You know how you replay an argument in your head, wishing that you could -with retrospect- have said something different, something that could have been your dropping the mic moment? That happened to me yesterday, thinking about a debate I’d had way back when with a Green activist on campus. Yes, I get into a lot of quarrels with Green members, I’ll get back to that.
The argument went as so: It was early 2015. Having not actually talked to any Greens till now (There’s not enough Greens in my hometown to even attempt to create a Lightbulb joke), I didn’t really have any pre-existing prejudices about them. I’d gone to see Natalie Bennett speak and thought her nice. I considered them well-meaning hippies, if little else. I was not sure how he considered me. But he asked me my views on politics, on Labour. He asked me, roughly, “Do you think Labour are radical enough?” or “Don’t you expect more?”. Well, actually I probably did put myself to the left of most MPs, I replied. At this point Tony Benn was my hero and John McDonnell my favourite MP. I often wished Labour would be more courageous about welfare. But did I think they were radical enough? I replied yes. I replied that I never considered joining any other party than Labour, that it was my natural home. I gave three reasons:
1) Ed Miliband spoke out about issues like inequality just when I needed to hear them as a kid. A jaundiced kid who’d been through a fair few financial hiccups, I was enamored with a party leader that spoke about something so personal.
2) The Labour movement is the greatest force for social justice this country has ever known. How could the Greens even compare?
3) The unequivocal urgency to get rid of the Tories. I cited, as I would continue to do so after this encounter to frustratingly little effect, the devastation of the bedroom tax.
His reply, in the end, was simply, “they’re just not radical enough for me :)”
I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t quite fathom how he didn’t see Ed Miliband as a transformative figure in the way I did. How could he not think abolishing the bedroom tax was radical? Building homes? Secure tenancies for renters?
A whole year and election loss later, pondering to myself in the shower, I think I’ve grasped why, in a way that also grants me articulation on why I feel so disconnected from Labour as it currently stands, his idea of radicalism was so utterly different to my own. It involves anecdotes, of course.
When I was a kid, I shared a bunk bed with my brother till I was about fifteen. He was nearing eighteen. The bed was too small for either of us. I was really ashamed. In fact, half my house remained undecorated. While there was a room waiting for me, it remained merely a pile of wood. We didn’t have people over. I would go over my friends’ houses and look at their fully-decorated rooms, green with envy, and then go back home, grab a piece of paper and sketch out my dream room. This became such a mesmerising vision for me that at one point I wanted to be an interior decorator! I was so obsessed with that stupid bedroom. All I wanted at the age of fifteen was my own space to retreat to. I wanted to pin up posters and buy books like my friends did.
One day, that finally became a reality. My aspiration to have my own bookshelf and lamp and carpet and bed had been fulfilled. I was ecstatic I was able to have sleepovers and do all the things I had missed out on when I was younger. I’d never been more grateful.
For all those years, the most radical thing to me was having my own bedroom.
My radical vision for my future is much the same.
Both my parents grew up on council estates. They had absolutely nothing. But they grew up, got a job, and bought a home. The realisation of their visions was absolutely revolutionary. It’s bloody shocking to me, their story. And it’s shocking that it’s shocking. That kind of story, one that was commonplace for their generation just cannot happen now. There is no way I can even think about buying a home with bedrooms in it for decorating. I’m a soon-to-be Durham graduate and I’m not even sure of a job. I have no foot in a door. There is no door. My expectations for my future are, if anything, far lower than a bedroom I can call my own.
This isn’t my X Factor sob story. I tell you how I feel, my vastly low expectations of the world that aren’t actually that low to me, because I want you, like I wish I had got through to that Green, to understand what radicalism means to me. And what I suppose radicalism means to a lot of people like me, and people far worse-off than me.
Radicalism is getting a job that pays enough to help my mum, to hope my dad is okay, to one day rent and still be able to live comfortably. To not have to worry about eviction, for my mum to not have to worry about accommodating me. My radicalism is security. A basic concept to some, but a radical, and often very foreign, concept to many.
That is not to say I am not aspirational. I’m overly aspirational to the point of naivety and, if I may say so, deep narcissism! I want to change the world; I want to make a name for myself -which is, really, quite a selfish aspiration-, I don’t want to massively expand my bank account, but I want to be fulfilled and know I have a place and I am making a difference. I want to write and be well-regarded, I want to be a campaigner for a living, I want to run a charity, I want to work for a charity, I want to lobby government, I want to be in government. All at once. All at once I naively think that, somehow, change can happen and I can help instigate it. Many people who come from modest backgrounds work hard to see their own ambitions through, occasionally very lofty ambitions, many of which eroded at by years of realism. This is a process I fear. Working class people are not limited or victimised or non-aspirational. I’ve always had a bone to pick with how ‘aspiration’ is monopolised as a plaything of the middle class by not just the Right, but the Right of Labour too. Working class attitudes do not ‘hold them back’, either, and they work exceptionally hard every day in the hope that things will be alright. But your attitudes and your motivations and your dreams are different to your expectations. And my expectations of what the world can offer me are severely low by most standards. My expectations are depressingly realistic. I want to be a renter. How shit is that?
But that’s my radicalism. It is different even from my parents. I want a roof, food and warmth before I can even think of leaving a lasting impression on the world and fulfill my dream to help others.
That is also the radicalism of many voters, many voters that this party just no longer seems to get, but thinks it can speak for.
Radicalism is localised. It starts at home. It starts in the household budget. It starts with long-awaited DIY projects and dinners on the table. It once even started with access to a GP, until a well-knowing party came along. We compare ourselves to our past selves, and to our neighbours. And the Left just doesn’t get it. It conducts misguided campaigns. Despite the way I admired Ed and the way he touched on my life (perhaps only because I was a politico enough at that point to pay attention), he was guilty of it in the way he presented his impersonal arguments on inequality, and the Labour Party remains guilty of it now. When we talk of distant ‘millionaires’ and cabinet Etonians, it feels so far away and unlikely and untouchable that it never hits home, even if voters do believe the world and the system is rigged and unfair. Because I am not radical to think I want a mansion, rather I am radical to want a bedroom all of my own. The logic applies too to subjects like Trident. We can chuck about how much it costs, but few will actually connect their dinner table to our expenditure on it. The home is everything. The idea of ‘localised radicalism’ that I now realise I have felt since I was a kid isn’t unique or new, either; it’s a fact of academia.
I must warn you, the following is as wonkish as David Miliband and is taken straight from the mediocrity that is my dissertation that is, aptly, about why low-income voters do not rebel or demand radical redistribution: Ian Shapiro outlines the concept of ‘Framing Effects’ in his paper ‘Why the Poor Don’t Soak the Rich‘. ‘Framing effects’, be they internal (to look at yourself), backward (to compare to the past, and to want to avoid regressing), or downward (to look a rung below you on the ladder and to wish to avoid it), assume of voters to be self-referential. “They do not compare themselves to their bosses”, but to workers like them.
As notional as this looks, it seems to perfectly describe how a fifteen year old could compare themselves to friends who had their own bedrooms when they do not. Radicalism is personal. Radicalism is self-referential. And no matter how hard you wish, how much you accuse working class voters of stupidity, you cannot change it, and it is entirely rational. You can also accuse voters of being selfish. but it is not selfish, it is empowering to people with no power, and it empowers communities who see themselves in each other. Is this not what Labour was created for?
Radicalism does not have to start with the whole world, or a whole country. It can literally start with a bedroom.
I suppose the Green I debated wanted Ed Miliband, guilty himself of not getting this ‘localised radicalism’, to explicitly and rhetorically denounce neoliberalism or the Washington Consensus or whatever other distant phrase. I suppose his radicalism was embedded in ideas, far away. They were not ‘bread and butter’. Nevertheless, I, like him, have always and still do consider myself to be on the ‘Radical Left’. It is just so that my radicalism is not his, my vision for seeing what the Radical Left must achieve is not his. It is also not many of my fellow Labour Party members’.
Much in the same way I was dumbfounded to wonder why the Green expected so much more from Labour than what I considered a radical and transformative manifesto that would have completely changed my and my peers’ futures, I am dumbfounded to find out what radicalism now means to the party, and I feel sadly disconnected. Trident, NATO, even things that I will happily eat up: like the way we engage with rhetoric about inequality (I’ve talked about how we should approach inequality here), about transforming society, about the want of a better world. It is radical in the utmost abstract. It is impersonal. A lot of members will not be happy with anything less than revolution on their narrow terms and speaking of revolution at its crudest. It’s fun and feels nice to speak about revolution, but how would it convince fifteen year olds that they can have a bedroom? In what way is it concrete? Why do us radicals never ask what we can palpably do for working class kids who just want to host sleepovers and live their own version of normalcy? Why do we never ask what their version of radical is?
I wrote a while back on how I think the Labour Party is starting to resemble the Green Party. It’s in fact much worse than that; it resembles the Green I debated with. He would settle for nothing less than a supposed global transformation of his own visionary desire, his desire being pure and right, and to speak openly about that. I am too a visionary, I’d like to think, and I want transformation. But the difference is that my transformation started at home, with the radical concept of a bedroom to call my own.
Is that idea of radical inferior to yours?