Hobson’s Choice

August 30, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Posted in Conservative Party | 3 Comments

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.

Liberal ‘Fetishes’

August 26, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 3 Comments

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.

The ‘Good Man’ Marshall and the ‘Scoundrel’ Shady

August 25, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Posted in Celebrity, Music, Art, Etcetera | 1 Comment

“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 Goesis 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 Marshall Mathers LP is now 10 years old.

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.

From Eminem's controversial video "Love The Way You Lie"

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.

Confessions of a Community Organiser

August 22, 2010 at 8:16 am | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 3 Comments
Tags:

From The Labour Party

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:

Image by WEF

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.’

“Hello?”

“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…”

“Basingstoke.”

“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?”

“Oh.”

“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.

Selected Reading (09/08/10)

August 9, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Posted in Misc. | 4 Comments

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…

Selected Reading (06/08/10)

August 6, 2010 at 10:59 am | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Am traipsing around the North East until Saturday, so these will have to do ’til then:

Anyone seen anything good that I haven’t spotted? Feel free to share below.

The ‘Social’ in Social Housing

August 4, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Posted in Conservative Party, David Cameron, Social Policy | 6 Comments

There are plenty of reasons why people who could afford to leave social housing opt not to do so.

The most obvious, of course, is cost; even if you did have the resources to find yourself private accommodation, you might prefer living in social housing if it leaves you with a little extra money for food, clothes, transport, a night out and the odd holiday.

The second is the security that social housing can offer. Not every private landlord is as scrupulous as a local housing association, and the further down the price scale you go, the less security you’re likely to have. Social housing can offer considerably more peace of mind for tenants.

Another reason is community. People might just prefer the part of the world they’re staying in: they’re on good terms with the neighbours; their parents live up the road; their kids go to the local school; they’re used to seeing and socialising with the same faces; they belong. Why would they want to leave those social networks – that familiarity – behind?

Although the first two reasons will be most commonly cited by those concerned about David Cameron’s social housing announcement, I think the third reason is potentially the most significant.

Functionalist sociologists – more often linked with the political right than the left – often talk about a thing called social solidarity. They believe that social harmony is best achieved by members of a community all sharing similar norms, values, lifestyles, histories and traditions. They’re the things that bind us together, that give us common ground and foster neighbourliness and a public spirit.

Now, that theory might have holes in it, but a glance at our nation’s past suggests there’s at least some truth there. When you look at our post-war history, many episodes of social unrest on the British mainland have had high population turnover as a contributing factor. Long-time residents saw their communities changing before their eyes and didn’t who their neighbours were; newcomers would be sent to areas they didn’t know, alongside people whose culture and language they didn’t always share.

Whilst most communities were (and still are) open-minded enough to adapt the changes around them (no thanks to you know who), those areas with acute social exclusion and economic inactivity would regard their new neighbours as competitors for resources that were already – are already – in short supply. Even then, bonds were (and still are) built over time: the ‘newcomers’ stick around, form relationships and embrace the community around them; the long-time residents begin to work and socialise and relate to the people they might once have treated with mistrust. Solidarity grows.

None of this is meant to diminish the problems afflicting some of Britain’s housing estates; rather, it’s meant suggest that the introduction of arbitrary fixed-term leases could make matters worse. If we know that a high turnover of population can erode the bonds which hold communities together, it is not far-fetched to conclude that a policy which leads to residents constantly moving on could erode those bonds further. If that happens, we should expect greater mistrust, dysfunction and social unrest in deprived communities. Like they need that right now.

I really don’t want to be one of those people who brings out the ‘Big Society’ as a ‘gotcha’ to thrash the coalition with each time they announce questionable policy. But a ‘Big Society’ is no substitute for an understanding of how society actually works.

David Cameron famously admitted that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state”. He was right on both counts. But if his coalition continues to act as if State and Society are two entirely separate entities, he will never ‘unbreak’ the Britain he inherited.

What’s missing from the debate on welfare reform?

August 2, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

It’s worth recognising that the New Conservative rhetoric on welfare is somewhat different from that which has gone before. For over two decades it was a mainstream belief that the blame for welfare dependency lied with the claimants themselves. Encouraged by the sub-sociological pretensions of Charles Murray, it was common to speak of an ‘underclass’ of people who had voluntarily opted for welfare over work. If you accepted this assumption, it was logical that the only way of restoring responsibility was through a more austere welfare regime which could force them to take work.

In the current debate on welfare reform, the traditional rhetoric of responsibility remains, but the focus has shifted away from the supposed personal faults of welfare dependents and towards the mediation between claimants, the state and the jobs market. It’s no longer commonplace to hear the unemployed dismissed as lazy or feckless, but rather that the state has created disincentives to work.

There are elements of this change of tack which should be welcomed. It is a positive step for conservatives to acknowledge that the long-term unemployed are not simply the authors of their own despair, but can be constrained by factors outside of their control. We can also agree that employment should always pay more than a benefits system which has the sole purpose of protecting people from poverty.

But however radical the reform of the welfare system may or may not prove to be, simply redesigning the DWPs bureaucratic mechanisms won’t have any effect on either the social causes or consequences of long-term unemployment.

Let’s return, as this discussion so often does, to the topic of our ‘Broken Britain’. The Karen Matthews’ of the world, who Fraser Nelson suggests was created by the current welfare system, were not directly caused by the welfare state. The bad behaviours and lifestyles which afflict deprived communities weren’t created by the existence of the Job Seekers Allowance, but by the slow formation of anti-social norms and values as a result of a community’s economic disrepair & long-term joblessness. As I wrote in an older post:

The root cause of our gravest social problems is not big government, the welfare state, or even broken families. It is lack of work. When unemployment becomes long term, even generational, many of the values and behaviours which work develops begins to disappear. In its place are anti-social behaviours which can cause misery to otherwise upstanding working class communities. Worse still, these behaviours are then learned by their children, creating a cycle of state dependency, social exclusion, violence and abuse.

Whilst the above description might only refer to a small (but significant) section of the unemployed, these are people who lack some of the social, emotional & intellectual capabilities which are required to work. I’m talking about the mum of three who can’t read; the alcoholic who lives with his parents; the heroin addict who’s been shunned by her family; the kid who’s just been convicted for carrying a knife. Whilst their experiences of unemployment may differ considerably, they are all the kinds of people for whom the barriers to work are more numerous & serious than the government seems prepared to consider.

Responsibility is important; indeed, it is an essential component of citizenship. But a welfare state is only credible when it demands responsibility of those who already possess the capabilities which fit the job market. Where those capabilities are missing, the role of the welfare state should be provide opportunities for people to build them, and remove the social, emotional & intellectual barriers to steady employment and social well-being. That means more widespread provision of adult education, rehab for substance abusers, tax rebates for companies who train teen apprentices and a penal system which makes the most of a prisoner’s time behind bars. That would be the difference between a genuinely empowering welfare system and an ineffectual bureaucratic fiddle.

Update: corrected a few lousy spellings/sentences.

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