Last conference, I dedicated my karaoke choice to Peter Mandelson, with -utterly ironically, mockingly and drunk as hell I might add- Let It Go (my internal monologue was that of the much more explicit version, dedicated to myself). For months after, I would try to keep upbeat. I say months, I had privately given up on the last day of conference, when the only thing to come out of Conference was a row over Trident. But I did try.
Now, after Corbyn’s re-election, I’m choosing to let it go. To stop caring about the leadership, to detach from that fruitless debate, to move on, and do something useful. But not by leaving. I choose to be useful within the party.
This conclusion wasn’t reached placidly or without hesitation. I have thought about leaving. A lot. I wouldn’t have been alone, not even within my own household.
My brother Whatsapped me on the Thursday prior to Corbyn’s re-election to ask for my advice on what to do. A member for longer than myself, my factionless but tribal brother who followed from our traditionally Labour parents and from whom I followed in my politics, such a declaration of giving up, of letting go of the party to which both of our, indeed our parents’, identities were so intrinsically linked, was a symbolic and sad affair.
He joined for the same personal reasons I did. We both turned to the party at nadirs in our lives. We both watched on hopeful for a Labour government in 2015. There was nothing fad about the party for us. Like many, initially, it was Labour or nothing. That he may choose to leave is upsetting. That he will be accused of being a Blairite for doing so even more so. If this party isn’t for kids like him, what is it for?
We all have our different reasons for joining the party. Neither myself nor my brother joined, initially, to attend CLP meetings or vote in NEC elections. Factions were an unknown. We joined for the brand, as it were, for what it represented. And eventually for me, to campaign for the issues and for a government. My first campaign was against payday loans.
5 years on, I watch the debates unfolding now – the forces obsessed with infrastructure and takeovers, of utter self-indulgence, with growing boredom. I grow bored of the buzzwords that have came to define our selfishness. Of ’empowering the members’, that ‘MPs should represent their CLPs’, of our ‘mass movement’.
I’m bored of talking about ourselves.
It is an undoubtable truth that, because of the war of attrition, the hostility toward Corbyn, that he would be forced to look inward before outward. But time and time again, each instance it would seem we were discussing the issues, indeed every time Momentum looked to be fulfilling what I initially thought it would do -community organising- something would flick the debate right back to where it was before – internally. Aggression against an MP, using emails to determine the policy direction in a controversial area, a reshuffle. Every time someone would question Corbyn’s ability, as a leader, to advocate for the issues that matter, whether anyone was actually listening to us, the membership would be leveraged, the mandate waved, threateningly, in the face of question or dissent.
Politics should be about incremental change: palpable, measurable change in our communities and in the country. In 3 years of academia, much as I loved it and to which I owe my political development and confidence to express a multitude of opinion, I eventually became bored of theorising, of not experimenting, doing. After 2015, I instantly thought about the third sector as an outlet to create change, however small. That led me to where I am today. But projects and difference are more than the third sector. Real, long-lasting change comes from politics.
It is a shame, then, that our party has -in both electability and our debates- abandoned its duty to implement change. We are so obsessed with ourselves that we have forgotten what we are for.
My side, whatever side that actually is, is of course not immune. I’m bored of hearing myself moan, of talking about the leadership and repeatedly bleating on why Corbyn simply cannot win. I could devote another five blog posts to the subject and nothing would change. So why do I do it? Is indulging in such moaning not itself selfish and self-obsessed?
I’m equally bored of academic discussions of what Corbyn would do, as though he would ever really be PM. Feeding into a policy discussion under his leadership feels utterly redundant, doesn’t it? Even when I want to talk about the issues, no-one will listen so long as he is leader. So where does that leave his critics? Fruitless arguments about the fruitlessness of Corbyn’s leadership and eventual manifesto?
I have always hated the word ‘moderate’. I don’t feel ‘moderate’. I certainly don’t feel or have ever been part of the tribe that has come to take ownership of it as a catch-all. I didn’t come into this to be moderate or to moderate. I came to see real change in communities that would have a radical impact on the lives of its residents. But if I must refer to non-Corbynites as such, let it be to shred that mantle: moderates should be radical. Moderates should show what real radicalism is. Moderates should implement real change, or push for it. Build alternatives in their communities; in their CLPs, in their organisations -from Open Labour to the Coop- and in their Unions, to metro mayors and local government. To build alternative policy platforms or independent campaigns and projects.
I won’t not be doorknocking, and like the nerd I am, I will undoubtedly be handing out leaflets for a train policy at 5am sometime in the future again. But feeding into the leadership itself, indulging in internal operations, feels boring. This may evoke accusation that not being united in one mission is a betrayal. But we all know what will happen in 2020. Any attempt to stop that inevitability -and it is an inevitability- has failed. It breaks my heart to think that only an election defeat will wake us up -the people close to me that will suffer as a result- but I feel resigned to accepting that fate. Pretending that isn’t our fate would be disingenuous. Insincere. it would be great to think you can turn around the worst poll ratings for any opposition leader in history. But it is a fantasy. No amount of smiling and cheering, of keeping silent, of obeying demands to pretend I don’t have doubt, would change that. Loyalty and devotion gets me on the doorstep, but I don’t leave my senses behind. I am reminded of them every time a former Labour voter tells me of their disdain for our leader.
National debate thus feels pointless. Internal debate too. But no-one should give up on Labour or the good it can do.
Do good by creating and joining projects. Using the good of Labour in communities, regardless of leadership, to influence local agendas or oppose the policies of the Tories on the ground -the shutting down of a library or the eviction of social tenants- feels a better use of my time than either pretending I believe in Corbyn’s ability to make change or me spending time facepalming while arguing in circles with his supporters. Not that I won’t tweet.
If ‘moderates’ (As I said, I use the term mockingly and without conviction) in a tradition similar to my own show where you can actually make a difference, build alternatives in your communities. If need be, if the upset of knowing what’s to come feeds an urge to leave, avoid a national debate you know is worth very little at this precise moment in time.
My union, the GMB, my CLP, my organisations in Open Labour, the Fabians, and the Coop. They will be a home. They can be a place of change.
I suppose an apt metaphor would be what I intend to do at Conference. Do I watch the speeches from a Shadow Cabinet that will never be a Cabinet? Should I have spent a crapload on a balcony pass? Or do I do what I love? And what I have power over? Discussions in fringes with charities and think tanks, with socialist societies and individual campaigns?
It is a good thing, I have concluded, that I only have a complex pass.
When I first came to Durham University, there were three questions that dominated fresher conversations, in a universal, desperate attempt to ease the awkwardness:
- What did you do for A Levels?
- What are you studying?
- Where did you go to school?
The first two were standard fare, but the last? It was like seeing a question you didn’t know the answer to in an exam. A deer caught in headlights. Looking around the room to see if anyone else was stuck. No, no one is. Shit. It took me aback because I was surprised it was even being asked. What do you mean? How would knowing I went to Rush Croft School just off the North Circular help this conversation? I quickly got the hang of it: it was a way of gauging networks, hoping that they would know a friend of a friend of a friend. Because the school was supposed to be, invariably, one they had heard of, prestigious and of their circle.
It was at that moment I should have known Durham University would be an incredible culture shock. In the next three years, I had various conversations with peers about their time at boarding school, I would learn the names of The Perse school or Wimbledon School. I would learn dropping ‘t’s wasn’t a thing other people did. Even little things, like teaching others slang. Seeing pictures on Facebook of extended families in huge houses. I would even have to fight for the university’s grant not to be taken away from ‘poorer’ kids, the definition of ‘poor’ in such a circumstance extending to kids from households with the nationally median income of £23k.
The privilege of these types of Universities is as true as the fables you read. The matriculation where they swear you in with Latin. The damn formals with their damn traditions, like f*cking spooning. That means you have to hit your spoon on the table in a pattern then like, the head or president or whoever the shit changes the pattern. During this formal, if you go toilet, you’re literally fined. Drinking in a bloody castle. Getting drunk in a way only Rugby lads with their suppressed familial issues borne from a decade of boarding school can teach you. The bloody lad culture borne from boarding school misogyny. The weird cultishness emanating from this ridiculous collegiate system. The merchandise with the stupid crests. Of which I, actually, am wearing right now. The homogeneity of The Accent. Even the f*cking beautiful architecture makes me angry. At first these were novelties, but at this point I’m happily, ostentatiously, po-faced and moany about it all.
These universities feel like bubbles that exist so wealthy public school dudes don’t have to leave the nest and see the nasty, nasty world outside the greens of the village. It does, it really does drive me up the bloody wall. I will message friends about the rich-kid-of-the-day. I have moments, despite what I am about to write -and in fact these ingrained prejudices make this blog post innately and humanly contradictory-, where I find myself despising a lot of the people I live in this city with. I probably will dislike a lot of them regardless of what the message of this blog is. I don’t intend to be friends with everyone here, because while others are nice, many are made ignorant by and about their backgrounds in a way that is often impenetrable and defensive. Many may get offended at a blog post that is inherently about an institutionalised problem. That is their problem. I find inherited privilege to be an incredibly immoral and awful thing in and of itself, and I always will. Durham has affirmed that for me more powerfully in three years than living in East London did to me in seventeen.
I knew this world existed, but I never thought I’d collide with it. It’s not necessarily a hindrance, it doesn’t stop me having fun or rising up ranks or succeeding, though I’ve never quite got used to it. It is, and will remain, a source of grievance and shock and outrage and something I want to change.
Far from being an obstacle, I saw it as something to challenge. Not challenge by way of fighting my peers, dueling in a nightclub, competing with them for better grades. On the contrary, the network of friends I have now is diverse. Rather, the institutional privilege I encountered became a driver for me as an activist. More than the injustices I had seen and experienced at home, it was the lack of injustice in this cosy town that got me off my ass and empowered me to get involved in politics. And so I did. I, in essence, became radicalised. I forced myself to be empowered to fight power. Seemingly immovable power. I wanted to take on the world.
But, then, these years were punctuated, quite literally down the middle, with the general election. I was on the campaign trial with friends, I had found a home with Labourites, a sort of sanctuary amid the clash of civilisations. I hit the ground running, fueled by the outrage whizzing through my head that my peers had the world at their fingertips just because their parents’ had it at theirs. Nothing could surely beat us on our quest to destroy this rotten system. Bloody hell, I remember walking through campus after a good poll and gleaming to myself. Everything would change, suckers.
And then that exit poll.
The radicalisation that had been building up came crashing down in a sudden and awful moment of realisation. The realisation that those in the general public, oh so different from the bubble I had populated for the past two years, were not as angry at my perceived injustices as I was. I learnt that, actually, there would be people like me, outside of Durham, that don’t compare themselves to private-schooled kids as I did now. Just as I wouldn’t have had I not attended Durham. The very privilege of attending Durham had afforded me an insight into a world that was simply incomparable to many ordinary people. So they wouldn’t compare at all. As I had written for this blog on my changing views on what it means to be radical; people compare themselves to neighbours, not to bosses. It just so happened, for two years, my neighbours had been rich. Any sort of radicalism I wanted to put to others would have to be based in the world they knew.
So my formation was punctuated, firstly, by my conflict with privilege, but then by May 2015, and the realisation that outrage at inequality itself- that pet peeve that had became all my own and so integral to who I was, nay, am- was not enough to build a convincing case to make change in the world. The realisation of the first gave me the will to change things, and the second gave me the sense of powerlessness that that ‘will’ meant nothing. How do we tackle inequality in a world where two different worlds simply don’t know nor care for the other?
But then, each step has been a learning curve. My bubble had to burst, my sense of injustice had to be challenged; both by intelligent and kind peers I would otherwise be prejudiced against; and less happily by an election that proved not everyone is as outraged as I am about the issues I care about.
That doesn’t mean I am still not outraged. I am very restless to hop aboard that train, for the last time, and leave Durham without looking back. For all the magic, and all the drunken escapades and the things I have learnt, I am very willing to leave it all behind me and get on with the rest of my life back in my modest home that I now realise I took for granted. I have still yet to grow accustomed to someone nonchalantly dropping into conversation that they attended Harrow. I have still yet to grow accustomed to wealth, to grandeur. I don’t want to get used to it.
The concept of private school still makes me upset and angry. I am very excited to leave to go back home so I can be just a little bit bitchy with old mates about the issue. A lot of them feel the same way. The thought of all the kids that could not attend Durham or Exeter or Oxford because they did not have the same resources makes me seethe with anger. Now, it still is on the verge of driving me absolutely nuts. Just the other day, I heard, and rubbed my temple at, a student professing his hatred of the ‘socialist r*tards’ that had went after Cameron over the Panama papers because they were merely jealous of his inheritance. Like, OH MY GOD. I messaged my friend, “I want to get out of here.”
But the difference now is that I want to challenge him instead of writing him off as evil. That I want to debate him into the ground. Ruthlessly, but…constructively, I guess. I would never be friends with him, I doubt, and I’d want to destroy his ideas. But I’d first have to actually engage and debate.
Just as I had never met anyone like him before, it’s likely he had never met anyone like me. It was his world versus mine. And I would now happily challenge it, probably, probably, without punching him in the face. And I’d hope it would get better results. I might not – as I said, there is impenetrable ignorance here- but I also might. An example of this is that my flatmates this year, heralding from different backgrounds to mine, have heard me recite (by the way, tragic-sounding but not meant to be) tales of why I am the way I am, and their perspectives have changed, just as mine have changed in response to their own tales. Listening, and being listened to, is far more powerful and convincing than deciding someone is wrong and bad and beyond the pale. (And, I don’t know, going after non-voters instead.)
I have matured, and I have learnt there is no point in outrage without being constructive with it. Durham bursting my bubble and exposing me to privilege was formative and necessary, I see now, but so was growing up and learning to deal with it, not seeing it as an obstacle but a challenge, and knowing that overcoming that challenge is more than moaning to confidants but rather putting it into something useful. Which is why I stood for SU president, and lost, with no regrets. Which is why I became Co-Chair of the Labour Club almost immediately after the election. Which is why I’ve chucked myself into various, reckless campaigns. Which is why I will continue to do so. Which is why I write. Which is why I am very excited to be joining a social mobility charity after graduation. If what I have got out of all of this is the necessary and pragmatic will to improve social mobility and to put my case for social mobility to whatever world I inhabit, to make sure there are new inhabitants that jump between worlds, then that is good enough for now. As the two worlds of Britain grow further apart, having the confidence to jump between both, just as I did at Durham, and make this case and also ensure others jump with me, is imperative. Even if that world is scary and out of your comfort zone. Challenge it and let it challenge you. And maybe, just maybe, those worlds will grow closer together again.
So I’ve learnt three things at my time at an elite university: I am angry at institutional privilege and it drives me; but it doesn’t drive everyone; and that my righteous mind would have to adapt to see the change I want to see. It has made me both a radical in outlook but far less dogmatic, more open-minded, more combative and happy to debate, to challenge and be challenged. I have begun to notice the power in words. The privilege I have seen I still see as an injustice, and it drives me in everything I do, but in order to overcome that injustice I will have to learn how to make constructive use of my outrage, rather than expecting everyone else to be outraged with me. I would have to convince them to be outraged. In such a way, my journey through university has shaped my journey as an activist. I hope I can change the world now, just a little bit, with a bit of vigorous and open debate about privilege and how to tackle it.
And, I suppose, as a big, fat metaphorical lesson to be applied to my philosophy, that’s the Left I want to see: confident in what it sees as injustice, but far more open to dissent and disagreement both within and without its ranks, and happier to be challenged, less morally righteous, but still the extremely pissed off kid I was at freshers’ week. I am every bit as radical as when I started University, I just hope I have learnt what to do with it.
Onwards, I guess.
This whole…blog, is a pretty cynical one. Alright, a very cynical one. A self-indulgently, self-destructive one. A place that I’ve come to rant about how awful everything is. I might have argued that this malignant cynicism began at that exit poll. Maybe not then, because I was drunk as hell and didn’t quite believe it. Maybe it set in when I woke up the next day to one particular text message: “Ed Balls :(“. It was a very personal loss, one that reminded me that the past five years of wage stagnation and crippling debt would continue for me and my family. But I don’t actually think that was the moment I became a cynic. It was two years earlier.
I think optimism either comes from ignorance or privilege. A bold claim, yes, but let me justify it. I was an optimistic kid. You know, the annoying one that put up their hand, finished their work early, joined the Scouts as the first girl of the pack, you know, that crap that comes with years of ego-inflation from stickers, pats on the back, being chosen to hand in the register, and having your name on the gifted and talented list. But besides all of that, I was ignorant as heck. Ignorant as all kids are. We all grow up in our micro-worlds with the same peers for years on end. We don’t think about the outside world. It makes our radical dreams local. I retained this statism all the way up to sixth form, one that at the secondary level had a catchment area, one that my house was not in. But it really began when I had the audacity to pick up a prospectus for Durham University.
What a wonderful place, truly. I remember the day I got off the train. I looked up at that castle perched atop the hill, a monument to the prestige of the place. The Wear meanders in such a way that there is an island untouched by time, as though it stopped at its banks. I walked through the cobbled streets enamored and utterly grateful that I could play the Hogwarts student for three years. I walked past Klute where I’d soon be singing S Club till 2am, Paddy’s Pizza which would be the home of many regrets. This place is wonderful.
It’s also a timely reminder of my innocence about the world being punched repeatedly in the face. The succession of moments in which I realised meritocracy was as real as unicorns.
In the three years before University, I saw EMA abolished, tuition fees trebled, riots, my whole household situation changed drastically for the worst, and then a little bit better, and the politicisation of everything I am.
In my three years at Durham University, I have seen an election lost, maintenance grants abolished as a consequence, my University increase accommodation costs to over £7000, and its grants reduced by £1000.
But more importantly, I’ve seen grant recipients be the minority.
Let’s just contextualise that. The £2000 Durham Grant (It used to be £3000) is awarded to anyone whose household income is less than £25,000. Now, growing up, £25,000 was not ‘poor’, it was normal. It was what the lucky parents earned. And well, that’s correct. The median wage in the UK is £23,000. In Durham, £25,000 is literally considered the poorest in the University. The psychological effect that has is pretty vast. Firstly, it’s made me a bit of an obsessive, almost victimised. I’ve become so aware of that fact, that it’s actually inspired my passion about class, sometimes annoyingly so, so annoying that this blog has become self-indulgent sop. Secondly, it’s had the effect of isolation. Not in the sense that I’ve had trouble making friends or a reluctance to go out drinking (oh, boy), but in the sense that I am very aware of it, and very aware that those around me come from very, very different walks of life.
Durham has given me lots of opportunities, not least my degree itself. I have changed completely as a person through my Labour Club and through my campaigning. But I still think my prospects are incredibly bleak. I have came out the end of these three years more cynical than when I started to the point it’s transformed magically into nihilism.
When I indulged in ‘reverse elitism’ in confidence to my mum, to whom I complained that Durham was the whitest, poshest place I’d ever been to, and how isolating that is, she replied “at least you’ve experienced other people”. Except, actually, I could have very much went my entire life without this, without meeting ‘the other side’. Because, while I’ve made the most wonderful friends, it hasn’t been ‘enlightening’, it’s been downright saddening. Because naively not knowing the gulf that exists would have been a whole tonne better for me than this. I see inherent privileges that I’d never considered before and never had to consider before. I’d never met private schooled kids before Durham, now almost everyone I know is from private school. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Because it’s made me aware that there are two worlds and for the past 3 years I have pretended to fit into the second. I’ve straddled between the two.
This isn’t a personal attack. I love my friends here. I hope anyone reading that paragraph doesn’t take offense. In fact, if you did, then you have to realise that is exactly the problem. Anyone that points this out, the overwhelming privilege of not just Durham, but any elite higher education institution, faces immediate backlash, as though it’s forbidden to talk about the elephant in the room.
And this in turn fits into my wider cynicism of most millennials’ prospects. I come out with this degree, and then what? Compete for low-paid, low-skilled jobs, because since the crash all of us degree-educated schmucks have been chasing jobs we’ve been overqualified for while not demanding anything better because desperation pushes us into the shallow end when it comes to wages. I’ll take anything. Except I’ll be handed nothing. There comes a point when job rejections become a norm. I get the email before breakfast. Great, have to keep trying. Go onto my bookmarked sites to apply for the next five I see in the evening. And the more I do it, the lower I set the benchmark. I started, hypothetically, applying to be an astronaut, I am currently settling for shelf stacker. On and on the spiral goes. If I can’t find anything in the short time I have, I’ll have to go on JSA to help my mum. What then? A constant visitation to the Job Centre. When I find a job, onward to renting I go. A life of insecurity, guaranteed. Not just for the ‘poorest’ of us, by the way. Most of us. But nevertheless, not a topic in Durham circles.
It becomes tiresome, thinking about graduation. Here I am, wanting to go back home, tired of this bubble, wanting to talk to my London friends about things only we can share, but also not wanting to leave at all. Because what is out there is worse.
These past years have been the most independent, privileged and fun of my life, up to the point I didn’t think too hard about stuff, but they’ve equally been the most eye-opening, and in a bad way. I was supposed to come out open-minded and ready for the world, but now I just really want to withdraw back to where I came from, with my old friends to whom I can confide about anxieties. I would really have hoped that I would grow up to be hopeful about my future, but I can’t say I have. How much does this suck?
I said that optimism was ignorant or privileged. A bold claim, one I hope I’ve justified, but one I hope you can convince me I’m wrong. Convince me to see the ‘politics of hope’ as more than the patronizing guff I see it as now.
And once again, that’s where politics comes in. I’m a firm believer in parliamentary politics. Or so I was before the exit poll. I can attend protests and take part in internal politics, but the only, only, thing that will change my mind about optimism is seeing a Labour government in my lifetime. But one radical enough to challenge, among others, private schools, Universities with abysmal records for access, inequality; the elephant in the room that has become impossible to ignore over these past three years. Talk about the elephant in the room, Labour, and win. Win so heartbroken working class kids don’t have to have this gut-wrenching feeling of a future of nothingness. If not me, then the next batch of Durham Grant students.
Oh, oh, haha, wait, nevermind, tonight’s poll has us on 27%.
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?
If I were an MP, I’d be in the ‘making it work’ faction, being silent but face-palming almost constantly at The Labour Party.
Though, as a Twitter friend pointed out yesterday mid-my rant about feeling silenced, I have never been ‘silent.’
I think if there were ever an adjective my friends would use to describe me in one word, it’d be ‘outspoken’. I’ve been pretty loathed in a lot of circles, I’d imagine. A lot of my Twitter has probably been met with eye rolls. Particularly regarding one aspect; I have never been lowkey about my background. I use it (ahem, weaponize it) in arguments a lot, because my go-to motif has always been that the political is personal.
If someone wants to debate an abstraction about ‘Red Tories’ or ‘real Labour’, I’d happily use the story that I got into politics because, shortly after the 2010 election, my family was plunged into financial chaos. That I first cried about money when I was 15, overhearing a conversation that we could be repossessed.
I remember shortly after the election, the utter dismay of my teachers upon hearing that Building Schools For the Future was being scrapped. The school’s walls literally shook, morale of students there no less weak.
I remember the student riots, and the heartbroken working class kids discovering the £9000 price tag of ambition. EMA being scrapped. Now maintenance grants being snatched away too.
I remember the London riots just a few hundred metres from my house. A perfect metaphor.
I remember the sudden arrival of payday lenders and casinos on Walthamstow high street, preying on my family and my community, having fundraising lunches with Iain Duncan Smith. As he wielded his axe to welfare, it was they that benefited. I remember ‘Progress’ Stella Creasy MP worked so hard to sweep them away. It was Movement for Change and their campaign on that that was my first access point into politics. Concrete. Palpable. The very opposite of abstract.
You see, by far and away, the people that chuck about abstractions, reducing MPs and dissenters to dehumanized symbols of opposition, threatening deselection, accusing criticism of treachery, polls of deceit, on Twitter and across the cyberspace, they don’t have to worry about the real life repercussions. About difference.
Give me a Blairite government over a Tory one any day. Call it ‘Red’ Tory, it’s still not bloody Tory.
Do you get what that word means? Do you have any idea the gravity of it? It’s not a benign abstraction you can add a prefix to. You have at the helm of government right now ideologically-driven Thatcherites who are dismantling welfare structures built by the last Labour government. Because they truly believe they are wrong. Iain Duncan Smith truly believes the poor have had it too easy for too long. He is on a crusade to alter their behaviour. Leaving a trail of poverty, 600,000 children deep. Blaming them for bad behaviour. Fucking think about that.
And you know I’m not a Blairite, right? Just thought I’d mention it. Not even in the slightest. I’m on the left of this party.
I remember amid the absolute heartbreak of the election defeat Chuka and Mandy sitting in that BBC studio talking about ‘aspirations’ as though it was a sole possession of the rich. I hated it. I hate that they try to claim the mantle of electability, that the working class are just an add-on in a coalition that has broken down and partially berthed UKIP and the SNP. Their arguments are outdated and they are dogmatic at sticking to their guns. Their solutions to Corbyn’s unpopularity -to oust him Game of Thrones style and replace him with a Kendallite figure- is bullshit, produces only self-inflicted wounds for their cause, and is equally based on dogma about ideology rather than the practical criticisms that can be leveled at Corbyn’s leadership style.
But then, the thing with dogma is that you avoid self-criticism. That’s been true of a lot of Blairites for bloody years, but it’s true of Corbynites too. Critics are taken as dangerous outsiders rather than constructive allies, so critical friends are made into the enemy within; which in this case is a ‘Blairite’ as dissenters to Blair’s modernisation project were called ‘dinosaurs’. There is no in-between. (And certainly no soft-left). You are with us, or against us.
But that doesn’t even matter. My views and my positions on the Labour spectrum are secondary. Because of what I’ve written above: this isn’t about abstract ideology, this is about class, and the concrete experiences of that. I am the very type of person you and the Corbynites committed to defending, to listening to, to representing. You claimed you were the only ones who were truly the heroes and saviours of the working class. You claimed you would be the voice of me.
And yet now look. A poll comes out showing the Tories with a 15% lead, with a 5% lead in the North. Labour heartlands, for goodness sake. And what’s the response from the Twittersphere? MPs dunnit’, also the working class are too entrenched in false consciousness to understand their self-interests. This isn’t The Ragged Trousered Philanphropists. These are the people you claim to represent most, and the minute they reject your representation, you snarl. You sneer. You dismiss it as ignorance. It is the exact opposite of the hug-a-hoody mood of the Summer Corbyn Camp; it’s pulled a bloody Cameron.
Critical people who want and need the Labour Party to do well are dismissed as agenda-driven and malicious if they do so much as sigh at this poll. I want the Labour Party under Corbyn to do well. I have no agenda. If I thought a Bennite Labour Party could succeed, I’d be out on the doorstep at its beck and call. I still will be, because I’m passionate for Labour and I, most importantly, need it to win. It’s supposed to represent my ilk. Which is why I find it odd that leftwing but anxious voices like mine are treated with contempt and suspicion the minute they raise a hand to question whether a 92-seat Tory majority is really a great offer from the Left to the working class.
And this criticism has been leveled because of the emergence of empirical evidence that the numerous gaffes and blunders and the completely unnecessary gesture politics of this leadership have translated into unpopularity. Easily avoided things. Foreign policy. Trident. Stop The War, MI5. Does anyone actually think these things matter to the people affected by cuts? How can you claim to represent the hardest-hit by going off on one about middle-class fringe issues? And they really are middle-class fringe issues. The poor do not spend their time discussing the evils of the West. How are you helping the likes of my mum by treating the British public like attendees to a Parliament Square rally? Most working class people are worried about wages and insecurity, not whether a terrorist is put on trial. Give it a god damn rest.
I was actually pretty hopeful about Corbyn’s leadership. Truly. While I didn’t agree that ‘strong, principled opposition’ was better than actually vying for power to practice principles, I expected it when he won. I’ve actually met Corbyn, he’s caring and decent, and passionate about working class issues. Economic issues. And I’d hoped that that would transpire in his leadership. A firmly anti-austerity leadership that chose that battle, that really important cause, as its call to arms. I really wanted it. One that would have hammered home about tax credits, no distractions, no Milnes. Something I think could win under the right conditions and the right discipline. What do we get? This. Distraction upon distraction upon distraction. Gesture upon gesture upon gesture.
Aren’t you bloody tired of saying ‘Look, the Tories are cutting X, so why are the media focusing on [insert Corbyn gaffe/gesture of the day]?’ Aren’t you exhausted? Aren’t you now angry that these distractions and easy ammo handouts are happening? You should be, because they don’t help the recipients of cuts.
Labour are at 27% in the polls. Because of shoot-to-kill. Shoot to bloody kill. A distraction. UKIP nipping at our heels, soaring on a high of disaffected working class communities in the likes of Oldham who care about flag and country, to the grimace of a lot of Leftist activists whose ideal image of the homogeneous working class has been smashed. So now, you turn on them instead of looking in and at yourselves.
Instead of self-critique, of questioning why the leadership has scored so many own goals and thus not provided the ultimate goal of ‘principled opposition’ that surely you are disappointed has yet to happen, of why you are not ashamed that the Tories have not been affected in the polls by tax credit cuts, you blame working class voters for either being brainwashed by Simon Danczuk’s latest article in a mid-market paper they likely don’t buy, or not changing to be more like you.
This is the most middle class the Labour Party has ever felt. It feels like the Green Party. And it’ll probably only represent university towns soon as well, unless you get a grip and listen to the bloody working class people that were the admiration of Corbyn’s leadership bid.
But, I don’t think you will. Because this isn’t really about palpable change for working class people, not really. This is about abstractions. The reality about working class people threatens your abstract concept of what is right for them, so you dehumanize the dissenting working classes like all your other opponents and reduce them to the abstraction of Red Tories.
I am about to do a thing that Dan Jarvis would never do: ideologically pigeonhole myself in The Labour Party.
A warning: this is utterly self-indulgent, egotistical stuff. It isn’t intended as a serious piece of thinking, but rather to organise better the file storages in my mind to help my ridiculous identity crisis.
Since Corbyn won…nay, since Ed Miliband destroyed my entire world and lost…and especially since the likes of Milne and Trident and Russia have been topics of Labour conversation in a way I never thought they would in my lifetime, I have had to reconsider my place in the Labour Party and on its spectrum.
So, I set about -in the shower, of course- imagining myself in a line of distinguished MPs. NOT LIKE THAT.
From Corbyn to Nandy (to Jarvis?) to Miliband to Burnham (to Jarvis?) to Cooper to Kendall (to Jarvis?) to Danczuk to McTernan.
First, an ideological backstory: as a kid -we’re talking a childhood of BBC Parliament, thus I was always doomed to the life of a nerd- I would watch John McDonnell, then a figure of the rebellious Labour Left, with admiration. I didn’t know much about him, rather that I considered him old Labour (a term mired with revisionism now) and standing up for welfare and against cuts when the frontbench would not. I thus allied myself with him, instinctively. I considered myself a Bennite because the run-ins I had with Benn Sr were romantic and idealistic. I remember watching Michael Moore’s Sicko (bear with me) and seeing him talk about the NHS and democracy and falling in love.
But then I got truly into Labour politics and began to become infatuated with the ideal of Milibandism. What many saw as a flaw in Miliband -his unwavering geekiness- I grew utterly endeared to, admiring him trying to create his own intellectual space, his attempts to draw on original ideas like predistribution, as well as those of guild socialist ideas like workplace representation, mutualisation, cooperatives and profit-sharing.
It is this originality that I now find lacking in Corbyn and his ilk. I shudder when Trident threatens to overshadow his anti-austerity message, cringe at the old way of doing mass nationalisation -or at least, the image of me trying to sell it on the doorstep, screeches of ‘where’s the money coming from?’ already ringing in my ears.
This isn’t a rightward shift in my development, from Bennite to Milibandite, it’s a quest for a new intellectual morphing of ideals associated with both. Why do we have to revert to anything old when we can muster the creativity and originality to create something new? Something more radical and less cautious than Milibandism was in practice- a Milibandism on speed, if you will.
Corbyn excites me in some ways, certainly by way of delaying what I thought would be a Blairite takeover with unfounded explanations of an election lost, and in a totally self-indulgent way of making me feel happy (Feel. This is such a selfish drive, and I fear one that the Labour membership has succumbed to) at a conference where we could proclaim our anti-austerity-ness. But he alienates me in many others. It’s old and rackety, it compromises a Party that I not only love, but rely on winning. And that is where I am now: alienation and an identity crisis. Looking for something new, radical but electable. With a new face, with no baggage.
And thereby I return to that list:
From Corbyn to Nandy (to Jarvis?) to Miliband to Burnham (to Jarvis?) to Cooper to Kendall (to Jarvis?) to Danczuk to McTernan.
One thing strikes me. There are two extremes, and a muggy middle with disparate figures.
The soft left isn’t anywhere near as organised or established as the hard left or hard right; this has allowed for the false dichotomy between the hard left and the ‘moderates’, a term that tries to cannibalise every non-corbynite whether they agree with the people that created the term or not: the Blairites. I have little in common with the latter.
Nevertheless, despite the cannibalising of the soft left through the latter’s disorganisation, the left to left of centre (from Corbyn to Burnham on my simplistic scale) or what I’d broadly consider the ‘Labour Left’, is too a less-defined dichotomy with, not a muggy middle, but a completely vacated one.
There is a concentration around Corbyn and McDonnell that can historically be considered the hard left, and there is a concentration around Miliband and Burnham that can historically be considered the soft left, with an emerging Nandy occupying a rather ambiguous but closer to soft space in-between. What there isn’t is an established mid-way between the Corbynites and the Milibandites.
There is a lot that divides these two, the hard and soft, the LRC and Compass, and both have distinguished features and figures. The gap between them and the figures that purport their respective positions is pretty vast.
To illustrate as my hero Eoin Clarke would:
This dark, empty, probably useless vacuum has no name, no leader, no magazine.
But, if I can be so pretentious, I presume to give it a few qualities:
- It’s main distinction from the hard left is its world view: There are no Milnes’ here, no excusing the IRA, no betrayal of an anti-British streak, no appearances on Russia Today, no ‘trots’ or ‘tankies’ (I use these not derogatorily, but in their historical senses). At home, there is no similarity with the SWP or the likes of Class War. It’d prefer Krugman to Engels and the idea of false consciousness, though it may share a relation to Marxism as the broad left always has. It is still, nevertheless, class-based and proudly socialist.
- It’s main distinction with the soft left is that economically, it is (explicitly) anti-austerity and shares that in common with Corbynomics, though too does it with Trudeau to its right. It would be willing to make the case for bolder taxation plans (wealth taxes, and -yes- a 60p top rate of tax) and higher borrowing and (specifically welfare) spending, rather than being cautious. (This does not wield to the idea that Miliband and Balls were austerians, they were not -but it makes the rhetorical break). It would not waver on nationalising railways or the like.
- Ultimately, it would have a focus on anti-austerity, class politics without the (tbh, shocking) Cold War, anti-West world view. It would also choose its fights: Trident is just…off the table. Please leave. But the welfare cap? It’d be willing to stand and fight here.
- What academia would it lend itself too? I have always been inclined to Milibandite ideas on public ownership, but love to read class-based philosophies. It’s intellectual roots would come from both lefts. Concepts like predistribution allied with classical redistribution (who the hell knows how?). Ideas of guild socialism with state socialism. A new socialism, and an institution-building one at that (And this is why Andy’s National Care Service drew me in).
So what would it call itself?
This is me, to a fellow Fabian, trying to work it out:
You can tell your conceptual thinking is bullshit when it dwindles down to soft porn. But I persevere nevertheless. I think this would be, something along the lines of, the Economic Left, the Anti Austerity Left, The Next Left? Or the Guild Left? I’m literally bullshitting here. Maybe it should be about texture. Firm Left? OH, OH I LIKE IT. Let’s go with that.
So, for those that came (all none of you) to see what faction of Labour I now call home, here it is: none of them. I’ve literally created my own one. Between Corbyn and Miliband. To the left of the Soft Left but not Hard Left.
The Firm Left. [drops mic] I’m out.
My mum is pretty apolitical.
But recently she got a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions demanding the repayment of tax credits that had been overpaid to her. “Overpaid? Why now?” she asked me, justifiably pissed off. She had after all suffered 5 years of a pay freeze, and was as a consequence struggling to keep up: a new rank of poorer single mothers who have paid more than anyone else for austerity.
I told her that I was quite surprised, and wasn’t very sure. Quite honestly, I was trying to offer non-partisan consideration but I had to conclude that it was probably to do with the DWP currently looking for savings as part of a drive. That, I presume, this must be a move alongside the £12bn of welfare cuts the Whitehall department has been expected to come up with. The DWP had been pretty ruthless in pursuing these cases, as it so happens. My mum talked to, canvassed even, a number of her friends and colleagues -all of them low-income mums- and they had all gotten the same letter. Turns out I was probably right; there is a mass savings drive by the DWP that’s extending its cuts even beyond its existing…cuts. It’s gotten this extreme. Almost every single mother whose received tax credits in the past is now part of an exhaustive pursuit. And. They. Are. Pissed. Off.
A few days after asking me this, she came back asking for my advice on her own letter she wrote to be sent to both our local MP and the DWP. I was genuinely shocked at how political and furious it was. To paraphrase, she basically accused the government of ‘targeting the poor’. She demanded action, and she refused to put up with what she saw as cruelty and classism. This was completely unsolicited, by the way. It was her own anger after canvassing her friends and colleagues herself that she had come to this conclusion that this was a motivated attack on low-income women. This is a woman that, despite everything, was not political. She didn’t cry like I did when the Tories returned to power, she used to tell me ‘I’d have to get used to it’, that she lived through Thatcher and ‘you should prepare for the worse’. ‘What can I do?’ was basically how she saw the world. But something suddenly prompted her into anger she hadn’t expressed since those days. She’d came to expect this from the Tories, but now they’d pushed her and her friends, en masse, to such an extreme that it seems to have eclipsed her struggles under Thatcher. The DWP, it seems, has reached Peak Asshole, and she isn’t gonna be quiet anymore. She isn’t alone either: she had got the idea to take action from her friends who had been hit and were now also raising the issue with the DWP and appealing against it. It was a mini-revolt of her social circle.
Now, if my apolitical mother can suddenly be awoken and angered after some 30 years, I wonder what will happen once the DWP letters breaking the news that tax credits are being cut hit the doormats of unsuspecting parents in December? It’s hard to understate the impact these cuts will have.
Already, the benefit cap, sanctions and cuts have quite literally decimated the poorest of us. Entire demographic changes have been the result: the mass social cleansing of inner London and other cities that even Tories have cautioned about as their once cosy seats potentially become marginal after being inundated by poor renters. 40,000 more children will be plunged into poverty as a result of the cap dropping even further. A drop based more on politics than any sound economics. It is popular. But even then, the unpopular bedroom tax hasn’t caused the uproar I thought it would at the election. I was seriously of the impression that the public would come out en-masse to denounce this particular policy by wiping the Tories off the electoral map. It turns out I was naive. Utterly so. People do not pay attention to politics until it hits them. Took me a while, and a lot of growing up, to realise this isn’t an evil, it’s just human nature. So that nature dictates that popular or unpopular, these policies don’t change minds because so far they only hurt a minority of people, who have very little sway over the ballot box.
But tax credits are very different. Tax credits hit the ‘strivers’. I’m obviously not the first to come up with this conclusion. A lot of commentators have talked about the potential for backlash among ‘strivers’ now austerity has already picked the low hanging fruit that are the ‘scroungers’. It makes me uneasy, this, even now I have had to realise my naivety. We only focus on cruelty when it hits the deserving. And my mum isn’t a person that attacks benefit claimants, at least not in front of me. But it is very true: my mum’s sense of injustice was that she works hard. Really hard. For very little. And she felt the government was now punishing her. I feel like the theory others -journalists and even wary Tory MPs who Osborne had to prevent rebelling- have put forward, their speculation that this might be politically erosive for the Tories, has already been tested on someone I know. It’s correct. The anger of the masses, of those 7 million about to receive those letters, many of whom Tory-voting and aspirational, has yet to be seen.
But the minority who have been asked to pay back their tax credits before these cuts hit, I can confirm, are mightily pissed off. I wonder if the mini-revolt among my mum’s circle will translate into a much bigger one among the 7 million.
The Tories, if my mum’s canvassing session is anything to go by, are in for a bumpier ride than they may expect.