Antonio Maria Costa is a man with such good fortune that he has a job which shouldn’t exist.
Whilst there may be a place for a United Nations and occasions when global agreements are appropriate, the UN Conventions which universalised the war on drugs and sustains it to this day were, in my view, a mistake.
The question of whether to allow or prohibit narcotics should have been left for a nation state to decide in consultation with its citizens. Had that happened, there would have been no need for the UN to have its own ‘Drugs Czar’, and Mr Costa would’ve been able to find an infinitely more rewarding – though perhaps less lucrative – line of work.
But it’s not the position Costa occupies which grates the most, nor his advocacy for continuing a war we’ve long since lost. No, what makes Costa a particularly horrid figure is the nauseating tone of preachiness which doesn’t just extol his position on the ‘moral high ground’, but is quite happy to impugn the morality of those who disagree.
Just a glance at his pieces for The Guardian will give you a decent idea of the ‘holier than thou’ schtick in which he trades. There’s the warning that legalisation would cause a ‘worldwide epidemic of addiction‘; his ‘innocently’ wondering ‘how many lives would have been lost‘ if we achieved legalisation; the beyond parody line that ‘every line of cocaine means a little part of Africa dies.’ I mean, he could be writing placards for the SWP.
Yes, I know the paper writes its own headlines and they don’t always reflect the tenor of the piece; trust me, in Costa’s case, they capture the sanctimony perfectly. Indeed, he’s up to his old tricks in his latest piece, characterising the drugs debate as being between “those who dream of a world free of drugs and those who hope for a world of free drugs”. Now, the internet’s home to some pretty filthy mudslinging, but his suggestion that supporters of legalisation are motivated solely by an urge to get high is a really grubby little smear.
But whilst there are few more offensive statements, Costa still takes the time to make some equally audacious claims:
In Mexico, a bloody drug war has erupted among crime groups fighting for the control of the US drug market. The legalisers’ argument on security is striking, though it leads to the wrong conclusion. Prohibition causes crime by creating a black market for drugs, the argument goes, so, legalise drugs to defeat organised crime. As an economist, I agree. But this is not only an economic argument. Legalisation would reduce crime profits, but it would also increase the damage to health, as drug availability leads to drug abuse.
So Costa admits that Felipe Calderon’s drug war – which has baked whole cities in flames, killed over twenty thousand and contributed barely anything to reducing export and consumption – could be ended with legalisation. But we absolutely mustn’t do that, because people might then start taking drugs. What’s Spanish for WTF?
Incidentally, this isn’t the first time Costa’s made a self-defeating admission and dressed it up as affirmation; he’s previously admitted that prohibition fuels violence and said that if we don’t reduce the violence and get rid of the criminals, people will start wondering whether legalisation is the only thing that can. His audacity is astonishing.
Last but not least, there’s the question of human rights. Around the world, millions of people caught taking drugs are sent to jail. In some countries, drug treatment amounts to the equivalent of torture. People are sentenced to death for drug-related offences. Although drugs kill, governments should not kill because of them. The prohibition versus legalisation debate must stop being ideological and look for the appropriate degree of controls.
It needs saying that insofar as governments have prosecuted the war on drugs inhumanely and used it to kill without due process, they have been aided and abetted by the United Nations. One of the great ironies about the UN’s interference in the drugs trade is that this well-meaning, occasionally laudable advocate for freedom and human rights concocted a set of conventions which provided nation states with the legal and moral justification – even obligation – to increase power over their citizens.
Though it’s terribly generous for Costa to condede that ‘although drugs kill, governments should not kill because of them’, human rights abuses from Columbia to Kabul are perpetually excused by their perpatrators as regrettable errors in pursuit of a more important goal.
The UN and its drugs czar are contributing editors to the mess we’re in, and no amount of zealous, overwrought demagoguery from Antonio Maria Costa will diminish that. It is he who is the problem, not us.
Update: This is also quite good.
Or ‘In Which I Defend Conservatives from Theo Hobson‘:
On Any Questions recently, someone asked the panellists whether they intended to cut down on their meat consumption, for environmental reasons. There were a couple of hesitant, nondescript answers and then Ken Clarke calmly guffawed at the whole idea. Like I’m going to cut down on my merry feasting, he basically said. And the audience found his cavalier confidence sort of reassuring, and laughed. Here, it struck me, is the very nub of the Tory soul: it enjoys showing its lack of angst. And such confidence impresses people. Let us be ruled by these Nietzschean strong souls, we cravenly feel, who are too busy living well to entertain cowardly moral scruples.
Y’know, misrepresenting the motivations of your opponents might not be one of the worst characteristics of an ever-corroding political debate, but it is one of the more grating. Whilst I’m sure the liberalism Theo Hobson subscribes to is suitably right-on and resplendent in its idealism, it still pales when compared to the bold (and apparently naive) ideal of treating people on the other side of the debate like human beings.
The distinction Hobson draws here – between the environmentally-aware, socially just and eternally earnest liberal and the arrogant, self-interested Tory with no regard for anyone but himself – is so crude as to be unworkable, even as political rhetoric. All we would have to do for Hobson’s dichotomy to fall apart would be to locate just one Tory who agrees with him on an issue he holds dear. In fact, he need only ask the aforementioned Ken Clarke, whose preference for European integration and prison reform is ground upon which a Tory and a Bleeding Heart can share.
Nor is it at all accurate to insinuate that Tories possess such a serene sense of calm that they’re exercised by nothing other than their own tax rate. Of course there’s such a thing as Tory Guilt, it’s just that those fears are differently located from our own, and we have far more pejorative descriptions for it: racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, Catholicism, climate denial and milk snatching.
There will be occasions when some of those descriptions are true and occasions when they’re not, but as irritating as it might be to have my rational, well-grounded arguments for Nice Things dismissed as ‘liberal guilt’, I’d do well to admit that I get off pretty lightly.
Plus, it’s not like the types of topics Tories worry about is any kind of secret; just open up the feverishly anxious Daily Mail on a given day and you’ll find plenty of proof. They worry about family, and think the breakup of the nuclear ‘ideal’ will have troubling consequences for society. They worry about education; they long to see a return to discipline, selection & more traditional subjects. They worry about the state; they believe states should be small, that tax burdens should be low and that encroachments into the public’s private life should be avoided. They worry about immigration, and fret about what increasing numbers of foreign men & women will do to the cohesiveness of society.
Obviously, I share few of these concerns. I think some are overblown, some unfounded entirely, some based in reasoning or faith which I don’t share. Nonetheless, they are fears which are often as genuine and deeply-felt as our own, and simply believing them to be wrong doesn’t make them vanish. Nor will simply mocking those concerns make anyone more susceptible to your point of view – tempting though that often is.
In the long run, of course, we’re all dead, but if we want to go out of this world with a little deeper an understanding of humans than we currently possess, if we want to gain a broader understanding of the beliefs and principles that guide the people around us, if we want to edge just a few inches closer to the better societies we profess to want, it would be useful for us to take the time to understand our opponents rather than ascribing unfairly miserly, misanthropic attributes to them. That goes for the left and the right.
Update: Also read this.
Being such a well-versed connoisseur of hip hop, I do have a love for the way words sound. When spoken, ‘fetish’ has this wonderfully illicit, forbidden quality which works well as a description for this blogger’s love of cider & subsequent habit of listening to ’80s soft rock.
Context, however, is everything, and in writing I’ve often used it far more pejoratively. When writing about education or crime & justice, I’ve often described both excessive testing and incarceration as ‘fetishes’, and used the word to suggest a kind of unthinking indulgence in policies with questionable long-term benefit.
On the Police State blog, Lib Dem activist lizw has a different take. When told that her fellow Lib Dems possess a ‘civil liberties fetish’, she hears the implication that there’s something transgressive or deviant about their policy preferences.
Whilst I’m hardly qualified to pry into the semantic intentions of others, that’s not an interpretation I’d share. Certainly, some civil libertarians (myself included) would advocate certain freedoms which the rest of society isn’t ready to accept; chief among them the legalisation of drugs. However, most demands of the civil liberty mainstream (identity cards, 42 days detention, control orders) are perfectly reasonable and grounded as much in a quite conservative desire for a judicious and restrained state. The last word I would use to describe an establishmentarian like Henry Porter is ‘deviant’.
Instead, I often hear the civil liberties ‘fetish’ used as a synonym for ‘obsession’, and signifying a belief that the priorities of civil libertarians are misplaced. I’m not stating anything revelatory when I note that the driving force for many on the left is improving equality of outcome and bettering the material conditions of the working class; insofar as liberty is desirable, the best way of getting there is by achieving greater equality. For that reason, you wouldn’t expect to see a Labour member willing to trade (for example) a rise in VAT for a reduction in the number of speed cameras, or a regressive budget for a refurendum on the voting system. For Labour supporters, the two don’t balance each other out.
Of course, as a result, there’s was often an inclination among Labour politicians (Straw and Blunkett spring to mind) to dismiss civil liberty concerns as frivolous indulgences. Sure enough, there may not be large percentages of working class voters clamoring for prisoners to have the right to vote, but that denial was still aimed aimed predominantly at members of that class. Moreover, there were many occasions where Labour’s lack of an instinct for liberty led to situations of material injustice, too: denying asylum seekers the right to work, instituting a prohibitive tax rate for the lowest earners and attempting to reform welfare into an increasingly bureaucratic & labyrinthine system of conditionality.
As the party moves forward, Labour needs to be careful not to dismiss liberty as an indulgence of rich people, but a right of all people, and work to maximise its promise of liberty wherever possible. This needn’t mean betraying or disavowing its class conscience; merely refusing to use that conscience to justify its more statist instincts.
“Half the shit I say – I just make it up to make you mad
So kiss my white naked ass!”
- Eminem, ‘Criminal‘
By the late 1960s, The Beatles’ creativity had reached such absurd proportions that they were even inventing meta humour. On The White Album’s ‘Glass Onion’, a pleasant but inessential psychedelic ramble, John Lennon treats his listeners to a couple of minutes of gibberish, full of in-jokes & references to old songs.
Insofar as it had a point, the song was a sneaky rejoinder to all those who overanalysed The Beatles’ music; trawling their records for messages and meaning which was always far more elaborate than the band intended. For Lennon, sometimes a song could simply be about nothing.
His mistake was typical of artists who become frustrated when their thoughts or feelings are misheard or mangled in the minds of their audience. As Roland Barthes noted, just as notions of authorship allowed artists to control how their work was received and consumed, so the idea of authorial intent gave the illusion that they could set the terms by which their work was understood.
When we entered times of mass consumption, intent became irrelevant. Like literature or film, the meaning (or meaninglessness) of songs is seldom self-evident, and the interpretations we attach to them are very often different from those the artist intends.
Meaning is not created for us, but by us, and though we can all be influenced or coerced into sharing the meanings of others, there are always times when our unguided minds will form understandings which are unusual or unique.
A quick search of songmeanings.net will demonstrate what I mean. Its users attach thousands of different meanings, memories and interpretations to their favourite songs; all of them right, all of them wrong.
‘There She Goes’ is either a love song or an ode to heroin; ‘Born in the USA’ is working class turmoil or Reaganite nationalism; ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ is either social commentary or a sardonic swipe at Morrissey’s critics. By ignoring the urge to know the intent behind each song, listeners are liberated to create meanings for ourselves. There’s nothing Lennon or anyone else could do about it.
There’s arguably no one in the history of recorded sound that has manipulated this freedom more than Marshall Mathers. Since the release in 1999 of the Slim Shady LP, the artist sold as Eminem has delighted in shocking, appalling and confounding his audience, making himself an extraordinarily rich man in the process.
The source of this confusion, this willful deception, these tens of millions of records, was Mather’s ‘Slim Shady’ alter ego; the hyper-violent, axe-wielding, horror movie manic who could mortify both liberals and conservatives alike. Mathers’ ‘Shady’ was portrayed as a demented lunatic who despised women, hated gays and fantasised over – among other things – their rape, humiliation and murder.
But an alter ego gimmick doesn’t make for a long career. Eminem perpetually contrasted the Shady villain against the more somber, restrained, ‘real’ Marshall Mathers: the doting father, the betrayed son, the mentally ill drug addict, the tortured soul. By doing so, Mathers almost created a clever way of blaming the hate & violence of his songs on ‘Shady’, whilst intimating that his more serious, less offensive material (the Stans, the Cleaning Out My Closets, Lose Yourself) were more reflective of him as a person.
Were this distinction obvious and evident, it would’ve gone a long way towards settling Eminem’s cultural worth. If the hate and misogyny of his material could simply be attributed to a fictional character, then it would’ve been possible to receive those songs in much the same way as one receives a horror movie or a novel about a serial killer. If, on the other hand, the violence and hate of the Shady villain are sourced from the artist’s own antipathies, then it’s not so much art as the mad fantasies of a deeply disturbed mind.
Whether it was accident or design, Mathers never allowed his audience that reassurance; the lines between the ‘Shady’ villain and the ‘real’ Marshall have always been blurred.
None more so has that been evident than in Eminem’s depiction of women generally and domestic violence in particular. Regardless of which character was responsible for it, Mathers’ music is uniquely misogynistic. Where other rappers would diss ‘bitches’ out of some ritualistic chest-beating, Eminem’s misogyny is specific; women are either dumb and vacuous ‘sluts’ only interested in his wealth & fame, or they’re cruel, deceptive and treacherous. Both are met with equal rage.
And yet there remains a most curious paradox. Insofar as Eminem/Mathers/Shady is the most creative and committed woman-hater his genre has ever known, he remains the only misogynist in rap to have written at least three songs against domestic violence.
On first reading, that seems a rather contrarian statement. After all, on 97 Bonnie & Clyde he raps about dumping his dead wife’s body; on the unlistenably gruesome Kim he kills her before our very ears and on the recently released Love The Way You Lie he threatens to tie her up & set the house on fire. The Fawcett Society this ain’t.
Yet the shock of hearing those songs, the controversy they caused and the concern about the effect these kinds of messages have on his young fans shouldn’t obscure the fact that Mathers succeeds in casting himself in the most despicable light.
Whether it’s the chilling calm and pathetic justifications of 97 Bonnie & Clyde, the unhinged breakdown of Kim or the conflicted, quasi-apologies of Love The Way You Lie, the same characteristics creep out of the speakers: constantly jealous, insecure, obsessive, possessive, resorting to violence every time he loses control and incapable of taking responsibility for his behaviour. Whatever else might be troubling about the messages Mathers submits in these songs, he makes one thing clear: these are the characteristics of an abuser.
But these aren’t reasons to lionise Mathers – indeed, they place his less violent woman-hating in an even more unsettling context, further suggesting that his misogyny can’t just be passed off as the ranting of his lunatic alter ego, but drawn directly from his own dysfunction.
The impossibility of distinguishing between the ‘good man’ Marshall and the ‘scoundrel’ Shady is the reason that Eminem’s artistic value remains undefined & contentious. Some see a man who highlighted & savaged the hypocrisies of pop culture & American society; others see a bully who got rich off the back of the women and homosexuals he threatened with rape, humiliation & murder. Ultimately, I suspect the final judgement will be a combination of the two: an outrageously talented rapper & a seriously flawed man who, in the end, just couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a cartoon maniac or a serious artist.
Just weeks after my endorsement, I knew there was more to be done. As someone with a zeal for Progressive Politics – I voted Lib Dem in ‘05 because of The War and in 2010 when they promised A New Politics – the time had come to become more involved. I wasn’t sure about that preppy prefect Nick Clegg, but it was still a huge disappointment when he fell into bed with the Conservatives. It was like watching Lois Lane fall for Lex Luthor all over again.
I did have reservations about joining the Labour Party. After all, it was Labour who had saddled me with this student debt, waged all those terribly terrible wars and made me smoke outside on winter nights instead in of the snug warmth of my sadly-departed local. Was Labour really the place for a Progressive like me?
Alas, the stakes are too high to worry about that. The next election will be important. Definitely more important than 2010 and probably as important as when we got Rage Against The Machine to Christmas Number One. As I told my friends, “it doesn’t matter if you hate the song; what matters is that we win.” That’s kinda how I felt about joining the Labour Party.
All that was left was to find the candidate who would lead us to victory. I researched diligently; I visited their websites, watched hustings online and read their essays for The Fabians. I was still none the wiser. Then one night I discovered a video that changed everything. His supporters posted this inspiring & professional promo, set to a tune by Boy Meets Girl (who doesn’t love Boy Meets Girl?!), packed with images of their man looking Dynamic! Leaderlike! and Sticking It To The Tories!
I soon made my endorsement public:
I support David Miliband because he is a Progressive. I support him because he knows that we need to make cuts, just by a few billion less than those other guys. I support him because only he knows how to Cut Fairly. Cut Progressively. I support him because after 100 days of a ConDem government, Britain is crying out for change. And that change is a return to everything we wanted to change in the first place.
The endorsement was my Facebook status for three days. Within hours it had been ‘liked’ by three friends. I had to keep the momentum going. I shared links to speeches David made; his statements on the Big Issues. I tried to show his human side, too: his sense of humour, his sense of fun. The responses were hugely encouraging; only one ex-‘friend’ blocked my Facebook account, and he was a no-good Abbottite anyway.
But I knew this wasn’t enough, that there was more to do. After all, did Barack Obama get to the White House through people just squatting in their bedrooms, pasting YouTube clips on their friends’ walls? I knew that I had to step my game up; to become the change I wanted to see. Then I finally took the plunge; I decided to host a house meeting for David Miliband.
My mind danced with opportunities. I read Saul Alinsky and David Plouffe, downloaded PowerPoint slides about community organising and drew mind maps for how I could sell David to my friends and neighbours. Could David ride a wave of grassroots support all the way to the doors of Downing Street? Could we really build an Obamaesque movement for change? Yes, we can!
Or so I thought. Having never organised a community before, I wasn’t sure how to begin. Thankfully, David had already thought of this (he thinks of everything) and he uploaded a handy ‘how-to’ guide on his website. For a whole week before the meeting it became my Bible; the only thing standing between me and a disorganised community. I quickly began acting on its instructions:
Think of the people you want to invite
First start with the local Labour Party members who you know are active in your local area, this may include local councilors, the constituency MP and other activists. Then think about other people in your community that could make change locally. For example, friends, neighbours, the school head-teacher, faith leaders in your area. Try to invite people who already have a following of others. Remember, they don’t have to be members of the Party at the moment.
I was certainly relieved that invitees didn’t need to be members (yet!) – of all my friends, I knew of no one who was already a party member, and I didn’t fancy being alone at my own party! My first targets were those ‘who already have a following of others’. My best friend Andy was first, as he runs one of the most popular World of Warcraft blogs in the UK. If I impressed him, David’s name could soon spread like a contagion through the WoW universe. Maybe even Second Life.
Then there was Diane, a liberal art teacher who dressed like Woodstock was the point at which fashion had reached its apex. Diane might occasionally be prone to some ‘off message’ ideas (like that teenage delinquency is a result of Chernobyl), but her ability to speak with intense sincerity about the most banal subjects suggested she would make a fine canvasser.
There was also Emily. Emily didn’t have any followers, wasn’t a member of the community I was organising and was of no importance whatsoever to mine & David’s Movement for Change. She was also a bit too left to be Progressive; I gathered from her Facebook updates that – when she wasn’t dribbling over the deadbeat ‘vegan’ boyfriend – she considered Ed Miliband to be ‘pretty cool for a Nu Lab’. Still, I’m told that these events thrive on lively discussion, and maybe her kooky, irresponsible leftism would serve to highlight David’s reassuring reasonableness. That’s the only reason she was invited.
I’m hosting a House Meeting as part of David’s leadership campaign to bring people together in the community to discuss how we can be part of the Movement for Change at a local level. It will be a chance to share stories, build relationships and discuss what we would like to change in this area and how we can help make David leader of the Labour Party to take this forward.
I copied the email and, just as David instructed, invited 30 people from all professions and walks of life – everything from doctors to decorators, rabbis to gym instructors. But the coup de grace, the one David and I really wanted, was Michael Knightley, head of the local secondary school. If I could get him to attend, then I would really land in the Big Leagues of Community Organising. What’s more, Basingstoke would be David’s for the taking!
With the invites sent and his campaign informed (David & his high-profile supporters sometimes ring up during the events!), I followed David’s advice and did some research. Soon I was loaded up on stories of his policy-making heroics; the work on social justice, his time as Labour’s Head of Policy, the sensitive, pragmatic way he handled those accusations of torture.
I realised then that the comparisons with the Obama campaign were grossly unfair. When Obama ran, he had nothing but the ‘Audacity of Hope’; compare that to David’s 13 years of turning Hopes into Realities. There really was no contest.
Finally, the big day arrived. This, of all days, was the time to follow David’s instruction manual to the letter:
Get in from work, give the place a quick vacuum and general tidy (or not, if you’re not that type). Put the oven on and get the nibbles in. If there are drinks, get them chilling. Pick some music. Get Labour party membership forms at the ready.
The spread was fit for a Prime Minister. Plates were stacked high with sandwiches, samosas and onion bhajis; there were sausage rolls, fruit bowls and ‘scotched Eds’ (take that, little brother!). I even concocted a cocktail, The Milibomb, out of strawberry schnapps. When the guests entered the living room (dubbed ‘the Cabinet Office’ for the night), that same Boy Meets Girl song would be at the top of the playlist. Its title: ‘Things Can Only Get Better’.
A good 10 minutes after my meeting was due to start, the first guest arrived. Andy apologised for being late, explaining that he’d just emerged victorious from a heated debate about the new World of Warcraft expansion pack. “Who’s this?” I ask of the stocky figure stood behind him. “Oh, I thought I’d bring a plus one. This is Gary. He works for a trade union.”
As he held out his hand, I looked at him with apprehension and mistrust. Having a trade unionist there didn’t just add pressure for everything going to plan, it also doubled the competition. I knew all about Labour’s problem with entryists and it wasn’t going to happen in my flat. This was my community, I would be organising it, and I would take the credit for making Basingstoke a hotbed of Milimania.. Besides, if David really cared about having Trade Unionists on board, he would have asked them!
I left them to the drinks and nibbles while I stood by the window, fiddling with the blinds and praying the passing cars carried guests in search of somewhere to park. Another 5 minutes passed before Diane turned up with a tray of gluten-free chocolate brownies. “Oh, well this is a nice size for a meeting”, she said sympathetically, “very exclusive, isn’t it?!”
I could just about cope with a low turnout. I bet even David Plouffe had his disappointments when he started out. No, it was what was still to come that brought an abrupt end to my Community Organising. I was helping myself to another Milibomb when the phone rang. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘someone who’s on their way and in need of directions. Soon we’ll have a proper gathering.’
“Hiya, this is Cassie from the David Miliband campaign. I’m just ringing to ask how your House Meeting is going?”
“Oh, it’s going great,” I lied, before dreaming up an excuse for the poor showing. “There’s a bit of a snarl-up on the way into Basingstoke, so some guests are running a bit late. But we’ve still got a good crowd to start with. I turned to the guests and raised a feeble thumbs-up.
“Oh, that’s great. David was very impressed by the number of notables on your guest list. How many of those do you think are attending this evening? For instance, Will Mr Knightley be there?”
“Definitely,” I replied, voice starting to quiver under the weight of the lie. “Michael’s just stuck in traffic. He’ll be here any minute”.
“Excellent. In that case, you should expect to receive a phone call from David sometime between 8 and 9pm. He’d love to hear your ideas.”
It was then that Emily entered the room, ushered in by the uninvited (and possibly lecherous) Entryist who was clearly having no problem making himself at home. ‘I’ll show him’, I thought.
“That’s great news Cassie”. I turned to Emily: “guys, The Right Honourable David Miliband is calling us later so we can share our ideas. No pressure now!”
I said my goodbyes and hung up the phone. It was at once my greatest achievement and my biggest defeat. The future leader of the Labour Party – the future Prime Minister – was about to ring Me. At home. At an event in his honour. An event which had four attendees, one of whom wasn’t even invited! Should I dance or scream? And what would I say to Him if He calls?
I poured myself another Milibomb and retreated to the kitchen. ‘Four guests’ I repeated in disbelief. ‘Four fucking guests.’ Panic was setting in, and that would do me no good at all. This was a time for Cool Tempers and Clear Minds, so I turned again to the Miliband House Meeting Manual, returned to the Cabinet Office and, as per instruction, played David’s House Meeting intro on YouTube.
Just as David instructed, we went on to talk about the challenges in our areas. Everyone spoke about an issue close to their hearts: Andy got very exercised about broadband speeds; Diane found the new recycling system ‘terribly confusing’ and The Entryist, his plate bulging from all the food he’d helped himself to, found a way to fit ‘Tories’ and ‘Cuts’ into every other sentence. Emily started banging on about her Women’s Issues, mentioning some refuge that’d had its funding cut. As she spoke, I wondered quietly whether she might join my Movement for Change after all. I would have to ask her at the end of the night.
3. What frustrates you about the Labour Party and why? How can we change that during and after David’s leadership campaign?
“Oh, don’t mention the war!” joked The Entryist, his mouth full with Scotched Eds. I tossed him my most studied scowl and moved the discussion along . “Yes, well, we would all make better decisions if we had time machines, wouldn’t we?! Now what about…”
“I was never keen”, Diane interrupted, “on the way they seemed to like micromanaging our lives”.
“In what way?” I asked, fully expecting a well-meaning but endearingly daft response.
“Well, they did seem to spend an awful lot of time telling people how they should live. All those scary adverts about what we drink and what we eat, and all that time telling people where they can and can’t smoke. It all just got a bit silly, really. When Labour was in power, I bet house parties even had instruction manuals!”
“Hear hear!” Andy replied, “too much of this Nanny State!”
I slipped David’s instruction manual under the couch and hoped no one had seen me use it. This was clearly another one of Diane’s ‘off message’ ideas, but since the manual didn’t mention anything about crushing dissent, I let it stand and moved onto the next talking point.
What can you do to get David elected over the coming months?
A silence fell. The guests started fiddling with their food; gazing into the distance; checking their phones. I suppose this was to be expected. I mean, none of them had yet embarked on my own journey of community organising, so how were they meant to know how to elect a leader? They had to be directed, of course! I decided to get the ball rolling myself.
“Well, we’ve already taken the first big step by meeting here! But what I found helpful was…”
The phone rang. I stared at it, panic-stricken for the first three rings. Was that really Him? What would I say? Was it too informal to call him David?
“You gonna get that?” Emily enquired. I lifted the phone and turned on the speaker.
“Hello, David Miliband here, hope you’re all having a great evening.”
My guests’ expressions were a picture! I bet none of them believed I had The Clout to land a phone call from David, and here they were, listening to his polite, cerebral tones through the speakerphone. I had made it!
“Hi David, we’re having a fantastic time here! Some really good discussions about the challenges facing our community and lots of ideas about how our Movement for Change can make you leader of the Labour Party.”
“That’s very good to hear, and obviously I’m delighted to have so many people in …err…”
“Yes, Basingstoke. It’s obviously nice to have the people of Basingstoke involved in the campaign. Now, I gather you have some significant community figures in attendance tonight. My staff tells me you even have a school headmaster.”
Could I lie to a former Foreign Secretary? A man who stared down some first rate deceivers and outwitted them all? A man who had a close working relationship with Hillary Clinton? Surely he would see through me.
“Oh yes, Michael’s here, just helping himself to a few nibbles.” I gestured over to where I imaged Mr Knightley would be standing and took another good swig of my Milibomb. Andy looked at me like I’d gone mad – a bit rich for a man who spends half his life thrashing around the internet under the alias of ‘sexy_goblin’.
“Great, do you think I could have a quick word?”
“Is there a problem?”
The problem was that I hadn’t seen where all of this had been leading. I was so swept up in the tension of planning & the euphoria of the moment, that I never stopped to think about what this evening was really about. This wasn’t an evening for Little People like me to become important, but for David to find people who were already important. The doctors, lawyers, councillors & head teachers; people who ‘already have the following of others’. So what was I to do? Would I finally admit that my whole meeting had been a defeat, or would I try to make sure that David wasn’t disappointed in me?
“No, no problem at all. I’ll just pass him on for you.”
All the school nativities in the world wouldn’t have prepared me for the feat of acting I was about to attempt. I finished my drink, straightened my back and turned away from the guests. I lowered my voice by nearly an octave. If I pull this off, I thought, I’m going to sound a little like Patrick Stewart.
“Good evening, David! Michael Knightley here!”
The details of the conversation are a private matter between David and Mr Knightley, but I can tell you that the talks were very productive. David shared his outrage at the scrapping of his school building programme and congratulated him on the excellent exam results. For his part, Mr Knightley praised Mr Miliband’s speeches on education and pledged to become a party member ‘this very evening’. Quite how the real Mr Knightley would feel about this pledge would be another matter.
The conversation ended & I put down the telephone. My guests were all wearing the most indescribable expressions. They looked at me as if I’d done something terrible. Something like advocating the legalisation of drugs, scrapping trident or reinstating Clause 4.
I knew there was now no point carrying on with the event. I unfolded the House Meeting Manual and went straight to the closing remarks. I cleared my throat.
“I hope you have enjoyed this evening – it’s been really interesting hearing your stories tonight and it just shows the need for us to organise in our local community. Whatever our different perspectives on the issues discussed tonight, one thing is clear – that we can achieve more together than we can on our own.”
I glanced over at Emily; she stared down at her shoes. With the speech finished, the guests were dying to leave. Diane reminded me to return the tin that kept the gluten-free brownies; Andy tapped me on the back with the suggestion that I “might want to go & get help”; The Entryist filled his plate and flashed a smug, bloated smile. Emily was last out of the door. I helped her with her coat and said “Y’know, if you ever wanted to meet up sometime to discuss how you could be a part of David’s Movement for Change, we could…”
“I’m still for Ed,” she interrupted, looking somewhere between apologetic and concerned. “Your guy will probably win, but I just think that if you’re going to give all your time and energy to something like this, it should at least be for something you can get excited about. Even after tonight, I still don’t know what your guy believes in.”
“For what it’s worth”, she said as she left the house, “I think you could’ve thrown a great party without the help of some instruction manual.”
I shut the door, removed the ‘Cabinet Office’ sign in the living room, turned on the stereo and poured another drink before slumping into an armchair. In just a few hours I’d won the respect of the next Leader of the Labour Party and the derision of my friends. I’d been a party host, a political aide and a secondary school head teacher, and all I’d really gained was a phone call with someone who didn’t want to talk to me, a tin full of gluten-free chocolate brownies and an apparent addiction to strawberry schnapps. I bet David Plouffe never had this trouble.
As the stereo cranked out an old tune from a fondly-remembered past, I concluded that it will all have been worth it if I played some small role in getting David elected. Things Can Only Get Better, the singer promised. I hope so, because right now things could hardly be worse.
Note: none of this actually happened.
I’ll finally be moving my stuff down to London this weekend, so I’m afraid you may have to make do with a few more of these…
Mr Civil Libertarian offers his take on libertarianism.
BenSix argues that our overuse of ‘hate’ simply diminishes its meaning.
- The Guardian publishes one of Tony Judt’s final essays. The New York Review of Books also has a pretty extensive archive.
- Joe Klein charts the failure of an Iraq War he supported.
- Undeterred by their utter failure to kill gay marriage in California, Conservative groups are now training their fire on marijuana.
- Meanwhile, Ross Douthat tries to present a reasonable & humane case against gay marriage. Glenn Greenwald, Amanda Marcotte & Steve Benen all give him a good walloping.
- In the New Statesman, Ashley Sayeau looks at the Clinton era welfare reforms and worries about what they mean for Britain.
- And finally, for those of you who remember Warren G’s 1994 hit ‘Regulate’ but aren’t all too hip to the lingo, Wikipedia offers a wonderfully funny synopsis.
Am traipsing around the North East until Saturday, so these will have to do ’til then:
- Paperback Rioter has a good guest post on the Church of England’s long overdue ordination of women bishops.
- George Packer has a long, illumiating report on the parlous state of the United States Senate.
- Hampton Stevens explains why cheerleading isn’t a sport, but croquet is. Fair enough, just don’t get me started on Formula 1.
- Celia Perry, a daughter of a lesbian couple, explains what the Prop 8 ruling in California means to her.
- Meanwhile, her President remains resolutely rubbish on gay marriage.
- Anthony Burt assesses whether the British film industry is dead.
- At The Guardian, Paul Lester reckons he’s got a playlist of the best artists of 2010.
Anyone seen anything good that I haven’t spotted? Feel free to share below.
(Image by incurable_hippie)
When Irving Patnick reputedly described Sheffield as the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’, he may have been referring as much to his own isolation as he was the radicalism of the 1980s. As the city council defined itself in opposition to the Thatcher governments, so Patnick was defined as a solid blue hold-out in a county drenched in red – the ‘enemy within’, if you like.
For decades his well-heeled Sheffield Hallam constituency – home to farmers, doctors & lawyers, owners of factories & steel works – had loyally returned Conservative MPs, and even as the red flag was hoist above City Hall, Patnick remained a stubborn voice of opposition. If Sheffield really was a breakaway republic, his Hallam constituency would’ve been a fringe rebel enclave – blue to the bitter end.
Of course, demographics, lifestyles and party loyalties have all changed significantly since then; the Conservative vote has collapsed since 1997 and its current Lib Dem incumbent enjoys a generous majority. But whilst the make-up of the constituency might’ve altered since Patnick’s days, there’s still a sense that it’s as estranged from the rest of Sheffield as it was in the 1980s. As Jonathan Raban noted in the New York Review of Books:
‘These Lib Dem gains reflected the rise of a younger, modern, middle class of people who traveled widely, valued their membership in the European Union, balanced their fear of statism against their university-bred ideas of social justice and fairness, and were keenly protective of their own personal liberties and civil rights. Sheffield Hallam might have been their capital-the young families in renovated old houses, new Audis, Priuses, and Smart cars on gravel driveways, the restaurants, boutiques, and health food shops along Ecclesall Road. Lozenge-shaped Lib Dem placards proclaimed “Winning Here,” and so they were, but the annoying smugness of that phrase seemed part of the character of the place. Sheffield Hallam knows, rather too well, that it’s where the winners in South Yorkshire live.’
To his credit, Nick Clegg never sought to present himself as just the MP for a few affluent suburbs on the Derbyshire border. In the general election campaign he would talk about ‘my city of Sheffield’ and contrast the life chances of a child born in the impoverished parts of the city with one born in the comfort of his own constituency. He didn’t merely seek to speak for his constituency, but for Sheffield as a whole, and it was an approach which won his party respect, votes and seats.
Just a few months after polling day, Clegg may now be starting to understand how it feels to shuffle in Irving Patnick’s shoes. Whilst a coalition with the Tories might have been received badly enough in a city where they remain an endangered species, the long-running controversy over Sheffield Forgemasters is where the most hurt and mistrust is felt.
It’s a city which is deeply proud of its past and eager – sometimes over-eager – to return to the days when its steel production was of world renown. Knowing that it was one of the few companies in the world capable of producing those reactor components only compounded that pride, and the cancellation of the loan which would’ve made it possible was welcomed as warmly as a boot to the gullet.
But it was once the story assumed national significance that the greatest damage was done. With contradictory accounts emerging from Forgemasters, Clegg and the coalition, plus the news of a Tory secretly lobbying for the loan to be scapped, conspiracy began to take the place of where a straight story should’ve been. Cries of ‘betrayal!’ were soon replaced by whispers of Tory sleaze, and Clegg started to be spoken of as their barrowboy.
To say that Labour exploited Clegg’s discomfort is an understatement. When Jack Straw chose Forgemasters as the focus of his first PMQs, he did so not because it was a matter of national importance or even a particularly current news story. No, Straw chose that topic because it could embarrass the Deputy Prime Minister and his party across the North. It was a rather unsubtle attempt to ‘prove’ one of Labour’s most longstanding critiques: that a liberal party cannot represent the interests of the working class; that Labour remains their only home.
(Image from Liberal Democrats)
The daunting challenge for Lib Dems in the years to come is to demonstrate how that impression is wrong. Voting and constitutional reform may both have great democratic importance, but they’re not nearly as high a priority for the party’s voters as they are for its activists. The fear must be that, in the midst of the coalition’s spending cuts & tax hikes, Labour holds aloft both their push for an AV referendum and the Forgemasters fiasco as emblematic of the party’s self-interest & subservience to the Tories. It is not without reason that some members fear that council & Parliamentary seats across the North are now extremely vulnerable.
As an MP, Clegg’s seat is almost certainly safe; it would take an almighty revolt to reverse Sheffield Hallam’s long history of voting against the grain of the city. But what is much less clear is how many of Clegg’s regional colleagues will still have jobs after the next election, and whether the prize of finally being able to sit in government has come at the cost of the demise of northern liberalism. For a politician, there are few worse things than being alone.
The surprising thing about Michael Gove’s short tenure as Education Secretary is how quickly an appointment which began with such hype and bluster has descended into one of hubris and error. The controversies Gove has been embroiled in since May have been entirely unforced errors; it is not beyond a Secretary of State to publish an accurate list of which schools will/will not see their building projects completed, nor is it beyond his ability to give a realistic estimate of how many would take advantage of his invitation to become academies.
The truth, as we now know , is that most schools in England & Wales didn’t await the Academies Bill with the same breathlessness Gove had when he rushed it through Parliament. Whilst it’s still probable that eligible schools will become academies at some point, the implication that over 1,000 would do so before September always seemed rather staggering.
But the relatively small number of actual applications for Academy status is something the DoE could and should have predicted. It can take some schools months just to change something as superficial as a school uniform. With a matter as significant as a long-term change in a school’s structure, funding & accountability mechanisms, those thinking about applying will have needed to be meticulous in their preparation. They would have had to consult not just with governors but with teachers, parents, pupils and, yes, those maligned local authorites they’re meant to be desperate to escape. They most certainly couldn’t have proceeded with the same haste as the Education Secretary might’ve wanted.
Moreover, the rewards for schools to become Academies by September weren’t nearly as great as Gove might’ve imagined. By the time he made his invitations, many schools had already set their budgets for the next academic year: they already knew their resources, class sizes, staffing levels, the subjects they would offer and the targets for their own improvement. In this context, the additional freedoms & resources offered by Academy status would’ve made little difference, so why rush into an arrangement which would have enormous consequences for pupils, parents & teachers?
Gove’s mistakes thus far haven’t been errors of policy, but of process. Of course parents want increased standards across the school system; they want it to be easy to get their kids into a good school close to where they live, and they’re willing to accept reform if it might make that wish a reality. But parents also value some measure of stability, certainty and reliability; they don’t want to be confronted with erroneous, ever-changing lists of scrapped school building programmes and they don’t want to hear wild overestimates about how many schools which will convert into academies.
It normally takes a good few years for the full effect of education reforms to be accurately measured & evaluated. If he carries on at this rate, Michael Gove will have lost the public’s trust before he’s even lost the political argument.
A little old, but The Economist has a great piece on the sorry state of the American prison system.
In the New Statesman, Bjorn Lombord explains why ecologists shouldn’t fret about the future of the planet.
Larison ponders reconcilliation between libertarians and conservatives.
Sara Mayeux on Jim Webb, affirmative action and the ‘myth’ of white privilege.
Coutney E. Martin calls on feminists to recognise the truth of women’s capacity for violence.
Jacob Weisberg cries ‘shame’ on the entertainers who boycott Israel.
Steve Clemons on Pakstan’s Generals’ crush on the Afghan Taliban.
Hopefully y’all haven’t seen many of these yet:
These Tea Party activists might be for some kind of limited government, but just not the kind that limits the US’ nuclear arsenal to ‘just’ 700 weapons launchers.
- Heather Murdock meets the hyena whisperers of Ethiopia.
- Robert Wright has a sharp take on the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’.
- Conn Hallinan on the ‘great myth’ of counterinsurgency.
- In Cameron, you can iron a girl’s breasts if you want to prevent her from developing and attracting men’s advances. There is a video attached; I couldn’t watch it.
- At Autostraddle, riese explains why Taylor Swift is a feminist’s nightmare.
- And a lighter note, what happened when Westboro Baptist Church made the mistake of picketing a comic book convention. If there is a God, nerds are her avenging angels.
Finally, I think my reading list is getting stale. Is there anything I should be reading? Anything I should be writing about? All tips/requests are welcome below the fold.
(Image by missquitecontrary)
Does my right hon. Friend find it bizarre-as I do-that the yoghurt and muesli-eating, Guardian-reading fraternity are only too happy to protect the human rights of people engaged in terrorist acts, but never once do they talk about the human rights of those who are affected by them?
– Labour MP Kevin Hughes
“If you start to break it then people aren’t going to go. I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance… I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.”
- Noel Gallagher
It’s the early noughties and we’re in the middle of a Great Rock Recession. After the Britpop days of plenty, indie fans are stuck on a stodgy gruel of Travis and Starsailor. ‘Quiet is the new Loud’ and that sound you don’t hear is the kids yawning themselves to death.
With such scant exciting, homemade music, the New Musical Express – that dogged tribune of indie culture – gazed across the Atlantic and started to embrace the explosion of R&B and hip hop. They wrote reverently about Timbaland & Missy Elliott, made The Neptunes the epitome of cool and even gave Destiny’s Child their front cover for a week.
Sadly, the NME’s experiment in open-minded eclecticism was short-lived; sales dwindled and the paper couldn’t afford to offend its musically conservative readership for any longer. It wasn’t long before the magazine reverted to type; excitedly announcing a ‘New Rock Revolution’ and chasing skinny trustafarians around the sidewalks of New York.
The mistake the NME made was in believing it could break the stubborn insularity of its audience. Pop tribes often seem sealed off from the rest of the cultural landscape; they talk only amongst themselves, in their own language, and define themselves as much by the inferiority of other genres as by the self-evident superiority of their own. In this environment, expecting that a Smiths fan who mocks rap ‘music’ with inverted commas will accept the value of Missy Elliott is about as fanciful as hoping that a blustering David Blunkett would accept a deal with the Liberal Democrats. Over their dead bodies.
In fact, political tribes operate in very similar ways. Each shares its own folk heroes and hate figures, writes in socially-accepted shorthand (NuLieBore! Tory Scum!) and generally accepts that any decision or utterance made by the other tribe is either misguided, deluded or malicious. The tribe is both a social circle and a comfort blanket of shared assumptions.
However, just as identifying with one pop tribe will give you a fairly shallow, one-dimensional music collection, political tribalism can be similarly self-defeating. Many of the defences of New Labour’s punitive populism were made as appeals to working class authenticity. On matters like crime, immigration, welfare, drugs and civil liberties, liberal criticisms were often dismissed as an indulgence of an out-of-touch middle class.
Whether it was Jack Straw slamming the ‘Hampstead liberals’ or Blunkett deriding ‘airy fairy libertarians’, the insinuation was clear; Labour’s liberal critics were unserious, self-serving, moneyed dilettantes with little connection to the ‘Real World’. As I wrote once before, it often felt like the party didn’t even want our votes; we just didn’t belong in the tribe.
None of this was an issue until Labour discovered that its tribe was no longer big enough to win elections. Throughout its thirteen years in government we heard various appeals from within the party to ‘reconnect’ with the middle or working classes, the unions or big business, but precious little about reconnecting with those social liberals who fled over its excessive anti-terror legislation, its treatment of asylum seekers, its abject prison system, its criminalisation of the young or its lie detectors for the jobless.
The question for whoever wins this turgid, listless leadership election is how far they are prepared to go to win these people back. Can the party’s rhetoric be shunted in a more pluralistic, inclusive and liberal direction? Will they support Ken Clarke as he tries to weed ‘prison works’ out of our political lexicon? Will they applaud Nick Clegg for securing a commitment on the detention of child asylum seekers? Will they revert back to a drugs policy based on evidence rather than fear? Or will the tribal instincts be so strong that they bark at and barrack the Liberal Democrats until any rapprochement is impossible?
But though the main responsibility for this rapprochement is necessarily Labour’s, there’s also a question to be raised of those who want the party to change but don’t want to get their hands dirty. Do we have any integrity to demand change of a party we didn’t exactly feel inspired to vote for, much less campaign for? Do we have any credibility in making those demands outside of – and often ignorant of – the local and national structures within the party? Why should our voices have prominence over tens of thousands of long-suffering, dues-paying members? It’s a centuries-old question of whether structure or agency best describes our social behaviour, and it’s not a question which will be resolved in a blogpost.
One theory about why the NME’s short-lived eclecticism failed to lift its circulation is that not enough people believed its change was real. Sure, they saw a more diverse range of artists on the cover, but maybe they suspected it was all artifice; that deep down it would remain the same stubborn tribune of indie fandom that it has always been. Perhaps the tribe’s reputation preceded it.
That’s not something the Labour Party can allow to happen. There are now millions of us for whom the only experience of democratic socialist government was the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They both fell short of adequate. The task of the next Labour leader is to imagine and articulate a political culture which is better than the one we have lived through, and which their predecessors bequeathed. They need to prove that their tribe (their tent, their church) can be larger, broader, more open, responsive and diverse than anything we’ve seen to date.
This isn’t about changing to win; it’s about changing what it means to win. That’s the difference between being the leader of a political movement and merely settling for manager of a political tribe.
(Image via YoungFabians)
I’ll be down in London until Wednesday on my first house hunting reconnaissance mission. It’ll probably end in abject failure, but hopefully I’ll learn something about how to wander around a capital city without getting lost/mugged/kidnapped. In the mean time…
- Laurie Penny is very cross about the pointless humiliation of Caster Semenya.
- For those who’ve long suspected that Binyamin Netanyahu has never been interested in peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, now there’s even more damning evidence. Gideon Levy provides commentary.
- So did you hear that Nestle sent a barge up the Amazon to peddle junk food to Brazil’s poor? Well now they’ve gone and bettered it by fronting a ‘healthy kids’ program in China. You’ve gotta give ‘em points for cojones.
- Just to balance out the corporation bashing, let’s hear it for Unilever. Not only did the makers of Marmite acquiesce to mocking the BNP in an advert, but they then managed to ruin the party for trying to get its own back. Who needs Searchlight when you’ve got Marmite?!
- Another update from Mexico’s drug war. Don’t read it if you’re worried about blowing your high.
- Michael Tomasky on Obama & the Democrats’ spot of bother.
And that’ll be it for now. Catch you in a bit.