Utopia’s a band – they sang that ‘Love is the Answer’,
And I think they’re probably right.
Whilst it first seems like singer Craig Finn is dismissing the idea of Utopia by referring only to a defunct & obscure band, what he really means is that we can briefly reach that longed-for state of happiness through the music in our lives. As he concludes in the chorus:
“Heaven is whenever we can get together,
Sit down on your floor and listen to your records”.
Its a line which should also have relevance for political bloggers. We are in the midst of an election campaign which would try the patience of a saint. Though blogging is necessarily combative, we would do well to remember that one of its joys is the space it creates to interact with opposing points of view. In the ongoing campaign for our own utopias – our own visions how Britain can be made better – we should not lose sight of this, nor forget that behind the psedonyms & avatars are real people.
So how do we preserve, and even build upon, the fledgling community that this election campaign threatens to coarsen? I have one idea.
(Both the name and the website can change if anyone has a better idea.)
We create a space where everyone – regardless of party or ideology – can write about the music they enjoy; our favourite albums, overlooked artists, most memorable gigs or cherished social experiences. We write not as esteemed political bloggers with our gripes and demands and agendas, but as music fans.
For this to work, there should be but three rules:
- You should be a political blogger.
- You should write about any aspect or genre of music.
- Your writing should not be party-political.
Here’s the catch: I can’t do this on my own. As you might’ve noticed, work constraints mean that I’m not currently able to keep my own blog ticking over as much as I’d like, so running two is an impossibility. I’ve already had some kind offers of contribution and admin, and I would be happy to receive more. I would also be delighted if those of you who believe in the concept could promote it within your own blogging communities – the experience will only be richer for having a multitude of voices. Naturally, all contributors would have a link back to their own political blogs, and a spot on the blogroll.
If you would like to contribute, or have any ideas/suggestions, do feel free to leave a comment either here or with LeftOutside, or leave an email at bleedingheartblog at gmail dot com.
In closing, I’d say that one of the joys of music for me is the social experiences it can provide. If we could replicate some of those opportunities for interaction in the British blogosphere – even if only for a short period of time – I think we’d all benefit.
Because I possess a lousy news antennae, my choice for top story of the day isn’t the tightening in the opinion polls or David Cameron’s promise to ‘double up on change’. Instead, I was startled by yet more troubling allegations about the conditions at Yarl’s Wood. To add to the reported mistreatment of children and the four week hunger strike, the Observer has now obtained testimonies from people inside the facility that guards have been beating women:
Jacqui McKenzie of Birnberg Peirce said: “I have spoken to a client of mine in Yarl’s Wood and she has seen the bruising herself from the incident on 8 February. There is an atmosphere of real tension there.”
The images of the bruising show the injuries allegedly sustained during the incident by Denise McNeil, a 35-year-old Jamaican, who claims she was hit by staff and, since the disturbance, has been moved to London’s Holloway prison.
Meme Jallow, 26, from Gambia, who has been inside Yarl’s Wood for seven months, said: “A girl called Denise was by the windows. One officer took her and hit her by the face.”
Another hunger striker, a 37-year-old from Nigeria who asked to remain anonymous for fear of her asylum case being unfairly reviewed, said: “The security went outside and used shields like they do when there is a war. That is what they used to smash one of the women who was outside.”
Now, I’m not in the mood for hyperventilating this afternoon, and nothing new will be gained by just restating my belief that Yarl’s Wood should close immediately, with an apology offered to all who’ve been mistreated in these publicly-funded, privately-run quasi-prisons.
Instead, I wanted to guage the opinion of Labour members/voters/activists – the grassroots blog-writers and door-knockers who are the best face of an otherwise haggard-looking party.
When I learned the existence of these centres back in my more idealistic youth, it was a discovery which began my gradual estrangement from the Labour Party. I did not want to be a part of any political party which, when in government, incarcerated asylum seekers, particularly when the motivations for doing so seemed deeply craven.
Though I may have moderated in the intervening years, that remains my view. Furthermore, whilst I cannot generalise to the rest of my generation, when your formative political experiences are of a state acting punitively towards society’s most vulnerable, you may be less inclined to regard the state as a potential force for good.
I realise, of course, that there’ll be plenty within the Labour Party who’re equally opposed to Yarl’s Wood and its ilk, and I’m sympathetic to the argument that you can only change a party from the inside. What I’m curious about is whether there is any scope for change. Is this the kind of issue which enrages local activists? Are there enough of them to demand a change of approach by the party leadership? Will we ever hear a Labour leader complaining about the treatment of asylum seekers rather than excusing it?
To find out, I’m going to pull my first ever tagging trick and ask Dr Phil, Don Paskini, Though Cowards Flinch and any of my Labour-voting readers (the ones I haven’t already scared off). Can Labour get any more liberal on this issue, or I expect this squalid status quo to remain, and get over it?
The thing I’ve always enjoyed about Laurie Penny’s writing is the endearingly belligerent, seemingly inextinguishable faith she has in people. So many of her posts and her columns start with the belief that people have limitless potential, and that it only goes unrealised when it’s trampled-on either by an uncharitable state or an unrelenting capitalism. I also like that her socialism isn’t situated at the level of the state doing things for or to the people, but of people doing things for each other. Really, if she wasn’t such a fine writer, she’d make a great motivational speaker.
Yet I feel her latest post is a little grand in its claims about the generation to which both she and I belong. Laurie paints us as a generation packed with potential heroes: “orthodox, driven, a little boring, and with a deep desire to save the precarious world that we are about to inherit.” Whilst we may be godless, we’re far from amoral or degenerate, and you can see from our campaigning against climate change or membership of Conservative Future that we possess an “urgent impulse to stabilise society”.
Whilst I do know people with the attitudes, lifestyles & ways of thinking she describes, I think it’s beyond the talents of any writer to hold these aloft as the dominant characteristics of a generation. In times when there is more difference, diversity and tolerance than ever before, I don’t think it’s possible to identify any uniform, unifying qualities, save the most basic & irrefutable facts.
She’ll surely recognise, too, that these potentially heroic young people, these earnest changemakers of the present and the future, do seem to be mostly middle class. Are the qualities present in a Cambridge-educated climate activist shared by a girl who works at a check-out in Boots? Is her description as apt for an apprentice plasterer as it is for a political careerist like Shane Greer? The problem with pieces like this is that the people who have the privilege of writing them are able to generalise their own limited experiences to those of the demographic as a whole, and I think we’re too complicated for that to succeed.
In fact, I suspect something similar happened with the boomer generation and all its reverential hagiographies. For each social or cultural flashpoint during the 60’s or 70’s, remembered fondly by those who were there & spoken of as Great Moments in Modern History, there were surely more people of that generation who didn’t take part than those who did.
Whilst the civil rights and anti-war movements were marching & raging in the US, I’m sure there were still more young mechanics in Boise, Idaho; more young farmers in rural Kentucky; more young waitresses and barmaids in small town Minnesota. There were more people who either couldn’t relate to these popular and counter-cultural movements, or who had to sacrifice their involvement in order to earn a steady wage. The Woodstocks and Selmas and San Franciscos of the past may have been significant, but not so much that they should obscure what I imagine is a much more rich & varied social history than is often sold to us.
I know plenty of people who possess the qualities Laurie describes, and I’m sure they apply for some in our generation. But by trying to find a uniform, unifying theme, by appearing as though she wishes to speak for all of us and be a character witness on our behalf, she creates an image that fewer of us will feel able to relate to. The great thing about today’s young adults is the breadth of our difference, and the fact that this difference is so ordinary that it’s rarely worth commenting on. After reading Laurie’s piece, I’m starting to think we should start asserting it a lot more.
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.
It may be one of the more extreme examples, but this chart shows some of the frustrating disincentives against buying a film on DVD. Whatever the arguments about the morality or legality of consuming something you haven’t paid for, if piracy is not only cheaper but considerably more hassle-free than enduring a dozen unskippable anti-piracy adverts and movie trailers, it’s going to be a tempting option for a lot of people.
This isn’t to say that piracy isn’t risk-free; quite apart from the legal issues, the retail market remains the best choice if you want 100% certainty that the DVD, record or book you want to buy is of the quality you would expect. If you absolutely have to watch Avatar, you’re going to want to see it in the highest definition possible. Many music fans would wretch at the thought of listening to a Flaming Lips record at 128kb, or hearing Pet Sounds through tinny laptop speakers.
Despite this, the pirate market can still satisfy fans in ways that the retail market is incapable of doing. Let’s take the example of the prodigous & endearingly inconsistent alt.country songsmith Ryan Adams. In 10 years, Adams has released an impressive 11 full-length studio albums, but, as his fans will often remind you, it could’ve been many more. Adams’ label famously rejected a host of superb recordings – made during his songwriting peak – on the grounds that they weren’t commercial enough, thus depriving fans of the chance to hear a hours of great songs.
The great thing about the internet age is that music fans are no longer restricted to what some artistically deaf record company executive thinks you ought to hear. Recordings such as ‘Suicide Handbook’ were soon leaked and are now easily available on filesharing sites. And the label didn’t make a penny out of it. On top of that, his fans have access to loads of good quality live recordings, covers and out-of-print b-sides which otherwise wouldn’t have been easy to access.
But this extends beyond Ryan Adams and beyond music. The pirate market allows us to keep permanent copies of things the creative industries would rather we not have. You can keep an enjoyable episode of Eastenders for posterity, save an enthralling football match or share an interesting article that might otherwise be buried behind a paywall. To be a fan is to be an afficionado, and to be an afficionado means you’re always searching for that which you haven’t seen or read or heard. Thanks to piracy, our compulsion to consume new things is no longer restricted.
So it’s not just the appeal of a free record or film which sustains the piracy market, it’s the innate consumption compulsion of the fans. Unless the affected industries stop restricting what we can see and hear, and find a way of making some money out of it, piracy will retain its creative importance.
Update: From the comments, here’s xkcd:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Still not properly back yet, so here’s some more stuff from the past few days:
- Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, testifying at his own war crimes trial, says that Pat Robertson (yes, that one) was his man in Washington.
- Johann Hari on the hope from Haiti.
- Sunder Katwala continues to whack the Tories over their ‘Broken Britain’ meme.
- David Semple reminds us what a vile racist Tom Tancredo is.
- Every time I read Bloggerheads, I’m left thinking “goodness, the internet’s got some horrid people on it”.
- You’ve probably already seen this but it bears repeating: this ruling by Cherie Blair is a dozen different kinds of WTF.
- Lastly, a filmaker from California thought it’d be interesting to take photos of vans. The results are here.
Oh, and this place has a new theme. The image is by the scarily talented Ben Heine.
Anything I should be reading? Let me know in the comments. Trust me, I’ll welcome the distraction.
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.