Monday, 17 March 2014

Political Education, Stranglers Style

So, tonight I will be getting deafened by the Stranglers at Oxford's O2 Academy on Cowley Road. As the Men in Black are celebrating 40 years of playing together, I suspect it will be quite an event. 

In preparation, I thought it was worth reposting this blog from my Accidental Labour Activist, written in 2011, where I reflect on the Stranglers as political educators. Three years on, I think I'm still as angry about the ConDem coalition. At least we are only a year away from the next election!

What’s really interesting about this activism malarkey is the way it changes your window on the world. Even things that are not, on the surface, political seem to be so once you start to think about it.

So it was that I found myself thinking of the Stranglers as political educators as I got hot, sweaty and increasingly deaf as they played at our local music venue. (For the uninitiated, and probably anyone under twenty-five, the Stranglers are, as Wikipedia quaintly puts it, ‘an English rock music group’.)  

Consider the evidence.

‘Something Better Change’. As the crowd of mainly 40-somethings erupted, I was taken with how, after thirty-odd years the lyrics are peculiarly relevant to the current political scene:

“Something's happening and it's happening right now
You're too blind to see it
Something's happening and it's happening right now
Ain't got time to wait
I said something better change…”

Works for me. 

After all, I spent Thursday lunchtime on our union’s branch committee planning our action for next week’s strike for job security, pay and pensions. Bizarrely, UCU are the first to come out on the issue of pensions, and after my disrespectful comments in previous entries about our radicalism – or lack of it – I feel I ought to apologise. Of course, this radicalism was somewhat tempered by the need to discuss whether it was permissible to cross the picket line to use the loos. But at least that challenges the idea of lecturers being out of touch, too stuck in our ivory towers ('porcelain towers' might be a more appropriate analogy) to connect with such mundane concerns. This strike is just the support act to the main event: the TUC’s ‘March for an Alternative’ on Saturday 26 March. Something Better Change, indeed.

‘No More Heroes.’ Always a welcome if predictable ending to a Stranglers gig, where the ageing crowd gives it one last push before ambling home to collapse with a nice cup of cocoa and the certain knowledge that they won’t be able to hear anything for the next week and a half.

“Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky?
He got an ice pick
That made his ears burn
Whatever happened to dear old Lenny?
The great Elmyra, and Sancho Panza?
Whatever happened to the heroes?” 

Good question in an age when the PM looks airbrushed and political debate seems limited to the repetition of a few ‘good’ sound bites. 

Having said that, I did get to hear my personal hero, Ed Balls, at a Labour Finance and Industry Group dinner this week. Attending this was a bit of a hoot as maths and I have only had a passing acquaintance, and I spent some time trying to think of a clever economics question before giving up. Not my fault, honest – the monkey that plays cymbals in my head whenever numbers are mentioned just wouldn’t pipe down. Thankfully, Ed was more concerned with outlining principles for Labour’s approach to the economy and industry rather than number-crunching, and it was a very enjoyable night. But with all due respect to Ed, the fear of leaving hostages to (media) fortune means that his oration is never free enough to be as powerful as that of the heroes of yesterday like Aneurin Bevan or Michael Foot.

My favourite Stranglers song was also played to complete this short course in political education: ‘Sweden’.   

“Let me tell you about Sweden 
Only country where the clouds are interesting 
Big brother says it's the place to go 
Too much time to think, too little to do 
Too much time to think, too little to do 
Too much time, too little to do 
'Cos it's all quiet on the Eastern front 
Fluctuations at a minimum 
Hypochondriac tombstone 
Sense of humour's gone astray somewhere…” 
The lyrics do, rather, fly in the face of the way my thinking is going, but perhaps that is why I like it so much. Why can’t we be more equitable in the way the Scandinavian states are? Why can’t we accept the need to pay higher rates of tax in order to secure great public services?

Sweden might be boring, according to the Stranglers, but as the cuts start to bite and we enter a summer of discontent and protest, I'm starting to find that self-same Swedish social democratic boredom deeply appealing.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Revisiting Kindness, Rejecting the Crosbyisation of Politics

This post was first published by Labour List in August 2013. It bears posting again, as in the months since we have seen the Tories reject their purported attempts at a new politics as they return to the methods of smear, half-truths and downright lying about the opposition which (presumably) they believe have served them well in the past. The employment of Lynton Crosby - specialist in the Dead Cat School of politics - suggests the next 18 months of campaigning ahead of the 2015 general election will involve concerted Tory attempts to drag Labour into similarly dirty forms of fighting. Upshot: the electorate will decide you are all as bad as each other and by not voting, allow the Tory core vote to win the day.

There is another way and Ed Miliband's statement that Labour will call the Tories out every time they resort to such methods is welcome. So is ensuring that our focus is on political campaigning that foregrounds the issues that really matter to people: falling standards of living, stressful working conditions, a recovery for the few and recession for the many. 

It also means showing that there are different ways of conducting political life, and this means thinking again about how human life is valuable in and of itself, and what this means for our life together. It is with that aim that this post was written. 

Taxes, Death and the Kindness of Strangers

As Benjamin Franklin famously remarked, nothing is certain in life except death and taxes.

Current political discourse is shaped almost entirely by one of this duo and it isn’t the Grim Reaper.

I’ve lost count of the number of times a discussion has been framed in terms of what ‘the taxpayer’ will or will not stand; any debate about any policy or project ultimately starting and ending with the question of whether or not it is ‘good value for money.’

That the language of economics should frame all political consideration of how we might live together has a diminishing effect; not just on political debate where we seem to be struggling to find a Big, Bold idea of what it means to be Labour in the 21st century. How we understand what it is to be human is itself diminished if all is reducible to the economic ‘bottom line’.

In an age dominated by economics, each person is viewed as an economic unit, their success or failure determined by the extent to which they have used their talents to achieve status and wealth. To be wealthy or self-sufficient is to be virtuous. To be poor or dependent on others is to be at best weak, at worst immoral.

Despising the less fortunate is not a good starting place for constructing a vision of the Good Society. Shaping a vision of politics through the abstraction which is ‘The Taxpayer’ will not allow for policies that support human flourishing. A more likely result of this obsession with money is the kind of dismissive cruelty that sees in the vulnerable person only an expense that has to be paid.

To reflect on the certainty of death proves more useful than reflecting on the inevitability of taxes. None of us is invincible. All of us, one day, will die. This titbit of wisdom from Philosophy 101 is not meant to cause despair. To accept the reality of death is to reflect on what a politics might look like that placed our shared vulnerability is at its heart.

To accept that all will die is to accept that all of us are fragile. If we are to survive in such a world – more than that, if we are to live well – all of us will be dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Kindness is a much ignored political virtue. To be kind is to approach those around us in a caring way. To be kind is to recognise the things that unite rather than divide. To be kind is to treat the other person as we would like to be treated if we were in their place. Kindness depends on being able to see the other as like ourselves with the effect that we go beyond our own concerns in order to think about theirs. And when dealing with the most vulnerable in our society, it means seeing them not as different but as sharing a common humanity that seeks to live in the face of death.

Kindness, though, is about more than adopting a particular attitude to those we meet. It’s also vital for fostering a political space where vulnerable others are seen not as burdens to be ignored or rejected, but as people whose flourishing must be nurtured if we are all to live well. It does not surprise me that Labour’s Welfare State should have emerged out of the horrors of the Second World War where death was a shared reality. To have stood in the face of death was to recognise the responsibility we each have for the other and to shape the state accordingly. 

No doubt placing kindness at the heart of Labour’s politics will sound weak to some, not robust enough to cope with the demands of today. I don’t think that’s true. Kindness takes effort and energy and a willingness to go outside of ourselves in order to meet other people whose lives may be quite different from our own. It necessitates meeting the other person with a generosity of spirit that recognises that everyone has something to teach about how we might live more fully. 

If Labour is to truly change our nation we need a compelling vision of the rich, full life. A return to kindness and generosity provides a renewed context for thinking about the things we need in order to really live. For when it comes down to it, we are not, in fact, taxpayers: we are human beings, with all the messiness, vulnerability and need for human kindness that entails.