The case of the NUS has proven emotive. Either side has been guilty of demonstrating ‘the righteous mind’. By that, I mean questioning the very moral fiber of their opponents. From the perspective of this Leaver, I see this include Remainers suggesting all who vote to leave are, erm, Tories. Absolutism is not attractive. Both sides are entirely legitimate, and I can be a sincere leftwinger, devoted to liberation (and of it) and social justice, and want to leave the NUS.
Not only is this ‘righteous mind’ not true, but it also damages the debate. More so, it damages the case for Remain. The more I hear implications of my lack of compassion, the more stubborn and determined I grow. I grow determined to prove I can make this case as both a leftwinger fighting for liberation causes and as a member of liberation groups, and sure of the leftist and progressive case for leaving.
What comes after -and referendums on disaffiliation are not forever- is a key point of difference for me and some campaigners on this side. I have no intent of lying about uncertainty. I would like to rejoin, should the NUS present to us a platform that is worth rejoining for. Our disaffiliation would be the beginning of negotiations, as it were for clubs that left Labour Students, only to build a stronger Labour Students (Well, we’ll see!). It puts us in a stronger position to demand a stronger Union, and puts the NUS under more scrutiny than ever -which is perfectly healthy. What differentiates myself from some others on this side is that I want a national union of students. We all have our moral arguments, and this is mine: it is riskier and more uncertain to go down the path we are on. That path being the validation of a moribund and increasingly irrelevant organisation that does not act like a guard between us and Tory ministers. The guard is well and truly dead.
That, of course, is not to say there haven’t been unsavoury characters on this side. There have and there are and there will be. I do not subscribe to the Free Speech Case. I will not stand up for a bigot when I see one any more than Kate Hoey would stand up for Nigel Farage.
I share a campaign with Labourites and Tories and Liberals. There are but two things we share in common: our passion to leave the NUS; and the fact we are all seasoned in the art of activism.
We all interpret what we are ‘active’ against in different ways, but in this game it matters. When I ran for SU President, I, somehow, got Tories on board. I got them on board because I defined the enemy as common against the student body: the university. This in turn would limit my grievances. There were no Israels or ISIS here, no motions on internal Labour politics. For me, student activism has not been about left versus right, even though I have always been on a Left platform; it is about the student body versus the university, or in this case, the government. The government is Tory. That, for me, is bad. Whatever government it is of the day will naturally need to be opposed (and for what it is worth – the more Blairite leadership did not oppose the government enough). Inherently. But you do it as a collective student body for collective student issues we can all rally around. Believe it or not, there are many. Just solely out of self-interest. From grants to fees to deportations. You do it as a student voice. It can be a leftist means. Sometimes just by being a student against grant cuts you adopt a leftist platform. In my view, unionism is inherently leftwing. But it does not have to be partisan or divisive and certainly not geopolitical, and a smart leftwing activism has its priorities in order, too. And priorities are important when you are leftwing – because people will pick apart your weaknesses and expose them in the Telegraph. Recognising that reality is necessary, but I’ll come back to that.
I have also had the argument that, as a leftwing activist, I should by default be pro-a national union of students. Indeed, a year ago, had you told me I’d be rallying against a ‘Union’, I’d have bemoaned future me. But that line is so sweeping and so disingenuous that it’s difficult to choose where to begin.
Firstly, trade unionism does not deliver by being bad or by its members being passive and not demanding more from it. Here I am, demanding more.
Secondly, the NUS isn’t a trade union. The NUS does not have the structures nor the culture of a functioning trade union. On the contrary, it acts as a Parliament, and pretends to be so. This is most evident in its sweeping statements on quite literally everything that happens. It forgets its very capacity, so it is laughed at. It is not a trade union as we know it, and it has not the democratic processes to tell it to act like one. Think for a moment of automatic membership. I do not suggest anything else should be in its place: Thatcher used the ingenious tactic of weakening student unions by forcing through self-enrollment. But the simple fact of the NUS’ membership having chosen not to be a part of it in the first place means that the NUS has not got the same accountability as a true trade union, and is under less pressure to actually deliver for its constituents. OMOV would go some way in aiding this, even if it is a heavy and flawed undertaking (Shelly Asquith makes the legitimate point that this would mean big, Russell Group unis have more sway). Otherwise, the sweeping argument about the NUS being a Union like all others and me abandoning my leftist roots in wanting to leave is obsolete.
More importantly, as a constituent, and one that it claims to speak for -I am not exactly from the home counties- I feel let down by the NUS. I have for years.
But what about the fact of the new leadership replacing the managerial one just passed? I do not feel there is substantive evidence to suggest it will change under the new, leftwing leadership -just because it is leftwing.
Being leftwing does not make you, by automatic right, a good activist or opposition. Having principled positions does not mean they will be fulfilled. You can betray those you champion if you prove to be a bad champion. By pretending you are a champion and real, strong opposition because you have signed up to a declaration of principles equates to only one thing: dogma.
In a lot of ways, I am sure you would have noticed, this mirrors my discontent with Corbyn’s Labour. So often it is said that just by his quality of leftwingedness, his opposition to XYZ, he is by default a good leader and his party a good opposition. Activism and strong opposition, clearly, requires a lot more than that. It requires good media management, it requires the constituents to take you seriously. It requires your opponents to fear you. Corbyn fails on all those fronts, and so does the NUS. Because the NUS is not seen as competent, it goes into negotiations from an inherently weak position, even if it is angry and shouting and waving placards. It’s a bit like PMQs, where Corbyn will talk about academisation and Cameron can literally just make a pun about Hezbollah. Why would the government fear an organisation that others laugh at? Divided or not is barely the point, its very foundation has cracked from years, even decades, of humiliation and public ridicule, justly or otherwise. That doesn’t change with a more leftist leadership. It may even be exacerbated by it. But this is not even about a rotation in leadership. It’s got to the point that without a huge reset, the leadership will barely make a difference to the strength of the NUS.
The NUS can even have noble campaigns, but it barely matters. For instance, the existence of a campaign to prevent grant cuts is just and necessary (alongside all the NUS’ grounded campaigns from Prevent to Bursary or Bust), but its existence is not a guarantee of a good outcome, and not a good enough reason to convince me of that good outcome. Good outcomes have been few and far between. I do not trust the NUS to deliver for those that need this or any campaign. Both because it boasts with self-congratulation of its sparse and often old victories (council tax exemption happened in 1992) in the shadow of huge failures (the maintenance grant cut, as one glaring example, or even self-inflicted ones like that time the NUS sent anti-Lib Dem vans to Lib-Dem marginals only for them to f*cking return Tory MPs) that let down so many vulnerable and poorer students, and it fails because it is mocked. These campaigns are never fulfilled because they are overshadowed by -even if they are rare- the politics that gives rise to motions on ISIS. Even if these are rare and ‘misconstrued by a media narrative’, the fact they happen is a weakness you cannot erase and one that damages the brand forever. In the exact same way as Corbyn fails in bad PR (and the importance of PR cannot be overstated in good activism), so too does the NUS. And it makes its campaigning all the weaker for it.
Yes to activism, yes to understanding the nuances of what makes for strong activism, no to insisting the very existence of activism justifies bad activism. Bad, ineffective activism from an organisation that no-one takes seriously, that lets the government get away with unholy damage, but still yells at it, is a betrayal. Legitimizing how it is, to me, is a betrayal of everyone that I want to blaze a trail for. I exist as an activist to help the vulnerable. I believe the vulnerable are constantly let down by the NUS. I believe they -we- need a national voice, but I don’t think we have one.
So what of the argument, “stay and fight”? That’s noble, sure. I, in many fights, would feel instinctively in favour of it. It is also naive. Any other Union would have a democratic means for me to air my discontent if it were doing a bad job. The election of a new executive and General Secretary, switching to another Union. The NUS offers neither. And, anyway, doing either of those things will still not repair the damage.
What about putting myself up for delegate and then Officer elections? Again, such an argument is merely procedural. Student politics doesn’t work like that. Heck, politics doesn’t work like that. Any who air this argument from the inside know they do so disingenuously. I wouldn’t have a chance. Anyone challenging cliques would not have a chance. We’ve seen this with the rather against-all-odds disaffiliation campaigns versus the machinery of the SUs and NUS.
Cliques and slates prevent rogue crusaders, even organised crusaders. The culture, as well as the structure, prevents real reform. Bloody hell, I would know, I’m on the soft left of the Labour Party!
By sustaining the NUS as it is, and not challenging it or negotiating a future for it from a powerful position, I feel I am letting down all those that deserve and need a strong Union, myself included. There are no other democratic ways, at least not plausibly, to express my discontent, hurt and betrayal and being left at the mercy of forces that will see my successive peers from similar backgrounds so much worse off. The only way I deem viable to the establishment of a better Union is by challenging the mandate of the NUS in the only way I can and the only way that has actually grabbed the attention of Officers: a referendum.
I’ve seen people say “now is not the time when government is destroying HE!”. For me, that’s exactly the time to start questioning whether the NUS -with all my knowledge of all the battles lost- is fit for the fight. Because I know, given the weakness of the NUS and its brand, exactly how that fight will end: with government victory. Now, more than ever, is the time for a reset. Not a reset of leadership but a reset of the institution itself. Question it, challenge it, test it. And if we end up rejoining on new terms and conditions, on a negotiated, renewed, democratic mandate, it resets a brand that, right now, is so broken it prevents the NUS being a functioning national union at all just when it needs to be. Then it can get on with being the champion it purports to be. This time, maybe, not from a starting point of ridicule.
Whichever way this goes, the NUS cannot see this moment as one of vindication. Even if my or other universities do not challenge it by leaving, it ought to start challenging itself and stop self-congratulating. Letting people down, refusing to take on board their criticisms, and patting itself on the back is not what I’d consider to be left wing.
I made the same mistake. I would dismiss warning signs leading up to 2015. Because it made me feel safe and good. I would see bad by-elections and hear worrying reports, but I shrugged it off out of suggestion it was mere doom-mongering. Until the exit poll. Today, I see it happening again.
The Left trying to claim the loss of more than 20 councillors -regardless of exceeded expectations- does it no favours. The Left trying to suggest that the first Opposition to go backwards since the abyss of the 80s is a victory and suggestion Jeremy will bloody be PM is delusional at best and catastrophic at worst. Not just for the Party, but for its own wing. If we continue to define ourselves and the Left by awfully bad standards, saying we beat hilariously shit expectations, then expect nothing other than ridicule.
Jeremy faces a bullish PLP and critics with no answer, that much is true. He defied them. But when we lose in 2020 because of this spectacular complacency, you will defy no-one. When they are proven right, you will defy no-one.
Worse, by defining a loss as a victory, you are betraying the very people you claim to fight for. No, defying them too. No working class person benefits from a Labour clearly headed for defeat (yes, yes it is.). You poking fingers in your ears is a betrayal. It is thoroughly middle class. As well as the art of winning, you risk handing the claim to working class representation over to Corbyn’s critics, too. And rightly.
But there are lessons too for Corbyn’s critics: if you set a low expectation, the Party will overcome it. Politics is an expectation game and even Seamus can spin this.
Thus, a total failure by most accounts – and without a doubt a clear sign of wipeout in 2020- has been rewritten into a win for Team Corbyn. Against the interest of the Party and certainly the interests of the Labour Left.
London was different, because our candidate did not play by the Party’s tactics. Sadiq’s victory is despite of the Party, not because of it. One clear example is that not only were journalists mocking the ‘son of a bus driver’ line, but we were having it parroted back to us on the doorstep – just like the Tories had in May. Sadiq locked down exceptional message discipline that I always wished for from the Leader’s office. Sadiq learnt from the mistakes of May in a way the Party leadership have failed to do. They believe they are above convention. Sadiq molded it to his favour. Sadiq, from the soft-left, proved that you can win on a leftish platform so long as you manage your rhetoric. It is the ‘bank manager’ theory. It is one John Smith exemplified and George Osborne prior to his misgivings exceeded at. The Left elsewhere in the Labour Party fails to grasp this obviously successful strategy that pushed Sadiq well over the line. He is now in a position – for the first time in my Labour membership- to make a tangible difference to the lives of millions. You are not.
It is in the interests of the Left of this Party to look back over these results with nuance. We did badly in England, ok in Wales, and awful in Scotland. Absolutely nothing suggests we will be catapulted to the highest office in the land in 2020. Only Sadiq’s campaign truly represented a winning formula, with or without its exceptional circumstances of being in a Labour city. The Left can’t cannibalise this exceptional result, it has to learn from it. And it has to learn that its triumphalism is completely misguided on both that count and in claiming victory elsewhere.
I go back to where I was under Ed: despite me shrugging off the mistakes of the Party, I was fearful that should we lose, the Right of the Party would claim moral victory and safely and easily usurp him. The Left should fear that today, too. By handing electability over to your internal enemies, you expose an incredible feat of self-defeat. By being triumphant now, in the face of bleakness, you are setting yourselves up for a very, very loud “I told you so.”
I’ve always wanted my part of the Party, the soft-left, to be more ambitious. Always the interim and never the winner, we have let ourselves be defined as a bridge to true success, “just one loss left!”. I want to see us be more than this, and I reckon Sadiq is the answer. The wider Left should have an election-winning ambition, too. It shouldn’t let other wings decide what it takes for the Party to win. It shouldn’t dismiss them on the basis of a ‘mandate’ that, should we (and we will) lose in 2020, will mean diddly-squat. Start having ambition, start self-reflection, self-criticising, and stop making yourselves look like complete revisionist fools. It is not in your interest to lose. It is not in your interest to make out these council elections were nothing more than awful.
It’s little surprise that Corbyn’s Labour does not enthrall me. I have been half-hearted in my campaigning, increasingly uncomfortable getting told on the doorstep by working class voters that Labour has lost its way, and constantly banging my head against a wall at the Leader’s Office. I feel well and truly on the opposite side of people that I want to stand up for. On the contrary, I feel like Labour as it is are as far from the ‘People’s Party’ as we have ever been.
Except for in London.
Posting my ballot for Sadiq Khan was the first sincere action I have taken since last Summer. Because I was voting for the Party I joined.
Everyone has their own version of Labour. I am in no position (not that that will stop me…) to de-legitimise any one version. But Labour today is not mine. I cannot recognise it. I cannot recognise or ally myself with a Party that dismisses genuine concerns as ‘smears’ against a leadership that has developed a cult of personality around it. It’s an exclusive party that is becoming increasingly toxic and self-absorbed. It refuses to engage with the people outside the hall.
Fair, my version failed to win the general election. I have my diagnoses just as everyone else has theirs. But Sadiq encapsulates everything that I thought Labour was supposed to stand for, without the rough edges that have come to define Corbyn’s leadership.
He is radical on housing without talking about the Falklands; he is for affordable transport without the obsession with Trident; he is a champion of the Living Wage without an inability to handle antisemitism. He is good at the media; indeed, he has overcame bias in a paper with a circulation of 900,000 without a hint of complaint on his behalf. He did so because he is a good candidate; he is a far, far better candidate than his rival.
London is different from the rest of the country, I know that. It voted by about 45 to 32 for Labour in the general election. Its demographics are favourable for Labour. It is a city where I feel most at home and need not worry too much about being in a bubble.
But we must not forget what Sadiq has faced and what he has successfully fought. This has been a racially-charged campaign against a convert to islamophobia. He has faced the Conservative machine. His campaign and his candidacy was simply superior. I do not believe for a second that Corbyn’s version of Labour could have beat it. Sadiq is a serial-winner. His version of Labour wins.
His candidacy has been superior because he has confronted issues that matter to London and to the vast majority of people. He encapsulates Labour at its most competent and its most in-touch. A left-wing progressive who talks bread and butter. Who talks inequality and housing with not a squeak of the gesture politics and distractions of the leadership. It is not an ideological difference more than it is a difference in priority. And what it has berthed is a vision for an alternative Labour administration that gets down to the grit. I am proud to campaign for it.
The best part is, I see a Labour administration under Sadiq in City Hall that is responsive to the needs of the public: and he will be the first Labour ‘leader’, as it were, in quite a while with not just a mandate from the narrower and narrower party but from the people. His victory will mean a victory for what I always presumed was what a ‘people’s party’ should look like. It is the party I joined and the party I joined for again.
I am not complacent; I am aware of the error of polls in the past. But for once I believe in this version of Labour. I believe it can win. I believe in it.
I have friends in the NUS, in Labour Students, in the students’ movement, and further afield. It should not have to be said that when I criticize XYZ, I do not criticise them. On the contrary, there are individuals within bodies I view as defunct that work their asses off for their constituents as best as they see fit.
But I’ve rarely shied from controversy, either. Way back whenever, I stood for President for my own Students’ Union on a ticket, well, berating the union itself, and the managerial culture in which it existed. Not the people, but the culture. A culture that was closed off. As I read Yaks berating even the action of voting, I realised that for 3 years, I was them. That, despite my political nature, I never turned to the Union for a solution. The one time I did, when my grant was delayed and I found myself under considerable financial stress, they told me they couldn’t do anything about it. I instead became a co-chair of a society, and worked for activism outside of the formal framework.
In reality, I’ve never been one for student politics. I’ve always thought the best way to contribute to helping students would be through the Labour party as an ordinary activist. For two years prior to the election, I did just that, hoping to oust a Tory government that had gone out of its way to raise a generation to hate it. That, clearly, did not pan out. From thereon, I grew aware that the only thing standing between students and the government was the unions and The Union – that being the NUS.
So far, so exhausted.
There are three Bad Types of student politics that have came to be the mark of the NUS and its components, all of which grate me considerably.
The first is the Managerial. The type that has defined my own union. No matter how far the University goes, a ‘student consultation’ is the answer. I know a lot of people within the Union itself often find this grating, but no-one seems to look to activism in any form to resolve issues beyond The Consultation. I had a chat with a mate recently on what she’d do: she’d do what other Unions do successfully, which is, for want of a better description, cause havoc. Sit-ins, pranks, artistic protests that grab headlines, and proper relationships with the media, be it the student paper or The Tab. There is little tradition here in Durham for this, though our recent Funeral For Affordable Education, where we designed a coffin and held a service going through town was an example of where we should head. Other than that, there is little light at the end of the tunnel for Universities with managerial Unions.
The second are the Politicos. The main controllers of the NUS for quite a while before Malia. For the life of me, my friends in NOLS know I’m not an asshole (often), and know this is not personal, but it, does, indeed, exist in NOLS. There is nothing innately wrong with this, and its berthed some good ‘uns. A chat with Stephen Twigg is enough to convince you he deserved to be on that stage on that fateful May night in 1997. But there’s no point ignoring that this road to politics is well-tread. Far too well tread. And there is a lot of dislike for it.
The third are the Radicals. The incumbents. People who’d be great at a protest, sure, but who are too partisan, divisive, distracted, to head an organisation representing 7 million students. A passion for global politics is great, but it does little to serve or represent students who just bloody want a maintenance grant. Malia’s passion for BME issues is commendable, and she has undoubtedly done a lot of work for BME students. It is not that activism for which we should, or do, condemn. It is the rhetoric of war and peace, of global conflicts, and of moral relativism, East and West, which simply serves no-one in the NUS. Never mind the controversy surrounding the ISIS motion, why was there an ISIS motion to begin with? Will that stop the march of a death cult in the Middle East? Recognising the limits of an organisation for students, and what motions that could actually benefit campuses within the capacity of the NUS, would be a great start. It might put faith back into the movement. Instead, the Radical subset sees the NUS as a Parliament, rather than the trade union and union movement it should emulate.
None of these types serve to protect students from the ills of this government. From student consultations to motions on ISIS, there is a real reason why Unions and the NUS are facing a massive deficit in participation and enthusiasm.
Which is why, before I graduate, I will be involved in a campaign for my University to disaffiliate from the NUS. I am not a great exiter of Things and Stuff (I am of the ‘let’s reform the EU!’ persuasion, after all). But there is only one way to fight the apathy that fuels an unresponsive student politics: it’s scaring the absolute shit out of the incumbent powers that be. And that means a referendum. As always.
If it leads to the NUS and to the wider student movement pricking its ears at the prospect of a financial crisis, to get it out of its cartel of the Three Bad Types, then that’s bloody good enough for me. I don’t see any other way to get the attention of a cosy student politics that relies on low turnout than trying to enthuse the student body to tick yes or no. It’s the best way, the most exciting way, and the most democratic way, to inject a sense of realisation into a movement that bloody well needs it.
That’s gonna be my last act, then I’m totally getting the shit out of here.
We have all heard the leftist motif that “tax is a subscription for a civilized society”, we may even roll our eyes at it, but at times like this I cannot think of a cliche more worthy of repeating until Lord Ashcroft’s ears bleed.
I am reminded this week of JK Rowling’s interview from some time ago:
I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. (x)
Wealthy people, who owe the soil they were born on for their fortunes, cannot claim the mantle of being patriots.
So it is an uncomfortable paradox for Labour to have a deficit on this.
We must ask, how is it that the Conservative party have a stranglehold over patriotism when they starve our nation of treasured public services? When they cut back the institutions we hold dear? I have written before about how we should argue that the Tories are the antithesis of ‘institutional patriotism’, that the steel industry collapsing, threatening the BBC, and NHS starvation are uniquely anti-British. Now we have another, obscene example, compromising the Prime Minister himself. Labour ought to question why we are seen as the Anti-British party.
But this time, it’s more than just party politics.
Panama, and the Tories’ inevitable inaction in its wake, provide us the perfect opportunity to reset the debate, to turn the taxation conversation off and on again. To make it about the love of your society. Not jut for a Labour rebranding, but for a rebranding of a political consensus that has seen taxation as a burden rather than a hallowed subscription.
For so long, our conversations on tax have been narrow, cautious, and conducted with eyes over the shoulder. Any talk of demanding more radical action than a 50p top rate to offset widening inequality sees our opponents retreat to the same lines over capital flight, with no-one questioning the loyalty and patriotism of those threatening to flee. We need to advocate, right now, for a renewal of the social contract, and to demand the wealthy sign up to it.
If capital flight is, as it inevitably will be, yanked out and shoved in our faces as a justification for inaction, with the equally inevitable Fraser Nelson graphs on the Laffer Curve -which is questionable at best and an entirely false pseudo-religion at worst., we should do what no-one has done in high politics for decades: ask, “what the fuck?”
“What the fuck?”. We’re supposed to roll over and accept that it’s mother nature that the rich ought to flee, that they would flee, and that our economy’s growth rests on being as hospitable as to prevent this devastating prophecy?
Look, undoubtedly, in a globalised economy, mobile assets and wealth is a problem -it’s a matter of contention for economists far smarter than me. And I am not here to argue as an economist. I would lose. I’m here to argue from the viewpoint of a writer. Albeit, not a particularly good one, but one that believes in the power of words and debate. There is a powerful debate to be had, about rolling over and accepting our fates are entangled with compromising with the super-rich just cos’. That’s fatalist bullshit. It’s also bullshit that leads to conspiracy theories about a world elite and the spontaneous explosion of far-right parties and Donald Trump. Centre-left and centre-right mainstream politics ought not to let those guys win the argument. We ought to take the mantle first, and be brave enough to question, head-on, the go-to, whiplash rebuttals we are all used to when we discuss taxing the rich, taxing capital, and simply asking for the contributory principle to extend beyond the poor. Question capital flight as the go-to riposte. It cannot be the end of the story. If it is, what is the point in an autonomous nation state that collects taxes? That’s right, this is about sovereignty too, and right back to where we started: patriotism.
In fact, it doesn’t stop at capital flight. We also roll over when we hear ‘legal loophole’. Oh, Cameron never did anything illegal, he just did what rich people always do! This shouldn’t be a reply. Again, morals, ethics, patriotism? He’s a PM, for Christ’s sake. More than that, we are all citizens that preach contribution, by God we know Cameron does. Enough rules and exemptions. Scrap that riposte too.
We also need to ignore the inevitable cries of the ‘politics of envy’ that have been making the similarly inevitable rounds in the aftermath of Cameron’s tax controversies. Basically…no? I mean, I’m not even going to bother. If you’ve ever said ‘politics of envy’, the door’s over there. We’re gonna get this shit a lot, especially from columnists in the Daily Mail who think the ‘death tax’ is a literal, valid thing to say. Someone with enough resilience is gonna have to one day dare to challenge it. Which is why strengthening Labour’s deficits on things like patriotism, but also competence and leadership are so essential – not just for winning elections, but for national debate. People listen to strong leaders.
But, as I was all too aware of at Saturday’s protest, outrage isn’t enough if we do not provide an alternative. Jeering about the ‘neoliberal consensus’ keeps us in a comfort zone. The Left is very good at grievance. I would know, I haven’t stopped moaning since I could speak the letters “smh”. As with Ed Miliband, we are good at diagnoses, but not at treatment. We can open up this debate, and we should, but we have to have rebuttals to the Right’s excuses for inaction, answers for globalisation and for the secrecy and opportunities it hands to the super-rich.
But solutions are not easy to come by.
Take inheritance tax. Inheritance tax is unpopular. George Osborne prevented a snap election way back when on the back of it. Voters often consider themselves to be middle class, or aspiring to be so, which in turn has such a wide definition that apparently a tax imposed on just the 7% richest threatens YOU AND YOUR FAMILY. Look, this sucks, but it exists. It’s there. It’s been unpopular for a long time.
We need new ideas, maybe even to replace the old, like IHT.
Once upon a time, we were masters of language. Masters of storytelling. Look at tax credits, and the nation’s disgust at the thought of cutting them even when other welfare is fair game. Language is important. The ‘mansion tax’ was, actually, a good example, kinda, for a subset of voters. But it also spooked a lot of people. So it was also a bad idea for another subset of voters.
We need to look at options for wealth taxes and a ‘new deal’ with higher taxes on the rich. Right now is the time to demand it and to reshape the consensus. But it needs to be done masterly. If we are going to talk about a Picketty-style capital tax, not only do we have to not roll over at the first sight of someone yelling ‘BUT CAPITAL FLIGHT’, we have to be creative with the story behind it. Something that is clearly aimed at the super-rich and cannot be redefined to ‘HIT YOUR FAMILY’. And also about patriotism and duty. Call it ‘Asset Contribution’ or ‘Wealth Contribution’. Something contribution-y. I’ll leave that up to people better than me. But I go back to what I was saying before: it should be based on patriotism, on principle, on ethics so often swept under the rug cos ‘ya’ know, rich people do this’, ‘they’ll just leave!’ and ‘it was perfectly legal!’. Let’s start questioning this bullshit, cos, you know, it really is bullshit.
Contribution is popular. Fairness is popular. Tax can be popular. Now is the time to be courageous.
You are perfectly free to despise politics and politicians. Once upon a time I did.
And then politics became necessary. A Tory government was suddenly thrust in, and the Labour government I took for granted growing up was suddenly gone, and we were all left at the mercy of Etonian men being driven to shrink the state. Suddenly ‘hating politicians’ felt like a fashion I could not afford.
Again, a lot of poorer people are apathetic and distrustful of politicians. That’s for us to change and us to convince and us to understand. My dad was a non-voter, my mum was an instinctive Labour voter who me and my brother had to remind to vote. Both had a reason to fear the Tories, but not to enthusiastically embrace Labour. That is our problem.
But then there are wealthy people, people with power and a voice, who ought to know how best to use that platform and the responsibility they have, that espouse and encourage apathy and anti-politics. The recent Green Party broadcast was just that.
It’s a cute video, perhaps just as funny as their last one. The problems with their cutesy videos are manifold, but the most striking thing on both occasions was timing. The previous broadcast -about how mainstream parties are ‘all the same’- was sent out the day Ed Miliband announced his policy to abolish the non-dom status. This new broadcast comes after months of arguments over tax credit and disability cuts, and right in the middle of a row over the Panama tax avoidance scandal, in which David Cameron has been compromised. In such circumstances, the divisions between the Tories and Labour are as stark as they’ll ever be, and any charges to the contrary appear completely disingenuous to us; but entirely reasonable to the passer-by that the Greens’ message will get heads nodding to.
Painting all ‘politicians’ as the same means that our debate over Panama and events like it will see politics tainted with a broad brush rather than the individuals and the party (the Tories) involved. It makes people angry, and there ceases to be a constructive repository for this anger.
The Greens enjoy this. They thrive off it. So often considering themselves purer than their rivals and possessing greater morals, their only way to survive -much like all populist third parties- is to lambaste their mainstream counterparts negatively. Sometimes this tactic can result in a surge of enthusiasm and support and participation: It can be Syriza or Podemos; the Pirate Party in Iceland; Sanders in America. All of these cases involve more participation. They all share in common, too, a broad base of support and voters that often touches on working class communities. They are working class movements.
The Green party is not. It achieves none of these things. It cannot stand on ‘hope’ or positivity; it thrives off a hatred of the Labour Party in particular. The worst part is that it pretends to be positive.
The Greens share this in common with other populists on the British Left, who refuse acknowledgement of the FPTP system into which they are born, all of which served to blow a hammer to Ed Miliband’s hopes of being PM and deliver a Tory majority.
They do it by raising impossible standards. And I don’t mean austerity or policy-based arguments, for those are valid and it is important to have other parties democratically pressurizing and influencing Labour from its Left (though, it makes more sense to do that from within – as Jeremy Corbyn can probably suggest), but by refusing politics. That’s right: politics. The advert was fun, it showed parliamentary politics as childish and argumentative, as it always has been and as is hard to avoid – as much as Jeremy Corbyn would like to. And it is childish, quite often, and most people don’t like it. But what we don’t need is an overwhelmingly white, middle class party thinking it can feed off that disaffection when it simply can’t. All adverts like this do when they are from the Greens, is fuel a fire that, if anyone, benefits UKIP. But, mostly, non-voting.
You think disaffected, ordinary people from modest backgrounds are going to join the Greens or Plaid or whatever next absurd and redundant leftwing party? No, because you have fucking ‘Green’ in your name.
And the worst part about the Greens and other parties to Labour’s left (that’s now contestable…) is that they consider themselves far more important than they actually are. They don’t understand that most disaffected people don’t turn to them. They demand concessions from Labour -almost all of which are unobtainable and absurdly high-maintenance, like refusing parliamentary arguing at their best and demanding policy positions that are the opposite of the general public’s at their worst. They distract Labour to their way of thinking, believing they represent the real working class voice while there are more working class people choosing to not vote than vote Green.
At the end of the day, this is not intended to be constructive, it is intended to be an expression of hatred for the mainstream and Labour’s position of Her Majesty’s Opposition. It is intended to harm ‘Westminster’, like the SNP does, but to absolutely no avail.
This type of anti-politics benefits no-one but None of The Above. All the Greens will ever achieve is, if anything, a decrease in turnout and an addition to the toxic culture of political apathy. It is irresponsible. We don’t need these type of malign messages to contest on the doorstep with contributions from middle class people who won’t have to deal with the repercussions.
That broadcast is funny, until suddenly it is not.
I was wrong.
Well, I was wrong on one account.
I’ve been subsumed by misery and darkness over Labour’s future that my assumptions about the British public have proved, if only partially, unfounded. I have, and nevertheless will continue, to argue that you cannot win an election on altruism alone. But I believed the public were outright belligerent about the welfare state (Indeed, JSA and housing benefit remains deeply unpopular), and that clouded my judgement of how this budget would go down. When I heard about the PIP cuts, I didn’t have much faith that they’d be the downfall of Osborne’s budget. I thought people would consider them unfair, but that fairness would not factor in as much as the crude pursuit of the national interest: a surplus.
I was wrong.
I also argued that the Tories were de-toxified, and the politics they had created encouraged, if not a nastiness, then a hard-headed, sacrificial sentiment that would see the likes of PIP cuts accepted as necessary.
I was wrong.
As it turned out, I massively underestimated the British public. They have turned up their noses in disgust at this budget, largely. Some 70% of the public disagree with the PIP cuts, which would see as many as 600,000 disabled people have their money withdrawn. The revenue, it seems, goes directly to cutting capital gains tax and income tax for the top 7% (A reminder, nevertheless, that the public are majority in favour of this!). The Tories are nasty once more and the public are not happy about it.
BUT, and this is a big but, the public will still vote Tory in 2020 if we decide that this is a turning point. I’ve seen triumphalism, and I’ve seen Liam Young. And boy, do I see people who seem to have short term memories. Like a veteran coming back from war, I’ve also seen a lot of 2010-2015 members going ‘…..eh, but….’. We keep talking about this as ‘omnishambles 2’, which it is, without realising what came after. We became cocky in 2012, and at that point had an 11 point lead. Right now, we have a 1 point lead and we’re throwing a party. That lead is because of Osborne, not us.
Fairness factors in. And my crudeness has been softened after this backlash, which is a relief. And fairness also factors in to the public perception of competence. Osborne lost 22 points off his poll ratings as Chancellor. But that doesn’t erase Labour’s weakness on competence either.
That belligerence won’t translate into enthusiasm for us if we don’t take necessary steps to making sure that link between fairness and competence is locked down. That being, that –as I wrote for Open Labour– we cement in the hearts and minds of voters that good economic management, and the road to a surplus, cannot be achieved without fairness. Tbf, this blog has been talking about that link a lot. Inequality is not logical. And we should reject it not just on a moral basis, but on an economically literate basis too. A surplus, we should argue, cannot be achieved with such an unbalanced approach.
Where I was wrong was that we couldn’t be highly moral about this, and that ‘standing up’ wouldn’t be good enough. Well, that’s true, it’s not enough, but fairness has two components. I underestimated the moral component, Labour underestimates the logical component.
The Tories are beatable. The Tories are deeply unpopular. The Tories are merely tolerated. The Tories are nasty again. Our task got just a tiny bit easier. I was wrong that the Tories could go as far as they wanted without backlash. Thankfully the British public proved me wrong. But Labour has to prove me wrong, too. It has to capitalise and get the balance between ‘Osbornomics is nasty’ and ‘Osbornomics is illiterate’ right. If it doesn’t, this is omnishambles all over, and it will be forgotten in 2020 just as it was in 2015, when the public put security at the top of their priorities.
Two things to learn from this: the public do actually care considerably about fairness on moral grounds -and I was wrong- but this budget won’t mean Labour will win -you are wrong.
In 2012, 59% of people surveyed by Ipsos MORI said they had not been affected by cuts. Now, that has skyrocketed to 75%. My maths has always been a bit sketchy, but I assume I am right in saying that 25% is not a vote large enough to propel Labour into government.
A reformed Milifan is I, but a leftie I remain. When those on the Labour Right argued over summer about the futility of a core base vote, I –like many members- was suspicious that it was a euphemism for fighting on a solely middle class, centrist ticket, and I was not inspired.
But the truth that there is a ceiling to how much of a vote share a party can win on, not even a 35% but a 25% strategy, does not inspire me either.
This does not, however, call for abandoning our fight against the social injustices of austerity, assuming the Tories will be cutting into the 2020s (they will) and that it will still be pre-eminent during the 2020 election (it will). It does not mean we cannot fight on an anti-cuts campaign, so long as we conduct such a campaign in a wholly different fashion to the way we are now.
“Standing Up, Not Standing By”, the new motto for Labour’s local election campaign in May, is certainly a departure from the vacuous bullshit that has come before it. But it’s still bullshit in different clothing. It speaks only to people struggling or people worried about those struggling, and such a campaign may make us feel good, but it will not end in actually helping people struggling (which, when you think about it, is a perfect description of the contemporary British Labour Party). It’s also not the time to be experimenting with something we know will fail, as councils face obscene setbacks and some even move to criminalize homelessness. I am aware that in the PLP meeting it was pointed out that we are not targeting Tory councils, which is obviously ludicrous, albeit realistic. And it’s ludicrous that it’s realistic.
[Note: local elections are not general elections, it is about getting out your core vote; but somehow, frankly, I don’t think that that much thought was put into this – I think, rather, it is stubbornness to stick to a preferred but incredibly flawed message]
You can appeal to an anti-cuts sentiment, or at least attempt to create such sentiment, without appealing narrowing to altruism alone. As always, as boring as it is, ‘security’ is the buzzword upon which elections are won post-crisis.
“There was widespread ‘hunkering down’ into security goals such as safety and certainty, with effects concentrated among socio-economically vulnerable groups and the formative generation.”
So says Dr Annie Austen on the effects to British ‘values’ of the financial crisis.(x)
The assumption that a crisis will benefit us, will fuel anti-capitalist rhetoric is just plain wrong, and Labour is rubbish at capitalising anyway. Often, insecurity makes people more cautious, not less. Forward, not backward, so it goes. So security is key.
If people think cuts make them more secure, they will vote for more cuts. And, on the whole, the electorate see cuts as a necessary evil, if ‘evil’ at all. Us responding to this by saying cuts are a moral issue misses the point entirely. Most people, even many working class people, do not see the devastating impact of cuts that have disproportionately affected a vulnerable minority. They instead see it as a nationwide thing, in terms of national security. They see a national credit card that they are unwilling to max out.
George Osborne is already framing the apparent impending crisis as a reason for ‘living within our means’, and Labour hasn’t responded in any way, shape or form.
And he does this to frame cuts, once again, as a security measure.
The only way Labour can break this spell, is not by going merely after those directly affected by cuts on a moral basis, whom to others, to put it crassly, are sacrificial lambs for the greater good, but to tell those not directly affected by cuts that cuts are a threat to national security. To tell them that they are indirectly affected by cuts in a negative way. And, for a competent party, this should be entirely possible.
For a person who pays a whole lot of attention to either politics or economics, or those that remember that the financial crash was not caused by Gordon Brown, George Osborne’s statement that cuts would protect us from global turmoil is undoubtedly preposterous. It is illiterate, and it is clearly complete bullshit. But he gets away with it. And he does because we respond in the way we respond.
We need to move away from our moral high-horsedness and concretely dispel why this is bad economics and why it makes us exposed to global market meltdown. Enough of the fluffy crap, you have to go hard on why this doesn’t just affect the most vulnerable, but makes the whole country vulnerable instead. It puts middle class families at risk, it puts the working poor at risk. And right there is an electoral coalition. An allieship that will actually help people. That coalition is achieved with as short and sharp messages that propelled the Tories into office in 2010 and again in 2015. George Osborne exposes the country to risk. Repeat it. Talk nationwide, talk cross-class.
We have to make everyone of every class realise that cuts affect them too, even if not directly. Those 75% not affected by cuts are just as exposed to global markets as those that are directly affected. And we need at least some of that 75% to help the 25%.
There is no point being anti-austerity and putting forward our arguments on a purely moral basis; we have to make anti-austerity arguments logical and rational too, for everyone.
Let’s stop feeling good about ourselves and start doing good for other people.
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%.
The Left sees narrative construction as amoral. It either doesn’t get that you don’t have to say what you think and intend to do or it’s decided that omission is wrong. And thus that politics for a millennia is and has been wrong.
Take Ed Miliband. I think -and the election, of course, backs me up- that his narrative was a bad one. Namely, he didn’t challenge the overspending myth early on and found himself in a spiral of trying to out-Tory the Tories. But this didn’t, believe it or not, actually make him a Tory. The Left continuously took what he said at face value. When he talked about fiscal responsibility, we gasped at his betrayal. Journalists on the English Left were appalled. The Frankie Boyles and George Monbiots lazily wrote about how Labour were only offering austerity Lite. Look! Ed Miliband talked about the Thing! Let’s pounce on the Thing!
But what was really going on here is that the Left has a monumental, gaping problem; it cannot distinguish, in politics, between what is said and what is done. Or, at least, it refuses to. It sees it as amoral. It accuses the electorate of stupidity and then takes what politicians say at face value. Actually scrap that. It doesn’t take what rightwing politicians say at face value. It recognises that Osborne’s narrative about ‘Labour’s mess’ and ‘maxing out the credit card’ is illiterate rubbish. And it attacks him for it instead of grasping how excellent a mind Crosby is and how absolutely crap we are in comparison (and I’ll get on to that).
But politicians of the left? Well! in 2015, Balls and Miliband were austerian, small state Thatcherites, because of what they SAID. ‘We’ll have to make tough choices’, Ed would say clearly begrudgingly, out of a necessity of the leadership’s own creation because, yes, he didn’t challenge the Tory lines well enough. It was a bad rhetorical direction. But it didn’t actually mean he was a bloody austerian. On the contrary, Labour were planning more in spending than the SNP, who were actually planning the same if not more cuts, and £32bn less cuts than the Tories, with their own cuts that could have stopped within a year. That would be next June. If that’s just a ‘lite’ version of this awful, devastating government that has me waking up in cold sweats in the morning when I realise IDS is still an influential figure, then I can only presume you’re privileged enough not to be a single mum, disabled, a benefit claimant, or a renter.
But activists and journalists on the left became reactionaries. Not in the ‘oh please for the Love of God, be brave enough to justify your spending!’ way that they should have been, preferably before 2011, but reactionary in the way they actually believed Miliband was rightwing, for saying words that wouldn’t have literally matched his actions. Even though the Left could have seen quite clearly what he had planned just by a bit of ‘lite’ research. It was intentional laziness and faux outrage to suit their own narratives.
I’ll call this the Monbiot Hegemony; an era in which leftwing online commentators saw a pragmatically (but in this case ill-) considered difference between words and planned action to be beyond its moral justification, or refused to even acknowledge it at all. It decided it was morally superior to engage in the art of subtlety, and it attacked subtlety at face value. And in doing so the Monbiots of the world were intellectually, infuriatingly, lazy, reactionaries.
2015 was a bad case of conflicting narratives for the Leadership. We talked in microwaves and technocracy, and we were too scared to defend ourselves. But that sin is different to the sins of the wider Left. 2015 was a case of the Left scoffing at a leftwing politician (yes, really! If we on the English Left are to believe Sturgeon is leftwing then Miliband most certainly sings The Red Flag with gusto) speaking conservative (small ‘c’, just in case I had to actually put that out there for clarification) but planning considerably more radical legislation. Cetainly more radical than the SNP’s budget it May. And that right there is the problem.
We have decided we are morally superior to a media strategy. We speak our minds and we scoff at the idea of talking in anything less than revolutionary or radical language. It doesn’t get that we should be talking personal wallets before talking ideology. But then acting ideology. We have became reactionary to the idea that there should be any difference in what we say versus what we plan. It’s as though we think Thatcher talked about ‘neoliberalism’ in the campaign of 79′.
It doesn’t get that this is exactly what Osborne is doing. He talks openly from the centre and then bulldozes our communities. It scoffs at him instead, which many can afford to do, while he rolls back the state without anyone actually knowing. Osborne is the exact idol we should have. Yes, really! He is a determined, ruthlessly radical ideologue, and few realise. It’s the dream. He is a rhetorical conservative but a radical practitioner. As all successful politicians have been.
The Left needs to get off its high horse and engage with politics as it always has been and always will be: storytelling. Non-ideological storytelling.