Monthly Archives: February 2012

Regeneration: intergenerational Justice for the next generation

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On Thursday I attended the Foyles launch of Regeneration, a collection of essays focusing on the theme of intergenerational equity. A number of my more talented past colleagues from the Yes campaign we’re involved in the book (one or two are even brave enough to admit this past affiliation in their biographies!), so I thought I should show up in support. Having got back, I thought I would write a short post, not to criticise a book I haven’t read (indeed I encourage people here to read it, which is free to download after all), but to pose some questions which the discussion at the launch provoked and which I hope to come back to later.

Long term readers will know that this has been one of my pet subjects; indeed in 2006 I contributed a chapter on the subject for a pamphlet. It is interesting to read that chapter five and a half years later, with all it’s dire predictions of the housing market collapsing and the credit bubble bursting. Thank goodness that never happened, eh?

The main frame of this new book is to look at intergenerational justice from the perspective of the cohort born from 1979 onwards, the so-called Thatcher generation. I can understand why they chose this frame, but I’m not entirely sure it is that helpful.

For one thing, it airbrushes my cohort out of existence entirely. The baby boom is generally held to have ended in 1964, ten years before I was born. While the nifty rewrite of history would have you believe that no one (apart from St Vince) predicted that the economic model was actually working, particularly for young people, before the crunch, the fact is that there were indeed growing anxieties being expressed by people my age who were struggling to understand how they were possibly going to get onto the housing ladder. The economic crisis may have lead to the creation of a “jilted generation” but it is at least worth spending a few minutes considering the experience of the cohort before them and ask why precisely their concerns failed to capture the public imagination. It will be interesting to see how the book tackles that, if at all.

But my main concern with the 1979 boundary is that it invites a narrative which I worry is spectacularly unhelpful – and indeed one which has been actively encouraged by many baby boomers. That is, that by treating the rise to power of one Margaret Hilda Thatcher as a sort of Year Zero, the reflexive response is to think along the lines of merely having to get back to those halcyon days before she took charge.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Thatcher did not emerge in a vacuum. She took control, and had a particular agenda, precisely because of the abject failure of the left in the 1970s. For pretty much a decade before, successive governments of different hues attempted to appease the trade union movement and failed. Now, you can argue until you are blue in the face that the trade unions were all a bunch of misunderstood pussycats, and you can certainly argue that Thatcher was the wrong solution, but you can’t claim that the left had done a remotely good job at inspiring popular solidarity during that period.

Nor would I argue that the problems were limited to the 70s. However great an achievement the post-war consensus was, the fact is that it was funded off the back of foreign debt (of a model which we should perhaps be revisiting) and extremely high income taxes. Adam Ramsey suggested at the launch that universalism as failed to unite the middle and working classes; I would argue that one of the reasons it failed was because it was paid for by people’s hard work. Perhaps because of the Cold War and anxiety about communism, the notion of funding universal welfare from wealth was never really broached since the Lloyd George’s plans for a land value tax burned two ashes on the fields of the First World War.

In short, what I’m suggesting is that perhaps the post war consensus was not quite the rose garden that those baby boomers who benefited from it before tearing it to shreds would have us believe, and that if we analyse everything purely within the frame of how we can get away from post-Thatcher neo-liberalism we risk simply repeating the mistakes of our forebears. Once again, it will be interesting to see how the book deals with the wider historical perspective.

Finally, one of the things that surprised me about both the discussion at the book launch and from searching through the PDF of the book itself, was the lack of attention given to intellectual property. My search function can find no references to IP itself, to “piracy” or to “copyright”. I’m genuinely surprised by this; what issue better demonstrates the intergenerational divide than online piracy?

I wrote a few years ago that I thought that copyright would be a key political battleground in the 21st century and I still think that. More to the point, if the key to our future well being is to embrace cooperation and co-ownership (as would appear to be one of the key arguments in the book), how can we hope to do that if the very concepts that rattle around inside our heads are to remain in private hands for long after we’re dead. Whatever criticisms you may have of the Spirit Level, I was impressed that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett seemed to get this.

In my view, the future worth fighting for is not only one in which we have a more active level of participation in the running of our supermarkets and banks but one in which culture itself has been restored into public hands. The result of that may be fewer Lady Gagas and fewer Avatars but, aficionado I may be of both, I really can’t see us being the poorer for it. We can’t expect people to embrace a more collaborative future until the arts equip people with the ideas necessary to be able to imagine it. And they won’t do that while the arts are ultimately working in the interests of big business and the status quo.

So the final thing I will be looking out for when I read this book is how it deals with culture and the creative sphere.

Overall though, I’m delighted to see intergenerational equity finally starting to get the attention it deserves. As was made quite clear repeatedly by the authors, this is a frame by which to consider the troubled times we live in rather than a new model which supersedes all the others; it is often a revealing frame nonetheless.

What I learned at #barcampnfp

On Friday I went to my first barcamp and, as per the rules, I’m meant to blog about the experience. So here goes.

First of all, I should write about my expectations. In retrospect I think they were a little too high, like I had just got some kind of golden ticket into the inner sanctum of the social media world. Somehow I had it in my head that I was going to have some revelatory experience due to the format of the event itself. None of this is rational, but to hear some people talk about barcamps and unconferences, you’d think that people had come up with some sensational new form of organising which was quietly transforming the world. The reality was a little more prosaic.

As someone with a background in politics, and in particular youth and student activism – typically disparaged by the social media world for its lack of inclusiveness – the format itself wasn’t that different to what I’m used to. Indeed, the lack of structure was in many ways inversely related to the level of participation. I could have really done with a bit of hand holding to begin with.

I’ve already been told off by colleagues for making so-called grumpy tweets about the lack of an icebreaker. I didn’t mean them to come across that way; they were meant to be constructive. But my fundamental concern about the day is that I left without a clear idea of who else was attending, when I feel I really needed to know that at the start in order to make the most out of the day. And, while many people are blessed with the ability to go up to complete strangers and start engaging with them, I’m not. In the end, I got the most out of the more salesy sessions than the discursive ones for the simple reason that the organisers of the former had more of an interest in being engaging.

Let’s just get a few other housekeeping things out of the way. Again, this isn’t meant to criticise, just for future reference:

1) Organiser Sylwia Presley acknowledged on the day that the structure of a main plenary room and breakouts wasn’t ideal for the format. In my experience, a large room like that can be made to work but you need to break it up into several small groups and discourage the conference format wherever possible. Arrange the chairs into 3-4 circles around the room at the start. If a full plenary is absolutely necessary, then get people to move their chairs to form one. But should a full plenary, at least on conventional conference lines really necessary?

2) Instead of leaping in with some rather specialised topics, start the day with some deliberately general topics (“introducing barcamp” or “what are the challenges we face?”) and get people breaking into groups to begin with. Encourage people to spend those first sessions talking about what sessions might be needed for the day. Give them post-it notes to write the ideas down. By all means have pre-prepared topics, but don’t put them up straight away as that will automatically dictate the agenda to everyone else; instead have them as a fallback. Attempt to gain some consensus on them first before putting them up, so that everyone is on a more level playing field; you may even find it makes more sense to merge two sessions or hold multiple slots or another topic that way.

3) For a building which houses the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, 19-22 Charlotte street did have some remarkably poor signage. Personally, I never got my head around where two of the breakout areas where and missed some interesting sounding sessions as a result. Always come to a venue armed with makeshift signs and blu-tack.

With all that out of the way, what did I actually learn from the day itself?

1) Google Hangouts are interesting, and there might be something in it, but I’m yet to be convinced of its value for non-profits. I can see their potential as an organising tool, for getting groups from around the country to interact. But with a maximum of 10 users at any one time, it has the potential to become a victim of its own success with willing participants unable to jump in. Admittedly, getting to the stage where that becomes common would be a good problem to have for a small network.

I was wholly unsold on the claims that they are powerful because “TV news anchors might pop by” (one of the speaker’s anecdotes about George Takei being a keen exponent lead to me having an extremely vivid dream that night about George Takei turning up to support a campaign I was organising; he was a lovely bloke. But I digress). While I can totally see what is in it for celebrities to use such tools to engage with fans in a manageable way, I can’t see how the same applies to NGOs, aside from some weird bragging rights.

2) I was rather more sold on using AudioBoo; indeed, this was one of my take-aways. I can see definite merit in my organisation making much greater use of this app in the way that I attempted, and failed, to make use of video in the past. The problem with video is that even a short three minute video winds up being a couple of hours in terms of editing and faffing about. Uploading short interviews on a regular basis and have the website sort out feeds, iPod channels and embed codes? Given that I’ve had an AudioBoo account since its early days, I can’t understand why I didn’t think of it before.

3) I think I can see the potential of Storify as a curating tool for campaigns, but the website itself is hopeless at explaining its potential and I didn’t actually attend the session at which this was discussed. So, I’ve had a little play myself to get my head around it. I can see how this could be quite useful in terms of creating an accessible space for people to follow a specific campaign or issue that an organisation is focusing on.

4) The challenges facing large nonprofits and small ones are wildly divergent. This was brought home to me when I found myself sitting in on a session entitled “who owns social media?” In my organisation the answer is, broadly, whoever wants to. The problems people described in that session, in which tech teams would be responsible for designing sign up tools but not necessarily have a clue about making the best use of language, or of struggling within an unmanageable command structure, were quite alien to me. I think it would have been useful to unpick whether such structures are genuinely beneficial to an organisation but without much of a common frame of reference, I struggled to really find a hook as a means to contribute.

5) Too many people see a dividing line between campaigning and fundraising that isn’t really there. This is a small organisation problem as much as it is a big organisation one, and something I struggle with myself (having recently taken on direct responsibility over fundraising at UD). The web in general, and social media in particular, blurs the edges between the two to the point where distinguishing them as anything other than two sides of the same coin is no longer helpful. It was my perception however that there were a lot of people at the event who were only really thinking of social media as a way of making money rather than as a way of fulfilling their organisation’s goals more generally. I suspect that if you only look at it as a way of feeding the cash cow, you won’t ever get it to be a profitable exercise for you.

6) Last week was Social Media Week. Now, I’m a pretty web-savvy person and I’m a total Twitterholic. Yet I had no idea about this. I’d be amazed if anyone other than a self-identified “social media professional” had a clue that this was going on. That ought to send chills down people’s spines because spending a week talking to yourself and not even expanding your audience is an utter waste of time.

The day itself gave me plenty to think about both in terms of social media and event management and I’m glad I went. With the whole barcamp thing now demystified, next time I will hopefully be a little less backward in coming forward!

My thanks to all the organisers who made the day happen.

James Graham is the Campaigns and Communications Manager of Unlock Democracy but writes here in a purely personal capacity.

Why we should take accusations of “militant secularism” seriously.

I’ve just been fuming listening to a ridiculous interview with John Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield and Alan Beith MP by Evan Davies on the Today programme. It wasn’t the interviewees who infuriated me, although Alan Beith’s argument that disestablishing the Church of England would lead to an aversion culture akin to “elf’n’safety” did come pretty close. What I found infuriating was the normally sensible Evan Davies’ repeated use of the phrase “militant secularism”.

I seem to remember being here before. Back in 2007, at the height of the rise of the so-called New Atheism as espoused by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, there was a similar counter push to present this new wave of assertiveness as sinister and extreme. I got particularly annoyed by a “balanced” (in the worst sense of the word) article by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian which leant people claiming that “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube” a wholly uncritical platform.

With the tube bombing now a more distant memory no-one has quite gone as far as Colin Slee, the now dead former Dean as Southwark, did in that article. Nonetheless, over the past week or so we have seen a whole slew of attacks, partially provoked by the National Secular Society’s court action against Bideford Town Council and the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s MORI poll suggesting that many people who define themselves as Christian don’t actually agree with basic Christian tenets (only 28% of people who self-defined as Christian said they believed in the teachings of Christianity).

It would be far too generous to credit Baroness Warsi with coining the term “militant secularism” – nonetheless, alongside “secular fundamentalism”, it was a term she used in her recent speech at the Vatican.

For someone as absurd as her (remember this is the woman who made a direct appeal to get BNP voters to support her when she was a Conservative Party candidate) to make such a statement is one thing; for the BBC to use it as if it is a legitimate term is something else entirely. Because the implication takes us right back to Colin Slee and his quite offensive notion of equating vocally expressing a desire to see Church and State kept separate with a desire to wound and murder.

Although I actually got on better with Dawkins’ The God Delusion than I was expecting, I don’t actually agree with him on a number of issues. I think he goes too far when he claims that raising a child as a Christian is a form of “child abuse” (I appreciate the point he is making about the important of allowing children to make their own minds up, and there are certainly disreputable practices worthy of condemnation, but you could the same thing about any parent passing on their beliefs to their impressionable offspring as child abuse – and yet it is an inevitable aspect of raising a child). I’m not a fan of the National Secular Society either, which tends to take things too far, and unlike Clive Bone I doubt I would have been sufficiently outraged by the idea of prayers happening at the start of town council meetings to take the matter to court. But none of these people can be described as extremist, militant or fundamentalist in any way which reflects the meaning of these words. At worst you could call them perhaps strident (although they are typically softly spoken), imposing or intolerant – and even then it is hard to see how they could be described as particularly more strident than, say a Giles Fraser, let alone a George Carey.

They are people with a point of view who express it. Not only are they not bombing tube carriages, but they rarely even employ the tactics of public demonstration – which would make them rather less strident than the majority of politicians (of all colours), trade unions or democracy campaigners (guilty).

In fact, the only palpable quality that these people have which warrants a term like “militant” is that their views provoke a fury in their opponents in such a way that in almost every other sphere we would consider extraordinary. It is akin to the heightened atmosphere that I lived through during the AV referendum campaign, except that it isn’t time limited in the way that was. That in itself is a subject worthy of further investigation, but in short, it suggests that opponents of secularists are playing the man not the ball. Nor is it limited to the religious. Plenty of non-religious people appear to be sufficiently provoked by Richard Dawkins’ voice alone to use similar terminology. Nonetheless, the implication of using such terminology for such unextreme views is, as it always has been, to keep the holders of those views in their place and to warn off others who might share them from expressing them. It is a framing device designed to chill debate.

That’s entirely fair enough in public square, so long as people don’t mind having their bluff called. But, like I say, it is another thing when a public service broadcaster decides to pitch in for one side. When they do so, they cross the line from referee to player. The meaning of words matter. The BBC ought to be more careful.

UPDATE:

Two things I should add to this post. On a happy note, Evan Davis responded to it on Twitter, saying:

On a more sour note, the Sunday Telegraph have today done a hatchet job on Richard Dawkins and attacked him for, um, being the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of slave owners. I suggest you ignore the article itself and just read Dawkins’ own account of the interview.