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.

Confessions of a Community Organiser

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

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.

The demise of northern liberalism?

July 31, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Posted in British Politics | 5 Comments

sheffield

(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:

Image by Brett Patterson (Flickr)

‘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.

nclegg

(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.

Michael Gove’s awful month

July 30, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Education | 3 Comments

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.

Caring is Creepy: Tribes in Pop and Politics

July 23, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Posted in British Politics, Music, Art, Etcetera, New Labour | 1 Comment

(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)

Hollobone’s ‘burka ban’

July 14, 2010 at 8:22 am | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | 12 Comments

JR-hollobone4 1378941c

Update: photo courtesy of http://www.jr-photos.com/ Also, see the comments section to see me getting a well-deserved upbraiding.

Whilst the success of a measure to ban Islamic veils in France should rightly be looked upon as a troubling victory for bull-headed illiberalism, we shouldn’t allow our disgust with the French parliament to distract us from those in Britain who would do the same thing.

Take Tory backbencher Phllip Hollobone, who took to the BBC the other day to shill for his euphemistically titled ‘Face Coverings Regulation Bill’.

The grounds that Hollobone seeks his ban range from frivolous to feeble to flagrant scaremongering: he claims that Emmeline Pankhurst would not have approved, that deaf people find it harder to lip read, that the burka must be awfully uncomfortable to wear on hot, sunny days and, if that wasn’t enough, that the women wearing them may pose a threat to national security.

You see, it’s not enough to argue that Muslim women must dress to suit the presumed wishes of some long-dead historical figure, nor is it enough to suggest they do their bit for old fashioned civility by flashing smiles at passing strangers. No, for Hollobone’s argument to have any weight at all, he must also argue that we should fear the burka, and the ‘women’ (if indeed they are women!) who wear it as a symbol of the horrors wreaked upon us by mad men.

Let’s face it, without having the terrorism card to waft in our faces, Hollobone’s featherweight arguments wouldn’t have even found their way in front of a TV camera. None of his ill-made justifications are adequate reasons to legislate in this or any other Parliament, and aside from some superficial doff of the hat to the matriarch of women’s suffrage, he doesn’t even bother to engage with the valid concerns that people have about what such a dress symbolises.

What’s more, does anyone really imagine that we can have an honest & revealing debate about the burka, its symbolism and the position of Muslim women in society by banning the religion’s most contentious items of clothing? Does anyone really believe that reactionary legislation designed to force integration will achieve its desired end? I thought it was just the left who did ‘social engineering’?

The sign of a ‘big society’ isn’t in the legislation we pass to try to pull people into line; it’s in the civic discourse between people from vastly different backgrounds who can communicate openly and freely, unimpeded by the senseless threat of legal sanction. We don’t need to like the face veil, we don’t even need to tolerate it, but Parliament certainly has no place banning it.

Did Labour convince us to “keep faith in the system”?

July 8, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 5 Comments

Most of you will have now seen Sunny’s interview with Ed Miliband, in which he declared himself ‘the candidate of change’ and then somewhat contentiously argued that New Labour wasn’t too harsh in how it handled the benefits system. Responding to heckles from the audience, Sunny suggests Miliband’s critics have missed the point:

Sure, New Labour did use a lot of negative language, but it’s naive to assume people won’t talk about “benefits cheats” just because the Labour government didn’t. The Daily Mail cannot be wished away. And so I’m assuming New Labour simply made the calculation that sounding harsh on benefit cheats in public would convince the public something was being done about them – and keep faith in the system. Because once that faith goes, then the system goes.

In many respects, Sunny is absolutely correct. We shouldn’t have any trouble believing that New Labour’s punitive approach to the long term unemployed – from threatening them with homelessness and forcing them into workfare to giving them breathalisers and lie detectors – was anything less than pure political opportunism, designed to win a few favourable headlines and deflect the charge that they’re soft on ‘scroungers’. Some of us having been saying this for years, and the fact that most of these proposals never made it past the pages of the tabloids is a testament to how ineffably unserious they were.

But if we’re to accept that such tactics were born more out of calculation than conviction (which is hardly the most most stirring defence, is it?), we should then consider whether those tactics worked. So did New Labour’s frequent admonishments of the long-term unemployed succeed in convincing the public to, as Sunny puts it, “keep faith in the system”?

Not so much. Over a period which saw remarkably consistent growth and increased national prosperity, both the British Social Attitudes survey and the Rowntree Foundation found a hardening in the British public’s attitudes to unemployment, poverty & welfare. In 1996, the BSA survey found that 78% of respondants agreed that the government had a responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed. By 2006, that number had fallen to 55%. At best, Labour failed to arrest an inexorable decline in the public’s faith in the benefits system; at worst, its calculations actively fed on this lack of faith to the point where the public has become far more receptive to the idea of Tory cuts.

This doesn’t mean that we need to ignore those good things Labour has done, nor dredge up its misdeeds at every opportunity; there will be a new leadership team before too long, and they don’t bear responsibility for every mistake made in 13 long years. But when the past approach seemed to win very little respite from the crowd that cries ‘Shameless!‘ at the first sight of a Job Centre – and lost them a huge amount of goodwill in the process – perhaps it’s time for people like Miliband to stop reaching for face-saving justifications.

Instead of trying to score points off the long-term unemployed, these ex-ministers must now talk about how they would assist & empower them. And instead of devising tabloid-pleasing scams, they should explain how they would prevent the millions who’re being left behind from being added to the human scrapheap.

Why Gordon should get nice

February 21, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown, New Labour | 8 Comments

Over the years, I’ve developed a completely arbitrary but generally quite reliable method for measuring a person’s moral worth. Where some people might totter up a person’s good deeds, charitable giving, political beliefs or religion, mine is far more straightforward:

Are you nice to shop assistants?

You see, the shop assistant’s working life is fairy dreary & dispiriting: you’re not paid very much, you’re restricted to repeating the same actions for 8 hours a day, and you frequently come into contact with customers who treat you with as much warmth & kindness as a cash machine. It’s also true that the rare occasions when someone does treat you as a human being are the occasions when your job seems less miserable. So if you can’t be friendly, smile or even say ‘thank you’ during your purchase, I don’t wish to know you.

If the allegations about Gordon Brown’s blustering, bullying & temper tantrums are true, they reflect as badly on the Prime Minister as a person as his Premiership has reflected on him as a politician. It’s one thing to start grabbing and yelling at your Deputy Chief of Staff, but for the victims to also include the more ‘lowly’ duty clerks, typists and telephone operators – the folks who keep Downing Street working – is particularly distasteful.

But quite apart from the instability these stories suggests, or the way it makes Gordon look like he regards his staff merely as incompetent servants, it’s also an lousy approach to governing. First, ponder this from Lerner & Tiedens’ review of the effect of anger on decision-making:

Angry decision makers also typically process information in heuristic ways, not stopping to ponder alternative options before acting. They are eager to make decisions and are unlikely to stop and ponder or carefully analyze. This too derives primarily from the sense of certainty associated with anger, but may also be caused by the optimism they have about the future. Thus, angry decision makers may then, as Aristotle suggested long ago, have a difficult time being angry at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way.

In a political context, this makes it more likely that your decisions will be rash and ill thought-through – not something you really want in leaders who are often required to make decisions of great importance.

But perhaps more importantly in these economically threadbare times, we also know that happiness is a great way of boosting workers’ productivity:

In one experiment, subjects were split into two groups, with one being shown a short comedy film and the other not. Subjects shown the film were 10% more productive than those who weren’t. This productivity boost was confined to those who actually enjoyed the film.

What’s more, subjects did not realize that this effect was happening; only 31% felt that watching the clip had improved their skill on the test.

In another experiment, subjects were asked before the test  whether they had suffered a family bereavement or parental divorce in the last two years. Those who said they had were about 10% less productive than those who said they hadn’t.

So if Gordon could find it within himself to be a bit nicer to the people who work for him – maybe by bringing some fancy biscuits to the office, arranging a ‘dress down Friday’ or the occasional curry night, he might well find that Downing Street becomes a better functioning, more well-oiled governing machine.

Make ‘em smile, Gordon. It might not do much for your poll ratings, but at least you’ll see less of your staff running to Andrew Rawnsley.

Not Every Child Matters

February 17, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Asylum, British Politics | 6 Comments
Yarl's Wood

A drawing by a child at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, taken from the Children's Commissioner's report. You can probably work out the message.

When you govern to get rid of bad headlines, you shouldn’t really be surprised when your policies contradict each other.

In 2001 the government responded to hysteria over ‘bogus’ asylum seekers by opening Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre; a clearing house for folks whose asylum claims had been rejected and were therefore to be deported back to their countries of origin.

In its nine miserable years, Yarl’s Wood has experienced suicides and self-harming, riots, hunger strikes, a fire and the quite damning verdict that it was unsafe for the families being held there. Of course, none of this has deterred Labour from incarcerating men, women and children in facilities like this for however long the UK Border Agency sees fit.

A few years later, in response to the horrendous death of Victoria Climbie, the government passed the Children Act, which established in law that services for children must incorporate Every Child Matters into its policy and practice. For the first time, every child, regardless of their circumstances, should have the support to: stay healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution to society and have some measure of economic well-being.

On the evidence provided by the Children’s Commissioner, the detention of children at Yarl’s Wood is incompatible with the standards set out in Every Child Matters. The failure to address or even assess a child’s psychological well-being, the shoddy medical record-keeping, the traumatic and often heavy-handed way removals are carried-out, and the prospect of indefinite detention all stand in contravention of Yarl’s Wood’s obligation to keep children safe and healthy. What should trouble the most is that standards have actually improved – I dread to think what they were like before.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green’s conclusion that children at Yarl’s Wood suffer great mental distress only confirms reports, both anecdotal and academic, that it is not fit to look after them. This study (PDF) found children suffering from a range of mental health problems, which manifested as anxiety, depression, wetting the bed, soiling themselves, having problems sleeping and even displaying abnormally sexualised behaviour. By the standards of the Children Act – by the standards of our civic morality – we cannot tolerate detention when it damages them so profoundly.

If Every Child Matters is to mean anything, it has to mean that every single child, regardless of their circumstances or background, should be protected from physical and mental harm. The detention of the children at Yarl’s Wood demonstrates the shallowness of Labour’s commitment to that aim; no, not every child matters. In fact, those that matter the least are the most vulnerable.

On not voting

February 11, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform | 4 Comments

For reasons I’ll explain further in the future, I refuse to vote in the next election. This isn’t because of apathy, belligerent idealism or the absence of available parties, but because the government seems set to preside over an election in which over 70,000 of its citizens are unlawfully disenfranchised. At this moment, I cannot consider exercising my right to vote when tens of thousands of prisoners are illegally deprived of theirs.

Now let’s consider a fictional scenario. Let’s say that the last Queen’s Speech included a bill to make voting compulsory, that it had sneaked through Parliament and comes into force on the day of the general election. Under such a scenario, my tiny, irrelevant fit of pique over the government’s law-breaking would be elevated from a quiet, inconsequential protest to a criminal act itself. Oh, the irony.

One of the basic errors made in advocating for compulsory voting is diagnosing the refusal to vote as something apolitical. It isn’t. Leaving aside my fictional scenario, the British public isn’t stupid. The vast majority of us know there’s an election coming up and will know when it’s taking place, but what we choose to do with that information is our business.

If large swathes of us decide not to vote – either out of disgust, ignorance, lack of cultural capacity or, yes, apathy – then that’s actually far more reflective of the social and political condition of this nation than any scenario in which we’re forced into the ballot box.

But more worrying than that, the arguments for compulsory voting are unnerving because they rest on the underlying assumption that if people aren’t turning out to vote, then that’s the fault of the people. Therefore, to preserve the legitimacy of the political system, we must make the people turn up to vote. The only onus on the political class is to pass the legislation to make it so.

Even if this were to happen, it would be about as reflective of the public’s faith in politics as having 1,000 Facebook friends is a reflection on your character. It provides the happy illusion of an engaged citizenry & a vibrant democracy but reveals nothing of their engagement with political life. You can have 1,000 Facebook friends and still be a tosser. You can have a 95% turnout rate and still have a broken politics.

Finally, it’s not even necessary. There are still countless different ways you can re-engage an understandably jaded electorate without forcing them to the ballot box. Make voting day a bank holiday. See what effect AV has. Engage with your constituents. If compulsory voting is the first solution you reach for, then you’re demonstrating an absence of imagination.

Voting is an important and gratifying civic duty – I really would recommend to anyone. But the moment you tell people that voting is compulsory is the moment an important part of freedom – and democracy – is lost.

Don Paskini: Player Hater

February 9, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging, British Politics | 9 Comments

On most days, Liberal Conspiracy is a tight clique; full of merry, consensual and self-referential bloggers who spend their free time tweeting ‘shout outs’, drinking chai tea and penning polite posts about electoral reform. Even on those days when bloggers have beef about a particular issue, it’s still rare for someone to upset the cosy comity of the clique.

Don Paskini, on the other hand, is in no mood for such pleasantries. Here he is playing Beanie Sigel to my Jay-Z and ‘debunking’ my ‘myth’ of Labour carpetbagging. Dissed in my own ‘hood – that’s cold!

Just as a point of face-saving nit-pickery, carpetbagging is only ‘mythical’ if it never occurs or has only ever happened on odd, extremely rare occasions. Paskini’s not in a position to claim this unless he’s willing to presuppose levels of virtue in their decision-making that I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable making. In fact, you’ll notice that his response doesn’t actually seek to defend Berger from the carpetbagging charge – he merely proves she’s a carpetbagger defending a majority of only 5,000.

So what Paskini wants to argue is not that carpetbagging is a myth – for it isn’t – just that its frequency is overstated by critics. He makes that case very well, and demonstrates that it’s problematic for a writer to bemoan the loss of local activism whilst he himself avoids close scrutiny of individual constituencies.

However, will many of these local boys and girls done good will go on to be leading players in the Parliamentary Labour Party? Or will the Cabinets and Shadow cabinets of the future be mostly constituted of ‘high fliers’ who slobbed around in someone’s think tank or ‘inner circle’ until an appropriate constituency became available?

I think recent history suggests the latter is most likely, and that raises the prospect of a self-perpetuating political class which is big on mingling and Westminster lingo, but a little short on socialism, invention and real world life experience. Paskini is welcome to try to persuade me otherwise.

I much preferred Paul Cotterill’s response to my post, not just because it includes that most self-evident of truths (“Neil is right”) but because his proposal for radically altering the way MPs are funded is a serious and compelling solution to quite a few of the problems afflicting our political system.

The hands-down winner of this whole debate, though, has to be Julia Smith, whose comment is so good that I’m quite incapable of producing a decent response:

I do see what you’re saying, but just to stretch the football/politics way past breaking point: in the good old/bad old days, to be a prospective Labour MP was to be thrown head first into a near-suicide battle against one of the Tory grandees. (Remember how surprised Stephen Twigg was to win?)

After a couple of such soul-crushing defeats, if they were still interested in standing, they might be considered battle-scarred enough for a tilt at a safe seat. It’s akin to throwing Ngog on at 3-0 down with 10 minutes on the clock. Sure, he’ll try hard, but to not much effect and frustration and dented confidence will be the main result.

It’s much better to give your promising stars of tomorrow a run out when you’re 2-0 up at home and the pressure’s off. They can taste the Anfield atmosphere, the experienced players can keep an eye on them and, crucially, they can’t do any damage! Some of our Academy got such a run out on Boxing Day against Wolves and I’m hopeful that something similar is happening in Wavertree, although I know it could be the usual Labour Party ‘on message’ bleeper instincts at work.

But still, I’m hopeful. It’s something all Scousers are very good at ;-)

As they say in the rap game , I just got murdered on my own shit. Maybe it’s time to retire.

The rise of the carpetbaggers

February 5, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 6 Comments

If you trawl Liverpool FC’s unofficial fan forums, it won’t be long before you stumble upon a long thread lamenting the lack of scousers in the squad. For a city so used to producing pedigree footballers (the Premiership years alone brought Fowler & McManaman, Gerrard & Carragher), it’s frustrating watching the parade of sub-par foreigners appear on the subs bench, put in a few derisory performances, and then disappear into obscurity.

The names are scarred into the memory; mentioned only as punchlines: Salif Diao, Djimi Traore, Sean Dundee, Bruno Cheyrou. Each expensive flop is accompanied by a question that remains unanswered: was there really not a single young scouser who could’ve done as good bad a job, or even slightly better? Has the city’s talent pool really drained so badly that it’s producing players who aren’t even fit for the subs bench?

You can see shades of this frustration in the backlash over Luciana Berger’s selection as Labour’s candidate for Liverpool Wavertree. Ms Berger is hardly at fault for being young, for harbouring a desire for public service or for possessing qualities which have made her appealing to London’s Labour hierarchy. She may, indeed, prove to be an excellent MP.

But what I read in the exasperated responses to her selection is a refrain I’ve heard many times in & around the Shankly Gates: was there not a single person, in a city of over 400,000 people, who could’ve done as good a job? The city expects an Emlyn Hughes or a Jamie Carragher – someone who, at some level, can understand & relate to the culture & traditions of the people they serve. Instead, they’re getting a Neil Ruddock.

In fact, I’m perhaps being a little hard on Ruddock, for at least the lumbering oaf who embarassed the reds’ back four would’ve been able to respond well to a question about who Bill Shankly was. Now, not knowing or caring about football hardly disqualifies you from public office, but not being able to possess the slightest reverence, sensitivity or even awareness of part of the city’s history and tradition is problematic at best, and to then blame your ignorance on being female is just embarrassing.

In my experience, scousers are no more insular than the inhabitants of any other large town or city. But they do possess a distinctive history and culture which they are deeply proud of and enjoy sharing with the rest of the world. They deserve – like every constituency in the country deserves – an MP who can recall this rich history, revel in its traditions and understand the hopes and fears of the people they wish to represent. Does Ms Berger possess that understanding, or is her main qualification that she’s passed through a few times on business, or spent a few hours on the Albert Docks?

Really, this post isn’t even about Luciana Berger; a similar piece could’ve been written about David or Ed Miliband, Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper. But her selection will only increase the sense that Labour regards the role of MP as some glorified graduate trainee programme, and sees constituencies as regional call centres, expected to dilligently enact the faxed dictats from central office.

One argument made by opponents of proportional representation is that it would remove the link between an MP and his/her constituents, yet they never stop to recognise that, thanks to the centralising of political parties, this link is already reaching the end of its tether. Perhaps the defeat of Ms Berger would send a symbolic – but important – message from Liverpool to London that the days of carpetbagging must end if Labour is to re-establish itself with what was once its heartlands.

Once more on the ‘Visible Poor’

January 25, 2010 at 10:52 am | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 5 Comments

<This post is a much, much longer version of an older post on the Visible Poor, which is here. It first appeared on linksUK, which is hosting a week-long discussion about the portrayal of poverty in the media. It’s worth checking out.>

Image via abrinsky (Creative Commons)

At 12pm on the West Orchards Terrace, Coventry sits down to eat. Where Alan Bennett might’ve found pleasure watching the manners and habits of people in hotel lobbies, I’ve always found mine in the more modest surrounds of the shopping centre food court. I like watching people negotiate the different choices on offer & mulling over where to sit; the things they do while they’re eating and the ways they interact with each other.

Just in front of me, there’s a dad reading a football magazine to his young son, who, awestruck and imaging, quietly slips chips between his lips. A woman from the Debenhams make-up counter hurriedly stuffs a wrap into her mouth whilst tapping frantically on her phone. Two elderly women tuck into their ‘giant’ Yorkshire puddings, pausing occasionally to coo over a baby in a high chair. An adolescent couple, presumably on their first date, eat together in silence; cautious not to do or say anything which could cause embarrassment.

There are pizzas and pasties, cappucinos and fried chicken, toasted teacakes & ciabattas. Yet all this difference is nothing compared to the range of people you’ll find. There are smart suits and shell suits, hoodies and cardigans, short skirts, jeans, leather jackets and niqabs, and they all ventured up the escalators for coffee or food, or just to have five minutes off their feet. This is why I’ve never understood people who dismiss shopping centres as cathedrals for commerce; they can be some of the most human places on the planet.

What a lot of socialists don’t often mention is that insofar as capitalism functions – falteringly, and with innumerable inequities – it does so because the people make it function. This isn’t just because of coercion, necessity or false consciousness, but because humans have a remarkable capacity to bend the rigid, humdrum formalities of working life into something more humane.

A security guard goes over to talk to the girl who’s getting bored at her unpopular hotdog stand. Two cleaners share a joke by one of the bins. In the queue for coffee, the harassed barista still found time for banter with one of her regulars. We all find ways to endure the long shift, adapt to the tedious routine, amend the unfathomable rules: we have in-jokes, fag breaks, staff competitions and nights out. Work disciplines us, yes, but we’re the ones who civilise work, and the skills we develop help us to be better employees and better members of society.

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.

If there is a ‘social recession’, it is limited to members of a small, troubled, self-perpetuating group, which is neither reflective of the communities they blight nor the fault of one political party. It is a problem which has existed for generations and will probably persist generations from now: the only thing left to argue about is whether it’s gotten better or worse, and whether it can be solved.

But despite being unrepresentative of either the poor or the wider working class, cases such as the Edlington attacks are often the only time the media takes the time to report on poverty & deprivation. Prior to news of this attack, who can honestly say they had even heard of this small South Yorkshire town, let alone understood its character and problems? Prior to the kidnap of Shannon Matthews, who can honestly claim to have known where Dewsbury Moor was, or the demographics of the people living there? My own knowledge of Haringey is limited to the appalling crimes which happened there; I know nothing of the area or its people.

Because our view of these areas is restricted to its most infrequent but appalling crimes, we rarely take the time to examine the more generic, structural problems which exist. What’s the quality of the housing? How might the schools be improved? Do social workers have enough time to do justice to their clients? Where offending behaviour occurs, are there opportunities for community sentencing? Is there enough Early Intervention for parents who’re at risk? When your first introduction to a place makes you recoil in horror, these questions are rarely asked, and answers rarely sought.

The challenge, then, for people who campaign against poverty & inequality, is to humanise the problem; to demonstrate the struggles and champion the success stories which occur in these communities and – above all – give its residents a voice. Without that, we’ll just have to make do with a succession of bleak headlines which neither gives a true reflection of the communities in which they occurred, nor truly grapples with the causes.

One reason we think society is broken because parts of it remain invisible. That’s something we can – and must – seek to change.

Lunchbox politics

January 12, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, Education, NHS | 2 Comments

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The process of producing a good lunchbox is one of trial and error; claim & counter-claim; constant negotiation between producer and customer. My brother and I weren’t easy customers to please. For a few years we were quite happy with Dairylea in our sandwiches, until we discovered that Dairylea was cheese, and ‘Mum, we don’t like cheese!‘ We went our separate ways after that: Jon took a shine to ham & tomato ketchup; I developed a thing for Bernard Matthews turkey slices, which she sprinkled with salt and sprayed with barbeque sauce.

But as soon as she’d solved the filling problem, then came an issue with the bread. Those thin slices of soft white bread which worked so well with Dairylea weren’t compatible with our various sauces, which leaked all over our fingers and (worse still) our clean white shirts. So she replaced it with those spongy, tasteless Warburton teacakes. Result.

But it was always the deserts which caused the most angst. Did we want Wagon Wheels or Chocolate Rolls? Jam Tarts or Fondant Fancies? Yoghurt or fromage frais? How do you keep yoghurt cool without resorting to an ice pack which’ll make your sandwich soggy? Had we been good enough to deserve a Tunnocks Marshmallow Teacake? And even if she did pack one, how could she make it so that the ruff n’ tumble of a rucksack didn’t get it squashed? Was there even any point putting a piece of fruit in there?

Were it not for love, my mother wouldn’t have bothered. Each tacky little Tupperware box we carried to school was an expression of devotion, and that she constantly evolved the menu to serve our fickle tastes was a sign that she wanted to send us to school with something from her to us.

Those who’re interested in reforming the British diet often make the mistake of talking about food as nothing but a clump of calories & carbohydrates, sodiums and saturates. Using the vast breadth of information about how our bodies work and what’s in the food we eat, they’ll explain the benefits of eating A, or why B should only be eaten only in moderation. From this information, they expect us to make well informed, healthy, rational choices.

Except that few of us look at food in such narrowly functional terms. Food can also be deeply personal – teeming with memory and emotion. I knew that black forest gateau was my favourite desert the moment I found out that it was grandad’s favourite desert. It’s also a fiercely stubborn habit: 15 years later, I still eat the crusts off my turkey sandwich first; Jon’s still making himself ham & ketchup; we still spoil ourselves with a nice, gooey marshmallow teacake.

My worry about the healthy eating lobby is that when they see that we’re not making the same self-evidently healthy, rational choices as they recommend, they feel the need to try a little harder, maybe see if a bit of state coercion will do the trick. That’s probably the surest way of getting people’s backs up and encouraging them to switch off entirely.

Some are going to reject all this nutritional advice in its entirety. Others will follow it obsessively. But I’m reasonably confident that most of us try, where possible, to incorporate it into our lives, so long as we possess the cultural & financial capital to do so, and it doesn’t detract from the pleasure of eating. But it seems to me that all these people can do without eliciting angry, defiant responses, is just put the information out there and let the rest of us decide what to do with it. Parents, in particular, have quite enough on their plates.

Picture by amanky (Creative Commons)

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