Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The devil takes the hindmost

It was 2am, I was drunk and in the back of a taxi heading home after a punk gig. None of these things are particularly remarkable. While I ranted, probably incoherently, to the driver I remember saying:

"What is important is that we look after the people who need help, the least fortunate in society."

"Yeah, you're right." The taxi driver agreed. "But what's also important is that we stop helping those who don’t need it."

My memory of this exchange is hazy but I got the sense that the driver agreed with me in the need for there to be a safety net but that she was concerned that is was currently being taken advantage of. Benefit fraud is not something that especially concerns me. The tiny amount claimed fraudulently is nothing compared to the amount of tax that is avoided and it seems ridiculous that we are so concerned about one and not about the other. Social obligations seem to only apply to the poor.

Benefit reforms will end the “something-for-nothing culture,” Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has claimed in the past. Variations on this statement are constantly being uttered by top Tory politicians. It is a popular line, no one believes that the government you should give you something for nothing, especially in the age of austerity. The Tories claim they are ending the “something-for-nothing culture”, then they cut benefits. Then later they are claim the same again and cut further. It is as if the “something-for-nothing culture” cannot be ended while we still have a welfare state.

July's emergency budget is likely to contain £12bn in further cuts to the Duncan Smith’s DWP budget which means further cuts to welfare. As always the justification for this is that it will encourage the workshy to finally turn off daytime TV, get off their sofa and find a job. Apparently, the billion in welfare cuts so far have not achieved this but this time it will be different.

There is only one slight flaw in this argument, most people claiming benefits are in work. This will not encourage the lazy to be productive, but will instead punish millions of cleaners, check out staff, call centre workers and other low earners. Some of the country’s hardest grafters are about to be punished for having a low paid job.

The reason why most people claiming benefits are in work is that wages are low and the cost of living is high. This is mainly due to our lack of regulation of the energy, housing and labour market. State subsidies are needed to top up millions of low paid workers' basic income. How will cutting benefits encourages these people to reduce their energy bills, be paid more or have cheaper housing remains to be explained.

David Cameron publicly admitted that low wages and high cost of living are the main cause for the large benefits bill. Cameron identified the problem but his motivation in solving it is to reduce the national debt and not to raise living standards for low earners. He said we need to move from a "low wage, high tax, high welfare society to a higher wage, low tax, low welfare society".

Cameron's proposed solution will not improve the situations for those with low wages. His plan is to remove the tax subsidies which top up low earners income but not put any pressure on employers to pay more. There is no plan to raise wages, for example by raising the minimum wage to be the living wage. In fact is removal of the tax subsides means that the target living wage will increase, as wages will have to rise to cover the income lost from benefit cuts. No one expects a Tory government to put pressure on big business to pay their staff more.

I want to know the logic behind how this will make people better off? How will cutting tax subsidies to low earners when wages are stagnant and the cost of living is high help anyone? This cut will hurt Cameron's precious “hard working families” the most. The people in work, on low wages, who work hard but still do not earn a living wage. These people will be made worse off.

Many of these people want to earn more but cannot because wage growth is low and because underemployment is a major economic barrier. Many of these people want to work more hours to raise their income but the jobs are not available for them to go it. They are trapped in low paying jobs and now their living standards will fall. The only effect this will have is to drive some people to work harder and be exploited more by their employers who are still not paying them a living wage.

This is the devil takes the hindmost approach to capitalism, taking away the safety net from those who fall behind. These reforms serve only to punish people in low paid work for being in low paid work. It is a policy conceived by the wealthy and it says: “I am okay. What is the problem? Surely anyone can earn more money if they want to”. The simple truth is that many people cannot earn more and now will be worse off.

The sad thing is that these reforms will be greeted with cheers in the press and in the streets. Many of those who support the cuts will be on low wages because the Tories are once again bringing an end to the “something-for-nothing culture” of benefits and encouraging people to work harder.

If we are worried about the benefits bill then we need higher wages and lower cost of living. We needs laws to ensure employees pay their staff a living wage. We need better regulation of the energy and private property market to reduce costs of living for those on low wages. We also need to understand that people claiming benefits are not getting “something-for-nothing” they are exercising a human right. They need compassion, not jibes.

Many people still believe that welfare is paid to the people who can work but simply choose not to and that the only solution is to cut benefits so that these people will finally get off the sofa and get a job. It will be a difficult journey to change this attitude but we can start by focusing on one basic fact: most people claiming benefits are already in work. If we approach the benefits bill from this angle then then government's policy makes no sense and will clearly hurt the working poor.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Diet is political

I can tell that you are rolling your eyes already, but bear with me. This is not an article about being vegan or animal rights, although those are interesting topics of discussion. This is also not an article about the fact that women's diets are surveyed and commented on more than men's, although this is clearly a political issue. This is an article about the way we talk about diet and what assumptions underpin these discussions.

Diet has a lot in common with politics; there are competing, sometimes radically different, ideologies fighting for dominance. What you eat says a lot about how you view yourself and the rest of the world. Not caring about diet is itself a statement about diet.

The people who hold the political opinion that we would be better off if we raised or lowered taxes want their views to be more widely adopted. Similarly people who endorse one diet or another have an agenda, an opinion they think would improve humanity if it were more widely adopted.

People who endorse one diet or another wish to alter the behaviour of others to help them and to help all of society, which in itself is noble. However there is an air of judgement when we talk about other people's food that is often cloaked by claiming that we want to help them. We do not make the same judgements when talking about other aspects of a person's behaviour, or health. Diet seems to be special in this regard. It is seen as more socially acceptable to comment on someone's diet than their appearance or body odour.

There is an expressly political aspect to the way we talk about diet. This arises when we talk about the obese using too much of the NHS’s resources. Using more than your fair share of health resources is seen as very bad in an age when we have a limited NHS - mainly due to Tory austerity. This overlooks the fact that not everyone is issued with the same set amount of health care, some people will need more and some will need less and the taxes of the people who need less will pay for the healthcare of the people who need more. This is the only fair way to run a health service. Despite this we still talk about the obese selfishly using more of the NHS than they are entitled to and there is even talk of the obese people being denied basic rights of free healthcare.

The way we talk about the obese as a society is similar to the way we talk about benefit claimants. Most people agree with the idea of benefits but a lot of people say that those on benefits are taking more than they deserve because of lifestyle choices. The same air of judgement is used in both cases. We talk of unemployment as if it is a lifestyle choice, much the same way we talk about obesity as if it is a lifestyle choice. Underpinning both these beliefs is the cold view that other people are lazy and society should not allow laziness to go unpunished.

If you hold this view that a lifestyle choice has entitled someone else to a greater share of society's scarce resources then this changes how you view other people’s behaviour. It changes other people's personal choices into social issues, which is what makes people feel entitled to comment someone else's diet. Talking about someone’s body odour is rude, but talking about someone’s diet is good for all of society because it could prevent someone from getting more of their fair share of scarce resources.

This is the language of the deserving and undeserving poor, and is linked in the mind of those who believe that bad diet and unemployment are solely the preserve of lazy poor people. People with this opinion generally do not mind rich obese people, it is poor obese people they object to. Incidentally unemployment is seen as a lifestyle choice based around laziness whereas wealth is not seen as a different lifestyle choice but a superior state of being, which we should all aspire too. This is the same way we talk about being thin and healthy.

This view is based on a classist assumptions that poor people are lazy and do not look after themselves. They sit around, not working, drinking lager, eating badly and then expect all this to be paid for by other people's hard work. In reality most benefits are claimed by people with jobs but on low wages. People who work hard jobs and are raising a family on a low income do not always have the time and the money to eat well. Bad diet and benefits are often not a factor of being lazy but of working hard and being paid little money.

Rather than saying that the poor should change their behaviour, we need to change their circumstances through better wages and working conditions. It is not enough for middle class people to say "I eat well so what is the problem?" This is based on the assumptions that poor people are lazy and it refuses to acknowledge the difficult circumstances other people face. It implies that poor people need to be forced to change, for the good of themselves, whereas in reality society needs to change to better accommodate the needs of the less well off.

Telling someone what you think their diet should be assumes that everyone else is in control of their own lives the way that a wealthy middle class person is. A lot of people are not, they are dependent on irregular work, they depend on benefits due to their low wages and increasingly they are dependent on the charity of others because of benefit cuts. If we want to make a positive difference in the lives of the less well off, and thus the health of the nation, then we need higher wages, more benefits and greater taxes on the well off to pay for all of this.

This is not an argument I hear people making very often, an argument for more government and more welfare, but it is the best solution to the problems caused by people not being on control of their lives – problems like obesity.

If, when we talk about other people’s diet, we really have their best interests at heart then we need to make an argument for better living standards and not just changing an individual's behaviour. Diet is political and my politics is about helping the less well-off and not just assuming they are lazy.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Why Labour need to resist the urge to go blue

Only minutes after Ed Miliband resigned two weeks ago, the traditional period of party soul searching was declared. Almost immediately there were comments and commentaries saying Labour lost because of the EdStone, because of UKIP, because of fear of the SNP or the ghost of Tony Blair. There have been points and counterpoints (our own can be found here but I want to focus on specific school of thought that is likely to become more prominent in the near future and that is Blue Labour.

Blue Labour is the brainchild of Maurice Glasman, a former adviser to Ed Miliband. The central tenet of Blue Labour is a return to a 19th century vision of socialism and refocusing the Labour Party as a social movement and not a political party. It focuses heavily on localism, workers co-operatives, and the involvement of religious organisations and community groups in the business of government.

I disagree with some of the core principles of Blue Labour for a few reasons. Localism, a focus on co-operatives and faith groups, empowering people in their communities and giving them more of a say in government are certainly policies I support. In fact, a more regional and local focus in politics will be essential moving forwards. However, behind this misty eyed reverence for 19th century Romanticism lies an at best misguided, or at worst dangerously outdated, view of what Labour’s future should be.

My first criticism of Blue Labour is that high minded and academic conference rhetoric about empowering communities and localism are fascinating and produce great material for Guardian articles and politics blog posts, but what do they mean in application? Blue Labour has at its heart a mistrust of the metropolitan liberalism, which is viewed as leading the party away from its core white working class support. I am worried that Blue Labour is likely to be translated into UKIP baiting rhetoric on immigration and social justice. It is worth noting that Glasman was forced to resign as an adviser after making comments that he would support a total ban on immigration.

The urge to become UKIP-lite or nice-UKIP in order to regain the support of working class Northerners must be resisted by the Labour Party as it only plays into the hands of UKIP. It is also somewhat patronising to assume that the best way to win back Northern working class voters is to adopt a tougher stance on immigration. Policies on employment, housing, the NHS and regionalism are more likely to win back lost support than simply assuming that everyone north of Watford is against immigration. On a more practical note, socially liberal metropolitans are the only supporters Labour seems to have left and it cannot afford to alienate them.

The small c conservatism at the heart of Blue Labour comes with their desire to return to a 19th century vision of socialism in small communities. This might seem appealing if you are a white, hetero-sexual male but it is unappealing to women, ethnic minorities or members of the LQBTQ community. It is telling that when Glasman mentioned the local movements Labour should connect with he did not mention grassroots feminist campaigns - the most successful grass roots left wing movement of recent years. Labour must not adopt a strategy of empowering local groups at the expense of hard won liberties. Rowenna Davis put it better than me in an open letter she wrote critical of Blue Labour:

“liberal rights and the role of the state has done a lot to help women – and many other groups for that matter – break out of community bonds that have often been oppressive, unaccountable and male dominated” – Rowenna Davis in The Guardian

Undoubtedly Labour has lost the support of a lot of people, especially Northern working class people, and steps need to be done to rectify this if the party is ever going to win a majority in the future. However a small c conservative approach will alienate women, ethnic minorities and members of the LGTBQ communities as well as their allies many of which are Northern, white and working class but still recognise the importance of solidarity with other oppressed groups. Solidarity is a core value of Labour and small c conservatism is opposed to solidarity.

The white working class Northerners have been alienated by Labour because of the Blair year's complete acceptance of globalisation and governments' failure to counter its negative side effects. Namely that those who are "uncompetitive" in the new globalised economy are pushed to the side. It these people who now vote UKIP, but they are fuelled by a dislike of globalisation and the professional political class which support it more than Farage's anti-immigration rhetoric.

This anti-globalisation has taken the form of UKIP style English nationalism, across the border in Scotland those who are opposed to globalisation are supporting the SNP and Scottish nationalism. Blue Labour overlooks the rise of nationalism, it says nothing about the votes for the Tories which were votes against Scottish nationalism and their influence in a future Labour government.

The rise in English and Scottish nationalism is the same as any other nationalist rising in that it has the three common principles that all nationalist believe:

1. They believe they are different from other nationalist risings.

2. They believe they are restoring a natural order or the way things should be.

3. They believe they are settling a historic injustice.

This is why we have Scottish nationalism directed against London and English nationalism directed against Brussels, but there is no East Midlands nationalism directed against London because it does not seem natural that the East Midlands should govern itself or that the East Midlands is particularly oppressed by London.

Rising nationalism is troubling and I am worried that Blue Labour would do nothing to stop this but would instead support it as a means of connecting with “ordinary people”. Labour should challenge our assumptions and not accept them out of a fear of looking like a “metropolitan elite”. The other reason why I am opposed to nationalism (both English and Scottish) is because there are things we need from a large government from, both in London and in Brussels. In short there is an argument for statism.

Statism is unpopular with traditional liberals and small c conservatives for ideological reasons, and with everyone else because the state is dogged with scandals and is viewed as inefficient. Leaving aside the point that an efficient state is a tyrannical one, localism is seen as the solution to both the problems of individual liberty and efficiency that statism throws up.

Localism and supporting community groups are great ideas, especially when central government is dominated by unpopular “grey suits”, but there are things we need a national government for. Organising transport planning cannot be done at a local level, for example, everyone agrees we need motorways but no one wants to live near them so a localised government would never be able to build them. It sounds callous, but there are some things which need to be imposed on us by a central government and most of these are unglamorous but essential things like power stations and sewage works.

Another thing we need imposed on us is taxes. If communities set their own taxes no one will pay tax as every community will think the burden should fall elsewhere. Also local communities have no power to stand up to large corporations, Blue Labour may draw inspiration from the socialism of the 19th century, but we did not have trans-national corporations in the same way back then, and certainly they did not involve themselves with every aspect of people’s lives.

This is why our modern globalised economy needs institutions like the EU and other trans-national organisations to reign in the power of multinational companies, ensure they pay their taxes and that the money is used to benefit those who are disproportionately affected by globalisation. Clearly there are problems with governments not doing this, especially the EU, but they are the only group capable of doing it and Blue Labour threatens to shrink the central government to the point where it cannot carry out this role. A strong central government can stand up to big companies, that is my argument for statism.

It is obvious that Labour needs to change direction to be in government again and radical new ideas are needed but as a party we need to look to future and not the past. Our new vision cannot be based on what the Labour was like in the 19th century, it has to respond to 20th century changes, globalisation, the need for statism and the civil liberties movement. Statist socialists like myself are as bad as Blue Labour for idealising the past, but we need to think about how socialism will operate in the 21st century and not be overcome by a misty eyed view of the past. The Labour party needs new ideas, informed by the past but not made of it.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Party’s Over

The party’s over, and along with it, our hopes for a more progressive Britain. As we clear away the emptied bottles and filled ashtrays, as the dust settles, there’s one opinion we’re going to hear a lot of: Labour lost because they were too left-wing. From the usual pundits, naturally, but from within the Labour Party as well. You can almost hear the steely scrape of Blairite knives being sharpened, (like here, for example).

It’ll come as no surprise that Red Train disagrees with this reactionary interpretation. But, as Labour’s right-wing is so fond of reminding us, the party hasn’t won an election without Tony Blair since 1974. So how the hell can we justify our position?

Looking back, Labour has had a rather bi-polar election campaign, lurching about from issue to issue almost as much as the Tories - at least until the latter lighted upon the electoral goldmine of fear of the SNP. Attacked by the Tories from their right, they’ve also had to fend off – not very effectively, as it turns out – attacks from the left in Scotland. The party’s response to the rise of the SNP was to put arch-Blairite Jim Murphy in charge, for the party to be quickly and memorably dismissed as ‘red Tories’.

The SNP’s success cannot be easily dismissed as just about nationalism. Of the thousands who voted SNP on Thursday, not all of them can have voted for independence a few months ago. This was about Scotland, having been presented with a viable alternative, thoroughly rejecting the neo-liberal consensus of the main parties. Who’s to say that England, given a genuine alternative, might not have done the same? As discussed here before, the Green Party are neither consistently left-wing enough, nor diverse enough, to be that real alternative. The SNP, conversely, look and sound like their own voters.

My argument for a left-wing Labour leadership actually has very little to do with left-wing ideology, and more to do with my interpretation of the political game itself. If you’ve watched any news channel in the past few weeks, I’ll bet that I know what’s the most common criticism of party politics you’ve heard: the three main parties are so similar, you can’t even fit a cigarette paper between them. You hear it equally from people on both extremes. From potential Green Party voters. From potential UKIP voters. From potential non-voters. And it isn’t popular. It turns people off not only the Labour Party, but off party politics in general.

To me, the answer is simple. It isn’t about starting a new left-wing movement, or supporting a different party like the Greens or whoever. It’s about the whole flawed premise under which all of the main parties struggle along: electoral success is to be found exclusively in chasing the centre ground. In painstakingly ascertaining the public’s opinion, and then reflecting it back at them.

Problem is, it isn’t true. The public find themselves surrounded by yes men, and they hate it. Like third-world politicians who universally claim to be ‘for the poor’, without ever explaining what this might entail, focus-group chasing only angers and disengages people. Labour believe it hook, line and sinker, of course, and have done for ages. It’s this, rather than any policy decision, that kept the wind out of Miliband’s sails. Having taken a tiny, tentative step to the left under his tenure, the party cowers in fear of what the tabloids might have to say about it, backing off from any opportunity to actually put forward his views. We’re left, then, with the mostly unchallenged discourse about ‘Red Ed’, a dangerous radical who wants to take Britain back to the seventies.

In contrast, I think that the job of political parties shouldn’t be to obsess over what the electorate thinks, and then tell them what they already know. It ought to be to present a compelling vision of what kind of society they think we should live in – and then to do their best to convince us that it’s the right one. To finish every speech with ‘...well, this is what we think. If you agree with it, vote for us. If you don’t, vote for someone else.’ Now, how refreshing would that be? Moaning about the Miliband leadership’s lurch to the left completely misses the point. Like socialism itself, it’s impossible to say how this would have actually turned out, because it hasn’t really been tried yet.

When they haven’t been doing their best to sound exactly like each other, the parties have been shouldering each other out of the way to tell us how their plans have been meticulously costed, independently audited, checked and double checked by the economists. I don’t think I can imagine anything more depressing. Of course it’s important to be able to prove that you can afford to do what you say you’re going to do. But running a national economy isn’t as precisely similar to managing a household budget as the Tories would like you to think.

In buying into this narrative, Labour have confused vision with strategy. Vision ought to be about what kind of society you’re aiming for. Strategy is merely about how you’ll realise it. If you cannot convince people about the destination you want to set out for, it’s irrelevant whether you can persuade them about the cost of the train fare. Strategy without an underpinning vision, a moral vision, is surely redundant in an organisation like Labour.

Finally, to respond to a point that’s already been made a mind-numbing amount of times since Ed MIliband stepped down. Yes, it’s true that Labour won three elections under a right-wing, ‘business-friendly’ leadership from 1997 onwards. But – leaving aside the fact that a terrier clutching a Labour Party rosette between its teeth could have beaten John Major in ‘97 – the context’s completely different these days.

Back then, there was the feel-good factor. Life felt pretty good if you were in the middle of the economic sandwich; perhaps most voters were indeed, to paraphrase a New Labour grandee, intensely relaxed about people getting super-rich as long as things were basically OK for everyone else too. But times have changed so much since then it hurts. The ideology-free politics of those retrospectively golden, easy years simply cannot be applied to today. The electorate may not have wanted whatever it was that they believed Ed Miliband was offering. But what they also certainly don’t want is three parties who sound almost exactly the same as each other.

UKIP, as much as the SNP, are the manifest lesson in this. Abhorrent though I find their opinions, I do at least respect them for this: they became popular, to the extent of becoming decisively the third party in English politics, by speaking their mind, rather than blustering around trying to convert the latest opinion poll results into policies. More than any of the three main parties, UKIP were successful in projecting a compelling vision of what they wanted Britain to be, and what it shouldn’t be.

Now, doing this is relatively easy for parties of the right, because they prey upon peoples’ worst instincts. On their prejudices, their worries, their fears. To do this as a left-wing party is much more difficult, because it involves appealing instead to peoples’ better instincts. To the inherent belief in fairness, compassion and equality of opportunity that most people hold dear. To make this vision listened to is going to be difficult, for sure. But when it comes to the conversation about the future of the Labour Party we’ll inevitably soon be having, I can’t think of anything more worthwhile.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Why I am voting for Labour

Before I talk about voting Labour in 2015, I want to talk about the people who voted Tory in 2010, specifically the people who voted Tory because of David Cameron. Many people voted Tory because they believed in Cameron's plan to modernise the Tory Party, to move it away from its nasty party image, and his pro-business agenda. However some of these showed their support for Cameron by voting for a right-wing Eurosceptic local Tory candidate. These backbench MPs have dragged the Tory party to the right and now threaten to take Britain out of the EU. Whatever you think about the EU, most people agree leaving would be bad for business. Pro-business Cameron supporters damaged the policies they believed in by supporting right wing Eurosceptic candidates. The lesson from this? Who your local candidate is matters.

Many of the above people did not know they were voting against what the wanted. Most likely they had not researched what their local Tory candidate actually stood for. They agreed with Cameron so they voted Tory. Ironically these people would have been better off voting Lib Dem.

This election campaign has focused on the party leaders and personality politics but what your local party candidates believe is just as important. They say that all politics is local; this is especially true with coalition governments. Supporters of a Labour/SNP or Tory/Lib Dem coalition may bring these governments down by voting for the rebellious backbench MPs whose rebellions will eventually unravel a coalition agreement.

I want to avoid this by focusing on who my local candidates are. I want a local MP I can trust to represent the values I believe in. This is why I am voting Labour: because of my local MP Stella Creasy.

The Labour party may be struggling to find its ideology but Creasy certainly is not. She is a socialist, a feminist and a supporter of the co-operative movement. She has spearheaded campaigns against predatory payday loans companies and the harassment of women online. She is committed to defending the NHS and repealing the hated Health and Social Care act. All this I am very much in favour of.

Creasy is an MP who is passionate about Walthamstow, which sounds cheesy but it is true. She supports the campaign for our local EMD cinema and she frequently tweets about Walthamstow. She shows the same interest for the area as the people who live here, which is the first time I can say that about my local MP. Creasy is someone who represents all of Walthamstow, not just the well off gentrifiers who have moved to the area recently but also the less well off who have lived in the area for longer.

To a degree, the national campaign is a factory in my decision to vote Labour. Under Ed Miliband Labour have moved further left than they were in the Blair/Brown years and I want to reward this move with my electoral support. This is mainly because if Miliband does not become the Prime Minister, this slight shift the left will be blamed and the next Labour leader will move the party to the right. Perhaps further to the right than Blair. As a Labour socialist, this must be opposed. It is difficult for me to argue for moving the Labour party to the left if I do not vote for them when they do move to the left, even if it is only a small drift in that direction.

One thing which is inspiring about the Labour party are some of the younger MPs and candidates who have solid left wing credentials. Not just Creasy, another example is Cat Smith, standing in Lancaster and Fleetwood, who is an outspoken feminist. It is inspiring to see Labour’s radical roots alive in this younger generation.

The Green Party do have a lot of passion and a lot of good policies, which is encouraging to a radical lefty like myself, however they are untested in government and I am wary of falling into the same trap I did with the Lib Dems in 2010. The Greens are also not as diverse as Labour and a true left wing movement for change would be made up of the people it is trying to help.

I am willing to trust Labour once more to be a decent party of the left. This is mainly because of new generation of left-wing MPs emerging like Stella Creasy, but also because I know that Labour can be a powerful force for making society better for all and not just the wealthy. I want to continue supporting Labour because I have faith in the roots from which the party came, I have faith in what the party has stood for during most of its life and I have that they can help the poor and disenfranchised.

Our society is dangerously divided and dangerously unequal. We blame the poor and immigrants for the problems caused by the wealthy. However Labour activists and Labour candidates are standing for the most needy in our society and they need our electoral support to be able to help the poor. In the worlds of Billy Bragg’s Between The Wars, “ I kept the faith, and I kept voting, not for the iron fist, but for the helping hand.” Don't let me down, Labour. I am trusting you.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Are the Green Party playing the game or changing the game?

The Green Party are likely to do better in this coming general election than the have done in previous general elections. Despite this the campaigning itself is not going especially well for them. Natalie Bennett’s media gaffes aside, the general theme of the current political debate is not around climate change or social welfare, which is where the Greens are strongest. The debate is focused on economic competence and deficit reductions, where they’re weak.

Elections are not won or lost based on how good your answer to the voters’ questions are; they are won when the voters ask the questions to which you have the best answer. The election is a battle to change the topic of political conversation in a party's favour, something the Green Party is not doing especially well. This is mainly because they are a small party and have less sympathetic friends in the media, but it is also because they are not connecting with enough voters.

When I mentioned this in discussion with a friend and Green Party supporter, she replied that what I described was "playing the game" and that the appeal of the Green Party is that they do not behave like the other parties, made up of career politicians and spin doctors. The Greens want to change the game of politics to something more accessible to ordinary people. This got me thinking, are the Green Party playing the game of politics or changing the game? Are they different from the other, more established parties, or they are just politicians of a different stripe?

The Green Party certainly do not make arguments like any other party. They are the only party openly challenging the neo-liberal consensus that has gripped politics for the last 30 years. They argue for benefits, in favour of immigration and for taxing the wealthy. The Labour Party do not openly endorse these policies, and the cabal of right-wing parties are completely against them. In terms of policy the Greens do seem to be genuinely different from the other Westminster parties – the regional independence parties are a different case.

Politics is all about establishing a narrative, the Tories have done this very effectively with their “Labour's borrowing caused the financial crisis and austerity will restore prosperity” narrative. The other Westminster parties are following this narrative to a greater or lesser degree; Labour have promised spending cuts if they are returned to government. The Greens are the main Westminster party that is challenging this narrative. However the new narrative laid out by the Green Party is a more radical change to politics.

The Green Party are challenging all of our established ideas on benefits, on spending and even on economic growth itself. They are the only Westminster Party making a strong case for benefits as a safety net for the less fortunate. They are the only Westminster Party making a case for public spending as the driving engine of not only prosperity but also equality. They are also challenging the idea of economic growth as a goal in itself and attempting to assert a new narrative about preserving our natural environment.

Such a radical change to our political narrative cannot be considered to be "playing the game". Labour are playing the game by signing up to the Tories narrative on spending cuts and deficit reeducation. The Greens are refusing to play this game and are attempting to assert a radical new narrative of their own.

A new narrative could also be considered “playing the game of politics”, changing the game would involve being a party that is different to the Westminster parties. A party made up of people disenfranchised from the game of politics. Westminster politics is dominated by white, male, middle-class, career politicians from public schools. A party changing the game would ne the opposite of this.

So how diverse are the Greens? On the surface they are very diverse they have a female leader and their only MP is a woman, which is certainly different from the other four Westminster parties. However their candidates, activists and supporters are mainly white and mainly middle class, this is true even of the their leader. One of the key problems the Green Party face is lack of working class support despite a raft of policies aimed at those with low incomes. They are incapable of shaking their middle-class Guardian reading, organic yogurt eating image and this is partly because of their lack of diversity from an ethnic and class point of view.

This Guardian video shows how undiverse in terms of race and class the Green Party activists in Bristol West are. It also shows the problems they are having in reaching out to voters who are not white and middle class. The Greens maybe trying to change the game of politics but from many disenfranchised voters point of view, they look the other Westminster parties.

Despite the Green Party’s lack of diversity they do have a lot of policies that could benefit disenfranchised voters abandoned by other parties. However the Greens still have a problem connecting with the people who stand the most to benefit from their policies. One reason for this is that they couched their radical vision in the language the other parties use. Bennett is quick to use phrases such as “fully costed”; to disenfranchised voters this makes them look the same as the other parties. The Greens have a different way of doing politics, but by using the language of the other Westminster parties they are not changing the game of politics and not differentiating themselves enough to disenfranchised voters.

The Green Party called for a peaceful revolution against the established order of Westminster but their revolution looks very white and middle class. From my point of view, a real revolution against the political establishment would both represent and appeal to the poor, the disenfranchised and members of ethic and social minorities.

The Greens are not popular enough with the poor and ethnic monitories which are overlooked by the other Westminster Parties to be changing the game of politics, nor do they adequately represent these groups - which would be necessary to change the game of politics.

The Green Party may not be leading a revolution, but they are challenging the established political narrative, which is a welcome change. The Greens are not changing the game of politics but they are playing it in a new and interesting way.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

TV Debate

I watched the TV debate as a potential swing voter. I am currently leaning towards voting Labour but the party’s proposed policies are a lot less radical than my own views. I feel a lot of sympathy for the Greens, who are genuinely passionate about radical change to our society. I watched the debates wanting to be convinced by Ed Miliband, but strangely found Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru and Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP more convincing.

Wood passionately defended the NHS in a section where she talked about how it had begun in Wales and needed to be funded by general taxation - something I very much believe in. Despite Miliband's best attempts to gain ground on the NHS, he failed to sound as passionate about the institution as Wood did. Wood also mentioned the skill gap which immigration fills, particular in the NHS, when the main party leaders were falling over themselves trying to appeal to the slightly xenophobic middle-Englander, something I found especially repugnant.

Wood received the first applause of the evening when she stood up to Nigel Farage’s scapegoating of immigrants and scaremongering over HIV. I cheered when she told Farage that "he should be ashamed of himself" whilst defending immigration and the role immigrants play in society. I wanted Miliband to stand up to the embodiment of self-entitled English bigotry, but all he managed were a few hesitant points about peoples’ concerns, which did nothing to win me over and nothing to convince swing voters that Labour is "tough on immigration". The fact that Labour want to appear tough on immigration disappointments me, they should not be allowing the right to dominate this issue so much as it only benefits the Conservatives and UKIP, and Labour will never be viewed as credible on this issue.

Sturgeon also voiced her opposition to austerity and talked about the need to raise government spending to invest and create jobs. I was disappointed that Miliband is determined to emphasise that a Labour government would cut more from the budget, during a time when unemployment is still high, there is underinvestment in infrastructure, and inequality is very significant. Five years of Tory austerity has made us a harsher, meaner, less equal, more money focused society, governed by small-minded bean counters who would propagate suffering if it was cost effective.

We have come through the first recession in history where the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer. The vast accumulation of wealth and opportunity by a small fraction of society threatens the re-emergence of the class system and has broken the mantra that hard work is rewarded; this concept remains only as a political sound-bite. The Labour Party should be whole-heartedly opposed to this, however it fell to Sturgeon to defend the role of government spending.

We can fight inequality and self-interest through the government spending Sturgeon defended, through the NHS, through investing in homes, through welfare spending. Miliband appears to prefer a holding pattern above the point where the Victorian social structure would return, instead of defending the role of government. This is presumably so that a future Tory government can push us over the edge. I was disappointed by the Labour leader, but encouraged by the SNP leader’s arguments.

Sturgeon stood up to Cameron's plans for future welfare cuts. A Labour leader I could be proud of would have stood up to Cameron's plans to balance the nation's books on the back of the poorest whilst cutting taxes for the rich, but he did not. Most likely out of fear of offending the above mentioned small minded bean counters who will never think Labour are credible economically anyway. Labour do best electorally when they capture a spirit of optimism about the future, not trepidation.

I do not seem to be along in thinking that Sturgeon did well that night, she topped 3 out of 4 snap polls asking who had won the debate, one third of Labour and Lib Dem voters support Sturgeon and the most Googled phrase after the debate was whether a non-resident of Scotland can vote SNP. Clearly a significant section of the public, even the English public, agree with Sturgeon’s arguments, so why is Labour so keen to be out flanked on the left by Plaid and the SNP? Is it to gain the vote of the cynical self-interested centrist? I would prefer a Labour Party that appeals to our aspirations (as the SNP does and has Labour did when it won big in the past) rather than a Labour party that appeals to cynical self-interest. I am disappointed by how uninspiring Miliband's arguments are and those of Wood and Sturgeon pleasantly surprised me.

Miliband did have some good moments during the debate. I agree with his dismissal of trickle-down economics, which has only succeeded in creating one of the most unequal societies in history – even if he demonstrated little belief in an alternative. I also agreed with Miliband when he talked about the pressures on private renters and the exploitation of immigrants. These were good moments when he showed some genuine compassion.

Miliband was certainly not the biggest loser of the last debate. That was Farage who at best came across as a broken record and at worst as a dripping xenophobic imbecile, which will no doubt please his core demographic but is unlikely to sway anyone else. Miliband did well but failed to inspire me the way that Wood and Sturgeon did. I want a Labour leader who leads on left wing issues and inspires people to vote for them with a positive vision of a fairer, more equal future. I saw this from Wood and Sturgeon; I did not see this from Miliband.