Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Black Dogs and Englishmen

This year’s Prince’s Trust Youth Index on the emotional and mental wellbeing of my generation came out today, with the news that one in 10 young people (16-25) feel they cannot cope with day-to-day life, and 28% of all young people feel depressed “always” or “often”. The deeply corrosive effect of unemployment and the ongoing financial crisis is at the forefront, and will certainly be seized upon by commentators. Money, or the lack of it, remains the subject on which young people feel most unhappy. However the fall in the overall happiness index was not driven by financial concerns, but by worries over friendships and individual’s physical and emotional health. We’re now more worried about the weakness of our friendships, and our qualifications, than at any time since the survey began. This reflects the fact that the financial crisis isn’t just about money, but about exposing the loss of certainties and stability that the boom masked. What does it tell the 16 year old about education when she sees her 21 year old university-educated brother on the scrapheap? How do you keep a friendship going when the bus fair to their house becomes a luxury item?

 The rock in the lives of many young people is their family relationships. This was the area that all participants were most happy about. Yet the economic model of Britain means that for tens of thousands of young people outside the South East of England, they have to abandon this touchstone, leaving their communities to find work in the Big Smoke. For those from backgrounds where their extended family lives in close proximity, the culture shock from seeing people who love you every day to existing in a sea of strangers is profound. Yet this isn’t merely the problem of transition, but of permanent transition. Each year one third of London moves. With jobs often temporary and rents volatile, many never get the opportunity to put down roots of any kind. At home for Christmas I could only sit in wonder as my Nana rattled off the names, jobs and sexual histories of everyone on her road when she was young, as part of some longer narrative. How do I even get to know my neighbours’ names when they change each month? How do I form friendships with my work colleagues when we’re all on fixed term, 1-week notice contracts and spend our days propped in front of screens? How often can you run home when a return train ticket is three days’ pay?

It’s an atomised existence, and deeply damaging for social animals such as ourselves. Even if we have friends in the capital, they are often spread over such vast distances it’s as if they lived in another city. What do you do when it’s witching hour and it all starts getting a bit much? Well you reach for your own little place in cyberspace. More than one in five young people (23 per cent) claim the internet gives them a sense of community and friendship that they do not have elsewhere in life. This increases to a third among those who are unemployed. Far from being the cause of alienation as many older people presume, those little glowing rectangles are a lifeline for the 31% who say they “always” or “often” feel lonely, when they need a few kind words. That is not to say all online interaction is positive, nor that reading *hugz* matches getting one, simply that this is a lifeline for a great many young people physically distant from anyone they think cares.  Sometimes it’s words on a backlight or oblivion from a bottle.

We all fall down sometimes, especially when we’re first making our way in the world. The fall has grown harder as the communitarian institutions of our parents and grandparents; churches, pubs, trade unions, and others have slowly faded from the public realm. The dark joke is that the system forces you to leave home, but prevents you making one of your own. A never-ending adolescence. No wonder we’re depressed.  

Monday, 23 July 2012

Digging myself a hole

I made the trek up to Durham last week for Unite’s political school and the Miners Gala. Just a fortnight after Unite’s Policy Conference in Brighton, and with a cold hanging over me, I had considered whether I was really this committed. However in the intervening time I received a (completely unsolicited) letter from the Communist Party. So, figuring my hopes of a career at MI5 were already dashed, I set off for the North.

It was a great few days in a beautiful city with old friends and new. There was however one particular incident that I will remember, and that is getting into an argument with the redoubtable Ian Lavery MP, the ex-president of the NUM, about class.

Mr Lavery, along with Jim Sheridan MP, gave speeches to our little group and then fielded questions. Something set me off. Maybe it was his admission that he loved to argue. Perhaps it was the mention that as an NUFC supporter he clashed with Man Utd fans, at a time when I know my dad was in the Firm. Beyond that though, there seemed to be a disagreement about what it meant to be part of the labour movement.
A full and frank exchange of ideas ensued. We shook hands afterwards, and while he won the room I gave a decent account of myself for a cocky 24 year old. However my little run-in did get me thinking about how we all put people in boxes.
There has always been a tendency in the labour movement to create our own aristocracy, and in the mythology miners sit at the top. From Orwell’s vision of “iron hammered iron statues”, to Peter Clarke and his exhortations about 1926, to the Gotterdammerung of the 1980s, there has been a fascination with this profession above all by those on the Left, in some ways akin to what the Right feel for certain elements of the armed forces. This hasn’t often crystalised in the leadership, but then the Tory Party hasn’t elevated many guardsmen to the top jobs. Both parties seem to prefer Old Oxonians after all. Yet still that veneration is palpable, and perhaps nowhere more than on that day in Durham.

I do occasionally wonder how much of this yearning is for the reality or the fantasy. Bevan, who actually started in a colliery, seems to have gotten out of it as soon as dignity allowed. His subsequent diet, particularly the champagne, rarely gave the impression he wanted to go back to dying for eight hours a day. Dennis Skinner worked in the pits for twenty years, but he’s been a Parliamentarian for over forty. One struggles to believe he would have kept going at the coalface fifteen years after he could have retired, or that he would have been as useful to the causes he supports.

Part of this fascination is top down, the dialectic daydreams of Fabian intellectuals seeing themselves commanding hordes of broad-shouldered proletarians at the barricades. Somehow organising Britain’s million call-centre workers lacks the same romantic edge. The mental check being applied is how good you’ll be hitting a copper with a pick-handle. Yet this attitude isn’t revolutionary, but profoundly reactionary. The notion that you’re better than someone because of the way you speak, dress or earn your living is a Tory idea, regardless of which way round you apply it. Equality of respect for our fellow men and women, because we all have value, is at the heart of the labour movement.

Now I know how this will come across, as some posh lad objecting to his privilege coming to an end. I leave that for you to decide. I lived on a council estate. I went to private school. My mum was a single parent. I went to university. I have a Mancunian accent. I work in an office. I hate the ballet, classical music, and football. I love poetry, brutalist architecture and strong tea. I’m not entirely sure where that puts me, so answers on a postcard please.

I don’t think every Labour councillor and Parliamentarian should be judged by how closely they resemble Alexey Stakhanov. Old Hayleburian Clem Attlee didn’t, and neither did the former Viscount Stansgate. And nor will the next generation, particularly the women, BAEM or disabled candidates whose participation is essential for our movement to be representative of Britain as a whole.

Just as we viewed the American arguments about whether Barack Obama was ‘really black’ with incredulity, so would most people see our agonising over one’s working class credentials as distracting at best and cultish at worst. Now, to be perfectly clear, Parliament is far too narrow. There is a difference between knowing what the poverty and unemployment are intellectually, statistically, and having lived through it, and both views are needed. The great thing is that we don’t need to wrestle with exactly what ‘class’ is in Britain to fix the democratic structure, as long as we ensure a diversity of experiences. The problem is not that Parliament includes journalists, or lawyers, or even public school boys. It is that it contains a disproportionate amount of those groups compared to the wider population. It probably always will.

But moves towards a more diverse House of Commons should be welcomed and fought for. The way to do this is through better organisation and bringing more people into the movement, so candidates are less reliant upon their own resources of time and money to run. It is about making processes transparent so that selection processes aren’t restricted to those ‘in the know’. It is about giving opportunities to learn the skills of communication and public discussion, so those who didn’t get their practice in at the Bar or the Oxford Union aren’t excluded from the debate.

It is not, however, about deciding whether your clothes make you the enemy, like Labour were some coalition of Mods and Rockers. To paraphrase Billy Bragg, just because I dress like this, doesn’t mean I’m not a socialist.

That is not dead, which can eternal lie...

Anthony Blair’s musing over a return to British political life has caused much consternation amongst the Labour movement. The two great criticisms of New Labour as a project, that it was too close to Big Finance and Big Media, are being thrown into sharp relief by Leveson and the events at Barclays.
Mr Blair has some extremely competent defenders, and my friend Stephen Bush over at Progress does a remarkably good attempt at defending ‘the legacy’. Yet the third great criticism of New Labour goes without mention in his article. That, of course, is Iraq.

It’s almost a decade since the marches, the arguments and the invasion. Many argue it’s been done to death. But actually, for much of the Labour movement, it’s not even about the blood and treasure squandered in the deserts of Mesopotamia. It’s about the will and double standards of New Labour.

For the length of the New Labour project, we socialists were told we were dreamers, with our notions of greater workers’ rights, economic rebalancing, public ownership and the rest. But we weren’t the only ones. The aspirations of the New Labour elite, from the Euro to ending boom and bust, seem like fantasies today. Yet Iraq is the defining moment where the Labour Government reversed the old maxim and declared “Not for Peace, but for War”.

The rulebook was thrown out the window. The Clintonian triangulation about focus groups and public opinion was ignored, the importance of party unity disregarded, the media threatened into submission. The biggest march in British history came to the streets of London, and the prime minister remained unmoved. While Tony Blair did, indeed, go on to win the 2005 election, he received fewer votes than Major got in 1997.

This demonstrated the power of ideology over pragmatism. The Labour government did have the power to enact a hugely expensive, hugely unpopular policy, and spend its entire political capital both domestically and internationally doing so. What had been lacking was the will. The fundamental legitimacy of the Labour movement was put on the line. This was not done for an issue of social justice, or economic success, but for the particular ideological convictions of its leader. And so the arguments against ‘Old Labour’ policies were exposed as bunkum. It was not that New Labour couldn’t bring about the reforms the movement had asked for, it was that they didn’t want to. The psychological shock of that betrayal – of knowing what could have been achieved after 6 years – still reverberates within the labour movement.

I do not degrade the important things done in office. As a man who likes other men I have a lot to be grateful for, though my student debt wears away at that gratitude a little every month. And yes, I still get a twinge when ‘Things can only get better’ comes on. But the man of 1997 is not the man of 2012.  You don’t have to keep defending the messianic tax-exile because you loved the nice young reformer.

At the last though, we don’t judge people in the balance, we judge them on the worst things they did. Nothing Ted Kennedy did made up for Chappaquiddick. Making decent chocolate bars doesn’t make up for Nestle pushing formula to African mothers. And there is no exchange rate that says you get excused so many dead civilians in a foreign land because you gave pensioners free bus passes.

But perhaps the best argument against Blair’s return is deeply Blairite. He’s no use. The fireworks and slick sheen are useless against a far more cynical electorate than we had in 1997. Substance is required, not spin.The challenges to the labour movement today are immense. And as someone once said, today is not a day for soundbites.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

War is what happens to other people

417. That is, at time of writing, the British death toll for the Afghan war. The latest victim was Pte Gregg Stone. He was 20. To put it another way, he was 9 when the planes hit the World Trade Centre.

After over a decade, the victories of the Western Alliance in Afghanistan are hard to spot. The Afghan opium trade is estimated at $4bn, a quarter of which accrues to the farmers. The entire Afghan economy is worth less than $18bn. Shariah is an embedded part of the country’s legal framework. The corrupt government of Hamid Kharzai barely extends to the suburbs of Kabul.

The right makes much of its veneration of the martial ideal, writing off those who ask whether this is a good thing as effete, liberal-socialist intellectuals who’d struggle to do a push-up. Personally, I resemble that remark. However beyond buying their Help-for-Heroes underpants, it’s curious how little of the aftermath conservative politicians and commentators like to deal with. The government is cutting mental health provision, even though soldiers are more likely to suffer mental health problems. It is restricting access to disability benefits, so those who have lost limbs in conflict will have to justify their benefits to those famously compassionate assessors from Atos.

Prime Minister’s Questions is perhaps the most stomach-churning display. From Tony Blair onwards, our leaders have invoked the names of the dead as an incantation of silence to stop the jeering from across the aisle. That stopping these deaths is entirely within the power of the Prime Minister is never mentioned. The subtle denial that there is a war going on can be heard when political correspondents discuss Britain’s deficit as “unprecedented in peacetime”. After all for them, and almost all of us, it is peacetime. It is interesting of course that our own crusader kings rarely impress the need to wear a tin hat for democracy on their own children. I have very little time for the House of Windsor, but its latest generation dutifully went off to fight the government’s fight. Euan Blair preferred Yale. Perhaps his fathers’ words about the importance of ‘boots on the ground’ were kept to the dispatch box not the dinner table.

Increasingly, Britain uses its armed forces to shore up a waning sense of national identity and importance, to make ourselves feel we are on the side of goodness and freedom. When the futility of our interventions becomes apparent, we bring out the bunting, hence the strange new event of ‘Armed Forces Day’ on the 30th of June. We vaunt the heroes collectively as symbols of national valour. We demand young people, disproportionately from the poorer areas of our islands, die, so we can feel good about our country. In many ways this is a reversion to the state of affairs that existed before the conscription of the World Wars and post-War national service. War is what happens to other people.

The recent hand-wringing over Syria brings this point home expertly. There is nothing stopping those who believe in Responsibility to Protect catching a plane to Lebanon, buying a gun and taking up the fight against the brutal Assad regime. It’s what the International Brigades did in Spain. Indeed, it’s what the Mujahedeen have been doing for decades. However with the exception of a handful of journalists, there seems a strange reluctance to follow this path. What liberal interventionists really want is NATO to kill Syrians until the Syrians stop killing Syrians. They want a vast military machine that comes at the cost of a social safety net for America’s poor, staffed disproportionately by America’s poor, to kill human beings they have never met. Civilian casualties, which are an inevitability, are acceptable.

I have no desire to die on the steppe or in the desert. Perhaps that makes me a coward. But I’m not asking anyone else to die there either. Going off the average monthly death toll for 2012, two more soldiers will be killed between when I write this and when we fly the flags on the 30th June. They will be in their twenties. They will be from the North of England or Wales. Their deaths will be pointless, and completely preventable. Can someone, please, tell me why they have to die?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The sound of the police

There have been a few stories on our boys in blue these last few weeks. The march by off-duty officers was received with a sort of curiosity by much of the union movement, as was their treatment of the Home Secretary. It’s like seeing the beagles start growling at the huntsmen.

The particular shock of the Police Federation is perhaps at the tactical incompetence of the government move as much as anything else. Having been ‘Thatcher’s praetorian guard’ during the 1980s, many must have assumed a government that has alienated doctors, teachers and the armed forces would have need of their particular services. Did the riots not drive home the point?

The sense that the police are somehow special seems to permeate the profession. The recent tendency to refer to the rest of us as ‘civilians’ is particularly grating, trickling in from American crime dramas. Unlike their American cousins, or the rest of Europe, the police are not a gendarmerie. In theory, a police officer has no power that you and I don’t have. They are not the state’s troops watching us, they are individual citizens who do full time the job we are all meant to be doing part time: upholding the law.

Of course I would like to blame all this on the Tories. However Dixon of Dock Green died when he was taken off the streets and put into a car by Roy Jenkins. The shift from neighbourhood policing to what we might call ‘fire brigade policing’ is the central issue, mirroring similar developments in the NHS. The police by and large are not patrolling and so helping to prevent crime, they are in cars speeding to where a crime has already occurred in order to deal with the after-effects.

One can understand why. ‘Beat’ policing is, by and large, a deeply boring job. It will mostly involve giving people directions, chatting to old ladies and walking the same streets for months on end. It’s social work rather than Starsky and Hutch. However it is precisely how one both re-assures a community, and gathers the intelligence which is necessary to intervene before a crime occurs.

The subsequent paramilitarisation; tasers, flak jackets, riot shields has furthered the distance between the police and the public. The open warfare between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the IRA in the 1970s was reflected in turn at Orgreave, Toxteth and Brixton in the 1980s and in the Poll Tax riots in 1990. Working class communities saw them as traitors, ethnic minorities as an occupying army.

Disastrously, but perhaps understandably, the police response was to become ever more insular. Brother officers were to be defended to the last.  This seems to even apply to its canine cops. In 2009 two police dogs  died when accidentally left in a car on a hot day. Their handler was prosecuted, and convicted, of animal cruelty. There have to date been no prosecutions relating to the 17 people who died in police custody that same year.

The police service’s problem has been further exacerbated by political events. In the wake of September 11th, they were given broad new powers under counter-terrorism legislation. This had two effects. First, it made mistakes more likely, Jean Charles de Menezes being the most famous. However the more telling response came with the protests over the Iraq War, and subsequent student protests over tuition fees. The police came into conflict with middle class people, with camera phones and law degrees. These people had also been watching the American dramas, and believed they had the right to protest where they wanted without fear of being kettled. Hence when the police bungled the raid on Forest Gate, or an officer threw Ian Tomlinson to the ground, there were plenty of people with the skills and the motivation to make sure the IPCC put the boot in.

Perhaps the final straw came in 2008, with the raid on Parliament. There was a scandalous response to MPs that their bastion had been violated, and without a warrant! When it was pointed out that the police didn’t need one, the incredulity only increased. It is perhaps the first time many legislators realised what the laws they’d been passing all these years actually meant. Since then the hacking scandal and the revolving door at the top of the Metropolitan Police has left the service with very few friends.

The current compensation for police officers may, or may not be justified. It is however the direct result of a Faustian pact. The police themselves helped bring about the social conditions in which their jobs can be outsourced to Serco, or deskilled to PCSOs. If you fight as a profession, to protect your own right you lose eventually, as the miners proved. If we fight together, for the benefit of all, we win.  The union movement should forgive, even if it can’t forget, but a decision needs to be made. Which side are you on boys, which side are you on?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Lucky Red

Golden Dawn now sit in the Greek Parliament. The National Front achieved their highest ever vote share in France.

Yet in Britain the BNP vote collapsed last week, with all their councillors up for re-election going down to defeat, and the party coming last in the London mayorals. Baroness Warsi got into considerable trouble for suggesting that UKIP, which averaged 13% of the vote in seats it contested, had come to some kind of arrangement with Nick Griffin’s party.

The view seemed rather odd to me. My occasional forays into the darker areas of internet politics showed much of the BNP think UKIP is an MI6 plot to divert nationalist and anti-European support into an incompetent Dad’s Army. That both Norman Tebbit and Nigel Farage suspected this back in 2001 is all the proof they need.

For my own part I think UKIP and the BNP are quite fundamentally different. It is only the tortured simplicity of the ‘left/right’ spectrum that puts them near each other. UKIP are the Tory Party in exile, the boat children of Maastricht, clinging to the Thatcher Dolchstosslegend of 1990.

They exist as a study in what the Tory Party might have become had John Major been overthrown in the early nineties. Despite their Euro-obsessionism, there’s little in their manifesto you wouldn’t find in the archives of the Adam Smith Institute or Policy Exchange.

The British National Party are the most prominent incarnation of a political jumble including the National Front, New Nationalist Party, EDL and a host of splinter groups leading back to the League of Empire Loyalists and the BUF.  A group of people, angry and not entirely sure why, electorally successful in inverse proportion to the number of jackboots visible.

While they may occasionally be joined, and led, by a member of the upper classes (such as their current Cantabrian chairman), their support mainly comes from the losers of modern Britain. Feeling there’s an injustice, but lacking the political framework to express it, they’re easy prey for those who can provide a scapegoat.

Fascism is the failure of social democracy. It springs up when parties which claim to speak for the people stop doing so. It is a denial shouted in the face of the notion that there is, ‘no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash payment’. We are social creatures, we need other people. You can’t change that any more than you can change your need for oxygen. In the absence of a message of a socialism based on freedom and justice, some will turn to a nationalism based on blood and soil.

Britain’s original experience with fascism re-enforces this notion. While Oswald Mosley and the Blackshirts after 1932 are well known, the Labour Party has tended to gloss over his road there. Right up until the Labour Party conference of 1930, when Mosley was on the NEC, he got the vote of 40% of the party against its own leadership. The cause was his memorandum, a document revolutionary at the time, recommending a massive program of public works.

Philip Snowden, still wedded to the notion that the Labour Party had to tolerate unemployment to be considered seriously, drove Mosley out of the party. After the disaster of the New Party, Mosley left the country to tour Europe. By the time he returned from Italy and Germany he saw democracy as a lost cause. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1945 Labour proved you didn’t need blood on the streets to effect change, that a transformation of British politics and society could be brought about by the democratic process, and by trusting the British public. That even the man known as the greatest Briton in history goes down to the will of the people.

The party, buoyed by its gains last week has a fine line to walk. It cannot ignore the electorate, but echoing economics which has failed and continues to fail because Very Serious People say so is the same road to nowhere. We are lucky that the Tories have Nigel Farage stirring up trouble and knocking a few points off them.

We are lucky the BNP are led by a distasteful holocaust denier, rather than a charismatic and organised young woman. We are lucky there is only one Alex Salmond, only one George Galloway and only one Boris Johnson. We need a plan for what happens when our luck runs out.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Brick Society

There are 2.65 million unemployed people in Britain. 1.7 million people are on the waiting list for social housing, while 2 million say they struggle to pay their rent or mortgage. I would not be the first person to point out that a mass programme of house-building would go some way to alleviate the unemployment problem. However, what if we made this a real ‘something for something’ project? What if people built their own homes?

Hear me out. The government sets up a public company to build a housing development. They provide the land, there’s plenty of it. If we run short we can always repeal a few of those Enclosure Acts as Peter Lazenby suggests. Then, you hire the usual medley of skilled labour; electricians, plumbers, carpenters etc. Finally, instead of searching round for the low-skilled labour which is part of any large scale construction project, you invite local people on JSA to apply. To be clear, these will be jobs paying at least the national minimum wage. The added draw is, you won’t just be lugging bricks around to build a home, you’ll be doing it to build your home. Every person who switches from JSA to working for the company, and stays in that job for the length of the build, is guaranteed a place in the completed development.

We can go even further, and nick an idea from Henry Ford. We could allow someone to contribute a portion of their gross income towards a shared ownership scheme for their property. They would not pay tax or national insurance upon this contribution, boosting it further. Since these people would essentially be deferring their wages, the up-front costs of employing them would be even lower.

Think about what this would create. At the end of the build, you would have dozens of people who had worked together now living in the same community. You would already have the social bonds that come from collective enterprise. In addition, no individual is going to tolerate vandalism to what they themselves built. You would have that sense of ownership, that sense of cohesion right from the beginning. When looking for new opportunities, people would have a proven track record of work and achievement, but they would also have those informal networks through which opportunities so often travel.

The old cry goes up, ‘where’s the money going to come from?’ The net salary for someone on the minimum wage working the standard 37.5hr week is £10,424. JSA annually is £3,692, so these are indeed significant increases. However, you could employ every one of those 2.65 million unemployed for two years for the projected cost of HS2. Further, the money spent would be offset by that saved over the longer term as the housing benefit bill fell and rents produced an income stream, to say nothing of previously jobless people going on to further employment. At the last, you have an asset: hundreds of thousands of new homes to house the people of Britain.

If you’re a conservative, love it because it rewards those who work. If you’re a socialist, love it because it is infrastructure investment by the interventionist state. And if you’re a woolly liberal, love it for those bonds of community it creates. Let’s have the Brick Society.