‘Red Wall’ Tories

80243005_10157496066439279_6835406435443015680_oAlmost by chance, yesterday, my attention was drawn to a tweet by a local BBC reporter, Fergus Hewison, which described Richard Holden’s response to an interview by Keir Starmer, where he talked of the constituency he now represents, North West Durham, as being “left behind” under its previous Labour MPs. Holden is the guy who beat Laura Pidcock in the election in December. I was working for Laura throughout her time as MP there.

Even on the most obvious level, it’s a nonsense statement, of course – the sort that politicians make all the time. Most fundamentally, if we’re going to describe North West Durham as being “left behind, the most important event has to be the closure of the Consett Steel Works by the then Conservative Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, in 1980. It’s both bizarre and economically illiterate to blame individual Labour MPs for the position that the constituency is in, whether that be Laura, or Pat Glass before her, or Hilary Armstrong before that.

The closure of the Steel Works, and the fact that there was no plan beyond the closure, the fact that associated industries closed along with the steel works, created a vicious spiral that made Consett and the surrounding areas an unemployment black spot for decades afterwards. When the jobs did come back, they were often unskilled and insecure, and often outside the immediate area. These aren’t controversial opinions; they are backed by the long-term analysis.

Most people in North West Durham understand this history. They’ve seen the real meaning of being “left behind”, as it has played out in their families, in their communities, in the high street. While unemployment levels have dipped over recent years, the constituency has a real issue with low pay, with some of the lowest average wages in the North East, as well as the country. Consett’s story is intimately bound up with the economic story of UK PLC: the decline of heavy industry, the abandonment of manufacturing and its replacement with low paid, service-led, insecure employment.

But there’s something else going on here. Holden’s statement isn’t simply a lazy mistake, it’s an attempt to embed a very different narrative and that requires some explanation. In December in County Durham, three so-called “Red Wall” seats fell to the Tories. Bishop Auckland, North West Durham and Sedgefield are very different types of constituencies, but all are long-standing Labour seats which swung dramatically from Labour to Conservative in December. This isn’t the place to discuss why, but those are the facts.

But despite sweeping to victory in those seats, the Tory MPs elected into those seats will know they are not secure. The underlying economic factors noted above, added to the fact that all three seats are ill-prepared to deal with another economic downturn caused by a combination of Brexit and COVID-19, make it quite likely that these new MPs (Richard Holden in North West Durham, Dehenna Davison in Bishop Auckland and Paul Howell in Sedgefield) are going to have a rocky ride between now and the next General Election.

The cold, hard truth is that these ‘Red Wall’ Tories, for all their bluster, are going to find it hard to represent their constituents in the traditional sense. This Government’s deregulatory, small state, free market agenda – a continuation of Thatcherism with some Steve Bannon-style populism thrown in – isn’t exactly designed for constituencies that desperately need support, whether that is investment, or a strong support networks via the social security system. So, what can they offer, instead?

Well, that’s where the this attempt to muddy the waters about the role of an MP comes in. To these Tories, if they bring a Metro line (doubtful), or a retail warehouse to the constituency through their contacts, that’s the job done. Actually, the reality is that any investment that comes into a constituency is complex and will have more to do with the economics of the region and sub-region, planning done at a county, national or even international level, than the actions of any MP. MPs are not Mayors, nor are they heads of local authorities. They can have an impact, but it will mostly be in a supporting role.

But, as has been illustrated over decades now, presentation is all in right-wing politics. And if they can’t deliver on those transport links or the big investments, they can at least make an awful a lot of noise about them. If these ‘Red Wall Tories’ can present an image of themselves in a business role – or as an ambassador for their brand, they may kid people that they are bringing economic regeneration, even when they are not. In essence, it’s a recasting the role of an MP as the CEO of a company, with the Tory PR machine behind them.

On a deeper level, however, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a Member of Parliament. As an MP, your primary role is to represent people. Of course, it’s incredibly complex in practice, but the number one function has to be a democratic one. That is what you are judged on at election time. Yes, of course, sometimes as an MP you can make an impact locally. You can support local growth, you can involve yourself in projects that develop communities and local economies, but central Government always holds the purse strings and will always have far more influence than any individual MP.

As an opposition MP, this is even more the case. Many Tory MPs are seriously rich, and even where they are not, they have connections to money, through the Tory Party, big business or the old private school network. Of course, that can bring benefits. It can deliver shiny things. For Labour MPs, especially those who’ve come through the trade union route, or low paid jobs without a lot of influence, the challenges are different, as is the role. In opposition, no Government is going to send investment your way (in fact, quite the opposite).

For an opposition MP like Laura Pidcock, the role was clear: (a) to help people with issues on an individual level the best you can; (b) to represent your constituents in Parliament – by both exposing the faults in the system and (c) by campaigning on their behalf to create a better society – which is what Labour’s transformational programme contained in the two manifestos of 2017 and 2019 was all about. But, at the heart of that role – until you go into power, is the knowledge that central Government ultimately hold the cards. That is a political reality, and that needs to be spelled out to those constituents.

I suspect that the representative, democratic role of an MP will increasingly become a nuisance and a distraction to these new ‘Red Wall’ Tory MPs, because they know – as ideological right-wingers – they can’t deliver on that. Some of that is already coming out, for example, in Richard Holden’s declaration that his Facebook page is not a place for “political debate”. They can’t change the political direction of this Government; they can’t campaign against its decisions and they will find it very hard to make a case for regional investment based on the last 10 years.

So, the PR job then becomes an attempt to throw around myths about that democracy and representation is. Labour “let the North East down” plays nicely into broader grievances and the wider perception of MPs not doing enough for their constituencies (and too much shouting about them). It also taps into a popular scepticism about how politicians behave.

I’ve lost count of the time I’ve heard the phrase: “why can’t we knock some heads together and get you all to work together”, as if this was a dysfunctional corporation, not politics with different ideological views of society and our world. But that myth is strong – and Tory MPs play up to it equally strongly, while all the time forcing through a clear, free market ideological agenda on our country. It’s sleight of hand and fertile territory for the Tories. The Red Wall Tory MPs will get fluff pieces in the press proclaiming their local successes and, boy, will they milk them – as a means of distracting from the democratic deficit.  As a party, we must not stand by passively, normalising this spin. We have to challenge it, explain and educate, every step of the way.

Standard

The dead cat of Dominic Cummings?

cummings

From the left, the reaction to the Dominic Cummings story has been curious. Of course, there’s been anger. While not surprised, socialists (along with the general population) have expressed genuine outrage that the chief adviser to the Prime Minister could display such arrogance and disregard for public health. But mixed in with that, I sense that there is a real nervousness about letting Cummings become the story. I talked a little about that in a piece I wrote about Cummings’ politics last week. What many argue is that even this story, superficially damaging as it is for them, is a cover for the Tories to conceal far greater crimes.

We saw a similar nervousness throughout the Corbyn years: a sense that we must not allow these right-wing chess players, the likes of Steve Bannon, Lynton Crosby and now Dominic Cummings, to set the agenda and employ dead cat strategies to distract the public with stories that play to their agenda alone – so from the annual “Poppygate” to Cummings’ press conference last Monday, almost everything is seen through the prism of this game of mass distraction. I think an element of this is bound to be true, but we must be careful that by calling everything a dead cat, we don’t fall into the exact trap we’re trying to avoid.

Of course, people like Dominic Cummings employ game theory and such like. Throughout politics, there are people who work in the background, mapping out scenarios and attempting to pull the strings of the public. We’ve had our examples of people in our party whose job was to do the same, and some of that was very successful. Of course, it’s the opposite of movement building and is as old as history itself. Machiavelli wrote the book.

However, we have to be careful. We mustn’t get sucked into the idea that the likes of Cummings are omnipotent or be overtaken by conspiracy theories. These people aren’t all powerful, they are part of a struggle – and a political one at that. Their theory of the world: that human interaction is fundamentally governed by self-interest, is not uncontested terrain. Alternatives views are available. It is part of a battle for the future, which we are all agents.

A hugely important Italian Marxist theorist – Antonio Gramsci – had a different perspective, based on a different world view. He read Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (a guide to courtiers in how to win power through manipulation and subterfuge in Renaissance Italy) and developed a new theory: that in modern society, it was the party (the collective, organised working class) that was the Modern Prince. In other words, in the struggle for power and leadership (what he called hegemony), there was power from the top (the old model), but always a countervailing power from the bottom up – and that’s where democratic, socialist politics has its source.

I think there is a real danger – especially in difficult times – that we accede too much power to those in formal positions of power and those who, like Cummings, seem to pull the strings of not just a hard-right government, but the right-wing press. In so doing, it often looks like the control over the people is total, that Cummings is directly pulling the strings of the general public. But it is more complicated than that – and there are always other forces bubbling up. There are always cracks, and it is our task, as socialists, to turn them into crevices.

Of course, the likes of Dominic Cummings, Lynton Crosby and Steve Bannon do have real power and alongside the right-wing press and social media channels that they have developed, are often successful at creating hegemony (or leadership) amongst the public and of the state. But there is a real issue with going fully down a conspiracy rabbit hole, because it is utterly debilitating for us, as people who want to change the world. Because ascribing to any person, or a group of people, all-encompassing power makes our organising largely pointless. It overwhelms and demoralises people – and demoralised people don’t tend to organise, they tend to wait for better days, hide – or worse, give up all together.

Let’s take an example: some people on the left are saying that the situation over Dominic Cummings is designed to cause such anger, that it leads people to civil disobedience, as a precursor to authoritarian or martial law. Where is this argument going? Is it designed to stop the authoritarianism, the anger, or people speaking out? It’s not clear – and that is the point. Over the last 40 years, the real enemy of socialism has been demoralisation and apathy. At the heart of that is a sense of powerlessness. When we inflate the power of the dark forces controlling our lives, without any light, without any sense of how we fight back, we help them.

I think the best way to see Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson and the whole gamut of ascendant right-wing forces, is part of a political struggle. Their biggest battle and biggest challenge is to win hearts and minds, in order to gain consent for their admittedly authoritarian project. Our job is also to win hearts and minds, but our battle cannot be won from above, with the support of the media or the apparatus of the state. Ours must be won by organising amongst the people, opening up the space for a different vision of society, based on our collective power. But we must challenge their narratives, whatever games they are playing and whatever their strategies – because you don’t lead by hiding or hoping for better days.

Standard

No common ground with Cummings

Just a couple of months ago, Dominic Cummings was pushing herd immunity. He’s Boris Johnson’s most powerful advisor. At the same time, the Prime Minister was dithering over lockdown and delaying action, when it was clear that radical measures were needed. That certainly cost lives. Let’s not forget that.

Also, let’s not forget what we discovered a few weeks ago: that Cummings and some of his closest political allies – people who developed strategy alongside him over years – were part of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meetings – at the very least, taking part in discussions about how advice would be relayed, but no doubt forming that advice too.

Let’s remember, too, who Cummings is and what he does: he’s someone who has been emboldened by quietly racking up the political victories; by skilfully creating opportunities out of chaos; by manipulating public opinion; by tapping into deep seated anxieties, emotions and prejudices and turning them into slogans and ideas.

And right now, what Cummings is doing (alongside Boris Johnson and the hard right friends he’s gathered around him in the Cabinet) is desperately trying to work out how they can benefit from this crisis. How, despite that catastrophically lethargic response, despite the fact that they’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything approaching the right thing, they can turn this crisis round to the benefit of the Tory Party, and their political faction within it.

Let’s just take an example over the last few days. So, on Thursday, we had right-wing tabloid press carrying headlines like “Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons!” and “First Steps to Freedom From Monday!”, almost in unison. On Friday, VE Day, thousands of people had street parties, formed congas, many clearly in breach of social distancing rules. A coincidence? Not likely, but flag waving, national pride dressed up as rebellion – I couldn’t think of anything more Dominic Cummings if I tried.

That campaign to win the ideological battle will have many facets: they will work with, then manipulate the press; they will send mixed messages about the lockdown and play with people’s desperate desire to return to normality; they will orchestrate fears, stoke myths and displace blame. But their focus will be clear, because they are utter ideologues, convinced of their natural authority and destiny.

That group, with their big data, endless resources and their bear traps, are already planning ahead. They are about winning hearts and minds in this coronavirus crisis, just as they were with Brexit and the General Election. They know which buttons to press, how to individualise this crisis, so no light can be shone on the Government’s structural and deliberate failure to represent and safeguard its own people.

We can’t treat this group around Cummings as if we were dealing with an Edward Heath, or mainstream Conservatism. We can’t trust them, or expect them to listen to the science or do what is right for the majority of the population. They may play at being One Nation Tories for a press conference or two, but they are far from it.

The idea that there is common ground here is naive. When they talk about the trade unions, opposition politicians and local government administrations as being a “blob” holding them back, we better believe them. We are in their way and we better decide how we are going to stand our ground, rather than being steamrollered.

Caution is not the watchword, not when it comes to workers being sent into dangerous workplaces or life threatening scenarios. There’s so much simmering discontent, amongst those who have the most to lose from a premature “unlockdown” and from those who will go, unprotected, into an expanded frontline. On one level, our task, right now, is really quite simple. We must stick up for our people, with as much determination as they do theirs. Which is a hell of a lot.

Standard

The mainstream media: conspiracy or culture?

dianeabbott1

I don’t think it’s useful for us, as socialists, to see the mainstream media as some kind of conspiracy (e.g in league with the Government or directly “doing their bidding”). Ironically, if anything, that might underestimate the problem, while also allowing people who work in those institutions to avoid responsibility – because they will not recognise this labelling. This seems to me strategically wrong. I want to explain why.

In fact, the situation with our major media sources (the surviving press, our public broadcasters and our private media corporations) is both more serious and more entrenched than this. It’s partly about class and partly about a centrist, unquestioning culture that has developed within national institutions like the BBC (but also other big media institutions) over decades and under successive Governments.

The class dimension has been well documented, but bears restating: the mainstream media overwhelmingly recruits from privileged group – whether they be middle or upper class – mainly, but not exclusively Oxbridge. Naturally, their politics will be right of centre / centrist. Of course there are exceptions, sometimes quite visible, but these are the norms.

What that well trodden recruitment route (and the cultures it reproduces) excludes are radical, dissenting and working class voices. Certainly very few left wing socialists will be in a position to take jobs within those media hierarchies, even if they wanted to, because the structures are deeply entrenched. They have evolved over decades. That exclusion of different, questioning voices, then dictates a culture and ideology within these media institutions. Naturally, those who share the ideology are rewarded, those who don’t are not. We don’t need to be conspiracy theorists to understand this: it’s the way most big institutions work. Media is no different.

What this has done, over decades now, is to entrench a centrist ideology (either of the centre right or centre left) at the heart of our media institutions. Apart from the odd token exception, this has become the entitled and intolerant modus operandi, seemingly unshakeable. Undoubtedly, within the BBC, some of the changes David Cameron made to BBC governance around 2016 will also have had an impact at a senior level – I don’t deny that – but I think the deeper, cultural forces at play are even more instrumental.

What Corbyn’s election and the rise of socialism has done however, is to (a) introduce a lot of ideas which this centrism doesn’t understand or recognise as legitimate and (b) project individuals into the political “mainstream” that the media establishment thought they’d long since dispatched and isolated. These people and ideas, though mainstream to us on the left, seem weirdly anachronistic to the media class.

Having to deal with these interlopers and what they think as ‘outdated’ ideas, clearly annoys them. You can see the overt manifestations of this annoyance in the way presenters talk to the likes of Owen Jones, Diane Abbott or even Jeremy Corbyn. This is not necessarily a conscious thing, but works at deeper level, running through the organisation. A big clue is when the language used to question or interrogate Corbyn’s team, supportive MPs or socialist members is designed to marginalise: that, despite overwhelming leadership election wins, and the best election result since 1997, this is still an isolated, freakish occurrence.

So, in many ways the BBC (and Sky, Channel 4 etc) can be said to be institutionally centrist. In my view, this isn’t a conspiracy, in the sense of an overt, deliberate strategy, but an evolving culture. This is important distinction because it dictates the way we, as leftists, understand and deal with it. To change this is generational thing more important than exposing a “conspiracy”. It’s about democratising media, challenging entrenched values, empowering working class voices and changing the cultures which exclude them. And building alternatives where this can’t be achieved.

Standard

Friend! Loneliness and friendship in the Palace of Westminster

friend

I think I’ve got it. Finally, after months of scratching my head over what the hell the Westminster bubble was on about, I’ve realised. It’s not Laura Pidcock they don’t understand, but the entire meaning of friendship. This epiphany has made me understand why Laura’s seemingly innocuous, ‘of course I’m not going to go for a pint with a Tory MP after a hard day’s work’ words were met with such outrage, confusion and even apoplectic rage in certain, high octane circles.

Because I’m telling you, those of us on the outside of those walls were genuinely shocked by the volcanic reaction to that simple concept: that I’m not going to sup with the people who are actively hurting my community, my friends, my family. To us, that seemed pure common sense, but what I’ve realised since, having viewed Westminster from an anthropological perspective (I still see myself as an outsider even though I’m now inside the walls), is that it is a case of two distinct, common senses colliding, and as such it needs unpicking. At first I thought it was faux outrage, now I realise that it is part of a deep dysfunction.

So, let’s start from the beginning. We know that, until recently, the route into politics, on both sides, was fairly standard, a well-trodden path: a hugely disproportionate number of MPs came from public schools, or elite universities, especially Oxbridge. Not all, of course – there were other routes, (e.g. through trade unions or as a ‘self-made’ business people). But, certainly amongst those who ‘made it’ to higher office, there was a very specific culture. Anyone who has spent any time amongst those who have been incubated in those ‘elite’ schools and universities, know that alongside a very prominent sense of entitlement, there is also a culture of competition, a slightly dysfunctional concept of friendship and a deep sense of loneliness.

Parliament, in many senses, is a mirror of that bizarre culture, with all those facets of competition, unstable alliances, and loneliness. Spend a week in Parliament and you will feel the alienation – it’s tangible. Imagine then, that you’re a young, northern, working class woman, who went to a comp and Manchester Metropolitan Uni, with very a different culture and values. To anyone from the culture and history that most of us inhabit, the atmosphere of Parliament – not just the tradition, rules or the building, but the transient human relationships, the proximity of gossiping journalists in almost all parts of Westminster and the enclosed, privileged spaces – is absolutely alienating, if not hostile. As Laura said, it’s the strangest workplace anyone of us has ever inhabited. To find it normal in any sense, you must have emerged from a very different reality. That different reality is the privileged bubble of the elite, as educated inside the cloisters of Oxbridge and comfortingly expensive private schools.

Of course, people say: ‘but Tony Benn was great friends with Enoch Powell’ and it’s true that he did spend time in the House with the old racist, as he did with Ian Paisley. Reading the diaries, there is no evidence that their friendship extended much beyond Westminster. I doubt Caroline would have allowed it. Benn did, however, attend Powell’s funeral and allegedly told worried New Labour spin doctors that he would be going because Powell was “his friend”. I didn’t know Tony well enough to quiz him on that concept of friendship and what it meant to him, but I do remember him talking about Powell in similar terms to Thatcher: that he hated his ideology, but respected the fact that he was, in his terms, a signpost rather than a weathervane and he admired that. Is that friendship? Is that as deep as the friendship he had with Dennis Skinner, Joan Maynard or Eric Heffer. I suppose we can only guess, but my own view is that, because he was from a privileged and politically pluralist background, Benn had learnt the Parliamentary game. That doesn’t mean that he and Powell were the greatest of friends, only that in the lonely rooms of the Palace of Westminster, they shared some common personal ground, just as Attlee and Churchill did.

Obviously, Laura Pidcock’s case is different as are her ideas about friendship, which is her right. In amongst the feather spitting, one small sentence uttered by Laura has been completely missed, but it offers a clue to the real issue here. She said: “I have friends I choose to spend time with”. That isn’t a deliberate, provocative dismissal of the people she is now surrounded by in Parliament, but a genuine sentiment, and those of us who aren’t career politicians will recognise it as such. Friends aren’t people who we share chit-chat with on the Terrace or in Strangers Bar. It’s not a journalist who we ‘hit it off’ with over a coffee in Portcullis House, someone we exchange jokes about how bad Arsenal were at the weekend – and definitely not someone we say ‘hi’ to as we pass them in the corridor between votes. It isn’t even someone we find common cause with, or chat over an issue with (whatever party). None of that is friendship, at least not the way we conceive it.

Close friends are people who you share your home with, your darkest secrets and most fanciful ideas. They are people who’ve seen you through weddings, break ups, who’ve seen you be sick, who’ve laughed at your disasters and frailties. People you’ve cried with, who understand your very soul, despite the jokes that might permeate that bond. To many of us, friendships are permanent, binding contracts. If we want to talk about unconditional friendships, that’s where politics don’t matter. Values do, but not formal politics.

I have friends who don’t share my politics, but I love them dearly. For people to confuse that and the kinds of relationships we are offered in Parliament is absolutely bizarre. They aren’t the same thing. So, back to the Pidcock furore: what are you going to answer, when a journalist asks you, in this place, in this context, whether you’d be friends with a Tory MP? The same Tory MPs who you’ve just faced across the Commons floor, and watched them cackle and whoop at benefit cuts. Are you being serious?

It won’t just be Laura, or her staff who will feel like this: it’s a natural expression of the changing Labour Party. New Labour MPs, whether new or not, whether young or old, would slot into the expected culture a lot easier than those who come from the outside in, as it were. If the 2015 Labour intake included many people from outside the political bubble, then the 2017 intake took it one stage further. One of the most incredible consequences of the unexpectedly good result in June 2017 was the entry of a new generation of MPs, which almost accidently ended up being exactly what the Labour Party needed: MPs like Marsha de Cordova, Laura Smith and Ruth George are a huge breath of fresh air, blowing like a wind through the Westminster corridors.

Obviously, we should all expect political capital to be made out of any sense that the mould is being broken. There are many people in that place with a real interest in preserving the status quo. So, the zealous right-wing press, licking their lips, helped by a strengthened hard right on the Tory benches, have attempted to portray this quiet revolution, this slow gathering of MPs who are truly representative of the population at large rather than a political establishment, as something sinister.

Irony died when the Express bemoaned the “politics of hate” seeping into Westminster. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else. Those purveyors of hate, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph joined in, whipping up a real storm, almost betraying their fear in the process. The media are central in this, because they are as much of this dysfunctional culture as the politicians themselves. They hang around the cafes and bars like a set of charming, ingratiating hyenas. And they have a deep interest in perpetuating these paper thin, fake friendships of convenience. The truth is, though, that they wouldn’t know the true meaning of friendship if it smacked them in the face.

So, in some ways, the whole Pidcock #Torygate furore is nothing more than a terrible miscommunication. What they meant to ask Laura, and other working class MPs elected over the last three years, wasn’t “are you going to be friends with Tories?” Literally, who cares about that? No, what they meant to ask was, “are you going to conform?”, “are you going to bow down to the status quo” to the power of the media and the mush of centrism? And the answer to that (the real question that the journalists wanted to ask) I’m pleased to say, is a firm ‘no’. And what a refreshing, nourishing and inspiring thought that is.

Standard