into a strange and sometimes hostile land from the Empire Windrush, all while a volunteer cast representing diverse and present Britain blasted away at their drums.

This is our national story: grubby, struggling and painful in its reality, but stunning in its rendition. Danny Boyle showed us who we are. To pay tribute to the NHS, he employed real nurses and staff. When (Sir) Steve Redgrave brought the flame into the stadium, he was flanked by 500 of the workers who built the Olympic Park in their hard hats. An ethic of inclusion ran through the whole spectacle.

On the left, there has been a certain crowing complacency about the ceremony, claiming it and Danny Boyle as its own. As a lefty myself, I think we should be careful here.

The themes and manner of the ceremony certainly showed off what the left should aspire to, but as a male, pale and (perhaps) stale person, I must say that I felt welcome during the Olympics and Paralympics in a way that I rarely do at a lefty political gatherings (in which someone invariably says that there are far too many people like me in the room).

For Ed Miliband and his brave new ‘One Nation’ Labour Party, the Games and the Opening surely offered an important lesson: that our purpose should be to include rather than exclude.

By generous treatment of his cast and personally explaining his powerful vision, Boyle generated immense loyalty amongst his hard-working volunteers. This is something Miliband and his team need to work hard on with their unpaid workforce – the members, and also with potential new recruits. What does One Nation mean to them?

The activists need to find out what One Nation means, not least in relation to the internal organisation of their party, which is blighted by the politics of favouritism, resentment and perceived unfairness – institutionalised into its culture and rulebook through constant tinkering that seems to mostly serve the interests of insiders.

Avoiding these issues and falling back into the party’s natural boastful tendencies and assumed moral superiority is not good enough. To capture hearts as Boyle did, you need to tell a story that makes sense and show by your own practices what it means.

The inclusive and welcoming ethic that must be at the centre of any meaningful One Nation vision was best expressed for me by an Olympic legend who provided another of my favourite moments of the summer.

In a live rant from the rowing venue where he was working for the BBC, Steve Redgrave raged about an announcer who was pumping up the crowd there to taunt the Australians. Redgrave’s angry message was: “This is not British. This is not the way we do things here. This is not the way we behave.”

The veins in Sir Steve’s head may have been pumping, but the message was in the same spirit as Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony: a sense of decency, respect and appreciation for everyone: inclusion not exclusion.

Redgrave and Boyle (of proudly Irish background) represent the best of British. They both show an immense love of our country and a strong sense of what is best about us.

Boyle said what he wanted of his Opening Ceremony was “graciousness” and “charm”. For me, these are the things we – and Ed Miliband’s One Nation project – should take from the Games above everything else.

21 February 2013

Labour needs to stop being boring

This article was first published on Labour List on 1st November 2011, but notwithstanding the faltering attempts by Labour to make itself out as a 'One Nation' party, I think it is just as relevant now.

“Don’t be boring in your Parliament, Dad.”

Five-year old Sarah Mullin’s delightful advice to her father Chris on July 18th 1994 (related from his diary entry for that day), is something that the whole of our political class would do well to bear in mind once in a while.

The little girl’s point is even more pertinent for Labour in opposition – as indeed Mullin Snr and his colleagues were in 1994. Being boring should surely be the cardinal sin of mid-term Opposition, when it is difficult enough to get noticed even at the best of times.

Yet the blunt, unvarnished truth is that Labour is actually extremely boring at the moment – even for a political geek like me. Polly Toynbee’s comment about the “curiously bloodless Labour party” hits the spot. We seem to be drifting through a parallel universe in which uttering blandities to bored media interviewers and on panel discussions seems to be the party’s preferred means for impressing the public.

It is not particularly impressive.

As a journalist myself – albeit mostly in the business and finance arenas – the sheer aching dullness of our approach is numbingly familiar from many past encounters. The techniques of conventional business-focused media training, whereby an interviewee is given a script to read and reads it, whatever he or she is asked, are everywhere now, including politics. Not answering questions is par for the course all over.

These things are not completely new of course: for as long as a free media has existed, people being asked questions by reporters have preferred not to answer them.

What is most notable about the current approach to media relations in the political arena is a reflexive defensiveness; fearful and negative. Adopted across the political spectrum, this default position is divorced from the true purpose of media appearances and interviews, which is to project an engaging presence to the public, and maybe put forward a few interesting ideas as well.

Toeing “The Line”

Labour’s position in Opposition is different to that of the Government and coalition parties, but our approach remains highly controlled and constricted, seemingly based around that favourite of Malcolm Tucker fans – “The Line”.

To watch some of Labour’s spokespeople trying to pump The Line on TV feels strange at times – the urge to support co-existing with bafflement at what they are saying and a wish they would have something rather more interesting to say.

I have always felt a little sorry for such people:  supposedly at the top of their profession, yet reduced to garbling pre-prepared “Lines” prepared by someone who has none of their responsibilities and sometimes little of the understanding they have.

It is a particular shame to see and hear new, intelligent and relatively eloquent Labour MPs seemingly become neutered after joining the Shadow Cabinet or being picked to go out in front of the cameras and microphones.

There is a decent case for arguing that this is a natural process whereby a new bunch of shadow ministers are learning the ropes. But I think it is more than this, and comes down to fundamental problems with The Line.

The Line is a decent tool in a defensive strategy box. When you are being attacked and wish to deflect attention away or just not make things any worse, having a Line to fall back on can be priceless: it irritates the hell out of journalists and viewers, but you will get away intact and with plenty of loyalty points from those you are protecting.

The trouble for Labour now is that we are in Opposition and, far from wanting to deflect attention away from ourselves, should be doing the exact opposite. It is fundamentally counter-productive to rely on Lines as we are doing: shadow spokespeople need to hone their skills of argument and conversation rather than perfecting the reciting of pre-prepared gobbledegook. If they cannot explain an argument using their own language, then either the argument is deficient or the person chosen should not be out there explaining it.

We should leave the gobbledegook to government ministers. The media has no choice but to pay attention to them, but the last thing it wants is to turn to the Opposition in the search of something more interesting and find the same obfuscation and failure to answer questions.

Journalists and producers will quickly lose interest in interviewing or inviting on people who have nothing to say and do not respond to basic enquiries. They will also look for something else to write about or display that is beyond your control and perhaps not much to your liking.

So, The Line is an overrated tool, particularly in Opposition. But what would a better approach look like? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Due to extensive cuts in the media over many years, and also just natural pressure of work, journalists are often trying to juggle many things at once, and do not have much spare time for research and reflection. Some hacks are lazy or not very bright; others are struggling with hangovers (maybe gained in the process of getting a story off a bunch of Tories the previous night). Try to make life easy for them by appreciating the sort of things they might need to get a story done. The first thing is the basic storyline itself: who is doing what, and who is going to be happy or angry about it? For better or worse, conflict and confrontation generally works in generating interest in you (think of Tony Blair vs Clause IV, Occupy vs St Pauls and the Labour leadership election – these confrontations have all spurred interest beyond the basic confrontation).
  • Take a long-term approach to winning voters around. It takes time for people to change ingrained ways of thinking. Trying to rush things and achieve immediate results in the polls could lead to short-termism, desperation in getting messages across and disappointment at apparently failing to achieve tangible results.
  • Encourage spokespeople to relax and try to enjoy debate and answering questions, to show humour (if they can) and also to stand up for themselves when interviewers or fellow panellists are rude to them.
  • Attempt to appeal to what are known as “the chattering classes” or “opinion formers” – chattering is after all about dissemination of opinion; the chattering classes are by definition experts at this and well connected. Bring these sorts of people on to your side and your support will multiply – a gift that keeps on giving.
  • Be sanguine about gaffes. People make mistakes; if individuals are being recorded and filmed on a regular basis, these will be made public and could prove embarrassing to individuals and the party. But get over it; the public certainly will, and they may even quite like culprits for showing they are human beings and not robots (think of the John Prescott punch for example).
There are some basic problems with Labour’s approach at the moment. For example boring the viewers of Question Time out of their skulls, after they have taken the trouble to tune in at 10.35 at night, is not a good idea.

We need to be exciting the interest of these people and stirring their souls. Showing a bit of vim, vigour and humanity will go a long way.

19 February 2013

Let's Talk About Values

This article was orginally published by LabourList on 8th October 2012.

A Murdoch may not be the first person Labour people might turn to in seeking guidance to help revive and rebuild the party, but Rupert’s independent-minded daughter Elizabeth had a few things to say recently that bear thinking about.

Reflecting on the travails of News Corp in her MacTaggart Lecture to the Edinburgh Festival in June this year, Elizabeth Murdoch said one the biggest lessons of a tumultuous year was “the need for any organisation to discuss, affirm and institutionalise a rigorous set of values based on an explicit statement of purpose”.

A rigorous set of values based on an explicit statement of purpose, for any organisation.

Turn that statement towards the main political parties and you are greeted with something of a void. What are Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems actually for?

During Conference week, we always hear a lot of airy waffle about Labour values, without much if any clarification of what these values are.

This sort of talk normally refers to our desire to help the poor and vulnerable, which is fine as a policy position but is not a value (because it would be redundant if attempts to eliminate poverty were successful, so you would need to create some poor and vulnerable to maintain it). An alternative is a value of favouritism whereby you assign moral value to certain external characteristics. However, this is incompatible with the surely fundamental value of equality and also relegates the importance of ethical behaviour.

So, what are values, and what might a rigorous Labour statement of values (unlike this one) look like?

The source of values

Values come from the basic fact that we care: about different things at different times and in different ways, but we all fundamentally care about what happens.

Caring of course takes many other guises than setting out statements of values. Wishing, willing, greed and compassion are just a few. But if we did not care, there would be no need for values.

What values do is apply an account of ‘the good life’ to that caring, based on our understanding of what is good and bad. We could in fact call our values a version of “fairness” or “justice”, because they imply a set of at least implicit rules about what is fair and unfair, just and unjust. What is fair to one person is unfair to another because of different values – just think of attitudes to welfare benefits.

Values are also about who we are, but not in terms of our external characteristics like gender, skin colour, age, or whatever ‘identity’ we adopt for ourselves. They are about who we are in terms of how we behave, what is meaningful to us and what we believe is right – above and beyond the daily reality of our lives. If we are in a position of power, they inform us in making decisions there, but they are as relevant to one person as any other.

A draft for Labour

So if Labour was to put together a statement of values as Elizabeth Murdoch thinks all institutions should, what might it look like? Here is a version I prepared earlier:

  • Equality – every person is of equal importance and of equal fundamental value; if we ever judge people, it is not on the basis of external factors like race, gender and background but what they do.
  • Democracy – we believe in giving people in our country equal power to elect those who will represent them in positions of power.
  • Freedom – people should be free to do what they want as long as they do not harm others.
  • Honesty and Integrity in the way we conduct our affairs.
  • Openness/Transparency – we are open and transparent about the core decisions we make and are able to justify them.
  • Accountability – we will be held accountable for the decisions we make by others, in the form of democratic voting and in public opinion.
  • Respect for Life – we believe all life is due our respect and our protection where possible.

None of these statements is beyond ambiguity and criticism. But they do set out a basic political position that would help tell the outside world, and not least ourselves, what we are here for – a potential palliative for those of us who go through the occasional existential crisis in our politics.
Without values to bear in mind, refer back to and gather around, our senses of justice and purpose can easily get lost in emotion, mood, self-interest and the comfort of conformity.

None of us are immune from these other factors in the Labour Party as elsewhere in life; bad practices and bad behaviour can result from them (like fixing elections, as Mark Ferguson has dealt with here on several occasions, and as I did here). Asking our people to commit to a set of values would be a powerful reminder about what standards we expect of ourselves, while sending out a message to the wider world that we are principled and ethical in what we do.

Once, on a visit to the school of which I am a governor, I was struck by seeing a whole class’s handprints in paint up on the wall, pledging each of them to good behaviour in school. It was a powerful statement visible to all the children at all times while they were in the classroom. It also made me think Labour could do with something similar, a public showing of commitment to a core set of values and a promise to abide by them when representing the party.

So, how about it – the collected handprints of a CLP’s Executive Committee up on the wall of a Constituency office, and those of party staff and the Shadow Cabinet behind reception at HQ?

Why ever not?

18 February 2013

Institutionalised fixing: the Labour way

This was originally published by LabourList on 13th June 2012.

“Let’s overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?”

Bob Dylan was probably not referring to the Labour Party’s ingrained culture of fixing in these lines. But his words do have a certain resonance at least for me when thinking about it. How cathartic it would be to smash everything up in a fit of rage and run for the hills, screaming, “To Hell with the lot of you”.

It would be wonderful and cathartic, yet utterly futile of course.

As Nick Cohen said of the Labour Party back in January 2010, in much worse times, “It may be a vehicle whose wheels are invariably falling off, whose passengers are invariably stabbing each other in the back and whose driver is invariably mad and heading at full speed in the wrong direction, but there you are, it’s all there is.”

Labour pretty much is the political Left in Britain. We must live with it and try to make it better.

LabourList’s editor Mark Ferguson has been admirably vociferous in challenging classic fixing practices, notably on candidates for election using access to Labour Party communications to promote themselves.

So what is this ‘fixing’ culture all about, and where does it come from?

The first thing to say is that for such a culture to arise and become ingrained in what is a relatively benign environment, it must have some justification. Generally, we are not talking about bad people doing bad things. Certainly from my own, limited, experience, Labour Party fixing is more about people doing what they think is right.

After all, if I deserve a position I am going for in the party apparatus, surely it is OK if I do everything I can to ensure that I get it?

That seems fair enough.

The problematic aspect comes with that “deserve” element. After all, are we judging our own assets here, like Enron executives did before its collapse and as American mortgage brokers did before the housing slump? Labour Party internal positions may not seem to be comparable compared to the multi-million dollar payouts on offer in these companies, but the basic principle is the same.

Just as Enron fat-cats and the mortgage sharks were ultimately accountable to ordinary people and their pensions (via pampered, rent-seeking fund managers), Labour Party representatives are accountable to members – and, hopefully, the wider public.

The weakening and dilution of those relationships can open a space for practices that might have been considered abuses to become common, accepted ways of behaving. This seems to have been what has happened in the Labour Party.

Elections are easy to manipulate when you have access to the means of controlling them and understand how the system works. Restricting visibility and transparency about rules, processes and events over time, and calling snap elections at short notice are just a couple of the practices that make ‘fixing’ a relatively simple exercise. Using Party communications for self-promotion is an optional extra.

A healthy democratic culture depends on free information, transparency of what positions are on offer, what they are about, who occupies them and who is seeking them, freedom for candidates to gather and organise, independent communications, and plenty of notice for candidates and electors alike – especially when applied to CLPs which depend on those elected from wards. This has been sadly lacking though in my experience, unless of course it has suited the interests of those doing the fixing.

There is another uncomfortable truth for us in the Labour Party though, in that this sort of fixing is not just accepted culturally, but is actually institutionalised into our structures.

Privileges and patronage are already wired into Labour Party internal processes. We have a plethora of policies surrounding internal governance that actively subvert any idea of democracy – union preferences, female preferences, ethnic minority preferences and preferences for various affiliates to name but a few.

Do our members deserve to be treated this way, as institutionally sexist, racist, anti-union and anti-pretty much anything that has won approval as deserving of preference?

There are genuine arguments to be had here of course on the detail. But, for myself, I find it difficult to happily accept the way that we are institutionally anti-democratic as a result of all this.

The culture of fixing within the party surely takes its cue from such practices: they foster a sense of entitlement that justifies the subversion of democratic processes. Fixing elections is not necessarily a controversial issue among many people because it is seen as the right thing to do, to secure the right result.

Our new General Secretary Iain McNicol responded to the controversy on using internal communications in an admirable fashion. It is unacceptable, end of story.

Stamping these sorts of practices out in the wider party will be a much bigger task though. Most importantly, we shall need a major cultural change, with a renewed respect for the basic principles of democracy.

As the former Labour MP and diarist Chris Mullin said in his last speech in Parliament, “The great thing about democracy is that, although harsh things are sometimes said, we are not actually trying to kill each other. Differences are ultimately resolved at the ballot box. One side wins, one side loses, and the loser lives to fight another day.”

In politics as in life, there will always be differences of opinion, passions and personality. Democracy is a gift for us to resolve these disputes which leaves us all free to fight another day. We should respect it, and treasure it.

15 February 2013

“The method in the madness of modern civilisation” – Is this what is wrong?

This article was originally published by LabourList on 29th April 2012.

In his autobiography, The Time of My Life, Denis Healey described his experience of trying to count the number of people getting on and off trains across six platforms at Swindon station during the Second World War:

“I made up the number getting off and on again, made an informed guess of the number getting on, and asked the ticket collector for the number getting off. After a few weeks I discovered he was making up his figures as well. This gave me a life-long scepticism about the reliability of statistics, which served me well when I became Chancellor of the Exchequer.”

As Healey illustrates here, what is served to us as truth is often as subject to human limitations and frailties as anything else. Truth is often wrong.

In politics, the currency of rights and wrongs tends to be statistical (albeit with an underlying playground culture of mutual blame attached). Most problems are the other lot’s fault. We use statistical evidence to go about proving that; if there is enough data out there and we are a little bit clever we should succeed.

On Labour’s side of the fence, we have certain ‘wrongs’ which we focus on, like unemployment, GDP/’growth’, child poverty, all sorts of inequalities (gender, health, race, class, regional, sexual), crime and exploitation.

Poverty, unemployment, unfairness, crime and bad health are all bad things for conservatives too of course. But they tend to integrate these things into a morality of individual responsibility, so the individual is seen as the source of solutions, and failure is morally deserved.

Elements of this morality probably have some basic resonance for most of us. As a whole, it is too harsh and simplistic though.

On the Left, the conventional view that ‘society’ is somehow to blame for these same wrongs is just as simplistic, offering little more than an equal and opposite reaction to the Right’s conception of things.

This is generally how politics goes on. The Right says riots are the fault of individuals and bad parenting while the Left says they were all down to society and marginalisation of certain groups. Both fail to get to grips much with the place where society and the individual meets, in human consciousness.

Both narratives generally favour statistics of convenience which point the way to accessible solutions. So manipulating lever x (a tax or benefit perhaps) is proposed as a means to increase y (wealth of the poorest/entrepreneurs for example) and thereby achieve our objective of improving z (maybe child poverty, or wealth creation in the economy).

Manipulating ‘outcomes’ of life like this through analysis of surface data is a perfectly valid practice in government, party management or any other sphere of human activity. However we should be careful not to let the levers at our immediate disposal, for example in the tax and benefit system, or in voter ID data, dictate what we do and how we do it. Going this way we can easily forget what our ultimate purposes and values are (or, indeed, were).

The philosopher and historian Robin Collingwood put it like this:

“We take infinite pains to provide ourselves with means by which all sorts of ends might be achieved. We then omit to consider what ends we shall achieve by their help; and treat the mere utilisation of the means, no matter what result comes of it, as if that were a sufficient end and reward of our labours.”

Collingwood called this “the method in the madness of modern civilisation”, and we can see it at work in our politics every day. Whether you are a Tory MP telling off the unemployed or a Labour Prime Minister down in the bunker with your numbers and spreadsheets, ‘hard work’ is treated by many of our society’s leaders as if it were an end in itself, a moral good.

This is not a narrative that probably makes much sense to most people, who just want to get by for the most part. Nor does it make much sense of itself. After all, what is the point in working hard if it does not achieve anything worthwhile?

Is this what is wrong?

14 February 2013

Politics of Identity: Politics of Division

This article was first published by Labour Uncut on 13th March 2012 as the second of a two-part series on identity politics - under an awful alternative title that I made up to follow on from the principal theme of the first part: All Women Shortlists in the Labour Party. This second part is more general, exploring the nature of identity and challenging dominant narratives on the Left about it.

In Life and Fate, his epic novel of family, Stalingrad and totalitarianism, the Soviet-era journalist Vasily Grossman wrote:

“Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.”

Grossman maybe stretches his point a little too far. Nevertheless his polemic makes a powerful and important point: that groups can become forces of oppression, not just against other groups but against individuality and humanity itself.

This happens when they become ends in themselves, when they take on a life of their own and become self-sustaining. In Grossman’s Soviet Union this is what happened to the Communist identity – once it became a pre-requisite for career advancement and entry to nomenklatura, it lost its idealistic elements and became a malign force.

On 2nd March [2012], Labour Uncut published an article of mine about contemporary liberal-left identity politics, in which I questioned the continuing existence of All Women Shortlists (AWS) and other forms of positive discrimination in Labour Party processes. The article provoked a (generally) considered response on LabourList from Luke Akehurst of the NEC, plus plenty of other lively responses on comment threads and elsewhere.

The background to what I was arguing in the piece was summed up in this sentence:

“Institutionalising separate identities as we do is a road to nowhere and nothingness.”

So what does this really mean? After all, when we talk about identity problems we normally mean lack of identity: for example that Ed Miliband lacks identity, or that the Labour Party could do with more identity.

My own interpretation is that identity itself is often the problem.

Consider some of the identity conflicts of recent history: from Protestants and Catholics in Northern Island to Hutu and Tutsi, Sunni and Shi’a and any number of poisonous football-related rivalries in this country: Rangers v Celtic, Chelsea-Tottenham and Manchester United v Liverpool to name but a few.

The active motion to each of these conflicts is provided by separate identities feeding off each other for sustenance and fulfilment. One side could not exist without the other, and the oppositional aspect prevails over any intrinsic meaning the groupings may have.

Identity can offer something to gather around and defend when discrimination and prejudice are being exerted against us. But we should always try to bear in mind that to define is to exert power and control (over ourselves as well as others), and to take on definitions made by others, even when inverting any value judgements on them, is a sacrifice of freedom.

We can see the inherent difficulties engendered by identity separation in the school playground. As the sociologist Richard Sennett pointed out in a recent interview, schoolchildren from different cultural backgrounds mix happily with each other at the age of six or seven, but “by the time they are 14 it is like a chemical separation – no longer speaking to people with different colour and accents. When they have to deal with each other they are at a loss”.

Most group rights advocates put a lot of emphasis on “representation” – understandably given the low proportions of minorities and women in many professions, including politics. We would do well however to ponder professions in which women for example are disproportionately highly present, like primary school teaching, human resources and retail. There are choices involved here, and we do people a disservice by implying that they are somehow victims of oppression and objectification for having made the choices they have.

Most of us tend towards those things which will least conflict with how we view ourselves; in other words, with our identities. So in trying to break down gender, racial and class divides, we are going to have to start breaking down identities.

In Labour Party politics, we would surely all like more diversity in involvement. But “representation” presents a problem here, because there is a clear contradiction between an identity-based approach to candidate selection and the reality of our constituency-based political system.

Do we favour centralised control of the process and the centralised patronage that comes inevitably with this? Or do we prioritise local democracy and community involvement, with all its uncertainties and imperfections?

The crux of this whole matter is what our values really are. Are they about equality, fairness and liberation of the people – right now? Or are they about a future state of equality, fairness and liberation that is conditional on a sacrifice of principles for a time?

Our political system, with its safe seats syndrome, has an in-built prejudice against all change. My preferred solution would combine some form of mandatory re-selection along with a drive to get local communities involved in selections – preferably via membership.

But we would also do well to bear in mind those six and seven year olds playing happily together in the school playground. They do not have much in the way of identity, and they are all the better for it.

12 February 2013

All women shortlists are an insider’s charter

This article was first published on Labour Uncut on 13th March 2012. Originally written as the first in a two-part series on identity politics, it was edited down heavily and given the specific focus on All Women Shortlists in the Labour Party. (And, just to clarify, I have no problem with that - though I have made a few small changes to the published text).

“White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game”.

These words, tweeted by Diane Abbott, ignited a storm of accusations and denials of racism, while opening a window into the complexities of identity politics.

While it is doubtful that many white people were properly offended by the tweet, it does expose Abbott’s assumption that black and white people should be divided, and that they have different (and opposing) interests.

The “divide and rule” agenda that Abbott talked about in fact applies more to her in this instance. She was clearly trying to draw a racial drawbridge between black and white people.

This is the sort of political philosophy that George W. Bush espoused when he said, “You are either with us or against us”; one group’s identity is defined opposite to the other – and if you do not share the dictates of your own group’s “leaders”, then you are letting your side down. Bim Adewunmi made a strong argument about this.

As it is highly unlikely Diane Abbott is a racist, how did she get into such a tangle?

Part of the answer surely lies in the way that certain curious, arcane attitudes are still widespread in liberal-left circles.

Abbott herself responded to the tweeting controversy by saying that she was talking about the politics of colonialism. She clearly was not discussing history in her tweet, but history is where the colonialist worldview now belongs, and is also where the anti-colonialist mentality will have to find a home sooner or later. It is hopelessly outdated in a country where the evidence of integration is all around us, not least in the many children and young adults of mixed race.

The unthinking identity politics of the liberal-left maintains and extends this anti-colonialist narrative though, by simplistically inverting the racist, sexist and ruling class ideologies of past times.

So it is that dark skin is favoured over light, female over male, while the possession of assets and money is deemed as something to be ashamed of.

This attitude is woven into Labour Party practices and procedures, especially when it comes to candidate selection.

The Blairite blogger Rob Marchant explains it as follows:

“If you are from an ethnic minority, you are a special case and can leapfrog some part of the process. A woman? Special case. Disabled, or from a manual or clerical background? Special case, at least in theory. On a union’s national parliamentary list? Special case. Backed by a local affiliate? Special case.”

He adds, “Everyone becomes a special case; the only truly special cases are those which are not special. It is democracy à la Monty Python.”

All-women shortlists (AWS) are perhaps the most blatant and contentious example of special cases within the party. We can see the results of them every time we tune in to Parliament, with women now making up 31 per cent of Labour MPs.

This gladdens the heart; but what a crude and blunt instrument AWS have been.

In his diary volume of New Labour’s latter years, Decline & Fall, Chris Mullin laments how all three of the parliamentary seats in Sunderland where he lives were given AWS; in the event Sunderland Central (his former seat) attracted only five applicants, while only four applications came in for Houghton and Sunderland South. This meant that no local Sunderland man had any chance of representing his local area.

Mullin also relates Dennis Skinner telling him that he would have stepped down from his safe Bolsover seat in 2005 if Harriet Harman had not been determined to impose an AWS there, something that he said would have excluded the local favourite.

One selection process in which I have been involved had an AWS imposed on it, and was almost farcical. The AWS was imposed after the deadline for applications closed, so local women who would not normally think of standing (and who are meant to be encouraged by the process) had no idea they might have a decent chance of representing their local area.

In the end, of the women shortlisted, only two came to hustings, and only one of these was credible. So it was effectively a shortlist of one.

Thus, in practice, all-women shortlists as imposed by Labour have all the hallmarks of an insider’s charter: protected or restricted access, central control, and a lack of any open democratic process. They play into a culture of stitch-ups.

The pain that many women feel from being in what is perceived to be “a man’s world” can be strong. But if we go with the logic of AWS, the lack of ethnic minority MPs is perhaps a more pressing problem – just 28 of 650 MPs are from ethnic backgrounds at the moment.

So should we be considering ethnically restricted shortlists in the same manner? If we apply the same criteria as AWS, certainly yes.

Or should we rethink these sorts of practices and the whole culture of favouritism?

Are our selection processes there to correct imperfections in society? That should be the purpose of our politics – and we will not achieve our aims by continuing to apply divisive criteria in our preferment processes (alienating good people in the process). Institutionalising separate identities as we do is a road to nowhere and nothingness.

Instead, we would do well to model ourselves on what we wish society to be – respectful of all people, regardless of religion, gender, creed, colour or sexuality.

If Labour is about anything, it is about striving for a promised land. Showing through our own practices how a promised land might work is a way to win trust. Crude prejudice, albeit in the pursuit of noble aims, is not.