socialism

Ken Livingstone entertains Ilkley

An hour in a surprisingly less than packed King’s Hall with Ken Livingstone and we learn that (to summarise) pretty much everything that’s wrong with Britain can be blamed on Thatcher, bankers, and tax-dodgers, and most things wrong with politics (and in particular the Labour party) are Tony Blair’s fault. Which I think we already knew so it was a largely convivial evening among friends, marred only by interviewer Ruth Pitt’s insistence on asking several questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the Remain campaign. The referendum is long over, time to deal with the aftermath not endlessly dissect the handling of it.

Except as Ken pointed out early on, politicians need to learn from history, so perhaps dissecting it is a good thing in principle, just not in a relatively short interview. He also pointed out that because scientists tend to speak in cautious terms, politicians don’t tend to listen to them, and not many politicians have a scientific background so they remain technically unguided on many science-based issues (climate change is his biggest worry in this regard). In one of many memorable phrases of the evening (several of which it’s probably not a great idea to repeat) he said that when he was young, politicians were old, ugly and dull, concentrating on policies. Thanks to Blair (naturally) it’s all focus groups and telling people what they want to hear, with many MPs going from university to advising an MP to becoming one themselves. “They’ve never run stuff,” he complained – few ex-councillors, trade unionists, even small businessmen compared with say 30 years ago.

Ken Livingstone partly ascribed the rise of Jeremy Corbyn (which came as a surprise to him) to the anger of working class voters all across the Western world, veering either to the left or the right but not sticking to the centre: both Trump and Sanders in America, Podemos in Spain, Marine Le Pen in France for instance. He reckons that if Corbyn wins the 2020 election (which Livingstone believes he can) it will be the most significant election since 1979 and could/should herald real change. He did also point out that some of Corbyn’s ‘extreme’ policies were considered perfectly reasonable by previous governments (not only Labour!) and some of his own far-fetched GLC ideas of the 1980s are now accepted by the mainstream (like gay marriage, which was eventually introduced by a Tory government, unthinkable 40 years ago). He gave us an insight into long-running media smear campaigns and what dissenting voices have to put up with. It’s enough to put you off getting involved in politics in any way.

I’m not an uncritical fan of Ken Livingstone, though we share many political views. While I hadn’t heard of Jeremy Corbyn until he stood for the Labour leadership last year I’ve known about Ken for most of my life (you’d have to ask Big Brother for a rough estimate, but I think it’s since the days of Michael Foot) so it was interesting to go along and see him this evening, being largely amusing and laid back, making serious points, and not being afraid to speak his mind, as usual. And anyone playing the ever-popular Ken Livingstone Hitler Bingo would have scored in the first five minutes. If I was part of the Labour top team I think I’d consider measuring him up for a gag.

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The Establishment by Owen Jones

Owen Jones is northern, a socialist, and he writes for The Guardian. I even agree with his viewpoint a fair amount of the time (both in this book and in his articles). I should have loved The Establishment, but unfortunately I didn’t – something about the way it’s put together got my back up and made me start picking his arguments apart. If it does that to a comrade (yes I am using that in a slightly tongue in cheek way), how far will it go towards persuading an adversary?

The premise of the book is that a small, influential band – the big players in the commercial world, the media, the City – bypass democracy by having a quiet word with our elected politicians so they can have things their own way, no matter what the people want. In essence there is (so the theory goes) a prevailing ‘establishment’ viewpoint and to rock the boat is to invite reprisal, from being missed off someone’s Christmas list to being hounded by an unsympathetic and less than straightforward media. In many ways reading The Establishment (subtitled ‘and how they get away with it’) was like having a concentrated dose of Private Eye (and will be familiar territory to Eye readers) but with added sensationalism that fell somewhere between That’s Life and Our Tune. For me (and maybe I’m hard-hearted) the laying-it-on-thick sentimentality of the section about one woman’s loss of a son at Hillsborough undermined the very real tragedy of that day for her and her family, as well as the important point Jones was making about the shocking behaviour of the police and media.

When it comes to the webs of power and the shadowy connections between politicians of all stripes, corporate interests and high-profile journalists there are things that should be pointed out more widely, there are definitely things to worry about, and there are things I think shouldn’t be allowed (Gordon Brown’s wife apparently being high up in a financial PR firm when he was PM and had recently been Chancellor, for instance). Some of it comes across here as a bit conspiracy theorist though: this MP was seen having dinner with a family friend who works for this big firm who would benefit from a change in the law! The scandal is not that this group of people who went to school or university together, or worked together in their first jobs, are still friends now that they’ve diversified into government, lobbying, the BBC etc (I’d be more worried if they claimed not to be) but that so many of the influential jobs in the Westminster-media bubble are filled by such a small pool of candidates from such similar backgrounds.

The book sometimes got a bit repetitive (maybe in some cases he was just trying to ram a point home) and while it’s clearly been a long time in the making, with copious research and a long programme of interviews with influential people, it felt like the end product had been thrown together in a hurry, with the same sentence appearing in two consecutive paragraphs or a sentence both beginning and ending with ‘in 1994’ for example.

Where the book is stronger is the ‘Conclusion: a democratic revolution’ chapter. This is where the author’s passion comes through in a coherent argument about why anti-establishment types need to present a proper alternative, not just rail against what’s there now. I wonder how different this (and several arguments earlier in the book) would have been if there was the slightest hint that Jeremy Corbyn might be about to become Labour leader.

In short, while I applaud the intention, this book just didn’t do it for me. I’m not saying don’t read it (I still learnt a few things from it), but I recommend that you read some Owen Jones articles from The Guardian, read some Private Eye, and if you want to know about vested interests and spin, read the marvellous novel The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey or, even better, A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett (which I’ve written about here).

The EU referendum, identity and economics

First and foremost I’m from Yorkshire then I’m British. Not English – unless someone is trying to ascertain I’m definitely not Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish – and certainly not European.

Last year when there was talk during the election campaign of an EU referendum, my position could be summarised as don’t rock the boat. It didn’t seem to be hurting anyone, the public on the whole don’t have the knowledge (or the interest) to make an informed decision, and it would probably cost a lot of money to disentangle all that bureaucracy. If the referendum was tomorrow though I’d be voting to leave. So what’s changed?

I still don’t feel like I’d be making a properly informed decision. So far it’s all been sleight of hand or scaremongering on both sides, as far as I can tell. All the arguments for staying in that I’ve heard don’t seem to need us to be in the EU – yes they probably would be the case if we stayed in but it would also be perfectly possible if we came out. Except the university funding.

I don’t usually mention the day job around here, but I work in a support role at a university. We do get EU funding, we also have a whole bunch of students from the EU who only have to pay ‘home’ rated fees and would in future presumably have to pay international rates, not to mention the staff with an uncertain future because the freedom of movement would (presumably) end. Our Vice Chancellor was one of the signatories to the Sunday Times letter saying the UK should remain in the EU, and the official position of Universities UK (the industry body, as it were) is to remain. All that weighs heavily on me. And yet…

State Aid, that’s the big one for me. It seems to be a fundamental tenet of the EU that governments should not be able to assist their country’s businesses. I was vaguely aware of this rule in terms of renationalising the railways (which I’d love to see, the sooner the better) and the inaction on our teetering steel industry. However, this week in the day job I saw some funding council advice on what might constitute state aid, and how we need to be careful about consultancy work and spin-off companies (because we get government funding but would be assisting private companies), and it brought home how all-pervasive this is. I don’t see what’s so good about free markets anyway.

Not being massively clued-up on all of this I do keep wondering if I’m misinterpreting the (sparse) things I’ve read. After all, shouldn’t Jeremy Corbyn want to leave the EU if it’s as bad for socialism as it seems. Yet all the things I’ve read from the official Labour camp so far seem to talk about not the EU that exists (perceived in the UK at least to be overly bureaucratic and corrupt, whatever the reality) but some fantasy version that we could have if only we stayed in and spoke nicely to them. And after Cameron’s Tory point-scoring opted us out of all the main facets of the EU, it’s hard to see what’s left for him to want to cling onto.

I’m willing to be persuaded to change my mind, in fact I’m actively seeking reasons to stay in (the cost of disentanglement and the reduction in EU students still worries me). Until then, much to Big Brother’s disgust and my dad’s bemusement, I’m on the side of Michael Gove. Not a phrase I ever thought I’d write.

The Corbyn effect: when the political becomes personal

Some of the socialist and working class history books on the shelf of JY Saville

I’m feeling optimistic at the moment, generally sunny and bright and like anything is possible. These things are never simple, we all know that, but I can attribute part of it to Jeremy Corbyn (he’s not the messiah he’s a very lefty boy). Tenuous, you may say, trying to drum up a bit of blog traffic by latching on to the man of the moment, but regular readers should know I don’t have much appetite for that, and you don’t have to know me long to realise I’m a socialist (honestly I can bring politics into most conversations, appropriate or otherwise), so it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out I’d be supporting him.

It’s quite sad how refreshing it is to listen to a politician that sounds like they believe the words coming out of their mouth, and seems like they might actually have some principles they might stick to. I’m not saying politicians can never change their stance on anything, we all change our minds, maybe we’ve heard new evidence or thought about some consequence that never occurred to us before. All too often though, politicians seem like they’re swaying in the wind of public opinion. Honestly, I don’t care if you agree with me, I’d rather have a good lively debate, but you can’t do that if your heart’s not in it. I’d got a bit sick of politics, full of the same old insincere voices, wealthy and isolated in the Westminster bubble, until Mr Corbyn leapt into the leadership contest (wealth of Corbyn unknown but seemingly immaterial as it isn’t coupled with an I’m all right Jack attitude).

People are saying yes but would you want him as PM. To me that’s missing the point. It’s not that the socialists of England are only happy when they’re on the losing side, clearly winning an election and getting to put all these ideas for a fairer society into practice would be brilliant, but winning isn’t an end in itself. Pretending to be a branch of the Conservative party in order to trick a few floating voters seems pointless. Much better to be in opposition but standing up for what you and some portion of the electorate believe in. So I’m optimistic, the fifty shades of Tory politics of the last few years might be on its way out, we might get a debate on what Labour (or anyone else) stands for in the 21st century, and I might be able to vote with my conscience instead of tactically, holding my nose as I make the pencil cross. I’m fired up again (me and 50,000 other people, apparently).

While I’m feeling so good I’m getting stories finished, I’m entering writing competitions, I’m submitting to magazines more than I have in ages. If I make any money out of this sudden proliferation of work, I’ll have to send Jeremy a few quid for his leadership campaign as a thank you.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Not so long ago my dad expressed amazement that I hadn’t read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a staple of working-class literature. Being, if not quite a dutiful daughter, at least frequently guided by his reading recommendations, I downloaded the ebook from ManyBooks.

This 1910 novel follows for a year or so a group of painters and decorators in the South of England, from the teenage apprentice to the old men with failing eyesight, as they work for or are sacked in turn by Rushton’s. Every profiteering trick is exposed, from Rushton charging the house-holder for more coats of paint than have been used, to hiring general labourers (cheap rates) for a skilled job or sacking skilled workers then, knowing they’re desperate for work, re-hiring them at reduced rates. The philanthropy referred to is the selfless drive to increase Rushton’s profits, shown by almost all of the workers we meet in the book.

A distressing picture of working-class life at the time is portrayed, similar to that seen in Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York from a few years earlier, so it was presumably widespread. Families facing destitution no matter how hard they work, trapped by colluding employers and greedy landlords. Illness and malnourishment as a way of life, and the upper and middle classes so out of touch, with their let them eat cake attitudes. To say I enjoyed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists would seem wrong – it made me angry, frustrated, and gave me a frightening glimpse into the lives of my Edwardian ancestors – but I’m glad I read it.

Tressell was a socialist and the way he portrays the bosses and the conniving town councillors (mainly, of course, the same group of people) might be straying into caricature. However, through the character of Owen being persuaded to deliver lectures on socialism to his workmates on rainy lunchtimes (we could do with a laugh – tell us again why money’s the cause of poverty, ha ha) he argues persuasively for an alternative system and I defy anyone to read it and say his ideas aren’t logical (you are, naturally, free to disagree with it on principle). The sad thing is we achieved so much of it (the NHS, the welfare state, nationalised railways) and now it’s being dismantled again, so that some of the book has modern echoes. Some cynics would say there’s been a deliberate policy to return us to the days of Tressell and his mates, but I’m not sure if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t attribute to malice what incompetence can explain’ situations. That and let them eat cake.

The other thing he has a go at in the novel is (as Ruskin often does) the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Christians, congratulating themselves for attending church or chapel every Sunday yet with a ready excuse for any suggestion of Christ’s that doesn’t suit them. Things like giving charity, loving neighbours, not being a selfish and exploitative money-grabbing hardcase.

Although it’s making a strong political point, this is an engaging novel with quite a sprinkling of humour and biting satire, and I found myself wanting to know what happened to the characters. It is a bit old-fashioned in its delivery and its use of pointed names (Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Mr Sweater, Mr Grinder, Crass the foreman), but if you’re generally happy reading Victorian or Edwardian novels that shouldn’t bother you. Even if (especially if?) you’re not a lefty of historical bent, I would urge you to give this book a go.

Sudoku as socialist metaphor

I’ve been quiet for a while, and I’m not sure there’s a good reason (except for a stack of library books: 3 Philip K Dick and a William Gibson), I don’t have gathered knowledge and fascinating insights from the last ten days to share. OneMonkey, on the other hand, was musing the other day on solitary paper-based puzzles, and decided that sudoku was infinitely preferable to crosswords. Sudoku, he reasoned, is approachable by anyone as long as you tell them the rules, whereas crosswords often demand a rich vocabulary, knowledge of Shakespeare or Olympic athletes, ability to spot anagrams etc and are an elitist snobbish pastime designed to exclude. Crosswords as insidious tools of capitalist oppressors – discuss.