“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

31 July 2014

Labour has fallen in with the wrong kind of feminist

The novelist Doris Lessing has been called a ‘feminist icon’ but had some withering words for modern-day feminists before she died last year.

At the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2001, she said: “What I really can't stand about the feminist revolution is that it produced some of the smuggest, most unselfcritical people the world has ever seen. They are horrible."

She added: "It is time we began to ask who are these women who continually rubbish men. The most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man and no one protests.

"Men seem to be so cowed that they can't fight back, and it is time they did."

I have had my fair share of shouty abuse from feminist mobs online and can certainly sympathise with what Lessing says, even though I would pull away from calling all of these people ‘awful’; indeed they are often perfectly pleasant when separated from this side of their politics. It is often better to judge words and actions alone without getting on to the whole person.

Nevertheless, they can certainly test you with those words. Probably the most harrowing moment I have had was when one girl from a particularly angry ‘pile-in’ mob on Twitter said she wanted to throw a knife in my face for saying I thought the feminist ideology of ‘patriarchy’ was “nonsense”. When I told her how I felt about this she apologised and we got on decently enough after that; it also turned out she was only a teenager, at school. But it was indicative of the sort of angry hostility that is common from certain feminist types who you might expect to find only on the margins of our politics.

So imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I read that my wannabe knife-throwing assailant, Lili Evans, founder of the Twitter Feminist Youth Army and now sixteen years old, had been given a platform by Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper to speak at a conference on improving the criminal justice system to help women.

Actually, I was not in the least surprised.

Ever since I re-joined Labour after the 2010 election, the party’s approach to gender politics has concerned me. For a start Labour generally uses the word ‘equality’ in an Orwellian sense, not to describe equality but rather with securing exclusive, preferred rights for women, while giving free reign to some pretty aggressive anti-male rhetoric. But the culture of barely allowing any criticism or critique of this approach is if anything more disturbing, reflecting the authoritarian instincts of many of these activists and a weakness of values in the party.

Another speaker at Yvette Cooper’s Women’s Safety Conference was Caroline Criado-Perez, who came to prominence with her successful campaign to put a woman’s face on a banknote and suffered some nasty online abuse for it. This draws our sympathy and admiration, but Criado-Perez’s politics should make us extremely wary. Along with Lili Evans and many others in and around the higher echelons of the Labour Party, she is in to the idea of universal female oppression in a big way, and I mean big.

Check out for example this (apologies for being rather long) passage, which is typical of her views and those of her fellow travellers (from a post entitled ‘It’s My Job To Educate You’):

As a woman, I am oppressed on the basis of my gender. I am paid less than men for the same work. My emotions and body are deemed problematic. I am expected to conform to behaviours that I don’t want to – but blamed for being weak when I do. I am expected to spend reams of time and money to fit into an oppressive and completely unachievable standard of beauty, do serious damage to myself with unwearable shoes and clothes – and mocked and belittled if I do. I face the daily reality of sexual harassment, the threat of rape, being disbelieved when I talk about my trauma, when I talk about sexual violence committed against me, and of course, when I talk about my oppression.

Now we shouldn’t belittle or doubt any personal oppression that Criado-Perez has experienced in her own life, but the casual universalization of these things and the contempt for factual evidence takes the breath away. She has also built up a track record of being appallingly rude to people who honestly disagree with her bizarre theories. I find myself questioning the judgement of Yvette Cooper and the wider Labour movement that these are people they (or, I guess I should say, we) are looking to take advice from.

Now the headline policy that has arisen from Cooper’s consultations is a proposal to ban community resolutions in cases of domestic violence against women [Correction: should read 'domestic abuse']. She went on to Radio 4’s Today Programme to explain it and, as Cathy Newman, an admirer of Cooper’s, said, “swiftly came unstuck”.

On the programme, Garry Shewan, Assistant Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, pointed out that community resolutions are only used in less than 1 per cent out of a staggering one million annual domestic abuse cases, are generally used only in cases not involving violence, and when the victim wishes not to prosecute. He used the example of a broken wing-mirror as an example. Cooper’s outrage that these resolutions had seen a threefold increase in two to three years (to 6,861 in 2012/2013) looked rather silly.

Later on she made a decent little political speech, saying: 

This is about the Government, which has actually turned its back on violence against women. Prosecutions and convictions for rape and domestic violence and child sex offences have gone down substantially in the last three years at a time when the number of offences being reported to the police has increased.”

This deserves attention and investigation, but it sounded rather hollow after her grasp of basic numbers and police practice had been found so wanting.

To me, this seems to show a couple of things. Firstly, that Labour’s old instinct to micro-manage and control from the centre rather than devolve powers (as it has been talking about recently) remains very much alive. And secondly, that this is most apparent when it comes to pleasing the base. Within Labour’s base of committed activists, the feminist tendency now stands alongside (and indeed within) the unions in terms of clout and influence. It needs some 'red meat' to chew on.

But there is more. In her earlier article, Cooper said she thinks all boys should grow up as ‘confident feminists’ (something I wouldn’t have had a problem with a few years ago, but do now - now that I know what I do about contemporary feminism). In amongst all the noise that the campaigners generate she doesn’t seem to realise what a minority pursuit feminism is, even among women – let alone men. 

She and the Labour mainstream don’t want to face up to the fact that this ‘movement’ is not particularly admired beyond the political activist community of the left. In a survey by Netmums, only one in seven women in Britain were happy to describe themselves as feminist. As it concluded, “The study starkly shows modern women feel traditional Feminism is no longer a label they feel proud to wear - it is seen as aggressive, divisive and doesn't take into account their personal circumstances.” 

The recent appearance of the popular ‘meme’ #WomenAgainstFeminism hasn’t come out of nowhere.

Better kinds of feminist are out there of course, but they are not nearly as well plugged in to the sprawling network of institutions, campaign groups and interest groups that make up the wider political architecture of the left. They are rather marginalised, but this probably also reflects a relative lack of motivation. There are certainly battles left for feminism to fight, and the culture of domestic violence is one of them, but the big battles of feminism are now largely won.

The worst of feminist politics as espoused by the ideologues privileges group rights while denying even a voice to the ‘other’ group – on account of ‘male privilege’. This is simple authoritarian behaviour, based on an idea of exclusive authority. It is not a politics any of us should be indulging or embracing. Unfortunately however, that is precisely what Labour is doing: the extreme has become mainstream.

For more on this and similar topics, see Identity politics and the left page.

28 July 2014

Five books for summer reading

I only decided to post this list having compiled it as a comment in response to a post on LabourList from The Fabian Society's Deputy General Secretary Marcus Roberts. I think anyone who is interested in the wider political world would take something good from all of these books, while hopefully not getting bogged down too much.

1)  Dee Brown - 'Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee'. 

I recommend this largely because of Jon Cruddas' recent speech mentioning the book 'Radical Hope' by Jonathan Lear. That is a fine book with good insights, but this one has much greater depth of history and background on the existential and material dispossession of the American Indians, with moments of joy and hope across the cultural divides. It helps to break down what is good and right in amazing, diverse, confusing situations.

2)  J.B. Priestley - 'English Journey'. 

A travelogue across England published in 1934 during the Great Depression. It's a really easy, pleasurable read from a writer who can express himself in beautiful language and who doesn't hold back from righteous anger and despair when he sees what is happening in various places. It also makes you aware that, far from what many politicians like to say about us 'living in a new world of change' and suchlike, what we are going through is nothing particularly new - mostly just extensions of what was already happening back then.

3)  Chantal Mouffe - 'On the Political'. 

This short, accessible book provides a jolt to our conventional thinking on the left. As she says: "Politics is about the constitution of the political community, not something that takes place within it." This is about seeing politics as a public space, rather than a protected space which works to exclude many views and many people. She is tough and challenging and well worth reading.

4)  Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera - 'All The Devils Are Here'. 

The best book I have read on the origins of the financial crash. It's detailed, punchy and readable. It focuses almost entirely on America, but deals with the micro situation on the ground with dodgy mortgage brokers as well as the bigwigs at the top. It'd be great if we had anything similar about the workings of the City of London.

5)  Karl Popper - 'The Open Society and Its Enemies' (Part II on Hegel, Marx etc). 

Immensely readable philosophy that destroys Hegelian historical theory and scientific Marxism but shows great sympathy and love for what Marx and Engels did in exposing the disasters and hypocrisy of early capitalism in Britain. Popper gets carried away with his rhetoric at times, but his reasoning is sound and his writing accessible and enjoyable for the general reader - a world away from most philosophy in its ivory towers.

Addition: It was a bad error not including this book, so five books must become six.

6)  David Goodhart - The British Dream. Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration

This is a book about the here and now, and all lefties should read it if they possibly can (even just the introduction if nothing else). Goodhart's thoughtful analysis is nicely readable but dispassionate, intelligent and sympathetic to all sides of the immigration situation. But it is also challenging. By taking on liberal-left group-think he has drawn a lot of abuse and criticism, and that makes what he says all the more welcome and important. He doesn't get everything right, but no one possibly can when taking on an issue that is so loaded with political ideology and the politics of silencing and shaming.

22 July 2014

A cynic’s guide to Labour’s NEC elections

Despite the title ‘cynic’s guide’ I am not really a cynic – indeed I rather like being led astray by great rhetoric and romantic dreams in my politics. There is a place for emotion, passion, and being inspired – an important place too. 

Alas, the elections for Labour’s governing body the NEC (National Executive Committee) is not that place. It is a place where cynicism is more at play, almost necessarily, and the candidate statements offer plenty of insight into how Labour reproduces itself. So a bit of cynicism in looking at them is more than merited. Whether the setting of eleven that was recorded recently on my cynic-o-meter is merited I am not so sure, but there it is.

I am no Labour insider so what you are going to get is not an insider’s view, but rather how these elections and these candidates appear to me in my rather wary, grumpy, half-ignorant and sometimes rather angry state of being when it comes to internal Labour processes.

Probably like most members I have little idea what I am meant to be voting for.

By actually paying attention and checking out what is going on (which most probably don’t do), I likely have a better idea than most, but that doesn’t give me much of an idea. These are elections which take place without much in the way of public debate, visibility and accountability: a bit like a democratic political system without a civil society, so that only power brokers and elite members have much of a clue what the government is up to and what different candidates stand for behind the rhetoric.

This is understandable to an extent. As an institution, the Labour Party is unlikely to make public detailed minutes describing accurately what happens in NEC meetings. That would offer plenty of ammunition for its political opponents – though whether the angry arguments or interminable waffle would create a worse impression for readers is a matter for debate. Political parties need to have arguments within themselves, and some of these arguments need to be carried out without the media having a grandstand seat.

Nevertheless, this creates a problem when it comes to these elections.

What me as a semi-ignorant outsider sees is the same bunch of names that I see each year in the same NEC literature, of people who are almost entirely out of sight the rest of the time. There are exceptions. Ken Livingstone crops up once again. I am familiar with Luke Akehurst, Johanna Baxter and a few others from Twitter and the NEC reports they have produced. But I have little or no idea what they have argued for and against on the NEC, and indeed even what decisions have been made by the NEC. There is little responsibility and accountability going on here, which leaves the likes of me lying prey to a few hundred words of candidate statements and the machinations of Labour’s powerful interest groups in providing various forms of backing to their favoured candidates.

I have been a critic of the Labour Women’s Network, but its approach of asking candidates to commit to support continuing the practice of All Women’s Shortlists for Parliamentary candidate selection after the forthcoming General Election in May 2015 brings some welcome transparency to candidates’ views on a contentious and important issue. We could do with some more of that.

But anyway, it's time for the (hopefully) fun bit and my lazy, half-ignorant, barely-researched thoughts on the candidates based on their statements and sparse existing knowledge, i.e. the sort of thing I expect most voters will be basing their decisions on (with due recognition that my views are probably worlds away from the average Labour member’s).

Luke Akehurst

A decent, hard-working campaigner who produced NEC reports before he was voted off. Generally sensible left-of-centre politics, but much of his candidate statement sets off Labour language klaxons in my head: talking of “defending members’ democratic rights” while not mentioning his steadfast support of the central imposition of All-Women Shortlists. “A strong record of fairness” is meaningless unless one of ‘unfairness’ was a viable alternative. “Independent-minded”? Not sure of that. But seemingly a good egg.

Johanna Baxter

Well-liked, makes good use of her effective slogan ‘Putting Members First’ and indeed does get around the country visiting lots of Constituency Labour Parties so deserves the oft-used moniker ‘hard-working’. Of course putting all members first equally is impossible, however much you are into equality, so some members are more equal than others - for her, female ones, in her support for female favouritism and exclusivity in the party. Lots of meaningless talk of ‘fairness’ in her statement, but good focus on employment rights and keeping the UK together.

Ann Black

Has the most nominations from constituency parties as I believe she does in other years, but I have little awareness of who she is and what she is about. Statement saying people hate austerity suggests she is of the old left, and this confirmed by her presence on the lefty slate with Red Ken and others. Plays to the lefty crowd blaming Tories, UKIP and the media for dividing people, then talking of all the money we should start spending on being nice to everyone. Little idea where she would stand on Labour’s internal processes [by the way my short submission to the Collins Review can be viewed here].

Crispin Flintoff

A new name for me though I am familiar with his organisation Stand Up For Labour, albeit purely from Twitter. One of the more interesting candidates, with what seems to be a genuine focus on building up the grassroots. Labour’s reflex instinct is central command and control, and we could do with some different voices in opening us up and making us more appealing as an organisation. Flintoff plans to help do this by kicking the party into being a bit more fun and engaging, but he says little else at least in his statement.

Ken Livingstone

Red Ken himself: still going, though seems to have rather less nominations than I remember he used to get. His statement is a reminder of the qualities on policy and detail that made him a generally excellent Mayor of London, rather than the divisive, closed-minded character that lost successive elections to the Tory Boris Johnson in a Labour city (memories are fresh of voters on the doorstep saying: “I’m Labour but I won’t vote for Ken”). Lots of interesting ideas for a Labour government to implement, but nothing about the party. A practised exponent on machine politics and sectarian ethnic politics – which counts against him in my eyes.

Florence Nosegbe

Seems pleasant enough. Scores highly in Labour top trumps as a black woman and is backed by the former New Labour pressure group Progress, but has relatively few nominations. A bland, generic statement saying how nice and good it would be if we did lots of nice and good things. Gets a bit political saying we must challenge UKIP “lies” and not “pander” on immigration. “A track record of engaging underrepresented groups, including young people, BAME [Black and Minority Ethnic] groups and working class members” unfortunately sets Labour interest group sirens off in my head and doesn’t tell us how well she did at this. Being pro-immigration and pro-BAME favouritism is unlikely to please working class people who lose out materially and existentially from these things.

Kate Osamor

Sorry to mention race and gender again (personally I wish we were virtually colour-blind and comfortable with gender differences), but this is a crucial aspect of Labour’s internal politics. Osamor also scores highly here, but has more nominations than Nosegbe and is on the same slate with old left types like Livingstone and Ann Black. A reasonably nice, well-written statement which speaks to the left crowd and tells the folks what they want to hear: opposing Tories on war for example, and “challenging UKIP’s scapegoating campaign”.

Kevin Peel

A reasonably prominent LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Labour activist who has secured Progress’ second nomination along with Nosegbe. I hope I am wrong but this suggests to me an effort by Progress to reach out beyond New Labour roots to Labour’s other powerful interest groups. As an organisation Progress is widely loathed by the unions, so for the moment that leaves the identity politics groups based around gender, race and sexuality. Peel seems like a decent, sensible bloke, with decent, sensible ideas, but he doesn’t seem to be someone who will challenge Labour group-think. I think these identity politics narratives have largely exhausted themselves for being won, but he wants to press on.

Ellie Reeves

I’m familiar with Reeves mostly from her presence cheerfully and effectively chairing proceedings at Labour conference. She seems like a good, sensible sort. Me being me though, I don’t much like the heading ‘My values’ followed by a bunch of stuff which isn’t values, but favoured policies – a recurring problem in Labour politics where ‘Labour values’ are often trumpeted and boasted about without being known. A cap on spending for selections is her internal politics proposal. Otherwise there is little to get your teeth into, which is probably part of the point of these things.

Christine Shawcroft

Familiar from her repeated presence on the lefty slate for NEC elections but otherwise I know nothing about her. Gets stuck in to her statement with an immediate attack on ‘austerity’ as an election-loser, despite all the polling evidence suggesting otherwise (not that I am in favour of ‘austerity’, but just saying). Lots of left crowd-pleasing policy stuff – cancelling Trident, abolishing the Bedroom Tax, nationalising privatised services. And – controversy klaxon! She’s against the Collins Report. Been on the NEC and National Policy Forum for 15 years so has clearly been doing something right.

Peter Wheeler

Another one for whom I have little or no knowledge except familiarity with the name, and often in elections like this one, that is enough. First priorities to win the Scottish Referendum and the election. Says: “We need to dramatically step up our game” – so someone who seems to be prepared to speak truth to power. I’m also liking his talk of targeting working class communities that feel abandoned by politicians: this suggests a resistance to standard liberal-left causes like the universal – and absurd – embrace of immigration. Simple message and straight to the point, but little in the way of detail.

Darren Williams

Comes straight out firing old left bullets – “a vision of hope for a clear alternative to austerity”, praising Ed Miliband’s steps to the left and criticising him for conceding too much on welfare, immigration and crime (does he really want more of each?). Also wants re-nationalisation, scrap Trident, tackle climate change (I’d agree on that one, with bells on), more democracy and transparency in the party (good – but not sure how that would work with the unions).

Peter Willsman

A nicely-written statement, which is something I appreciate. Another on the lefty slate; comes out with a conventional list of good things he would like and probably so would us all. Commits to write reports on NEC meetings and get around to local parties. Loads of experience, but little impression of where he sits on internal issues here.

So how have I voted?

Well, I decided this was not an election I really wanted to participate in. Few candidates impressed me with their statements. I found in them rather too much doublespeak, telling activists what they want to hear, general confusion and incoherence in use of language and a lack of open, honest declarations of what this election is all about and what the candidates stand for in it. This is understandable and I’m not condemning anyone for it. I am probably too demanding, but on the balance I would rather seek high standards than be happy with mediocrity and confusion.

So I’m afraid I tore up my ballot paper and threw it into the recycling. I am making something of a habit of this sort of thing when it comes to Labour’s internal processes. It would be good if we could improve these processes. The NEC is the way to go about it, but these elections only seem to offer more of the same.

For more on the Labour Party, see The Labour Party and other party politics page.

15 July 2014

Labour’s infrastructure commission would be a Treasury-controlled monster

At first sight, Labour’s proposed National Infrastructure Commission seems like another example of politicians lacking in confidence, giving away their democratic powers to unelected ‘experts’ in unaccountable quangoes; taking the democracy out of politics; depoliticisation as authoritarianism.

There is perhaps a little bit of truth in that, at least in presentational terms– through the cult of the ‘independent’, ‘impartial’, ‘expert’, taking an apparently neutral approach to political decision-making.

But the handover of power proposed by Sir John Armitt in his Draft Infrastructure Bill for Labour – backed by Ed Miliband – isn’t so much out of the Whitehall jungle as straight into the arms of its big beast: the Treasury. The Commission would be answerable to the Treasury, appointed (mostly) by the Treasury, told what to focus on by the Treasury, and its plans presented by the Treasury in a form decided by the Treasury.

Its headline role would be to carry out a big assessment of Britain’s ‘need’ for national infrastructure every ten years, looking at the next 25-30 years, identifying areas for targeted investment. And the ‘need’ would be to (a) support long term economic growth in the UK; and (b) maintain the UK’s international competitiveness amongst the G20 nations, both over the following 25-30 years and in the more immediate 5-10 years.”

In other words, this is about what the Tories rather embarrassingly call the ‘Global Race’; keeping up with the Mittals, Li’s and Carlos Slims.

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of support from the infrastructure industry, and also from some politicians.

John Woodcock, the Labour MP and chair of the former New Labour pressure group Progress, says it “could turn out to be the defining achievement of the next Labour government” and “our equivalent of Bank of England independence.” He adds: This bold move from Ed Miliband to protect critically important infrastructure decisions from the damaging uncertainty of Westminster politics is essential to tackle the terrible British tradition of relying on short-termism and half-measures in planning energy, housing, transport and other infrastructure areas.”

This rather sets the alarm bells ringing about righteously removing important political decisions from the ‘damaging uncertainty’ of our...democracy, but he does have a point in the need for long-term strategic planning when it comes to infrastructure. Also, the Commission wouldn’t be a completely unaccountable, undemocratic quango as Woodcock makes it sound. The House of Commons would have to vote on Commission plans and amend them before they go to government departments for detailed planning.

Nevertheless there is plenty of potential for this creature of Treasury power to become a monster. Under the Armitt proposals, the Commission would prepare an Annual Report making judgements of whether government departments are doing their jobs well enough, and also pronouncing on the state of the regulatory environment.  In other words – providing an alternative government within government, with its roots in the Treasury

As Dan Hodges has quoted an Ed Miliband supporter saying, the Commission is “a Gordon Brown policy... not an Ed Miliband policy”. It was Ed Balls who commissioned the Armitt report, and Armitt is keen to gain support from the government benches for his ideas. You would imagine George Osborne licking his lips if he plans on staying in the Treasury for a while.

But there is something much bigger missing from the National Infrastructure Commission idea, which is any feeling for the land and what we plan to do (or not do) with it. England is now Europe’s most densely-populated country, and with its population set to rise further, the pressures on land are only set to increase. Big ticket infrastructure projects are only one source of that pressure; and the work of a National Infrastructure Commission would only increase the intensity of that pressure.

It reminds me of a lovely passage in the former Labour minister Chris Mullin’s diaries in which he attends an IPPR seminar on airport expansion at which a London Chamber of Commerce 'android' says: "We can't afford to opt out of the 21st Century” - a sentiment which Tony Blair among others has echoed lately. Mullin's pithy response was, "At this rate the 21st Century won't be worth living in."

A central strategy for infrastructure isn’t a bad idea, but first we should form a clear idea of what we want to do with our land, and what sort of country we want to live in. That is surely a task for democratic politics, not for a bunch of infrastructure experts under Treasury control.