Sunday, 7 February 2016

What makes a leader?

Sometimes it feels like our leaders are cut from a different cloth than the rest of us. They are frequently tall and good-looking, always smartly dressed and knowledgeable. They project these characteristics with confidence; this is how you know who is in charge when you walk into a room.

A myth has grown up around our political and business leaders that they have the most experience, they are the most knowledgeable and have the most creative ways of tackling problems. Why else would they be in charge? The rest of us have to have faith that the people in charge know what they are doing. We believe that our leaders are creative, innovative and original thinkers and that the incentive system rewards creative, innovative and original thinking. In reality our leaders are none of these things.

Professor Aeron Davis has specialized in studying our leaders, the elite or the 1%. He has talked to powerful people in the worlds of business, finance and government, including CEOs, venture capitalists, senior civil servants, politicians and policy advisers. Last Tuesday, in a lecture at Goldsmiths University, he shared some insights into what he has discovered about the people who control our lives.

The first thing that Professor Davis discovered is that leadership is like speed dating. This may seem like a strange comparison, but when you consider speed dating is a lot of people hopping from table to table quickly, then this is quite an accurate analogy for leadership. In his research, Davis discovered that a third of CEOs had been in their current positions for less than 2 years, and two thirds had been in their job for less than 5 years. One-year contracts for top executives are becoming more common. Top executives move in, work briefly in a senior position and then move on to another one at a speed that is completely alien to most people’s career progression.

The same is true of top positions in the government. Davis discovered that most cabinet ministers hold their job for less than two years. Senior civil servants and advisers are also moved from role to role every few years. In the world of finance, the average time a share is owned before being traded has dropped to 22 seconds. All of this makes me wonder how CEOs, investors or ministers can have any knowledge of what they own or run? The simple answer is that they do not. Often our leaders have no experience or understanding of what they lead. How can they when their tenures are so short?

Leaders many not understand the government department or company which they are running, but they understand the problems they are trying to solve, right? Surely in our modern competitive world, you can only get ahead by providing a solution to a need or want experienced by a large number of people? Not according to Professor Davis, who said that the lives of CEOs are a never-ending conveyor belt of fast-paced meetings. Their understanding of the needs or wants of our lives are limited.

Most senior business leaders or politicians only associate with each other in environments from which ordinary people are excluded. A good example is the arcane customs of parliament, which make outsiders feel unwelcome but send subtle signs to elites that they are in their own space. During the documentary Inside the Commons, David Cameron remarked that parliament looked like a cross between a church and a school. My school, a state run prefabricated modernist structure, did not look remotely like the neo-gothic pomposity of the Palace of Westminster, but parliament is not a place for people like me, it is a place for people like David Cameron.

We have an image of leaders - especially in business - as brilliant iconoclasts, people who think differently and create new products or ideas. Steve Jobs, for example, was someone who created a dazzling array of new consumer goods and conquered the technology market. Never mind that Jobs did not invent the computer, MP3 player, smart phone or tablet, most leaders are not even original enough to refine a product that someone else has invented. Due to their short contracts, leaders are quite risk-averse and creating something new is risky.

If doing something new it goes wrong, then a CEO can wave goodbye to the extremely high-paid speed-leadership scene and go back to living like the rest of us. CEOs would rather not risk it. Following what other companies are doing is much easier. Apple can popularise the tablet and then every other company can follow them into that market. It is safer that way. Maybe this is why we have a huge number of smart phones on the market but no flying cars.

Jokes aside, the image of the freethinking innovative business leader is a myth. Professor Davis claimed that leaders are more like lemmings, blindly following each other in the same direction. This is as true for politicians as it is for CEOs. Thatcher brought in neo-liberalism, and Labour followed suit. Blair had his army of spin-doctors and media-trained professional politicians, and now the Tories have the same. Original ideas are too risky. This is why every economy in the world liberalised their financial sector and transferred enormous power to their banks. Finding a different economic model was too risky, even when the risk of financial meltdown was high. This is why we have not had banking reform even after the 2008 financial crash.

The final one of Professor Davis’s insights into our leaders is the culture of targets. He said many of the CEOs and financiers that he met told them that neo-liberalism is a superior economic model to socialism or a mixed economy, but in application they did not see how free markets worked any better than state intervention. What works is targets. Targets set by leaders and then implemented by everyone else.

CEOs or government ministers are very good at gaming this system of targets to their own advantage, mainly because they set the targets. This has led to everyone else’s work becoming part of a giant computerised accounting system, where we are all compared to how efficiently we achieve our targets. The long-term effects of this have been wage stagnation and insecure employment, but also rapid economic growth and spiraling rewards for those at the top. Most people think the financial incentive system is set up to encourage effective leaderships, whereas in reality it is exploited by our leaders for their own financial advantage.

The leaders of business, finance, the civil service and politics live in a world isolated from everyone else, where they set their own short-term targets, follow what everyone else is doing, see a short-term uptick, and then rapidly move on to a better-paid position somewhere else. We have to complete their targets and have faith that our leaders know what is best for us. Over time, inequality has worsened, living standards have fallen and our leaders have become more remote from us. The net result of all this is that the world belongs to the 1%, and the rest of us just live in it.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Can the left blame its failures on the right wing media?

Last week saw the publication of Margaret Beckett’s report into why Labour lost last year’s the general election. The report can be read in a number of ways to confirm your own views about what Labour did wrong. During this period of Labour Party soul searching it is worth remembering what the weeks leading up to last May’s election were actually like. Immediately before the election the right wing press were full of images of Ed Miliband looking weird eating a bacon sandwich, front page articles about how his economic policies would bankrupt the country and how Labour had let an army of migrants into the country to simultaneously steal your job and claim benefits.

The Beckett report confirmed the perception that Labour was out of step with what most voters wanted, especially in terms of the economy, benefits and immigration. I find myself asking: were Labour out of step with public opinion, or were the public told Labour was out of step by the right wing media? Miliband committed to austerity, and controls on immigration, but it did not make a difference at the ballot box. Was this because the right wing papers rubbished Miliband from the start and never allowed his policies to have a fair hearing?

The power and influence of the nebulous right wing media are often cited by lefties on both sides of the Atlantic as the reason for electoral failure. Surely the masses would embrace nationalisation and higher taxes on the wealthy if only someone would explain to them how this is in their interest, preferably in words of three syllables or less. Maybe the left should stop using the right wing media as an excuse and confront its lack of popularity? After all, circulation of newspapers is declining. In Britain we have (largely) unbiased TV news coverage, and social media offers a far greater ability to reach people directly and convince them to support left wing policies.

When looking at this argument, it must first be said that there is clearly an overwhelming right wing bias in the print media. This is not imaginary. Apart from the Guardian and the Mirror, every mainstream daily paper supported a ring wing party in the last election - they all supported the Tories apart from the Express, which supported UKIP.

The coverage of Cameron and co. is generally favourable. The most glaring example of this is the press’s reaction to the comprehensive spending review in November. In the run up to the election, Labour campaigned on less austerity, higher corporation tax and a mansion tax on expensive homes. The papers’ reaction was that this would be the end of Britain, capitalism would crumble as incentives to be successful were removed, the rich would all move overseas and take their money with them, the deficit would swell and we would face an economic crisis of the same magnitude as Greece’s. Labour’s policies were a socialist dagger aimed at heart of Britain.

Then along comes the comprehensive spending review and George Osborne puts back his own deficit reduction target as well as raising corporation tax and stamp duty. The papers praise him as a level-headed chancellor, a moderate liberal claiming the centre ground of politics. Labour’s grab at the homes of rich would have put grannies onto the street. Osborn’s is a sensible policy for a more prosperous Britain.

John McDonnell did not help matters by waving around Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, but even so, the magnitude of Osborne's U-turn on working tax credits, on tax cuts and clearing the deficit went entirely unacknowledged. The Independent tried to draw everyone's attention to the gaping silence over Osborne’s back and forth on the economy: “George Osborne executes a tyre-melting U-turn over tax credits, and the nation’s ears are drawn away by the gentle thud of a little red book landing on a table.” However there was little open criticism of the government. Another painful example is when during the election campaign Cameron forgot his supposed football allegiance, saying he supported West Ham when in 2010 he claimed his team was Aston Villa. Could you imagine what would happen if the Labour leader had made this mistake in the weeks before an election? The front pages would be filled with photoshopped images of Miliband in different team’s stripes or probably as a giant ham.

The circulation of newspapers is declining steeply. In 1997 The Sun sold an average of 3.8 Million papers a day. Today it is less than 2 million. Over the same time period the Guardian’s circulation fell from 430,000 papers a day to 185,000. However these papers still have a lot of influence. Millions of non-purchasers still absorb their headlines in the newsagent’s queue. The power of their brands has made them very competitive in the growing space on online news and social media. People trust established papers and its shows in the fact that the Mail online is the most read news source in the UK. The Sun as a million Twitter followers, whereas the Carny (a new online only, left wing news source) has less than 4 thousand Twitter followers. The power of established newspapers brands to decide what is news and what is talked about is still very high.

The question is, does any of this influence the way people vote? Most news and commentary is read by people who follow politics regularly and most of these people have a set party affiliation. Social media - for all its ability to take left wing message directly to those who can benefits from them - is in reality a vast echo chamber, bouncing people’s own opinions back at them. Guardian editorials attacking the savagery of benefit cuts are shared and read by people who were going to vote Labour anyway. Telegraph editorials about the need to reduce the deficit are ready by Tory voters. Biased words falling on biased ears.

The newspapers do shape public opinion but they are also shaped by public opinion. Case in point is the Daily Mail putting a drowned Syrian refugee on their front page. The huge swell of support for the refugees in public opinion forced a newspaper that is typically strongly against immigration to take, for a time, a more compassionate line.

The right wing media also back the party that is going to win, whatever that party is. Despite headlines about Ed Miliband being in Nicola Sturgeon's pocket, The Scottish Sun endorsed the SNP in the general election, because they were going to win whatever happened.

My view is that the right wing media is not an impassable bar to left wing progress. The media follows public opinion as much as public opinion follows the media. I believe that the right wing press makes it harder to put left wing arguments across, but not impossible. When used properly, social media and online news can reach people directly and circumvent the right wing dominance of the printed media. When the left is doing badly then the press will be an obstacle to electoral success. When the left is doing a good job of getting our arguments across, then the press will fall in line behind popular and successful arguments.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Why David Cameron is not a compassionate conservative

David Cameron is legacy conscious, that is the take away from a speech he made earlier in the week. He wants to be remembered as more than an administrator in chief, someone who made a few reforms and reduced (but did not clear) the deficit. He wants to change society in a way he will be remembered for. Margaret Thatcher brought the language of the market into everyday life. Tony Blair oversaw huge social liberalisation. Cameron has survived three referendums and that is it.

Cameron started out wanting to be a moderniser. He wanted to ditch the Tory's "nasty party” image and occupy the centre ground of British politics the way Blair did for Labour in the 1990s. Now Cameron is legacy conscious; he is drawn back to the idea of compassionate conservatism that he championed in his early days as party leader. Cameron wants the Tory party to tackle the social ills and deep rooted problems of Britain.

I believe that Cameron really does want to tackle the country’s complex problems and leave office with more people from all walks of life better off than when he arrived. I also believe this goes further than a nebulous desire to help people and that he has ideas about how to tackle Britain’s social problems. However, these ideas have never come together into something tangible. Cameron has spent none of his political capital being a compassionate conservative.

The argument made by Cameron’s apologists is that he has not been compassionate because of circumstance. Cameron has had to jump from crisis to crisis, which has gotten in the way of his vision. I dispute this, as a lot of these crises were of Cameron's own creation. The EU referendum, Cameron's rebellious right wing backbenchers and the trouble with UKIP eating away at Tory marginal support were created by Cameron's timidity and his reluctance to confront the right of his own party. He has allowed the right of the party to consistently undermine him because it is easier than standing up to them. If Cameron really wanted to lead Britain to a future of compassionate conservatism then he should have started by convincing his own party to stay in line.

Other events (AV referendum, Scottish independence, etc) Cameron could also have avoided, had it not been convenient to allow them to happen at the time. The other obstacles to the compassionate conservative project, cited by its defenders, are part of the cut and thrust of politics. These are mainly elections and circumstances created by the opposition. Did Cameron expect to be able to govern in a vacuum? Did he think that the Labour Party would just allow him put his grand, but ill defined, vision in practice?

We have to evaluate governments on what they do, not what they say or what they intended to do in an ideal world. The Tories have introduced the Bedroom Tax, penalising benefit recipients whose family members die, which is the opposite of compassion. The Tories have created a blame culture which accuses the unemployed and disabled of being scroungers. People with bad luck who lose their jobs or who have medical and/or physical disabilities are people who need our compassion, but the Tories have created an atmosphere of accusation and imply that these people are just workshy and are therefore not deserving of our compassion.

The day to day governing of the country is filled with compromise and maybe Cameron felt these not so very compassionate moves were necessary. He may still intend on being a compassionate conservative, but I doubt this when I look at some of things Cameron attempted. Under Cameron the government proposed cutting tax relief to people in work who are struggling to get by as well as raising council rents for people in work but with low paying jobs. Surely people who are working hard but still cannot a pay their rent and put food on the table without government aid are people who need compassion. However in the eyes of the Tories the working poor and also scroungers who need to be bullied into making more money rather than being shown compassion.

In the last week Cameron has shown his lack of compassion as the Tories voted against an amendment to the housing bill to ensure that all rental properties are fit for human habitation. People living in substandard accommodation are apparently not deserving of compassion according to the Tories.

Then we come to Cameron’s greatest absence of compassion: child poverty. Even someone who blames the unemployed for being unemployed or the working poor for not having better paid jobs, must acknowledge that children are not responsibility for the poverty they are born into. The government should be compelled to tackle child poverty, to give every child in the country equality of opportunity.

Under Cameron’s government the number of children living in absolute poverty in the UK has increased by half a million Cameron’s response is to redefine child poverty as a social condition and not an economic one, thus dodging the government's obligation to tackle the issue. This is a shocking lack of compassion for children born into poverty and amount to Cameron turning his back on millions of poor children.

Cameron's flagship compassionate conservative policy is the Big Society. The most generous assessment that of this plan is that it aims to encourage ordinary people to take a stake in their community and local government and to use their expertise to improve local services by tailoring them to the needs of the community. It could be described as a plan to provide socialism without state interference. To make ordinary people care for each other and work together to improve the lives of others without the need for a draconian state that involves itself in the personal lives of its citizens.

That is when I am being generous. Most of the time I see the Big Society as a means to transfer services that were offered by the state to ordinary people and use social pressure as a means a to do this. The neo-liberal drive towards maximum labour market flexibility has created a society of workers disconnected from their communities, moving to where the work is (mainly London). The Tories have no plans to oppose this as it would involve standing up to private businesses who do quite well out of a flexible labour market. However in the towns and villages workers have vacated no one is available to look after the elderly people. The state could provide this service but that would be expensive.

Enter the Big Society. By using social pressures of the 1950s, workers are encouraged to provide social care or management expertise to cut back state run services. We will still move to where the work is, but we are supposed do our bit for Blighty while we are there and to slot into a community care, health and education network that used to run by the state. It is social democracy without the state or a lot of people working long hours and then providing care services and running schools in their free time. The time we are supposed to spend with our children or being idle for the sheer joy of it are not accounted for as they have no value. Compassion has been removed from this equation. It is the worst combination of the strict social pressure of the past and the austere state of the present.

Cameron may want to be a compassionate conservative but by victimising the unemployed, the disabled and low paid workers he is behaving like the same old nasty party that he wanted to move the Tories away from. His Big Society dream is a means to create a state that does not care for its citizens and little England nightmare of social pressure where overworked people provide the services the state used to run. This is a compassionate conservative vision of a future without leisure time or any collective responsibility.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

2015 a year in review - trends and the future

This is a review of the political events of 2015. Read my summary of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader here.

Parliament and party politics were more interesting this year than for a long time, but there were important trends outside the Westminster bubble. Questions over Scottish independence were clearly not settled by last years referendum. The SNP will call another independence ballot, but only when they are certain they will win. If Britain leaves the EU because England votes to go and Scotland votes to stay then this will give the SNP the excuse they need to break up the country.

In America gun massacre followed gun massacre and still Obama cannot get any movement on gun control legislation. If you are depressed about the state of British politics, then take a look at the US to feel better about things. The race for the White House rumbles on with Trump frightening the world more and more and Hilary Clinton being so bland and boring that an openly socialist candidate is making headway in an American election – further proof, if any was needed, that 2015 was a surreal year for politics.

2015 was also the year that a lot of prominent feminists were accused of being transphobic, sparking social media spats. This led to a healthy public debate about no-platforming on university campuses. There are already too many people telling students what they should and should not do, but my opinion is that people should be allowed to express their opinions unless they are openly and explicitly encouraging violence.

Online abuse, passing itself off as free speech, has caused numerous people to examine the issue of the limits of free speech. We have a right to freedom of speech but we also have a responsibility to do no harm with it, as much as possible. After so much abuse has been dished out and then defended as “freedom of speech”, I can see why students want more emphasis on the responsibility aspect of our freedom of speech.

Many of these debates – and abuses - have taken place on social media and one trend of 2015 is fashionable social media bashing. Social media used to be means to gage public opinion or engage with the public. Now it’s viewed as a nest of hysterical people, who must be ignored in order for their to be sane political debate.

One recent example is people taking to Twitter after the Christmas floods to claim about Tory cuts to the flood defenses budget. Most people would think that a debate about cutting flood defenses after a preventable flood has damaged peoples’ lives is a good thing. However in the world of “sane political debate” verses social media these people were labeled as idiots, rather than listened too. Here is a good example of someone dismissing discussion on Twitter out of hand and here is a good response.

Some good articles were written about how social media can be a left wing echo chamber and this might have cost Labour the election. For every nuanced thought about the role of social media there were many people dismissing out of hand a platform that gives voice to people, mainly young people, who find it hard to get their voices heard.

Social media is a great tool for collective actions, spreading information and holding the powerful to account. It has been used to spread hatred and disinformation by people of all political persuasions. I feel that the current fashionable bashing of social media is a way for journalists and politicians to dismiss the voices of ordinary people as just cranks and bullies.

Elements of the political and journalistic establishment do not like the fact that ordinary people hold them to account and would very much prefer it if social media is thought of as the domain of idiots and that it is everyone’s best interests that they are ignored. You will encounter opinions you do not like on social media, some of them will be stupid and ill-informed. Everyone has a right to an opinion. Fashionable bashing of social media is way for the privileged to conveniently ignore the opinions of everyday people.

2015’s most annoying trend was self-righteous articles about people moving out of London, such as this by Rafael Behr in the Guardian and this by Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing. Yes we are all very pleased that you prefer Brighton to the capital but we really do not care. An opportunity to pop this balloon of pomposity was missed when one writer claimed that they cannot move out of London because the rest of the country is racist. Everyone looked like an idiot that week.

2016 will probably be as interesting as 2015, for better and for worse. There will be more social media spats and infighting in the Labour Party. There will also be more refugees than ever before arriving and we need a practical solution to what is to be done with all these people and we need it today. Terrorism is a fear, but I am hopefully that 2016 will not see a massacre in London similar to the ones we have seen in Paris.

The promised referendum of Britain’s European Union membership will most likely happen next year, because Cameron wants Britain to stay in the EU and he does not want this to be a vote on an unpopular midterm government – so the sooner the better from his point of view. The potential for both Labour and the Tories to trip over their own feet during the campaign is enormous and I am interested and slightly frightened to see how they both handle it. We can also expect sluggish economic growth and further cuts to public services. 2016 might finally be the year cuts and lack luster economic performance blows up in the Conservative Party’s faces.

At the Red Train blog 2016 we bring a new website design, new articles on a wider range of topics and a recommitment to cover as much politics as possible with our usual liberal dose of left wing bias.

Our society is still faced with some very large problems. I believe that the neo-liberal economics that underpin our current thinking and direction of our entire society is heading in is potentially disastrous. There are millions of people - poor people and social minorities - that no one cares about and have been left on the scrapheap by this government. The country needs an effective left wing alternative now more than ever. It is the only way we will meet the challenges of 2016.

2015 a year in review - Jeremy Corbyn

This is a review of the political events of 2015. Read my summary of the general election here.

If the election was a surprise than what happened afterwards was a shock. Jeremy Corbyn was given odds of 800 to 1 when he was nominated to stand for Labour leader but he won with nearly 60% of the membership backing him. Corbyn won a huge victory across all ages, demographics and types of Labour members, but all has not gone well since then. Corbyn’s victory has exposed huge divisions in the Labour party.

I voted for Corbyn, and his politics are the closest to mine of any Labour leader during my lifetime. It has been painful to read the writings of many left-wing journalists I respect, trashing him at every opportunity. There are certainly legitimate criticisms of Corbyn – I will come to these – but I feel many journalists made up their minds early on that they did not like him and nothing he can do will change this. This is because the election of Corbyn as Labour leader goes beyond what you think of Corbyn personally, his voting record, or even his policies. It is a question of what Labour stands for and what it should aim to be.

The division opening up across the Labour movement is a division between those who want radical change to our politics and our society, and those who want liberal reform to our current system. It is the difference between those who want capitalism with the worst excesses removed or those who want our entire relationship with capitalism reformed. I feel this divide is unbridgeable, by Corbyn or anyone else.

Corbyn’s victory is partly down to having an ideology at all in an ideologically bankrupt Labour, and partly down to inspiring young voters and many alienated leftists and Greens. But it is mainly because the rival Blairite and Brownite candidates were awful. None of them looked like they could win a general election so the party members preferred to make a principled stand, rather than choose a Prime Minister in waiting. The Blairite and Brownite factions need to take a hard look at themselves to work out why they lost so massively to the left of the party. They have nothing to offer apart from indigent cries of “it’s our party, we should be in charge”. Since Corbyn’s election they have continued down this route, doubtlessly helping keep Corbyn popular among Labour Party members.

Labour wins big when it can unite the working class trade-union supporting voters, the liberal metropolitan middle class voters and the aspirational voters who think they will be better off under Labour. Under Miliband, UKIP ate away at the first group, the Greens at the second and the Tories took a huge bite of out the third. Corbyn is losing the third group, but he has stopped the exodus of the second group and a question mark remains over his appeal to the first. In Oldham UKIP heavily targeted this group, hoping that accusing Corbyn of not being patriotic could win over these voters. It did not work, because of the issues with UKIP discussed above. The Tories are trying the same tactic on a bigger scale and that is where the real threat to Labour lies.

If the Tories can win over group 1 and 3, while holding onto their core support, they will win big in 2020. However I do not see a Labour front bench figure who can win over all three groups and Labour need all three. Yvette Cooper gets group 2 and 3, but loses group 1. Liz Kendall gets group 1 and 3, but loses 2. Stella Creasy gets group 2 and 3, but loses 1. David Miliband gets group 3, but loses 1 and 2. The only possibilities would be Lisa Nandy or Jess Phillips but they are not exposed enough for us to accurately judge how well they would do as party leader.

Corbyn and his new shadow cabinet have made some mistakes. Certainly having John McDonnell waving around Chairman Mao's Little Red Book was a bad idea, however over four years away from a general election these mistakes matter little to most voters. The few victories Corbyn has had have been the most widely noted, mainly Labour stopping Tory plans to cut working tax credits, which interim Labour leader Harriet Harman supported.

Then came a terrorist attack on Paris and the excuse Cameron had been looking for to start bombing Syria. This is a terrible idea and Corbyn was right to oppose it. However, parliament thought otherwise and a few in the Labour Party seized this as an opportunity to embarrass Corbyn; showing once and for all that Blairities care more about being proved right than they do about the Syrian civilians we will inevitably kill and how this will encourage others to flock to ISIS.

Even so, the Syria vote is a major defeat for Corbyn. I think ultimately he will be proved right and that this military intervention in Syria (and Iraq) will only increase support for ISIS. Unfortunately at the point when this becomes apparent everyone will have forgotten Corbyn’s stance on the issue as we will be focusing on a new political crisis. Sometimes it looks as if Corbyn cannot win whatever he does.

Parliament and party politics were more interesting this year than for a long time, but there were important trends outside the Westminster bubble. Read my summary of trends in 2015 and what to epxect in 2016 here.

2015 a year in review - the general election

I usually start the New Year with recommitting myself to writing this blog and standing up for left-wing values, so this year I decided to do something different and end the year with recommitting myself.

It has been a rollercoaster of a year in every sense. 12 months ago if you told me that by December 2015 Jeremy Corbyn would be leader of the Labour Party, Charles Kennedy would be no longer with us, David Cameron would have taken us into another Middle Eastern war of dubious legality and that the biggest political hash tag of the year would be in French, then I’d have claimed you had one too many eggnogs over Christmas.

However that’s the political landscape we find ourselves in at the end of 2015. It has been an unfortunate year for Paris, bookended with twin tragedies of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Paris massacre in November. Terrorism and security have been major themes of this year; partly because the Tories want to make it the subject of the next general election, in the same the way that economic competency was the subject of this year’s election – more on that later.

The refugee crisis reached a critical point this year as over a million people entered Europe from the Middle East, South West Asia and North Africa. How Europe responds to this crisis will be the defining debate of our generation. Britain’s offering to this debate was frosty indifference until the Independent put the picture of a drowned child on their front page and before long we had a commitment from Cameron to take in “thousands” more Syrian refugees. I was more surprised than anyone by this. It goes to show that maybe people do care about what happens outside our borders and that we not a selfish island of little Englander UKIP voters, whatever that demographic of squeaky wheels claims.

Insulting UKIP bring me neatly to the biggest British political event of this year, the general election. For people who follow politics like it is a sport it was both fascinating and dull. The polls were too close to all (up until the BBC’s exit poll) and it looked like another hung parliament, with coalition negotiations going on in the public view. However there were no moments of controversy, no gaffs and no defining moments of brilliance. The TV debates were interesting but ultimately changed nothing.

Small left-wing(ish) parties did well out of the TV debates. I was very impressed by Leanne Wood from Plaid Cymru and Nicola Sturgeon from the SNP. Sadly Natalie Bennett from the Greens failed to make much of an impression. She did manage produce the worst gaff of the election with a terrible interview for LBC.

I thought that we could face a “Green Moment” when the Greens steal large number of voters from Labour’s metropolitan liberal left and become a serious player in parliament. It did not happen. I have a soft spot for the Greens but while they are seen as the party of the self-satisfied, middle class, Guardian reading set - the people with their own compost heap in the garden but take three holidays aboard a year – they will fail to capture the broad based support they need in order to return more than a handful of MPs.

Lack of effective leadership for the Greens remains a major problem for them. Caroline Lucas is a good politician to have at the front. Natalie Bennett is not and I do not see her leading the party to electoral success. It must be said that the first past the post electoral system is a huge hindrance to parties like the Greens – and UKIP. A fairer electoral system would have given the Greens more seats for the one million votes they got in the general election. However it would have also returned a Tory UKIP coalition government. I think this is right, it is what we voted for and it was what we should get.

It is interesting that, in May, I thought that the general election was the death of major parties and first past the post system, that electoral reform was imminent, and that coalitions would be the future. With the poor performance of small parties this year, a Tory majority government and huge numbers of new members of the Labour Party, it looks like big parties are as strong as ever and that binary left/right politics is here to stay.

The general election also saw the annihilation of the Lib Dems, justly deserved for breaking so many manifesto commitments and alienating a new generation of voters who they courted in 2010. Many of the 2010 Lib Dem voters went over to the Tories, which cost Labour the election. This should finally put to bed the idea of the Lib Dems as a credible left-wing party. They are and always have been centrist party.

The only small party to do well out of the first past the post system was the SNP, who swept through Scotland like wildfire. This should concern Cameron more than it does. The Tories are great at ignoring places that do not return Tory MPs and Cameron is bad for this even by Tory standards. The huge popular support for the SNP means another referendum on Scottish independence is likely and it is possible that this Tory government will be the last of a united kingdom.

No one expected it, but the Tories eeked over the line to form a majority government. The public rejected coalitions, majority rule is back. It was the first Tory budget in nearly 20 years but it is a majority smaller than John Major’s in 1992, and look how well that went. Sluggish but present economic growth saved the Tories bacon at the polling booth. Growth was strong enough that the government could claim that they were doing well, but not so strong that the electorate could trust Labour to turn on the spending taps. Everyone hated the Lib Dem so the Tories were in – narrowly.

I hate the Tories, but I do have to acknowledge their clever electoral maneuvering. Back in 2010 I thought that austerity could keep the Tories out of office for 20 years, that when people felt the impact of the cuts it would mean a Labour landslide. It did not happen. Homelessness is up, child poverty is up, inequality and personal debt are at an all time high, yet the Tories remain popular. They have convinced enough people to win an election and hats off to them.

Having popular support from many newspapers helped, but I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Labour. By supporting austerity, by making it their top manifesto commitment, they handed victory over to the Tories. The Tories lost three elections to New Labour by promising to match Labour spending and deliver tax cuts. Similarly, Labour cannot win by offering spending cuts and better public services. The argument needs to change.

The possibility of a UKIP surge - long predicted but never appearing - was something that worried me during the election. UKIP came second in a lot of safe Labour seats and this should worry Labour, but these seats remain safe Labour seats as the Oldham by-election demonstrates. UKIP have claimed they are parking their tanks of Labour’s lawn, that their popular anti-EU, anti-immigrant, straight talking politics will bring them massive electoral victory. It has not and I see now that it will not.

This is partly because if a voter agrees with UKIP, there are plenty of Tories who share their views. It is also partly because of our British dislike of anyone seen as extreme. However it is mainly because UKIP are, at most, a dual issue party. Those who hate the EU and are frightened of immigrants care about the economy, healthcare, educating and housing and they want a party that has comprehensive policies on all of these fronts. UKIP does not and the Tories remain the main party of the right.

If the election was a surprise then what happened afterwards was a shock. Read my summary of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader here.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Invisible Britain

Jason Williams

One night, after a particularly heavy pub session, we all piled back to a friend’s flat for more beer and music. In his inebriated state, a music blogger friend of mine insisted we listen to a new record called Divide and Exit by East Midlands group Sleaford Mods. He characterized them as hip-hop, not a genre of music I know particularly well, but Sleaford Mods’ combination of grinding mod guitars and anger filled lyrics captivated me instantly. This was the soundtrack to the age of government austerity. This was how people felt when punk first exploded onto the music scene in the mid 1970s. I wanted to recreate the scene from 24 Hour Party People, when after first seeing the Sex Pistols play, Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) claims that all the music that had come before this was dead. I wanted to jump to my feet and rip down Oasis, Stereophonics and Arctic Monkeys posters. That was the soundtrack of the prosperous, optimistic New Labour era. Sleaford Mods is the soundtrack of NHS privatization, benefit sanctions and Etonian rule. I was instantly a fan.

Sleaford Mods are breathing some much-needed fresh air into popular music. They are different, crude and rude, but also shine a light onto the lives of ordinary people reminiscent of the work of L. S. Lowry. In an age when popular culture is dominated by Dragon’s Den and Benefits Street, Sleaford Mods show that we can aspire to more than the hollow worship of capitalism. They have been compared to the Sex Pistols and to the Specials, but I think it is a disservice to give them retro comparisons. We have too many throwbacks right now. Sleaford Mods are an original outfit, a product of 21st century Britain.

Mainstream popular culture often ignores the problems and challenges faced by ordinary people in a time of high unemployment, high cost of living, stagnant wages and benefit cuts. There is a growing middle class dominance of media and culture. Oasis and The Stone Roses came from Manchester council estates. Now we have the privately educated Frank Turner and Mumford and Sons. Sleaford Mods reflect ordinary people and everyday situations. Now, they are taking this a step further with a documentary called Invisible Britain, which looks at the places and people the middle class cultural hegemony overlooks. Invisible Britain puts the deindustrialisation, rising poverty and unemployment of places like Scunthorpe into a wider political and cultural context. It also documents the group’s tour of British towns overlooked by popular bands and the mainstream media. From decaying arts centers to boarded-up houses, this is a portrait of Britain as it is for most people, a million miles away from the pop-up shops or leafy suburbs of middle class life.

Invisible Britain articulates the social and economic problems of contemporary Britain very well. We are showed how our economic system is set up for the benefit of the few, that many lose out and that some people are thrown completely onto the scrap heap. Issues of social class are discussed overtly, which is refreshing. Our current political discourse is lacking a discussion of social class. This is partly because if we discuss social class, it would involve acknowledging that we are going backwards, that inequality is growing and that we becoming a more economically divided society. As barriers related to other forms of social exclusion come down, barriers between the social classes are rising. This is one of the few films that put inequality and the class divide front and centre.

Not only are working class people ignored by newspapers, TV shows , music and other popular culture mediums but working class people’s expressions of anger are being ignored. Sleaford Mods are loud and angry. Their music demands attention, they cannot be ignored and thus they are showing middle class Britain what they want to overlook: the growing class divide, the rising poverty, the growing sense of alienation and anger.

Graffitti

Most of the people who are interviewed for Invisible Britain are middle class. The film is stronger for focusing on Sleaford Mods’ fans, rather than lining up music journalists, but it does show that Sleaford Mods have a very middle class following. This is music by, and about, working class people but it is connecting with a liberal middle class audience. It is certainly good that middle class people have exposure to the working class other than Benefits Street - that is what the Tory government would prefer. The middle class presides over a popular culture industry that spreads ignorance other people, especially people outside the South East or the middle class. This is what allows the Tories to cut benefits, close Sure Start centres and axe preventive healthcare. This is what allows inequality to grow and for class divides to become more entrenched.

Invisible Britain shows the expressions of anger by the marginalised. The film talks to relatives of Mark Wood, who starved to death after being found fit to work by Atos and thus losing most of his benefits. The film also focuses on the campaign against joint enterprise convictions, which are disproportionately high in the black and Asian community. The film also shows the futility of the alternatives to the current government, a strong feeling of political disenfranchisement comes from the interviewees. The fans interviewed say that voting changes nothing and that Labour are as bad as the Tories. Invisible Britain shows the growing sense of alienation with politics that many people feel.

Some hope is are offered, Invisible Britain talks to local artist co-operatives, grass roots campaigners, food bank volunteers and trade union activists. However there is no wider political ideology mentioned that could bring about change. Sleaford Mods are expressly not a political band and the film shows an interesting distinction between the social commentary of the music of Sleaford Mods and other overtly political artists.

Britain needs a political solution to the problems shown in Invisible Britain. We need a consensus to tackle the problems of growing inequality, class divisions, middle class domination of popular culture and racist laws. One step towards a political solution would be distribute Invisible Britain as far and wide as possible. Many people should watch this film is to see what life is like outside their middle class metropolitan centrist bubble. Then maybe the shouts of anger will not be ignored.