Stephen Fry has pronounced the death of classical liberalism. As someone who watched their political party destroy itself after dredging up that ossified Victorian ideology up from the deep and find itself as coalition bedfellows with those who have always been liberalism’s (of all varieties) greatest opponents, I can only cheer. But I do find this mindset fascinating.
He was speaking at an Australian festival purporting to be about “dangerous ideas”, which predictably means trying (in vain in this case apparently) to give already triumphalist white supremacists as big a stage as possible – because apparently Steve Bannon’s already near-ubiquitous internet platform isn’t enough and he should be regarded as a victim of censorship. According to the Guardian:
“A grand canyon has opened up in our world,” Fry said. On one side is the new right, promoting a bizarre mixture of Christianity and libertarianism; on the other, the “illiberal liberals”, obsessed with identity politics and complaining about things like cultural appropriation. These tiny factions war above, while the rest of us watch, aghast, from the chasm below.
“Is this what is meant by the fine art of disagreement?” Fry asked. “A plague on both their houses.”
I’ll give him this: opting out and claiming that both sides are equally appalling is definitely dangerous; whether it counts as an actual idea is another matter. Since time immemorial there have been people who have claimed that all politicians are alike and dismissed any attempt to engage and change the world; we just didn’t use to pay them big sums of cash to sit in front of enraptured audiences and tell them that this is somehow a radical or heroic thing to think.
What I can’t quite figure out is how come people who ten, twenty years ago I would have considered myself as broadly aligned politically, can actually think that. How can you look at one side, calling for isolationism and the dehumanisation of certain already discriminated against groups, and another side which calls for human rights and an end to structured oppression which yes, at its extremes, has people calling for their opponents to be censored and even physically attacked, and see them as simply two sides of the same coin. How can a “liberal” of any shade look at an authoritarian and an “identarian” and genuinely be incapable of ranking them in order of desirability. I mean, I have my criticisms of classical liberalism; I’ve never understood how it can be liberal to sit back and let people starve. But there’s no version of J.S. Mill’s philosophy that ever endorsed white nationalism. And watching what is going on, particularly in the US, with the right in the ascendant, and declaring it impossible to take sides looks suspiciously as if you have taken a side after all. If you see someone raise a hand to someone else and declare that the person being hit is protesting too loudly, you really do start to sound complicit.
I mean, look: I’ve spent a huge portion of my life being endlessly disappointed by the left. I can’t see anything to inspire me about Jeremy Corbyn’s insipid posturing. I’ve witnessed friends beaten up for winning the “wrong” student election. I’ve sat in Stop the War planning meetings with people more excited than the protest opportunities military action in Iraq would give them than sadness that thousands of people were about to die unjustly. At it’s most extreme, I simply don’t think hard left ideology actually works. But it fails by its own standards; people abuse it. Totalitarian ideologies such as Nazism and white supremacism hurt vulnerable people by design. There certainly is a horseshoe, but you don’t avoid that by dehumanising the left; you avoid it by reminding the left of its humanity. Far right ideology is the rejection of universalism and humanism.
The fact that there are so many centrists out there determined to sit out the ensuing culture war says more about centrism and laissez-faire liberalism far more than it does about the people opposing Trump et al. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Trump and Brexit were offering people easy answers to issues that centrists were perfectly content to sit on their hands over. The reason the classical liberals of the Liberal Party failed one hundred years ago in the UK was because it offered the public little alternative but to give the nascent Labour Party a try. It failed, not because it was a radical or dangerous idea but because it had nothing to offer a changing world. If you look at the world burning in the way it currently is and can’t even distinguish between the arsonists and the fire fighters, then your ideology is similarly inadequate.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the protests outside the Conservative Party conference and direct action more generally. This has coincided with the release of a new film about the Suffragette movement, which I haven’t seen yet.
It strikes me that much of the debate surrounding direct action and protest exists inside of a bubble in which neither side is especially interested in the truth. We’ve had a week in which journalists and Tory delegates have been acting mortally offended at being called “Tory scum” and spat at and have rushed to draw a direct link between these protests and Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, Corbyn supporters have been downplaying the connection between the two and talking about how these protests reflect genuine anger at Conservative austerity measures.
Both sides are full of it.
While I doubt that the protesters have exactly improved Corbyn’s public image, they have probably not done him any harm either. Both sides are simply too entrenched. Swing voters, watching it from afar, might well not exactly be impressed by the actions but it is unlikely to make them form a strong opinion of a party leader who has publicly called for a “kinder, gentler” politics the other week. The connection between the two can be made, but it is the political class who will make it, not floating voters.
Meanwhile, the people who claim this is some spontaneous outpouring of outrage are downplaying the fact that this is a deliberate strategy. And it is a strategy which, broadly speaking, has worked. It is hard to believe that the pressure on Cameron and Osborne about tax credits would have been anything like as intense if the conference hadn’t had a backdrop of angry protest. Yes, journalists complained about being spat at – but they also went out and spoke to the protestors, who had plenty to say about tax credits, benefits, housing and poverty more generally. It might be pretty unpleasant to be have to endure, and you can ask questions about what motivates someone to spend a week shouting angrily at passers by, but the fact is that it kept the issue they wanted on the agenda. If they hadn’t been there, Cameron et al would have had a much easier time of it.
The Westminster circus has a vested interest in dismissing the effectiveness of direct action, but the fact is that this sort of protest time and again simply works. The problem is that its most keen proponents all too often believe it is the only thing that works, and that all you need to do to win any campaign is get into a punch up outside Downing Street. I remember talking at a People and Planet conference a few years ago in which my fellow speaker extolled precisely this position. Among other things, he claimed, the woman’s right to vote was solely won because of the Suffragettes’ hunger strikes, damage to property and self-sacrifice.
He has a point. The suffrage movement had reached an impasse in 1906 due to the perfidy of the Liberal government. They managed to keep the issue alive at a time when decades of patient political action had reached an impasse. Here’s the thing though: the came after decades of political action, and it didn’t actually lead to women getting the vote. That happened later, after World War I and four years after the Suffragettes had ceased their actions. And it was another decade after that before we had universal suffrage.
This isn’t to disparage the Suffragettes, merely to point out that the heart of their success was rooted in the fact that their actions slotted into a wider political movement. One of the most frustrating things over the last five years has been watching the modern protest “movement” attempting to make similar progress without any interest in conventional political lobbying. UK Uncut is widely credited for pushing tax avoidance up the pole, but again there was already a political movement making waves about that topic (and it’s both low-hanging fruit and a political El Dorado which seldom delivers because it doesn’t look at the more structural problems with tax; but that’s another topic). Other than that, protestors have made a lot of noise but very little substantial progress over the past half decade.
The rise of Corbyn, in theory at least, could bridge that divide. If both Labour and the protest movement are both pushing in the same direction, then it could prove effective. My problem with this however, is that I think Corbyn represents a leap too far in the opposite direction. While it is great for the protest movement to have “one of their own” leading Labour, the benefits for Labour are less clear. And Corbyn has seldom demonstrated much interest in the boring work of actually persuading people inside his party – let alone across the Commons floor. At this stage I’m not ruling anything out, but I struggle to see how the optimism currently rippling through the hard left has much basis in reality.
If the hard left is going to really make progress, I suspect it will need to meet the centre left halfway rather than simply bypassing it altogether. A bit of pragmatism all round would be helpful.
Try as I might, I can’t stop getting annoyed by the whole debate surrounding Suzanne Moore and her continuing feud with the so-called “trans cabal” (this isn’t really an article by the way, just a series of random points – but at least it is mercifully shorter than my last effort).
Yesterday, Moore wrote a bizarre article in which we sought to argue that her persecution at the hands of transgender and queer activists is a freedom of speech issue.
What’s got her and, for example, Padraig Reidy at the Index on Censorship, jumping up and down is that the International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone tweeted on Sunday that she thought Julie Burchill should have been “sacked” for her Observer article attacking transgender people. Now, for the record, I don’t think Featherstone’s intervention was very sensible. As has been pointed out by others ad infinitum, Burchill is a freelancer and any intervention by a government minister was bound to end up a distraction – and so it has proven. Both Reidy and Moore have leapt on this as an example of state censorship and proof that Leveson report is dangerous nonsense that will lead to government interference of newspapers. The fact that this was a junior minister who is a member of a junior coalition partner just expressing her personal opinion (and the fact that Leveson wasn’t actually arguing for a government body to regulate the media but rather self-regulation underpinned by a statute to be overseen by the judiciary) gets ignored amidst all the shrieking.
The fact is, this is not a freedom of speech issue. The Observer did not take down the Burchill article (and I agree with Jane Fae that it was counterproductive for them to do so) because of Lynne Featherstone or any other government minister’s intervention – you can bet they’d be shouting about it right now if they had done so. It will be interesting to see what they say about it on Sunday but right now it appears that the editor John Mulholland took it down for the exact same reason he put it up in the first place: good old fashioned venality. They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.
I’m highly suspicious of people who are quick to leap up and down about Featherstone’s intervention being somehow sinister and an attack on civil liberties, while being so blithe about the assymetric power dynamic between Moore and her critics. There are a lot of pissed off trans and queer people out there right now who feel that Moore has been using her considerably privileged media platform to utterly misrepresent them in this debate. Again, Stavvers sums it up better than I could. What I don’t understand is why Moore is sticking to her guns in terms of her right to express her “anger and pain” while at the same time is so utterly blind at the fact that the people who are furious with her are doing exactly the same thing. At the end of her article she writes:
So I regret not making it clearer that we need both love and anger to be free. And you may continue to hate me, put me on lists, cast me out of the left. Free-thinking is always problematic. But if you take away my freedom to love, be intemperate, silly, angry, human, ask yourself who really wins? Who?
Yet it has been clear from the get go, that the problem has been her capacity to love in the first place. She escalated this row, and she continues to do so on an hourly basis on Twitter. As Deborah Orr said in response to her latest (at the time of writing) explicit troll:
The most telling line in Moore’s article is when she compares Featherstone to being a “humourless, authoritarian moron” (my emphasis). She isn’t the first to imply, or even express out loud that the problem at the heart of this debate is people who just “can’t take a joke”. Usually claims of humourlessness are the preserve of people like Jeremy Clarkson in their unending defence of “banter“. I’ve seen an awful lot of people over the past week making pretty similar defences, only suggesting that it is only transgender people and their friends who need to “get over it”. For some reason we are supposed to feel great at the progress we’ve made in fighting cissexism, homophobia and racism – yet we are meant to accept that trans people are an exception it is fine to laugh at and casually dehumanise. The debate seems, at its heart, to be between people who see this as an intolerable contradiction and people who don’t.
Finally, if we are to believe that this is a freedom of speech issue, and that Lynne Featherstone represents an oppressive, authoritarian government determined to crack down on the freedom of expression, why is it that the same government has just this week agreed to scrap Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986? Both Padraig Reidy and Suzanne Moore chose to ignore this inconvenient little factoid. In the case of Reidy, and the Index on Censorship, they have failed to acknowledge this at all on either their blog or weekly email newsletter. Perhaps this is because it’s a little bit of state oppression that never really affected journalists? Throughout this week I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that the real anxieties at the heart of this debate are rooted in professional self-interest rather than any genuinely noble concerns about the state of democracy; I’ve seen very little to shift this notion.
I’ve been pondering over whether to write a post about identity politics-centred twitterstorms for a while now, but each time I get close to doing so, I back off. The reason? A fear of getting engulfed in the same maelstrom that I’d be commenting on. That in itself is probably a good reason to write, but I think I should start off with a number of disclaimers.
Firstly, this blog is primarily a means by which I seek to order my own thoughts. I welcome other people’s constructive feedback because that, in turn this helps to further order my thoughts. If people agree or are inspired by what I say that’s tremendous. What it most certainly is not is an attempt to lecture people or hector them. If you are tempted to verbally assault me for anything I write here, please consider for a moment that it may just be that we disagree (or that you don’t like what I have to say) rather than assume I am being condescending or trying to silence you. I am certainly not attempting to speak for anyone other than myself.
Secondly, my knowledge of gender studies is almost certainly defective although I do my best to look up and understand unfamiliar terms. If I get any concepts wrong here (in fact, I’ve ended up largely trying to avoid them to make this article as accessible as possible), then I’m sorry and would be happy to make a correction if you point them out.
Thirdly, I’m writing this as someone who has been a political campaigner for 18 years (Has it really been 18 years?) and in the spirit of support for cultural and economic equality for everyone regardless of their identity or background. I hope that anyone who reads this will find it interesting and useful. In all likelihood, it won’t be. Either way, please read it with that in mind rather than view it automatically with suspicion as something written by a white, middle aged, middle class, southern English man in an exclusive, long term heterosexual relationship.
Why all the disclaimers and nervousness? Because some of the people involved in this storm are people I have tremendous respect and admiration for, and I really don’t want to fall out with them. At the same time, it feels as if the battle lines have been drawn in this debate and people seem to get pigeonholed (or indeed pigeonhole themselves) on one side of the debate or the other within seconds. Rational or not, it does feel somewhat as if the odd wrong word here or there is liable to blow up in my face. From reading Stella Duffy’s article on the Suzanne Moore row, it would appear that it isn’t just white middle class men who have this anxiety.
I genuinely can’t decide whether it is to queer feminists’ credit or detriment that I’m as concerned as I am about blundering into this debate as I am in a way that I wouldn’t think twice about in pretty much any other subject (I blog on all subjects these days much less than I do, but that has more to do with a fear of repeating myself than actually offending anyone). People being mindful of the language they use is a good thing; sclerosis caused by a fear about unintentionally offending people is not. Disagreeing in public with someone you like – especially if that person is experiencing a crisis to a greater or lesser extent – is much harder than disagreeing with someone you don’t.
It’s further complicated by my indecision about to what extent I actually disagree or who I disagree with. When considering the recent rows between, for example, Caitlin Moran and her critics over the last few weeks, there have been numerous times when I’ve switched sides as a new fact here or there emerged.
Finally there is the fact that I’m not perfect, and indeed my own views are evolving. My interest in feminism over the past decade, and especially over the last five years, has increased enormously partly as I’ve changed and partly as what I perceived as a rather sterile debate has revived itself. Would I blunder into the “female political blogosphere” debate quite as cackhandedly and insensitively as I did five years ago? One of the problems with having views which are emergent, is that you are rarely confident of them, especially when there are things you are on the record of having written in the recent past which you are not entirely proud of.
Anyway, enough introspection and onto the main purpose of this article. I can’t really improve on Stavvers’ analysis of the Suzanne Moore row (at least as of Friday; it has moved on since then). For me though, the most depressing moment was when I saw Graham Linehan tweet this:
I know a lot of people dismissed Linehan’s views a long time ago as just another member of the privileged elite closing ranks, but I was genuinely surprised to see someone who considers himself to be on the left making such a crass intervention; this isn’t so much Jeremy Clarkson-lite as Jeremy Clarkson. Even as an adolescent in the 80s in a boys school for whom women were an alien species, Millie Tant seemed like a particular low point for Viz. The jokes seemed to be just a little bit too obvious; the target just a tiny bit too easy; the strip just a teensy bit too defensive. The implication of Linehan’s tweet was that we are going back to a point in which feminism and mainstream culture simply had nothing to say to each other and that he, as part of the mainstream, was putting as much distance between it and himself as possible.
Suzanne Moore’s wounds this week were entirely self inflicted. Her response to her critics was to give them both barrels and ended up escalating the argument from a small matter of poor taste and judgement to becoming grossly offensive in a matter of minutes. What I hope her most fervent critics have noticed however is that an awful lot of sensible, rational supporters of equality ended up taking her side. In most cases, that was a kneejerk reaction having failed to bother reading the debate, let alone what Moore herself actually said (today’s revulsion by many of the same people to the Julie Burchill article in which she does little more than repeat the thrust of Moore’s argument suggests that), but who can say they don’t depend on heuristics when it comes to taking side in a debate?
It seems to me that there’s a perception problem here that somehow needs to get tackled. The problem is, we seem to be experiencing a case of ever decreasing circles here. As Stavvers writes:
Privileged person nakedly articulates something privileged or wrong or harmful. It pisses off those who are harmed by it–or those who know just how harmful such naked articulations of privilege can be. We express this. We are told not to be angry, or rude, to be rational and logical. It is all derailed. The privileged person fails to learn, change, grow, be better. They act as though they are the victim of some unreasonable mob, never giving a second’s thought to why people are angry.
I understand and share Stavvers’ and others’ frustration at this. Where (I think) I disagree with her is that the answer is to plough on, getting steadily angrier, until the “revolution” arrives (ironically of course, Suzanne Moore’s article which started this latest cycle was also in defence of anger).
Notwithstanding the fact that Burchill may have indirectly helped matters by laying her transphobia bare for all to see in her defence of Moore, I don’t see this circle and widening gulf ending well for the queer feminists. The greater danger is a return to the situation in the 90s in which feminists, when they occasionally emerged blinking into the spotlight of mainstream attention at all, had nothing more to say other than that the fight had been won by a mixture of Thatcherism, Madonna and the Spice Girls. It’s been quite refreshing to see women of the generation after mine take ownership of feminism in the way that women (let alone men) of my generation largely did not. At the moment, I worry that this trend may be on the verge of reversing.
None of this is intended to let the commentariat off the hook. The target of much of this ire recently has been Caitlin Moran. Helen Lewis wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago which went through many of the Caitlin Moran controversies. I found it genuinely enlightening, and it presents a much more sympathetic figure in Moran than her critics tend to present. But if the defenders of Moore were guilty of letting their prejudices about her critics blind them to what she actually wrote, and this is a problem queer feminists must tackle, then the same can be said of Moran. She’s got herself into a rut, with people who ought to be her champions hating her. And it’s happened because she lets her temper and weakness for a cheap gag and playing to the audience get the better of her too often. She’s allowed herself to become surrounded by a group of likeminded writers who, like her, have gone from fearing the mob to actively baiting it. And in doing so, all too often she betrays the values she espouses.
Is rapprochement really too much to ask for? Is the gulf between these two sides really so great? It is terribly fashionable to say that the left likes its infighting, but I’m not sure that actually applies to more than a minority; most people just find it all rather alienating.
For the commentariat, the demands are pretty simple: have a bit of care for your language and don’t make a minority group which faces prejudice and oppression the butt of a cheap laugh, no matter how “accessible” that makes you as a writer (I don’t believe this anyway; in what way would Suzanne Moore’s article have been undermined if she’s replaced “Brazilian transsexual” with “supermodel”? If anything it would have made it more accessible). If you lose your temper on Twitter, like Moran did when she ill-advisedly told someone she “literally couldn’t give a shit about” women of colour, then expect a storm. As a public figure, you can’t complain when it leads to a load of abuse any more than any politician could do so if they made a gaffe.
And there’s the rub. Because what a lot of this row feels like to me is a group of people who are incredibly uncomfortable with the slow dawning realisation that social media, a thing they hitherto embraced as a great leveller, is leading to increased scrutiny and thus accountability that they assumed would only happen to “them” – the politicians, bankers and business people who they perceived as alien and thus the problem. It must be a horrible feeling to suddenly realise you are perceived in much the same way as the people you yourself consider to be the establishment.
As someone who, in a previous lifetime, was a relatively high profile Liberal Democrat blogger and activist, that level of scrutiny and, yes, abuse, is something I take for granted (admittedly, at a lower level). Yes, it is often difficult to deal with and you wouldn’t be human if you always dealt with it with that perfect blend of diplomacy, tact and humour that is often necessary. But however unfair much of it is, it’s a fact of life.
It is worth noting that when politicians get abuse on social media they don’t, as a rule, attempt to smear all their critics with the same brush when responding to it. A few exceptions exist, notably people like Nadine Dorries. Here then is a hint, journalists: if you invite comparisons to Nadine Dorries, you are doing it wrong. Unlike Nadine Dorries however, all too often they get away with it; their supporters simply swallow it as fact when of course it isn’t. That’s a repository of good will which is being abused. Optimistically, I’d like to think that the commentariat will simply calm down after a few years as it learns to take the rough with the smooth of social media. There is however a chance that they will simply continue to close ranks. I doubt this will do newspaper sales many favours (accountability of journalism is also a theme of the Leveson report and thus received a similarly over the top and defensive response from journalists, but I think I’ll leave that hanging for now).
For queer feminists, the challenge is somewhat more amorphous, not least of all because it is a more amorphous grouping. The fact is that there are a lot of people out there who will happily jump on anyone they disagree with on Twitter and start issuing the death threats and piling on the abuse. James Ball triumphantly spent this afternoon retweeting a number of the ones he received for making some mildly satirical comments.
I find the vogue on Twitter to express a desire to “kill” or “set on fire” anyone you happen to disagree with rather odd. It’s tempting to dismiss it on the basis that the individuals concerned can’t really mean it, are being satirical and that the correct interpretation is that it is simply shorthand for an expression is strident disagreement, but I think there’s probably a bit more to it than that (I also wonder, at the risk of sounding patronising, whether it is a cultural issue and that the generation who spent their adolescence using the internet simply developed a different grammar and cultural norms which us oldies can’t interpret). Either way I somehow doubt that, on a psychological level, having 20 people superficially threaten to kill you does anyone any good in terms of developing an open mind about their threateners’ opinions.
I’m not going to go down a cul-de-sac about whether right-minded people have a moral obligation to condemn the threats; I don’t think that particularly gets anyone anywhere. What I do question however is whether the rhetoric of self-righteous anger is particularly helpful. No injustice was ever resolved without at least one person being angry enough to do something about it; that’s pretty redundant. But I question that anger itself should be celebrated in the way that both Moore and Stavvers were suggesting.
A lot of the time the expression of anger is a just massive suck on energy. But it’s actually worse than that. As a tool, the expression of anger has only ever been effective when it has hit the right target and when there have been other tools at people’s disposal to back it up. The poll tax riots worked – but only because there was a political opposition to Thatcher which reaped the benefits politically. 2010’s student protests failed because there was no other channel with which to direct the rage; ironically, the Tories did a fantastic job at getting that rage deflected on the Lib Dems and using it against them during the AV referendum (and by doing so, ensuring that the political system remains as unresponsive as ever). Anger without being connected to anything is simply the verbal and/or political equivalent of letting off a machine gun in a crowded street and hoping it will hit the right target.
I’m reminded of the Guy Aitchison / Jeremy Gilbert dialogue in the book Regeneration (which I failed to review last year), in which Guy’s explanation of the protest movement’s strategy depressingly resembled the Underpants Gnomes’ business strategy in South Park. To be fair, this confusion between tactics and strategy is hardly a problem unique to the radical left (in the Lib Dems’ case, you can replace “anger” with “Focus leaflet” and reach pretty much the same conclusion – although admittedly all those leaflets have proven themselves to be far more effective than riots), but it is a massively under-appreciated one amongst lefties (of course, there isn’t a perfect overlap between queer feminists and the radical left, but there is hopefully sufficient crossover for it to give people pause for thought).
Suffice to say, by all means hold on to your anger – you need it and it will keep you going. But if you aren’t combining every protest and attack with a concerted effort to build bridges and alliances, all you will succeed in doing is alienating people who should be your allies and burning yourself out. Don’t let your anger end up blinding you into carving up the world into some Manichean divide of light and dark, or the light will just look increasingly dim. And don’t confuse genuine anger with casual irritation, which is all an emotionally stunted individual needs to start issuing death threats on Twitter. They aren’t angry; they’re just nasty.
But the other area in which people could improve matters is in communications. Gender studies is the only field I’ve come across in which a criticism over the use of inaccessible language is quite so frequently inferred to be an attack on the field itself. To be fair, cis- is a useful piece of shorthand as long as everyone is on the same page, but if you’re trying to convince someone who hasn’t come across the term that you aren’t being deliberately obscurantist, it simply isn’t helpful. “Intersectionality” is arguably even worse. Again, it isn’t the meaning of the term that I would take issue with (although the term does appear to have drifted from referring to an area of study to referring to an agenda), just the way the term seems to be so frequently held aloft like some kind of talisman. I’ve lost count of the number of tweets I’ve read over the last year that go along the lines of “I just don’t understand why people can oppose intersectionality”. If each time someone wrote something like that they replaced the i-word with something like “awareness that all women face discrimination and the importance of solidarity” (that can certainly be improved upon, but it’s less than 140 chars), an awful lot of progress would have been made. At its heart, this row is rooted in people being defensive in their use of language; a bit of give and take seems necessary on both sides. If your aim is to bring people on the fence over to your side, then speaking in terms they don’t find alienating is a basic step. I’m genuinely confused why this appears to have become such a shibboleth.
I hope that, as tempers start to cool, people on both sides of the divide might attempt to reach out to the other side. If they don’t, then it will simply be an opportunity wasted.
UPDATE: There was an observation I meant to make in this post about the double standard when it comes to “twitterstorms” but I forgot. It was simply an observation that some of the same people who I observed dismissing the idea that abuse on Twitter could effectively silence a feminist writer then went on to defend Suzanne Moore against those selfsame awful feminists. An example is Hayley Campbell here and here, although Hayley is by no means alone. I wanted to include this point not to single people out but to observe quite how tribal this whole debate has become.
The fact that Lib Dem conference is rapidly approaching means that I have a semi-anniversary of my own to mark. It’s now been just over six months since I left the Lib Dems.
Life after party politics
How do I feel? I’ve had a tough, and at times frustrating half year: negotiating the fineries of coalition politics when your full time job is focused on delivering democratic reform is not easy. But I can honestly say that I’ve been happier in myself during that period than I have been for pretty much any period in the last 12 years.
People who follow my blog, my twitter feed or my Facebook account will probably have noticed I’ve been exploring my non-political interests with far more gusto than I had before that period (and yes, I will finish my A-Z of Judge Dredd soon). Although I’ve never had much in the way of personal political ambitions, there has always been a tiny shiny suited version of myself in my head screaming at me to only ever present the world with a cookie-cutter version of myself. I’ve always been a geek and been quite open about it, but these days I feel I can let it all hang out a bit more: it’s heavenly.
Fundamentally though, I’ve felt less guilty. In fact, I’ve felt so much less guilty that I feel a little guilty about that in itself. There’s a significantly louder voice in my head that believes that it is important to feel the weight of the world and to do your bit to stop it from sliding into chaos, and that it is better to have tried and have got it wrong than to have not tried at all. But it would be a total lie for me to deny that the feeling of not coming home from a hard day’s work to angst about all the other awful things happen and what I can do to sort them out is anything less than bliss.
I know this feeling is temporary and that at some point I’m not going to resist getting back into the thick of things. But I’m less inclined to believe that will mean returning to the Lib Dem fold any time soon than I did back in March. Party politics feels so broken for me at the moment that while I am enormously grateful that there are still people working from inside the system, I can’t really imagine myself doing the same.
My quitting the party was a long time in coming. I haven’t been a shiny faced new believer since my disastrous party job in Leeds, which ended more than 10 years ago. Since then, things like party conferences have mostly been a chore for me: a place where there is work to do, and where some of my closest friends could be found, but something which I would escape from every evening at the very first opportunity I got. To truly love the Liberal Democrats in all its idiosyncrasies is to love Glee Club, and I haven’t been able to stomach that rather grotesque and self-congratulatory tradition for years.
I can think of no better way to sum up my six month “holiday” than to refer you to the lyrics of Blue Lagoon by Laurie Anderson (sorry, I did say I was letting my geeky side hang out more). Nonetheless, as it has been a while since I wrote about any of this and since we are about to enter the conference season, I did think it would be a good time to type up my thoughts on the party, its future and the state of politics in general. This has been somewhat precipitated by two things this afternoon: Richard Reeves’ new article in the New Statesman and Nick Clegg’s now seemingly ubiquitous apology:
On the apology, I think it fair enough, not too badly expressed and is relatively heartfelt. It’s long overdue. For whatever reason, the tuition fees incident is a running sore that has come to dominate pretty much everything the party has done in coalition since and it is hard to see how the party can move on without somehow getting over this incident. I’m not saying that Clegg’s apology will achieve that, but it will do more good than harm even if the short term effect has been to open up some slowly healing old wounds for some people.
There is a problem with it though, which is that Clegg is apologising for making a promise he was never in a position to keep. That’s not entirely true. He could have made it a dealbreaker for the coalition. I’m not saying that he should have done, in fact I think it would have been downright foolish, but he had a choice and made it. For the past couple of years, Clegg has been altogether too much in love with claiming there is no alternative to what he and the coalition have undertaken to do – as if he is some unwilling victim being buffeted along by events. If you listen to his speeches, you will rarely see him take responsibility for anything: everything is expressed as being either obvious or inevitable. It gets to the heart of his weakness as a politician, and why people find it so hard to like him any more.
So let’s have a short reminder of why he is very much the architect of his own destruction. Throughout his time in opposition, Clegg made no secret of his hatred of the Lib Dems’ policy on tuition fees. On two occasions he attempted to win a vote on the conference floor to scrap the policy; on two occasions he lost the vote. Anyone with any sense at all within the party could see that he was never going to be able to win that fight, and that there was little point in wasting his political capital in fighting that fight.
As an opponent of the policy, what he should have done is attempt to de-prioritise the policy and make it a negotiable add on to the manifesto rather than a core goal. In fact, in terms of the manifesto, he more or less achieved that and he probably could have gone further if he hadn’t raised so many people’s hackles (even a number of tuition fee supporters ended up turning on him in the end and his failure to respect the party’s wishes). The problem is, by exhausting so much energy in attempting to scrap the policy he caused a backlash. A number of parliamentary candidates, not to mention the campaigns department itself, was so determined to alleviate concerns that the party couldn’t be trusted on the policy that they ramped up its status in their campaign literature and their personal statements. Just to make things even crazier, Clegg ultimately went along with it, agreeing to be photographed signing the NUS pledge.
I have to say that the campaigns department was extremely foolish to put the party in this position – not for the first time it behaved like it controlled the party and knew better than the people in charge of the manifesto, the Federal Policy Committee (I still find it frustrating that the 2005 manifesto was essentially usurped by a 10-point pledge which had little resonance and was completely useless to those of us fighting seats in Scotland at the time). But Clegg went along with it. He bottled it. He made a calculation that he could get away with signing his name to a policy which he was personally hostile to. That doesn’t just represent weak leadership and poor judgement, but an outlook on life that raises serious questions about a fitness to hold public office. It reveals the inner core of a politician who, if you look at his track record, has never had to fight particularly hard for anything at all, and has always depended on political patronage (thanks to Leon Brittan who discovered him in the European Commission, Paddy Ashdown who championed his bid to become an MEP, Richard Allen who bequeathed his Sheffield Hallam constituency to him and Ming Campbell who kept the leadership chair warm while he got himself ready) and never really had to fight for anything. It is one of the reasons why I find his constant talking up of social mobility at the expense of tackling all other forms of inequality so empty and galling; I really do think he has fooled himself into believing that he’s got where he is today through his own effort and thinks that everyone else would have the same life chances if only they had a slightly better school.
But since I have been defaming Clegg, I will say this: whatever you think of his apology, at least he has apologised. You won’t hear anything even close to an apology coming from the lips of his fiercest critics on the left. And the left really do have a lot to be sorry about.
I actually think the new higher education policy marks a real step forward compared to the policy we had before that. Most students will end up paying less but over a longer timescale. It has been poorly presented, but it represents a tax on the relatively affluent which is not being paid out of poorer people’s income taxes. But even if it was the worst system imaginable, there is a real question of priorities. Why is it that the left, particularly the far left and those engaged with student politics, have been far more exercised about this single policy than they have ever demonstrated in terms of the NHS, welfare or Educational Maintenance Allowance?
Oh, and if you’re a lefty reading this, yes I’m quite sure you believe those things were equally if not more important. But you simply didn’t get the numbers out on the streets for those campaigns did you? The NHS reforms in particular were in a particularly vulnerable state in 2011 – yet the only people doing the running in terms of stopping that policy were Liberal Democrats – mostly the Winchester local party and the Social Liberal Forum. If even a proportion of the numbers who turned out for the student funding marches turned out for the NHS, it would have been a dead reform. Instead, they mostly sat on their hands.
The collective failure of the left to get its priorities even marginally correct during this period of economic uncertainty is going to be something academics will be scratching their heads about for years to come. I have no easy answers: all I hope is that a few more people would act (and speak/tweet/blog etc.) with a little more humility and responsibility than they do.
So much for Nick Clegg and the left; back to Richard Reeves. His article previewing the party conference is utterly bizarre, but manages to sum up both his success and his abysmal failure.
In terms of success, Reeves and his fellow “Orange Bookers'” greatest victory has been to frame the debate in the Liberal Democrats as a struggle between noble Liberals seeking to defend the tradition of Gladstone with sinister entryist Social Democrats. There is an irony there of course because it was entryism within Labour that the Social Democrat Party was in part a reaction against. But of course it is utter bollocks, not merely because it essentially writes off the entire Liberal Party history from 1900-1950 – including the party’s proudest moments in terms of establishing the welfare state – as an aberration. It also blithely ignores the fact that many Orange Bookers come from the Social Democrat wing of the party themselves – Richard Reeves himself was a Blairite loyalist (as he himself alludes to in his assessment that Clegg exists to fill “a Blair-shaped hole in British politics”).
It is very notable that in his rather long and rambling article, Reeves seems incapable of defining what he means by “liberalism” other than say that it is neither Conservativism or Labour. What Reeves calls “radical liberal[ism] of the political centre” emerges as little more than the triangulation of Clinton and Blair: take two extremes and position yourself between them. By sheer, breathtaking coincidence, this is the same triangulation of Cameron – and even though many of his leftwing supporters would prefer otherwise, of Ed Miliband. In short, Reeves’ answer to the Lib Dems’ ills is to simply continue obsessively pursuing the same agenda which has dominated Anglo-Saxon politics for well over two decades now and has lead to a disengagement with politics the like of which we have never seen.
For all my mocking, there aren’t any easy answers. What I can tell you is that the last thing the Lib Dems can afford to do is to take Reeves’s advice and doggedly resume the politics of the centre ground. Nye Bevan’s warning of what happens to people who stand in the middle of the road applies doubly to third parties attempting to recover from a mortally wounding coalition. The fight for this tiny bit of political real estate has already reached its logical conclusion, with three virtually interchangeable parties finding themselves completely at the mercy of global, cultural and economic forces.
To talk with most party politicians, you would think this was the only game in town and in a sense they are correct. It is simply undeniable that to win a majority under any electoral system you need to be able to win over those undecided swing voters. Their mistake is to massively overestimate what you can achieve once you get there if you have done nothing whatsoever to prepare the groundwork for what you actually want to achieve. In short, unless you can answer how you can widen the Overton window onto your territory, you really are wasting your time.
Regardless of my earlier criticisms, at least the relatively sensible members far left get this. The purpose of UK Uncut and later Occupy was not to foist revolution on our doorsteps but to alert people to the possibility of change. While people are often quick to dismiss the anti-Iraq demonstrations as a failure, the fact that Bush and Blair were prevented from their headlong rush into attacking Iran was at least in part due to the enormous cost the protest movement forced them to pay in toppling Saddam.
The far right definitely get this: the Tea Party may be making Mitt Romney unelectable at the moment, but they’re successfully chipping away at issues which the left long presumed had been won such as abortion rights – and they have done a terrific job at putting the Democrats on the defensive on the economy despite the Republican’s own dire record. Obama’s own options in office have been limited precisely because the right have made it almost impossible to get any of his agenda through Congress without paying a blood price.
Thatcher, and the people behind Thatcher got this – and that it would take them decades to achieve. Every lobbyist worth their fee understands this. Yet, for some reason, it is a lesson which mainstream party politicians stubbornly refuse to learn – possibly because mainstream party politics is dominated by people who only seek power for themselves.
The future of the Liberal Democrats lies not in obsessively worrying about mainstream acceptance and chasing the centre ground, but in winning the argument across the country. That means that any future Liberal Democrat party is going to have to agree pretty darn quickly about what it wants to achieve. It is hard to see what the Orange Bookers achieve by remaining in the party when the best chance for implementing their policies lie in the Conservatives and Labour. If post-coalition Liberal Democrat politics is dominated by the same fissure which came to dominate the party over the past eight years, then annihilation will be all but inevitable. If by contrast it can rally relatively quickly around a clear vision of society that it wants to achieve, then it will be in a position to make a slow and painful recovery – and if it acts smartly it will see the political ground shift in its direction long before it gets another sniff of power.
Clegg and coalition
There are two questions which I suspect will dominate the late night conversations at the Lib Dem conference next week: when Clegg needs to go and when the coalition needs to end. One of the reasons why I’m better off out of it is that my head and my heart tell me completely different things in answer to both.
I’ve come to loathe Clegg and his style of leadership with a passion. At the heart of his leadership bid was a dishonest failure to come clean about his agenda; something which he attempted to impose on the party indecently soon after his narrow victory. One of the reasons the coalition has been quite the failure it has been is that Clegg negotiated a deal which he and his narrow base of allies in the party felt relatively comfortable with, knowing full well that at the same time they got to junk all the policies they never supported in the first place. During the first few months of the coalition, it was very clear that Clegg was enjoying the fact that he’d managed to get one over the party enormously (and we should admit at this point that the left of the party failed prevent this and must bear heavy responsibility as well). He didn’t govern as the leader of the party but as its usurper and it was only once he had been made painfully aware of quite how unpopular his own policies truly were that he suddenly rediscovered the “progressive” concern which he normally reserved for bluffing his way through elections.
So yeah, I’d quite like to see him out on his rear. I’d like to see that quite a lot. My big problem though is that I’m pretty non-plussed by leadership at the best of times and find the choices on offer to the party to be remarkably poor.
Dismissing out of hand the option of the Lib Dems selecting a rightwinger like David Laws or Jeremy Browne as Clegg’s successor (I suppose it could happen; suffice to say it would be political suicide), there appear to be two real choices available:
Vince Cable: despite stumbling over tuition fees and then being stripped of his media regulation powers by indiscreetly claiming to be at war with the Murdochs, Cable has had quite a good couple of years. He’s made little secret of his disdain for the coalition or for George Osborne’s economic policies in particular. The problem with Cable though is that he is very much his own man. A vote for Vince Cable is a vote for the party going down the Conservative Party route of having all party policy decided by the leadership – this in spite of the fact that Cable’s attempts at autonomous policy development have consistently ended in disaster. The man is simply not collegiate and has an ego the size of a planet. And let’s not forget the fact that he was fully signed up to Clegg’s project; it is only Clegg’s unpopularity and Cable’s own unpopularity within the Conservatives which has lead him to reinvent himself since joining government. There has been a lot of reinvention going on which he has largely got away with – such indulgence will end the second he becomes leader.
Tim Farron: Tim is charismatic and charming, and decisively leftwing. He’s a contemporary of mine, which makes his rise particularly interesting on a personal level. My problem with Tim is threefold: firstly, he has a notorious tendency to speak before thinking and to rhetorically overreach in a way that is veritably Clegg-like – he hasn’t come a cropper in the same way that Clegg regularly does, but I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t simply because he is subject to less scrutiny at the moment. Secondly, he consistently wobbles on cultural liberal issues, whether it is regarding homeopathy or his links with gay cure supporting CARE organisation. And finally, there is the fact that I simply haven’t been very impressed with his time as party president. I can see very little evidence that his crusade to bring back community politics (but without all the “it’s worth doing for its own sake” nonsense) has come to anything; similarly his membership pledge has come to nothing. What I see in Tim is a lot of dynamism, a lot of charm and heaps of rhetoric – but very little substance.
The only other person who I can conceive could take the mantle is Steve Webb. But while Steve has, by all accounts, done a great job at keeping in touch with the parliamentary party, he has been all but invisible to those of us outside the Westminster bubble. He appears to have done a competent job in terms of pensions reform inside the Department of Work and Pensions, but it simply isn’t clear how great an extent he takes responsibility for many of the more controversial welfare reforms being lead on by Iain Duncan Smith. So as a leadership contender he would have to deal with both his disappearance from the public gaze and serious questions about his own complicity: even if he tackled himself well in both respects, I somehow doubt he’d get a look in.
In short, I don’t think the Lib Dems have all that much in the way of talent on their benches, and that makes getting rid of Clegg an especially risky premise. The fundamental problems pre-date Nick Clegg, which is why the last leadership election in 2007 was fought by two former MEPs who had only taken their seats in 2005. Sadly, this dearth of talent is a natural outcome of an electoral strategy which has focused so much on casework and community work at the expense of vision and clear strategic thinking.
The other issue is when the coalition should end. Many would like it to end tomorrow, or even sooner – as articulated by Nick Barlow. I find it hard to argue against Nick’s charges against the coalition: to call it fundamentally dysfunctional would be generous.
But Lib Dems who imagine that there is some dividend to be earned by leaving the coalition early are simply misguided. The public won’t thank them – they’ll simply conclude the Lib Dems are even more of a waste of time. By contrast, there is a historic, long term gain to be earned by simply allowing this coalition to last a full five years.
The electorate has a short collective memory; I’ve lost count of the number of people who hated the Labour government but now look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. No matter how painful this coalition feels at the moment, or what damage it does, the fact is that if it lasts the full five years it will be seen as a success for coalition politics while if it falls apart it will be seen as a loss.
If the Lib Dems ever want to return to power again, persuading the country that coalition is not the scary thing that both Labour and the Conservatives insisted it was during the last election will have to be a priority. Adding another footnote to the argument that all coalitions fall apart after a couple of years will slow any chance of a Lib Dem recovery for the simple reason that people will see a vote for the Lib Dems to be a vote for chaos and weak government.
None of this is pleasant to say and the counter-argument that this coalition is so uniquely awful that it simply can’t be allowed to continue carries a lot of weight. But again, the question needs to be asked about how effective the alternative would be. A majority Conservative government is still just about conceivable if an election were called tomorrow: the Tory argument that they need a mandate to finish the job, and that Labour aren’t fit for office will carry substantially more weight than the polls suggest. Such a government would be an utter disaster.
And a Labour government wouldn’t be much better. Labour simply do not have an economic policy at the moment and under Ed Balls it seems inconceivable that they will want to adopt one. A Labour government would probably spend a bit more, and have somewhat better priorities, but it would be a mistake to think that they would be drastically different in terms of the coalition. So destroying a long term gain (not just for the Lib Dems, but for pluralist politics as a whole) in favour of a short term highly marginal improvement simply doesn’t appear very enticing to me.
Finally, there is the question of confidence and supply. Many coalition supporters cling to this as if it would be the answers to all their problems: yet all it would mean is that the Tories would be able to speed up their spending cuts with the Lib Dems voting their budgets through. And even disregarding how votes in the Commons would be likely to go, the damage a solely Conservative government would do would be immense.
I simply don’t see an easy way out; merely a long, painful haul. Having made this bed (which I have to accept some personal responsibility for), the party is going to just have to lie in it. Instead of worrying too much about the next couple of years, the Lib Dems ought to be thinking bigger, and what they will be doing during their wilderness years. Fundamentally, they need to get over their obsession with winning parliamentary seats and start thinking much more about the sort of society they want to see. Ultimately, the problems are far bigger than simply Nick Clegg’s own incompetence and dishonesty.
David Marquand is offering the Liberal Democrats some advice, graciously for free, over on Our Kingdom.
First of all he denounces us for having “more unelected legislators than elected ones” and concludes that this proves that we “can’t be taken seriously as an agent of democratic change.” Unbeknownst to anyone else until now, this is apparently the magic formula for testing whether party is establishment or not. On this formulation – praise the Lord! – Labour is the most anti-establishment party in the country. The fact that they happen to actually run everything is a mere detail that we can safely ignore. Either way, it is likely to rejoin the establishment in May after which point David Cameron will be leading the anti-establishment vanguard.
He goes on to suggest that “surely it would be possible for the Lib Dem leader to announce that he will hold party elections – including Lib Dem voters, not just members – to decide which people will be nominated to serve in the Lords.”
A few points. Firstly, unlike any other party we do elect our peers – or at least a panel of individuals get to select them from an elected list. We don’t run elections for specific places because we don’t know when the next rounds of appointment are likely to take place, or how many will be appointed at that stage, and when we do know we typically get just a few weeks’ notice. With that in mind the panel option is the best one available. Secondly, with the sole exception of Sue Garden, the Lib Dems have had no new appointments to the Lords since the dissolution honours in 2005 – this in stark contrast to the swelling Labour and Tory ranks. Thirdly, dissolution honours are only available to just-retired MPs – no chance of an election there. Fourthly, if Labour hadn’t reneged on its promise in the Cook-Maclennan agreement to ensure that the Lords was roughly proportional to the votes cast in the previous general election we would have something like 100 more peers. The idea that the Lib Dems are somehow sitting pretty in the Lords is laughable.
Could the Lib Dems make the process more democratic? Certainly. We could have ordered lists for instance and insist that people should be selected in order (although since the list would have to be published it would quickly become apparent which candidates had been blackballed by the authorities). However, a proper selection process would cost tens of thousands of pounds and amount to a serious drain on resources. If we were to take Marquand’s advice and let the public participate in these elections they would cost even more. Either way they would amount to a serious distraction for the party. And that is assuming that we will ever see another Liberal Democrat appointed to the Lords at all.
Marquand argues that we should do this because it “would punch a huge hole in the present system, shame the other parties, and infuriate the Whitehall mandarinate.” Would it? I would imagine that most people would react with complete indifference. The fact that we already have the most democratic system doesn’t seem to impress anyone. I write as someone who sat on the working group that came up with the current system. It certainly was a fight to get the party whigs to concede every minor point. When I started on the party’s Federal Executive I was a true believer and really thought that such posturing made a difference; now I’m not convinced it amounts to anything. We need reform, not a vanity project so we can pat ourselves on the back for being so worthy. Empty gestures do not an anti-establishmentarian make.
There is an alternative proposal which has been aired from time to time and that is to boycott the Lords appointments entirely. If anything I think I have veered towards this view in recent years. It certainly has the merit of being the simpler option. Once again however, would anyone care? If we’d started a boycott four years ago it would have meant we’d have one fewer life peer. Big deal. Would anyone have noticed?
Even more radical would be to get our people to walk out of the Lords entirely (let’s leave aside their willingness to not claim attendence allowance and other expenses for a second). But here’s the thing: in the real world (as opposed to that bubble in which a lot of people seem to exist where the House of Lords is full of independent-minded sages), the Lib Dems hold the balance of power in the Lords. If they hadn’t been sitting there doing their jobs then, however illiberal government legislation is right now, it would now be significantly worse. Given that this fact is widely unrecognised, do you really think people would even notice a boycott? It is Trot tactics and is likely to make as much impact in the public consciousness as all Trot tactics.
But wait, he has more. Apparently we should also reject any notion of attempting to reform the current system and instead “transcend capitalism altogether.” He helpfully adds that “I don’t begin to know how to do this” and that “it wouldn’t be practical politics in the short term” but suggests that the answer lies in reading more Marx.
Would it be uncharitable of me to point out that David Marquand, a public school educated Oxford graduate, a former MP, a protege of the ever clubbable Lord Jenkins, a reformed Social Democrat and Blairite, a longstanding member of the mainstream media’s commentariat and an admirer of David Cameron, is a little bit on the establishment side himself? Most of his advice here amounts to little more than ‘japes’ of dubious tactical or strategic merit. Former members seldom make the most objective of critics; are we really to believe he has our best interests at heart?
The House of Lords is a dreadful anachronism and not democratically legitimate, but at least the fact that no party has control of it means that it is a place where politics actually happens. The House of Commons by contrast is totally dominated by the executive and, in a very real sense, apolitical (unless you count jeering loudly at opponents as some kind of meaningful activity). The control of the whips is so absolute that even pragmatic amendments get blocked in the Commons for fear of giving MPs ideas above their station. Obsessing about the “establishment” nature of the Lords is simply posturing while the Commons is an open sewer. No doubt Marquand’s answer to that should be we should boycott Commons elections until we have “shamed” the other parties into reforming it. But the other parties don’t have any shame; that’s the point.
As for economics, if the Green Party wants to spend the next 30 years discovering an alternative to capitalism, then good luck to it. This investigation hasn’t done it much good over the previous 30 years and we are still paying the price for the Communists’ alternative. If this is what it means to be anti-establishment, I hope you don’t mind if I carry on with actually trying to make the world a better place.
On Saturday night, I was on a Northern Line train heading back to north London. At Charing Cross, a group of Asian youths got on the carriage, five girls and three boys. The girls were all wearing headscarves and trousers, but had full makeup on. The boys were manhandling the girls in a way reminiscent of, well, most horny teenage boys – and were hardly being put off.
I mention this because one of the girls – and manhandlees – was wearing a tshirt that identified her as a warden of the Global Peace and Unity Conference which I happened to be aware was taking place because of this piece on Lib Dem Voice. That debate – essentially over whether the Policy Exchange should be “privately briefing” against the conference and whether Clegg (along with several other senior politicians) was right to attend the conference – has continued raging over the last few days. David T from Harry’s Place has been wading in to criticise Clegg for attending the event, likening it to a White Supremecist rally.
It all sounds rather reminiscent of the debate over the 2003 anti-war demo. Back then I was on opposite sides with Harry. Now I am… erm…
Having looked at the Policy Exchange document (word file here, still not available via main PE website as far as I can see, cheers Alex HiltonAndy Hinton), I agree it is somewhat dodgy. Some of the biographies are tenuous at best and criticising people for selling shahadah headbands on the basis they are associated with Hamas is desperate to say the least. But for all the fluff, there are some genuinely concerning people mentioned on that list.
But you have to weigh that up against the fact that it is a genuine opportunity to engage with tens of thousands of British Muslims. This includes the teenagers I encountered on the tube on Saturday night. If they were hardline Hamas supporters, they had a funny way of showing it. Should we really write off an opportunity to connect with them, show them solidarity, because there are other people on the platform we don’t approve of? Should Clegg really have used his ten minute slot, as David T suggests, to hector the audience about the ne’er-do-wells they may or may not have listened to that day as well? What would that achieve apart from earn Clegg a few brownie points in the blogosphere?
There are no hard and fast principles Clegg should be sticking to here, only rough and messy pragmatism. If politicians are serious about engaging with the Muslim community, they have to go to them; the mountain must come to Mohammed. The potential reward? The opportunity to pull people away from the extremists.
Is it comparable to Clegg (or anyone else) attending the BNP’s annual Red, White and Blue Festival? No, because mainstream white Britons don’t attend it in any significant numbers. The Lib Dems should engage with BNP voters, but the way we do that is on the doorstep.
Back in 2003, we were told off by Harry’s Place and others for participating in the anti-war demo on the basis that it was also attended by Muslim extremists and the far left. As anyone who was there can tell you however, all those groups were drowned out into insignificance by the large numbers of ordinary members of the public. I very much hope that after this latest event and the controversy surrounding it, Clegg, Jack Straw, Dominic Grieve et al are getting together to discuss how they might collectively encourage the GPU event further into the mainstream. But start boycotting it? They’d be insane to.
Back when I was a student I remember the then president of NUS going round the country urging student unions to ditch their policies on restoring student grants with a view to stopping the “Tory” plan to introduce tuition fees. That president was one Jim Murphy. One of his first acts as an MP just a year later was to vote in tuition fees.
That incident taught me several important lessons about trusting Labour politicians further than I could throw them. At the time I liked to think NUS itself was salvageable. Now I’m not so sure.
Because actually the problem in NUS isn’t ultimately Labour, it is the low level of participation. If the level of support the hard left enjoys in NUS was in any way reflective of the student population, we would have significantly more than one hard left MP sitting in the Commons right now. The Lib Dems have always done well with students and always done shockingly bad at converting that level of support into influence in NUS. Why? Because no sane student (i.e. one who is statistically likely to vote Lib Dem) goes anywhere near NUS.
NUS is like a little part of the Labour movement that a few of us non-Labour supporting souls are allowed a insight into during our formative years. All the main features are there: delegations that get casually manipulated by their leaders whenever it suits them; policy making by conference resolution; corporatist identity politics to keep under-represented groups under control. It’s a horrendous vision – a little like Dante’s Divine Comedy (for the record, Murphy is in the Ninth Circle). Remember the character Jonah in the Torchwood episode Adrift who screamed for 20 hours every day? He did this because in the middle of the Dark Star he looked into there was an NUS compositing session going on. I happen to know for a fact that this detail was removed from the final script at the insistence of Jack Straw.
The problem is, however much Labour behave like two-faced bastards in it, you wouldn’t really want the other side to get its own way either. At least Labour have a toehold in reality – the Alliance of Workers Liberty and their cohorts can’t even claim that.
And the biggest joke? After spending years fighting or working with these various factions in NUS, no matter where they came from politically you are likely to find them pounding the streets working to get Labour elected come election time. Despite the fact that everyone seems to place so much stock in being an “independent” in NUS politics, pretty much the only people in it who aren’t card carrying members of the Labour Party are the card carrying Lib Dems and Tories. And even then you can never be sure.
NUS doesn’t represent students. Even as a political activist I spent much of my time at university doing things like amateur dramatics and helping to run the film society. These sort of activities are the lifeblood of student unions, yet the only people NUS is interested in engaging with are political hacks. That essential truth has not changed in 30 years. Until it does, it does not matter how much the bozos du jour try invoking the “spirit of ’68” they will be ignored, and rightly so. They are just like so many King Cnuts. To any students out there my advice is to do what I didn’t: get involved in your local disaffiliation campaign today!
UPDATE: Had a strange critique of this post from someone who appears to some up my criticism (i.e. anti-NOLSie Leninist who happens to be a card carrying Labour Party member):
Here is the view that these reforms are positively awful but we canâ€™t possibly, yâ€™know, re-democratise the NUS because that puts us in league with the AWL oiks – crivens!
For starters, I didn’t get into the proposals to “redemocratise” NUS at all, mainly because I don’t know – or care – what they are. But the question is, how do you define democracy?
It’s a problem we have in the Lib Dems as well. For a lot of people in the left, democracy equals votes, lots of them, on everything. Voice, access and participation is a complete irrelevance. In my day and I suspect this continues, the left in NUS is focussed solely on the politics of turning up and that the more people this alienates who thus don’t bother to take an interest in student politics, the better since it makes things simpler and more manageable.
My criticism was that student politics doesn’t even attempt to engage with the vast majority of students with much wider and more eclectic interests than politics. More decision making by conference resolution won’t change that. Clearly it isn’t even on David Semple’s radar, which pretty much makes my point for me.
I’ve been alerted to the fact that if you go over to the “join table” section of Scrabulous, you find an … interesting choice of gamers.
Just looking now for example, I notice that “Andrew” is requesting a game with females only during which he is after “s e x y chat, prefer who have messenger and cam”. “Jamie” meanwhile is wanting a game with “any ladies wanting to play strip scrabble over 30..women only..please” while an anonymous person wants “G-A-Y GUYS (!!!!) in London (or at least UK) who want to chat too. I WILL DELETE THE GAME IF YOU ARE NOT!” You get the picture.
I have to admit that until this weekend I was entirely unaware of the links between Scrabble and “sexy chat”. It does bring a new angle to the whole ongoing Tommy Sheridan debacle however.
A combination of Valentine’s Day, a business trip and subsequent workload conspired to prevent me from writing about my experiences of the 2003 anti-war demo, but I’m taking the trouble to do so now. This is partly to provide people to an archive of the old website I set up for the day, which five years on is something of an historical archive. But it is also because, missing the anniversary aside, I believe there is something to learn from the experience.
Basically, I learnt three important things from the demo and its aftermath. The first lesson I learnt, which you will be able to vouch for, is that I really needed to learn how to design websites properly. My attempt at a website was frankly laughable – the entire thing is written in HTML (no CSS) and I had to resort to crude third party sites just to set up a working form. As I was manually inputting each pledge I received, I ended up getting swamped; the list on the website was dwarfed by the number of pledges and messages of goodwill I ended up receiving and not having the time to include. A few years later and I’m still learning, but I have at least got my head around CSS and PHP (just about), even if I’m still stubbornly appalling at planning my projects.
Secondly, I could no longer ignore the fact that the hard left is riven with dangerous arseholes who you should at all times be wary of working with. On anything. To be fair, I had broadly got this message during my university days, but my participation in the Leamington Spa Stop the War group rather reinforced this notion.
At university I learned that if you stood in a student union election against a member of the hard left and won, you were likely to get your head kicked in. I also learned about what I’ve come to learn is affectionately known as TIGMOO. Basically, if you are part of this great, glorious, socialist-labour movement you are One Of Us (even if we hate your guts), while if you aren’t you are The Enemy (even if we agree with 90% of what you say). Not so much my enemy’s enemy is my friend as my enemy is my friend as long as he can recite a couple of verses from the Internationale. Oh, the hours I wasted attempting to negotiate joint working relationships with SWPers and AWLers on issues such as tuition fees only to discover they had cooked something up behind our backs with the Labour Club which enabled both Labour and their hard left comrades to save face (even if it meant a stalemate). But I digress.
My working relationship with the Leam lot was actually quite good in the run up to the march itself. I spent a lot of my Saturdays helping to run the stall outside Woollies and a lot of my Sundays attending organising meetings. It was all good.
The problems started when the war began. In short, it emerged that a number of my comrades could not have been happier that it had happened (anyone else remember the banner greeting people as they arrived at Hyde Park on 15/2 confidently predicting that this was the beginning of the rise of the proletariat? In your dreams). At a time when the rest of us were contemplating defeat, they had got a second wind. It was all talk of demos, shutting down the town centre and vandalising the rail lines. Revolution was in the air bruvvas! Those of us who thought it would be more appropriate to hold vigils rather than demos were laughed out of the community centre.
The final straw for me, not surprisingly, was when it was “decided” that the Leam Stop the War Coalition would be supporting the Socialist Alliance in the local elections. So much for coalition (this is why I can only laugh hollowly at Alex Harrowell’s suggestion that we should offer the SWP uncritical solidarity in a stand against the “Right”. As if the SWP would do the same for anyone else!).
But thirdly, the most important thing I learned from the demo was the craven desire for what it regards as respectability of much of the Lib Dem establishment. Read the motion that Susan Kramer and I proposed to the Federal Executive and got passed nem con. To our surprise, Charles Kennedy backed the motion. Then the trouble started. If dealing with the SWP was difficult, getting our own party to implement an executive order was downright impossible!
Senior figures in the party did everything they could to stop any aspect of this motion from being implemented. They point blank refused to put anything up on the party website, hence my own ham-fisted attempt. They wouldn’t link to my site, with Chris Rennard suddenly coming up with a policy that official party website only linked to websites run by party Specified Associate Organisations. 24 hours later, I got the then LDYS Chair to agree to “publish” the website, rendering that particular “policy” meaningless.
Eventually, after weeks of lobbying (and I should make it clear here that it is Donnachadh McCarthy who deserves all the credit here; I merely skulked around in the background), and with less than a week to go before the demo itself, Kennedy was asked a direct question by David Frost on live television and, bottling it, turned volte face and said he would be “very happy” to go on it. Suddenly we got our link on the front page of the party website, publicity in Lib Dem News (which until that point had been relegated to the letters pages) and the full weight of the party’s campaigns and press departments behind us.
Yet even then Kennedy remained obsessed with having it both ways. Notoriously, his Hyde Park speech argued meekly that he was “not persuaded” of the case for war and demanding that Parliament be allowed a vote (it was; the troops went in). But the biggest single joke of the day had to be the row over placards. On the one hand, I have to admit to being vaguely amused by Donnachadh’s green piety by insisting that we should have generic “Lib Dems say no” placards on the basis that they could be reused by activists for local demonstrations on a variety of subjects (an Iain Paisley revival meeting for instance). But that paled into insignificance compared to the desperately weak “official” campaigns department placards they were insistent must surround Kennedy at all times with the oh-so-unambivalent slogan “give peace a chance!” (John Lennon has a lot to answer for for his particular brand of faux-radicalism).
The fact that, even at such a late stage, we were having such mind-numbingly daft arguments demonstrated quite how uncomfortable the party establishment was with going on this march at all. If we hadn’t dragged them, kicking and screaming, they would never have gone near it. Yet for all that, it was the symbolism of Kennedy joining the march that mattered – even his compromised speech and even more compromised policy motion at the subsequent spring conference (in which they insisted on wording that confusingly seemed to suggest that our opposition to the war would end the moment a British troop set foot on Iraqi soil) didn’t stop the party’s rise in the polls. For a brief period and not for either the first or last time, the Lib Dems truly spoke on behalf of the majority of the nation.
Does all this still matter? After all, it’s all water under the bridge now. Speaking personally, it goes to the heart of the ongoing debate waging over the party’s identity. Reading Ming Campbell’s rather self-justifying account of Kennedy’s drink problem in the Mail yesterday, I was struck by how many chances they gave the man to acquit himself despite the fact that he consistently let them – us – down. I’m afraid I have to agree with Anthony Barnett – just think of the progress we would have made in 2005 if Kennedy had either sorted himself out or been given the heave-ho much earlier (who would have replaced him is a moot point – it certainly wouldn’t have been Campbell who was still recovering from cancer at the time).
I wonder what all this pressure to keep up appearances had on Kennedy’s then-PPS Mark Oaten, and how his personal downfall is related. I hear Lib Dems continue to insist the party is in the all-clear over the Michael Brown donation and boggle (we may yet not have to pay up, but the law is quite ambiguous and the investigation continues). I welcome the anti-establishment stance Nick Clegg has adopted over ID cards, only to see that undone by his uber-establishment stance on the Lisbon Treaty (as for his line on Michael Martin, the stuff about air miles etc. is broadly irrelevant; the fact that Martin has consistently been behind attempts to block transparency and reform should be enough to prevent Clegg dismissing it all as a “witch hunt”).
I recall the cold shoulder I received, again back in 2003, when I formally complained to then Chief Whip Andrew Stunell about Paul Marsden‘s comments in the Times bragging about how researchers are desperate to climb his greasy poll, and I wonder. Marsden isn’t the first Lib Dem MP to get caught out diddling the help (although thankfully he’s the only one to write poems on the subject) I’ve heard about during the years either. If a senior Lib Dem official was ever found to be, say, a kiddie fiddler, would we take action? At what point does an individual’s personal conduct become so unacceptable that they are forced out? My concern is that the party’s collective neurotic obsession with respectability too often leads us down some very dark alleys.
As a party we have always been, and for the forseeable future will continue to be, permanently at five minutes to midnight. I’m not convinced the meekness in our approach has done much in the past to rectify this situation. Over the past couple of years we have reaped what we sowed by not dealing with issues when they arose. Clegg ought to be taking copious notes. I like to think he won’t make the same mistakes as the past, and despite my own misgivings the fact remains that the Lisbon Treaty is an issue which the public stubbornly refuses to take an interest in. But we need a few more brave stances and a bit less nuance.
A final word on Donnachadh McCarthy. The Iraq demo was the beginning of the end of Donnachadh’s time in the Liberal Democrats. Despite the fact that I think he made some shocking mistakes (if he had kept his powder dry following the march instead of demanding recriminations he would have found himself in an incredibly strong position – indeed his lack of any sense of timing always was his greatest weakness), he really was appallingly treated and bullied by the top ranks in the party. He seems to be much better off without the party than the party is without him. It is deeply sad that ultimately we seem incapable of keeping someone like that within our own ranks; whatever you may have thought of him there are far worse people who happily remain party members.