Archive for the ‘General Politics’ Category

10 more hard truths for Labour

In the “summer of hard truths” for Labour, I offer 10 more hard truths for Labour.

1)  People are going to go hungry and homeless because we lost

Both left and right of the party can agree, I think, that that’s the worst thing, and it’s our fault for losing.  I still feel awful.  So there is nothing more important than winning in 2020. Without power, we can’t effect positive change for the people we seek to serve.  We can only whine from the sidelines.   But – and here’s the rub – we won’t win in 2020 by constantly saying there is nothing more important than winning in 2020.  This is because voters want their cake and to eat it to.  They want parties which respond to their expressed needs and wishes, but they also want parties which display a consistent ethic, and which have red lines beyond which they will not go in their search for votes.  Of course that’s inconsistent, but they are voters.  They contain multitudes.

2) Voters are not the same as they were when we were kids

Deep and longlasting cultural change under capitalism (and not just the neoliberal phase) means that appeals to citizenship and solidarity that we could once rely on simply don’t work anymore. however loud, clever or often the messaging.   We need to appeal to deeper motivations, while retaining our overall socialist ethic.

3) The GOTV sponge is very dry

We can keep on refining our Get Out the Vote processes, but we’re not going to be able to wring out many more voters by that method alone.  Those who don’t vote, or have never voted – those who lost us the election – will need a better reason to go to the polling station than the risk of the canvasser knocking again at 9.10pm.   That reason will have to be either personal affinity/loyalty, or a desire to be part of subverting the status quo.

4) Labour is the status quo

In or out of power, Labour is currently part of the old, jaded set up.  Saying we’re not, and that we’re really about giving power back to the people – or whichever trite phrase is next off the trie phrase conveyor belt, only reinforces that message.   Andy Burnham saying he’s not part of the Westminster elite just reminds us he’s part of the of the Westminster elite, and so on.  So let’s just can the speeches about what Labour is or isn’t for a year or two, and get on with doing things (see 10).

5) Refounding Labour was an utter failure, and we’re living with the consequences

Refounding Labour (and its Falkirk-panicky successor, the Collins Review) failed miserably to open up the party.   The command & control structures which it was charged with critiquing and changing exercised such a command & control influence on the review process that it simply ended up tinkering at the edges; it is hard to see how the rebadging of the Local Government Committee as the Local Campaign Forum, for example, did anything but increase the control of the parliamentary party over local parties by ensuring that local campaigns should always play second fiddle to parliamentary campaigning.   Nothing is going to change until we get serious about reversing financial and power flows within the labour movement, in a way which makes MPs and PPCs less lords/ladies of their manor, and more Chief Executives of local non-profit bodies answering to their trustees.  Only then, when we get down to the detail of what MPs are for, will be be able to get better people to apply for the job.

6) Yes is the new no, and no is the new yes

Scotland voted no, and that turned out to be a big yes for the SNP, in large part because Labour kept saying yes to union, even if it meant joining the Tories. UKIP have won lots of votes by being against change in general.  Labour, rooted in the ‘common good’ political culture of the 20th century. still finds it difficult not to engage constructively.  But in today’s insecure world, it can be good to be bloody-minded, because often, in bloody-minded negativity, we discover solidarity for what we really care about, and agree what we don’t mind changing.  In the end, change must be on our terms, or not all, should be our message (see 7).

7) Europe counts

Labour’s been clueless on Europe.  For five years now, we’ve been missing opportunities to present a case for being bloody-minded agents for change on our terms.  Partly this is because we tend to have useless MEPs (see also 5), and partly it’s because the leadership has just not bothered to think through what strategic alliances might be possible to, let’s say, campaign hard in the European Parliament, through the co-decision-making process, for changes to the Common Agricultural Policy, to the six-pack regulations, and even for temporary adjustments to the single market which bolster convergence even within the EMU straightjacket.   There’s a referendum coming up quickly, which we can’t afford to be fought on Cameron’s terms.

8) Public services did not become terrible in 2010

Back in 2008 I wrote this essay on the disaster awaiting public services as a result of New Labour’s incessant managerialism.  At the time, it won quite a lot of acclaim.  Come 2010, all such thinking vanished without trace, as it became easy to blame the Coalition for what is a very clear decline in the quality, as experienced by service users, of a number of public services.  Unfortunately, even resetting public services to 2010 would not make them very good, and that’s not going to be an option anyway, given that by manifesto time this will be seen as a massive dose of new spending, rather than a resetting.  The only options available will be a) creative use of public and semi-public financing to keep investment in service off-balance sheet; b) investment in genuinely preventative services c) kick out managerialism in favour of professional creativity and ethics.

9) There has been a race relations disaster

John Rex warned the race relations disaster would happen because we set up segregated housing and education in the 1960s and 1970s, and then sat back and did nothing.  It happened.   This post-colonial hostility to integration has created a toxic mix with ongoing, economically necessary immigration, in which ex-migrants remain immigrants, and all so-called immigrants get the blame for the insecurities of late capitalism.  There’s no easy way out of this, and the myth of New Labour plan for enforced multiculturalism means the ‘immigration debate’ will continue to cost us.   Doorstep ‘conversations’ won’t help much because – come on, now – they’re not really conversations, are they?  In opposition, all we can do is stop the grandstanding about how we’re really, really listening, and start community organising stuff, with people from different backgrounds coming into contact as a good by-product of that, not as an objective.   Back in power, we should seriously consider a Truth and Reconciliation process, before all the people who can tell the truth about the early days of the disaster die.

10) Institutions of power won’t fall down 

I could (and will) go on for days about this, but I don’t think the institutions of capitalism are going to come tumbling down anytime soon, even with the rise of alternative forms of production.    And even if capitalism falls apart, something much nastier may emerge, with these newer forms incorporated if we don’t start to put something in place ourselves.   So I’m with Richard Sennett in his call for “parallel institutions” (p.184-185).  We should start small.  Indeed that’s the only place to start, because if we start too big, we simply end up replicating the power structures we were seeking to combat.   Think modern trades councils whose main job it is to hold public services bosses to account on behalf of users and workers.  Think community build.  Think parent-teacher challenges to Ofsted hegemony.

Think, then just do.  Because at least that gains votes in the meantime, and winning is what counts (see 1).



What’s wrong with people?

July 26, 2015 7 comments

‘What’s wrong with the voters’?

In his attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s surge in the Labour leadership contest, Tony Blair apparently offered up the following truism (according to Conor Pope of Labourlist):

Someone said to me in 1992: ‘People have voted against us four times. What’s wrong with them?’

I call this a truism because, for Blair (and presumably for Conor and for academic Rob Ford, who retweeted it), it is self-evident that there was nothing at all wrong with the 1992 voters, and that it’s that 1992 ‘someone’ who was an ignorant leftie, who always thinks s/he knows better. The insinuation, of course, is that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are all still making the same mistake in 2015, and thus dooming the party to failure.

A brief twitter conversation ensued between me and Rob, because I did not immediately accept Rob and Conor’s premise.

Perhaps, I contended lightheartedly, there was actually something wrong with the voters.   At the very least, maybe it wasn’t such a dumb question, if you thought it through:

There is, though, a certain sense in that question, if you’ve read [Philip] Rieff.

What I was trying to get at was that – if you take a Rieffian line (and I’ll come back to him) – it can be argued that there really is something wrong with voters, and that that something is modernity and its consequences.

Rob dismissed this idea, suggesting that I might be better off spending time helping people than reading books (I had never previously thought them incompatible, I admit).

So let me explain a little more, by way of a hazardous waste tip in my home town, Skelmersdale, Lancashire, where I’ve been doing stuff in the spaces between reading Rieff.

What’s wrong with Skelmersdale?

A few weeks ago, our 700 page claim for judicial review was lodged with the High Court in London. It seeks review of the May 21st decision,  by the the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, to allow the massive expansion, in terms of space and length of time, of a hazardous waste dump in Skelmersdale.  The edge of the dumping area now given consent is within yards of houses.  You can read details (and even help fund us) here.

The people of Skelmersdale are, with few exceptions, opposed to the site’s extension.  Over 3,000 representations against the proposals were made against the plans when the Planning Inspectorate opened its examination of the proposals in Spring 2014.  This makes for a significant percentage of the population, given that there are only 15,000 or so households in Skelmersdale. Key concerns, set out by a variety of members of the public during the examination, included long-term pollution and impacts on health, and the risk that housing-led regeneration of the town will be hampered, as the town becomes less attractive to incomers.

I share many of these concerns, and that is why I got involved in both the initial campaign and now the legal challenge. However, the more I got involved, and the more I witnessed local reaction to the plans being put forward, the more I became aware that there also was a much deeper, underlying issue at play.   As the examination period moved on, the nature of my own representations to the inspectors changed to reflect this, and I draw on those representations here.

Amongst the several empirical studies I quoted in my representations [1] was a study of how two communities in Canada reacted to the process of landfill sites being placed in their areas.  According to the authors, Eliot & Wakefield:

substantial impacts on individual and community well-being were reported across all stakeholder groups interviewed.

In particular, the authors noted;

[t]he experience of psychosocial impacts and effectiveness of coping strategies is shaped by certain factors associated with the site and the siting process (including uncertainty and the perceived lack of meaningful participation).

Overall, the research found that in cases where the actual pre-siting process create distrust and disharmony, this can result in long-term harm to the health of communities, which are quite separate from but justas meaningful in terms of lived experience, as harm to health caused by biological means.

This is just one study, chosen for purposes of the examination because it concerned landfill, but other studies tell a similar story: where people feel powerless, they can also start to feel sick.

The same thing, I could increasingly see, was happening in my town.  Over and above the substantive concerns about physical heath impacts, the very fact that the people of Skelmersdale feared they might have this landfill stuck on their doorsteps, against their express will, was reinforcing an already deep sense of frustration and anxiety about a lack of power over their own lives [2, 3].

Indeed, what struck me particularly about the reaction to the landfill proposals in Skelmersdale was the extent to which previous hurt, and previous feelings of powerlessness in the face of authority, were drawn into the debates – which often swung between hope, anger and despair – occurring both online (principally a large invite-only Facebook site) and during the regular community meetings.

My role, as informal ‘community organiser’ (not a term I would ever normally use of myself as I think it’s disrespectful of communities, but used here as I will go on to set out what I think is wrong with much of what passes for ‘community organisation’), has been to help people work through these feelings of anger and occasional despair, by providing practical information and support on what might be done to ‘fight back’, principally around the legal process now in full swing, and then to help reflect these back as small wins along the way to what we hope will be a bigger victory.   I don’t lead the campaign; I help push it along.

It’s from this privileged vantage point, not just on this current campaign for justice, but on the myriad of others I’ve been involved with in different ways over the years, and from a more recent spate of reading books, that I’ve come to some tentative conclusions about:

a) the nature of the people and communities my party Labour seeks to serve, and how they may be quite fundamentally different from the ones Labour used to serve;

b) what this means for our current model of ‘community organisation’ which is, I will contend, rooted in an outdated understanding of our common culture (and of what the ‘common good’ is) – it is here that I’ll  get back to Philip Rieff; and

c) what we might need to do to connect back with those we seek to serve, in a way which might even bring us back towards power at national level.

So what’s wrong with people?

The Canadian study of community reaction to landfill, referred to above, puts its empirical findings about distress and anxiety caused by the site location process within a social theory framework:  Giddens’ concept of ‘ontological insecurity’, best expressed in his 1991 work Modernity and Self Identity [4].

For Giddens, modern capitalist society fosters a deep sense of anxiety, “free-floating” over time away from specific objects to be feared (p.44), and thus developing into a permanent lack of well-being, but driven by material changes in the way people have to live their lives, such as undervalued employment (cf. Richard Sennett’s “spectre of uselessness”) and now, in an instant feedback age which had not begun when Giddens was making his analysis, the seemingly constant need for validation of the self through Facebook ‘likes’ etc..

In turn, Giddens (and Sennett) suggests this leads to a turn away from the ‘traditional’ politics of the 20th century, and towards a ‘life politics’ focused on individual identity and activities which facilitate self-actualization.

For someone like me, involved for quite a long time in various forms of political and community activity – the landfill campaign above is just one of many things I’ve been invovlved in – this kind of analysis ring true, and increasingly so.  The challenges to getting people involved increase year on year, and while declining to get involve is often expressed in terms of just being busy with life (itself a consequence of capitalist modernity), it’s also increasingly, in my experience, expressed in terms of negativity to the whole concept of participation in activities beyond self-actualization [5].

This observation, on how reality does appears to be reflecting a social theory of what capitalism does to people, leads me back to the Blair ‘truism’ I started this essay with.

For Conor and Rob, the supposedly leftwing idea that something might be ‘wrong with people’ who don’t vote for a party linked – however weakly or indeed appropriately -to concepts of social solidarity, betrays a deep and mockable ignorance of what makes voters tick.  But maybe, just maybe, it is they that are displaying an ignorance.   For in Giddensian terms, those voters have been pathologised by modernity; what’s wrong with them, in that sense, is that capitalist modernity has made them sick.

Maybe, just maybe, Blair’s own intellectual guru, and brains behind the Third Way, is the one who proves Blair and his acolytes wrong.

Ultimately, Gidden’s approach to the pathologising effects of modernity was to embrace it.  In Modernity & Self-Identity, his closing message is that if you can’t beat capitalist modernity, you’re better off embracing it, and in this spirit he calls for a move beyond ’emancipatory politic’s towards a modern ‘life politics’ (pp. 209 ff), focusing particularly on the emergence of green politics as a way to make that transition.

Such an embrace is, I would argue, at the heart of New Labour’s Third Way, in which the state accepts it is no longer in a position to engineer the kind of structural change which would remove the kind of deep ontological insecurities outlined above (which Giddens acknowledges are all the greater for the materially and socially disadvantaged [6]), and limits itself to their mitigation through a mix of mild redistribution (the minimum wage etc) and a (deeply flawed) social mobility programming aimed at allowing a few individuals to escape their anxieties via the self-actualization that personal wealth can bring.

But, as both Chris Dillow and Bob Jessop remind us, what might have been a decent spatio-temporal fix in the early 1990s, no longer looks as effective as a safety valve for society’s pent up anxieties and aggressions.   Cue the rise of nationalism and far right politics……

So what’s really wrong with people (the Philip Rieff take)?

So if the Third Way is now past its sell-by-date, where do we turn from here, and what does this mean for socialist activists caught in the middle of a boisterous but tin-eared debate between neo-Blairities and the proponents of a somewhat modernised Bennism?

Perhaps paradoxically, I think the answer (or at least the start of the answer) may lie at least partly in the writings of the aforementioned Philip Rieff, cultural pessimist par excellence [7].   Only by looking into the abyss of modern culture, I suggest, can we start to see what might lie on the other side.

Rieff, writing in the mid-60s, could already see where modernity was headed [8], and didn’t pull punches:

In the time of public philosophies and social religions, the great communities were positive.  A positive community is characterised by the fact that it guarantees some kind of salvation t the individual by virtue of his membership and participation in that community. That sort of community seemed corrupt to the economic man, with his particular version of an ascetic ideal tested mainly by self-reliance and personal achievement……Now in the middle of the twentieth century… order to participate self-protectively in the manipulative and acquisitive game, psychological mag builds his tight family island, living for the remainder of his time in negative communities.  But these collections of little islands surrounded by therapeutic activities, without any pretence at a doctrine of salvation, are themselves infected by the negativity of the larger community and become manipulative arenas themselves, rather than oases of escape from the larger arena (The Triumph of the Therapeutic, p.45).

That’s quite bleak, but it gets bleaker.  For Rieff, there is no way out, because there is no mechanism for the reinstatement of a set of moral demands as cultural norms, and the allied ‘controls’ and ‘remissions’ which made previous forms of Western culture tick.  In particular, and following his analytic hero Freud, he is scornful of the prospects of the return of religion as a source of moral authority and, in turn, of cultural stability.

The empirical evidence suggests that Rieff was right, at least about religion.  Modern historian Jon Wilson has set out in his excellent recent chapter for Together for the Common Good: Towards a National Conversation, what has happened:

In England, God died sometime around 1963: the time, for Philip Larkin, ‘between the need of the “Chatterley” ban [9] and the Beatles first LP…..After 1963, every indicator of religious activity, from church attendance to marriage. Baptisms had fallen to 466 per 1,000 by 1970, then to below 200 by the 2000s (.p.80)

And yet, and in spite of the widespread rejection of religion as a guiding force for society, it is – in the absence of a coherent alternative – those who remain inspired by religious sentiment who have tasked themselves with the development of a new form of politics to replace the emancipatory politics rejected by both Giddens and the wider public.

Together for the Common Good, and the laudably ecumenical movement that lies behind it, attempts to resurrect a form of emancipatory politics in the name of the ‘common good’, a concept which the book’s authors do not seek to define, on the basis that it is should be up to those involved in bringing it about to decide what it should be.   For Jon, a non-religious person who sees the value in faith as a resource for the common good, the answer lies in the Arendtian notion (itself located in the Aristotlean concept of citizenship) of “collective action for human flourishing” (p. 88)

The civic tradition which Arendt championed  imagined the nation as a confederation of separate forces, a multiplicity of parties  and politics which sometimes act in tension, sometimes in unity….The common good is always also a struggle to produce, always difficult, always the result of creative effort. The result of the patient, constructive work of creating relationships and building institutions, it is always vulnerable to fickle vicissitudes of political and economic fortune.  nonetheless, it has offered and can again offer the basis for a vibrant national common life (p.89)

Much as I’d like this to be true, I don’t buy it.  Rather, I’m with Rieff, who says:

Artistotle, man is naturally an citizen; the diagnosis of his psychological condition begins from this essential point….From Plato and Aristotle, through Burke and De Tocqueville, the therapeutic implications of social theory is remarkably consistent: an individual can exercise his gifts and powers fully only by participation in he common life.  This is the classical idea. The health man is in fact the good citizen.  The therapeutic and the moral were this connected in the Western tradition of social theory (p.85)

But, continues Rieff, that ideal is no longer.  Such has been the impact of modernity that, ,an is no longer “naturally a citizen”.   Modern man is, quite simply, a different kind of character.

What’s wrong with us?

Here, for me, is the nub of the problem with Labour and the broader left’s current attempts and experiments in ‘community organisation’, and why by and large they are failing.

They fail, quite simply, because they fail to take into account the fact that people are different now from how they were when the theory and practice was first developed; they make assumptions about a so-called ‘natural’, but actually socially normed, tendency towards solidarity with other citizens which simply do not hold true as much as they once did.  In so doing, they fall flat on their face simply for lack of interest, or because they cannot compete with, in Rieffian terms, the therapeutic activities offered by others.

So while Maurice Glasman’s London Citizens rode the crest of a wave with its living wage campaign in the 1990s – and I do not scorn its success (see below) – the model has not been replicated effectively through Citizens UK.  Labour/Progress’s own Movement for Change is still extant with a board of high-profile people, but appears to achieve little, at quite some cost. The evaluation of the government’s own community organising scheme masks (poorly) what a disaster it has been from start to finish.  As for Arnie Graf’s expensive and failed model of consumer-oriented organising, perhaps the less said the better.

In some cases, the relative failure of all these ‘movements’ has been the inevitable tendency for replication of approach to become inflexibility to local circumstance, but more often that not, I suspect it’s just that people are not interested in what’s being offered, because it’s irrelevant to the way they live their lives.

What’s right for us?

How, then, do we organise for socialism in a society whose culture has changed to the extent that we can no longer make assumptions about man’s ‘natural’ tendency to solidarity.  Should we just keep on pushing, hoping for the best, just getting stuff done, in the hope that in the end people will see the light, come together for some new form of common good, and vote Labour to boot? Or is there another way?

Well, I’m an optimist, albeit a tentative one. So here’s my tentative answer.

If capitalist culture has changed people to such an extent that socialist ideals are no longer relevant, perhaps we need to go one step further than culture, and look to see if we can tap our energies into people’s moral ‘hardwiring’, which are products of evolutionary rather than cultural change.   This suggests itself as a way forward if you accept the findings of Jonathan Haidt in his bestseller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt’s central proposition is that there are six moral foundations which are innate and therefore both cross-cultural and immune to cultural change.   Conservatives, he says, end up winning elections because their messages tends to appeal to these moral foundations more than do those of liberals (in the US sense).

Of these six foundations, I think two are relevant to the question here of how to organise better for socialism.  These are the fairness/cheating pairing, and the authority subversion pairing, which I’ll take in turn in relation to the hazardous landfill site community organisation example I’ve set out above (because it has been effective)

Community organisation tends to focus on the development of methods to achieve the common good, howsoever that is defined (or left vague).  This means that there is a tendency to define campaigns principally in terms of fairness.  But, as Haidt suggests, the cheating element of the pair, tends to have a stronger moral draw.  Thus, if we want to campaign effectively, perhaps we should be looking to do so in those terms.   So in Skelmersdale, the hazardous landfill campaign has, for whatever reason, taken strength from the idea that the application is using disproportionate power and money to ‘cheat’ his way to planning consent (and more money).

Haidt also goes on in his book to refine this foundational pairing, arguing that the notion of proportionality and ‘karma’ – getting what you deserve – is an important driver, and the campaign has been full of this “just desserts” feel.   The London Citizens’ living wage campaign (see above) also benefited, I suspect, from tapping into the proportionality driver because of the proximity of the high earners in the City of London as much as it did into the fairness side of the pairing.

Community organising, at least in its current format, also tends to be about seeking accommodation with authority, in pursuit of the elusive common good.   But again, Haidt suggests there is an equal or even greater appeal in the notion of subversion, where people rankle about what they perceive to be abuse of authority, and are then keener to try to subvert it (for the most obvious example, see the reaction to MP’s abuse of expenses and the dramatic consequences).  Again, in Skelmersdale – not least because of a long history of authorities’ failure to keep promises has meant that this spirit of subversion – taking the government to court, because no-one said we could, has been a strong element in the campaign.

Now, of course what unites these two elements of community organisation is what might be considered, by ‘community organisation’ theorists of the common good type, negativity.  The landfill campaign is, fundamentally, about saying no, and sticking two fingers up to authority and power.

But that, in my view, is a good thing, as long as it’s directed at power and authority.  Such campaigns may sound negative, but what they’re really about is taking back control – of redeveloping a sense of power, of regaining ‘ontological security’.

This is, of course, the same spirit that UKIP has tapped into over the last few years – by promising control over our borders, control over our greenbelt, control over whatever threatens, UKIP has had considerable electoral success.  Whether they can transfer this into long-term political gain remains to be seen, though they may well need to produce some results to go with their promises sooner rather than later.

That is a matter for them (though as that success comes at a cost to those on the receiving end of state power, it will become ours too).   What’s important for us, if we are to remodel our community organising activities, in a way which combines Rieffian insight about the very changed world we live in with an understanding that ‘no’ to authority at local organising level can mean ‘yes’ to Labour at national level (even if we never mention Labour) is that these organising principles are backed by a continuing socialist ethic.

But that’s another blog.



[1] If you’re really, really interested, the full documentation I presented to the examination is here (submission 9/10/2014 under name if Bickerstaffe Children’s Services).

[2] I do wonder whether this feelings of frustrated helplessness in Skelmersdale is exacerbated by its new 1960s/70s town status, meaning it is a town created by the more or less forced relocation of communities from the Liverpool slum clearances, to a town which since its creation has been consistently ‘let down’ by those in power, first by poor housing and roadscape design which tore communities apart, then by a traumatic 1980s recession where an already job-scare town were even worse off than the rest of the country, and then a consistent failure to make good on promises to create a proper town centre amongst the housing estates, to reintroduce a rail service, and in general to ‘care about Skem’.   I think a comparative study of the pyschosocial health of new town and traditional town residents may be one for social historians like Jon Wilson, who is interested in this field.

[3]  The new Respublica ‘Right to Beauty report picks up on a similar theme as other studies I put before the examination, about the relationship between an attractive (or at least not ugly) environment and community health and well-being (‘social prosperity’ in their terms).

[4] This is a concept I’ve referred to previously on this blog to locate the kind of no-win situation in which white working class boys often mind themselves at school, and which results in their comparative academic underachievement.

[5] In fact, in the shape of Ormskirk parkrun, I founded and still facilitate one such programme of ‘self-actualization’.  Ormskirk parkrun is just one small part of the explosive growth of parkrun worldwide, and gathers together the kind of numbers, week in week out, which political parties and other more consciously social movements can only dream about.   I do wonder the extent to which it is branded as an opportunity to test yourself against your own performance, rather than a communal enterprise (although it does certainly create social bonds).  While I really enjoy putting parkrun on for the 140 odd people who turn up weekly to the one I manage, and do get a kick out of being thanked for doing so, I don’t mind admitting that I’ve found the ever so slightly obsessive behaviours displayed be a few of my fellow Event Directors around the country just a little baffling since I got involved, at least in absence of Philip Rieff’s insights.  See Hopi Sen for a more straight up paen to this very modernist movement.

[6] Giddens acknowledges (but takes no further in his conclusions):

To speak of a multiplicity of choices is not to suppose that choices are open to everyone….Naturally, as Bourdieu has emphasized, lifestyle variations between groups are also elementary strcuturing features of stratification, not just the ‘results’ of class differences in the realm of production (Modernity and Self_Identity, p. 88)

[7]  I should express my gratitude here to Roger McCarthy, a Labour activist from the south coast who has become, unintentionally, my intellectual mentor in the last few years.  It is Roger who introduced me to the insights of American cultural Conservatives Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch, and now to Philip Rieff, as well as to some of the Catholic Social Teaching which lies behind a lot of Maurice Glasman’s jumbled Blue Labour ideas.

[8] Of course, he wasn’t the only one prophesying cultural doom.  Adorno & Horkheimer had got there twenty years previously from another direction, Freud had laid the groundwork for Rieff, and Franz Kafka beat them all to it.

[9] Coincidentally, Rieff devotes a chapter of the Triumph of the Therapeutic to DH Lawrence as an exemplar of the cultural shift from ‘spiritual’ to ‘psychological’ man.

Categories: General Politics

Cutting Labour’s Gordian knot

July 21, 2015 1 comment

Those who claim that the Labour PLP was right to abstain on the welfare bill last night do have a point.  The problem is that point is being lost in the increasingly rancorous debate.

The only person I know to have made this point explicitly is Anthony Painter, and even then only as part of the pro-Kendall, anti-any other candidate rantathon in which lots of Progress affiliates are currently indulging.  Anthony tweets of this weekend’s televised leadership debate:

Cooper, Burnham, and Corbyn have committed to spending about £10billion unfunded in 28 minutes.

Now, his fury level has made Anthony a little elliptic on this, so let me explain what I think he means, and which I happen to think makes a good deal of sense.

What he means is that:

a) The government is planning to cut £10bn per year in spending on tax credits* (around £4bn) and other things (I didn’t see the programme so I’m not sure where he gets the other £6bn, but the point is not really changed by whether it’s £4bn or £10bn).

b) Come 2019, this state spending won’t exist, so promising now to reverse the cuts is the same as promising that in 2019 they willl make, in the eyes of the electorate, a massive spending commitment.

This analysis makes sense, because it takes into account the risk/inevitability that the public won’t remember what was funded up to 2015, and will only take on board the message that this is new spending from a profligant Labour party, desperate to expand the state at the expense of hardworking families etc. etc., and will this make even more unlikely a Labour win in 2020.

This analysis is, I think, probably behind Liz Kendall’s refusal to talk of reversal of the cuts; it is much more likley an explanation than the one coming from the left, namely that she enjoys the prospect of impoverished children.  Her argument then continues that she’d much rather win in 2020 than kowtow to moral sentiment on 2015, because it’s in 2020 that she’ll actually be able to do something about impoverished children.

Kendall and her supporters could be clearer about all this; at the moment they’re treating people like me as simpletons, in the belief that people like me don’t get the concept of time, but do get simplistic stuff about realists vs fantasists.  But at least she appears clear in her own head, which is more than be said for Cooper and Burnham. Even so, the hostility towards her from the left of the party is such that, even with the clearest of explanations, she’ll still be castigated as Tory lite.

In the end, all three non-Corbyn candidates are in a no-win situation, as long as they are campaigning as ‘future prime ministers’.  They’ll struggle to get elected by Labour peopole as leader if they aren’t seen to be oppositional enough, but they know any such oppositionalism ties their hands so much that they’ll struggle to become PM when the whole country votes.

There is, though, one way to cut through this Gordian knot.  It is to declare, as Corbyn has quietly done, that they’re not seeking – at least as this stage – to be elected by Labour leader as a future PM, but are trying to be elected as leader of the Labour official opposition.

From there, they need to move quickly to define what official opposition is when there is majority government. While the constitution has it that Labour has to be called the opposition, in everyday use Labour should avoid it.  The phrase that should become the mantra is ‘holding the government to account’.   There is need hardly ever to say what Labour would have done had it been in power – the government’job is to govern, and Labour’s job is to assess the impact of that governing on citizens.   Inevitably, the impact is going to be awful.  All Labour has to do at parliamentary level is keep on asking how awful it is.**

Labour doesn’t need to come up with alternatives. Does anyone remember what the Conservatives say they’d do in government in the 2005-2009 period?  (Clue: almost nothing).

This is what many opposition leaders in local government up and down the country get used to (I know, I’ve been one), in the knowledge that they won’t be running the council  any time soon, and they serve a perfectly useful function in scrutiny of what is being delivered by those actually in power.

This then frees up the party to focus on what it should be focusing on for the next three years – building the labour movement at local levels through community organisation activity so that, come 2019, there is a more receptive audience for a new leader.  In any event, it’s hard to see any of the current four making it to 2020, and I think there’s a huge likelihood that someone else – Starmer, Jarvis, Creasy or a currently unknown – will take us into the election.   Labour as a whole needs to accept this, get on with constructive stuff at sub-national level, and just bloody relax.

As I noted at the outset, it doesn’t really matter who’s leader for now. The much more interesting question is who, as deputy leader, is tasked with helping out with the redevelopment of a politics of production within and around the labour movement.


* The tax credits cuts is administrative, and not part of the welfare act, but the whole issue about them being ex-public spending in 2019 is the same.

** Part of this holding to account should be continuing scrutiny not just of impact on people of government policy, but also of simple governance competence – this was a successful strategy adopted by the Miliband team early on, but was sadly dumped in favour of the ‘credibility’ strategy now being put in place to fail again, possibly simply because Miliband invested in the wrong kind of support team – people who knew little about real life but lots about political strategy.





Four ways to a living wage

Liz Kendall pledges:

As Labour’s next Prime Minister I would extend the legal remit of the Low Pay Commission to work with employers, unions and civil society to identify practical, non-statutory ways to move wages towards the living wage, sector by sector.

Some of the responses to this pledge or not favourable e.g.

“Non statutory”? Sounds a bit like… “and, as leader, I will ask you very nicely, and if you laugh at me and ignore me, I’ll ask you in another letter, in a slightly more serious tone”….

So what would Liz PM’s methods to get toward a living way without legislation, either through the Low Pay Commission or otherwise, actually be?   I think there are four broad options:

1) Increase union bargaining power by removing the restriction imposed by Tory governments (and not removed by the last Labour government)

Hardly likely as a sole act, of course, as this would be seen as unelectability material and in any event in itself would foster a further division at least in the medium term between unionised and un-unionised sectors.  But we’ll come back to unions and unionisation

2) Use public sector purchasing power to drive up wages, by ensuring (by non-statutory means) that all contracts for public money e.g. building jobs in schools, housing associations etc. stipulate that employees must be on a living wage.  Moves towards this are already taking place, though (in my area) reality has struck home about how manageable it is on all local authority contracts.

There are complexities here.  First, blunt implementation by public bodies would probably lead to sub-contracting so that the non-living wage is further down the supply chain (however artificially) and this would require either greater bureaucracies in contract management to manage, thus creating lower contract award diversity.   Second, non-statutory application of the method would probably require the incentivising of public bodies to get on board.  Third, it doesn’t cover all sectors of the economy, even if it is fed through the supply chain, and the creation of a dual economy remains a risk. Fourth, and most obviously, forcing living wages onto low wage sectors through contract conditions may push some organisations out of business (though it may create some room for social enterprise and co-operatives to fill those gaps).

Even so, as part of a larger strategic package (involving localisation of supply chains through local business development support and purchasing ledger scrutiny to encourage sustainability as well as local economic growth) it might have some legs.

3) There’s the fiscal option: simply put an employee tax cut through PAYE and make the same or similar charge on employer NI. Liz PM could/should also take the opportunity to adjust thresholds which currently create a perverse incentive for employers to keep lower paid employees on hours just below the PAYE threshold.

This has its attractions, though it will be painted simply as another way of raising tax on hard-pressed employers unless it is packaged as a fair deal for all, including part-timers currently held back from full-time work.

4) More creatively, a scheme developed during Liz PM’s life in opposition, rooted in union organising principles and ‘ready to go’ in 2020, where employers receive a PAYE rebate if they can evidence that they have voluntarily encouraged unionisation of their workforce (or perhaps co-ownership in some cases), such that unionised workplaces are in a better position to work towards living wage set-ups without recourse either to statutory means or perceived trade union ultra-militancy (see 1).  This can be sold both a tax cut to employers and a route to a wage-led economy.

This is not us: a reply to Sunny

June 12, 2015 1 comment

Sunny Hundal has come in for praise for his article on the left not understanding or being understandable to the electorate, because it’s been living in an “echo chamber”.

This is us. We have become those people that the public doesn’t understand. We have become more obsessed about being right than succeeding. There’s always someone on Twitter spouting cliches and say they’d rather be principled than worry about winning. This is a false dichotomy and we need to get out of that mindset. We need to change how we talk about issues. We need to talk about issues in radically different ways, in ways the mainstream can relate to.

Well, no.  It isn’t us.  It’s Sunny, and some people like Sunny.  It’s the people who created and live in the echo chamber.  It’s not the rest of the left, which is a lot more than them.

I simply don’t recognise myself in Sunny’s description. I’m leftwing, and proud if it.  I’m also mainstream, as are most of the leftwingers I know.  I understand people, and they understand me. Sometimes we don’t agree, and sometimes we do.

Ultimately, I think the difference between me and Sunny is that I do things, and Sunny comments on things that are being done.

Sure, I like a good comment too, and I was sucked into Sunny’s comment world a little too much a few years ago*, but for the most part I regard the online world as a) a bit of fun; b) a place to test out my developing thoughts about how the left might do good things.  I’m comfortable in my own leftwing skin and – perhaps because of this – I give off a smell of authenticity that helps me win.

But if you’re stuck in a revolving world of commentary and comment feedback, I can imagine it’s very easy to become quite insecure, to make validation and self-validation (checking that you’re being understood) a primary guide to how you behave.  In turn, this leads to voters not knowing what you stand for.   We’ve all heard that accusation on the doorstep.

The commentators I like best are, not coincidentally, those who do things.  I disagree deeply with Anthony Painter on both fiscal policy and how institutions might be created, but he’s a very good commentator because he’s properly rooted in social action outside commentary – as a UTC governor for example.  He understands, and is understood.   But he appears to be one of a very few people within the leftie commentariat able or willing to both think and do**.

Why did Labour lose?  It lost because its candidates, and its local parties, didn’t produce enough.

By “produce”, I don’t mean canvassing and ‘having conversations’ on the doorstep.  That’s not production. That’s marketing.

Nor do I mean a kind of cheap situationalism, in which the electorate is supposed to recover from the false consciousness imposed by the spectacle of capitalism/conservatism (that’s what Sunny has previously suggested as a vote-winning strategy).

By (leftwing) producer politics, I mean taking actions which push at the boundaries of current norms, in favour of and in concert with people who don’t have the power to get what they want on their own.  At local level, that might be about organising lower speed limits.  At less local level, it might be about working with public service staff to help them make their services more “relational” and therefore more effective.

By and large, the Labour candidates who won marginals (or increased votes in less winnable) understood that a political campaign is about doing things, not just telling people you understand where they’re coming from.  Those who stuck too narrowly to the political marketing manual lost.

So yes, Sunny is right when he says that good politics is about winning.   But he’s wrong to suggest that the left don’t get this.  A lot of us do.  He’s just been mixing with the wrong online crowd.



* Sunny used to take articles from here and re-post at his old blog Liberal Conspiracy.   I was wrong to allow that, as it drew me into a comment for comment’s sake world, and didn’t do Sunny any favours either.

** To be fair to Sunny, I know he’s branching out e.g. into trusteeship of an innovative youth action charity in London.  Fair play to him.


Categories: General Politics

On “ever closer union”

One of David Cameron’s key areas of renegotiation on the EU is, in his own words:

And dealing properly with the concept of “ever closer union”, enshrined in the treaty, to which every EU country now has to sign up. It may appeal to some countries. But it is not right for Britain, and we must ensure we are no longer subject to it.

If this is going to come up a lot, it may be handy to remind ourselves what “ever closer union” actually means.  It comes up in article 1 of the Lisbon Treaty:

This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.

So as and when Cameron starts to spell out the dangers of “ever closer union” between EU states, perhaps with the odd reference to cunning plans for a United States of Europe, we need to remember that the Lisbon treaty contains no such concept.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  It’s about union between people, not states, and about this union being based on devolution of decision making power to the most local possible level.   Closer union is not about centralizing.  It’s about localism.

The ‘principle of subsidiarity‘, by which article 1 is meant to be enacted, is all about a presumption to decision-making at national and sub-national level, and a requirement to show that decision-making at a European level is needed.  Since Lisbon, national parliaments get a say directly on that, as do Cameron’s MEPs.   Perhaps they should just do their job.



Categories: General Politics

White working class educational underachievement: a reply to Wes Streeting

I find this post on white working class educational underachievement, by new MP West Streeting, infuriating.   Having read it through twice, my overriding thought is: “you’re better than this, Wes.”

Here’s  Wes’s central point:

The failure of state education in so many white working class areas is utterly unacceptable. Not to talk about it or to have any answers for how we overcome it, equally so.

There are two errors here.  First, there is the suggestion that no-one, until Liz Kendall came along, has been talking about comparative underachievement by white working class children. This is just wrong.  I’m a Chair of Governors at a maintained secondary school in a predominantly white working class town.  I talk about ‘closing the gap’ a lot with staff.  We look carefully at pupil premium spend to make sure it’s doing the right stuff.  We discuss how we can best arrange what can seem like dizzying number of intervention and support strategies in the context of our ever evolving (because young people evolve) understanding of where those ‘cohorts within cohorts’ are at with their lives.  We’ve made progress [1].  We want to make more. We keep searching, we keep engaging with ‘pupil voice’.

We don’t “not talk about it” because it’s some kind of taboo to do so.  It’s a figment of Wes’s imagination to  suggest that educational inequality is not being talked about by people involved in education. It is, dare I say, just a tad insulting.

But here’s the rub.   It won’t work.  Or it won’t work completely.  Whatever we do, within the confines of our schools, will be insufficient to close the gap.  The research is very clear that educational inequality is, to a very significant extent, rooted in factors beyond the school gates.  Here’s Stewart & Cooper (2013), for example:

Our review indicates clearly that money makes a difference to children’s outcomes. Poorer children have worse cognitive, social behavioural and health outcomes in part because they are poorer, and not just because poverty is correlated with other household and parental characteristics….

Our calculations suggest that closing the gap between FSM households and the average income for non-FSM households would not eliminate the achievement gap, but might be expected to reduce it by more than half.

It’s not all money, of course.  If it was, white students on FSMs wouldn’t, overall, be doing worse exam-wise than students of other ethnicity.   When I look at the students in my town, both in and outside of school, I see how much truth there is in Garth Stahl’s superb study of how white working class boys can make a conscious shift towards underachievement because of the threat to what Giddens would call their ontological security if they overachieve.

The empirical evidence Stahl provides suggests that young people from ‘traditional’ white working class families are victims of Richard Sennett’s ‘culture of the new capitalism’ (pdf )[2], to a greater extent than those who, purely in economic terms, may sometimes appear more vulnerable.

What all this research shows is that schools are only part of the solution.  Classroom education is, as Chris Cook has suggested (and backed with lots of data), the ‘last mile’ stuff.   Acknowledging this is absolutely not an excuse  – it is context.  But it’s a context which Wes, in his rush to claim an “unacceptable” “failure of state education” seems unwilling or unable to countenance, at least until he’s read this blogpost.

This second error is, of itself an unacceptable failure on Wes’s part.  It is unacceptable because effectively indulging in false claims about schools being solely responsible for educational underachievement of white working class kids actually obstacles to doing the right things at a wider societal level – with educators as key partners.   These things include stuff like links with employers of the type that foster aspiration to cool jobs in technology – and there’s some really good stuff going on there, like the marvelously overstretched but willing-as-hell Class Careers.  But they also need to include wider community ‘decision-making’, perhaps rooted in Amartya Sen’s social choice theory, where whole groups of families and others come together and commit to both solidarity and aspiration around educational achievement, and start to build real working relationships with schools in a way which can help students, and their friends, access the cultural capital  they need in today’s difficult-to-navigate network society.

All of this can and will happen (and my schools is going to be part of it) but it will be hampered by people like, Wes, unless they themselves “get with the programme”.

Let’s finish with Wes.

He’s a good guy, with lots of talent.  He won his election when lots lost, so he must get stuff.  If he reads this, I hope he’ll take me calling him an unacceptable failure in good heart, and in the knockabout but productive spirit it’s intended.   But my main worry for Wes is that he’s already being dragged into what I call ‘managerial MP mindset (MMM).

MMM is where MPs, especially those more recently into the trade, come to believe that their main very important job is to demand answers, and find things unacceptable on behalf of their constituents.  Advanced MMM includes not being remotely interested in what people do to make things happen, but just want answers on their desk by 5pm.  It is the very essence of black box managerialism.    Simon Danzcuk, for example, is an expert MMMer – lots of demands for answers around Child Sexual Exploitation in greater Manchester – no obvious interest in fellow (and non-MMM) MP Ann Coffey’s superb research and recommendations [3] about what we might actually resource the tackling and prevention of it [4]

Wes is better than MMM.  He has the energy, know-how and ‘feel’ for what it’s like to be a working class kid of today to actually help develop and resource the wider actions we need to reduce educational inequality, rather than just bleat about schools failing their kids.   It’s his, and lots of his new colleagues’, choice.



[1] 15th most improved school in the North West in 2013, FSM gap narrowed considerably.

[2] Sennett says:

A class difference appears between those laborers – mostly immigrants in the informal or “gray” sector of the economy – who find themselves in a fluid or fragmented economy and those traditional working class people, one protected by pyramidal unions or employers, who have less room for maneuver; in the middle, people fear being displaced, sideline or underused.  The institutional model of the future does not furnish them with a life narrative at work, or the promise of much securiy in the public realm. In the network society, their informal networks are thin (p.132)

[3] Commissioned by Police & Crime Commissioner and non-MMM ex-MP tony Lloyd


[4] We wait to see which way Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, proto-MMM though with real doing-stuff experience behind her, will go.  The early signs, judging by this patronizing guff, were not good:

Now that I am “one of them”, I can report back that Parliament is actually full of normal people who care passionately about representing their constituents and making changes that will have a positive impact on peoples’ lives.  What we need to address is why people don’t believe that’s true, and why people don’t think their voice is heard.




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