Feb 252013

I received an email this afternoon on a new report by the Fabians.  I am a member of this grouping, though a rather passive one.  I suppose it would be fair to throw the accusation of armchair socialist at me.  I like my armchair, it is true.  But what I really like is words.  Their order, their relationship with other words, their choice and their juxtaposition.

All of that stuff, for someone who writes a lot, is significant and key – even when it might not necessarily be for you.

Not that I’m suggesting it should be.  We all have our different ways of looking at the world.

Anyhow, the email I mention leads me to this web page – and then onto the report itself, where we start out with these words:

Labour needs to answer five questions about the future of the state, so that it comes to power with a radical programme of government, but one that survives contact with the reality of office. [...]

The five questions line up as follows – in order to make the exercise I’m about to carry out work better, I’ll put them in an ordered list for you:

  1. Is there a middle way on fiscal policy?
  2. What are the next ‘pledge card’ policies?
  3. What does Labour do with the legacy it inherits?
  4. How does government change the economy and society?
  5. And how does Labour create a better state?

This was then sent my way in a slightly different and more concentrated form on Twitter (sometimes Twitter serves quite usefully to reveal what a greater space and time often obscure):

5 tests for the next Lab gov: fiscal trust, pledge-card ideas, coalition legacy, culture and markets, a better state [...]

 So let’s rewrite the above list with the language as per the tweet:
  1. Fiscal trust
  2. Pledge-card ideas
  3. Coalition legacy
  4. Culture and markets
  5. A better state

I responded to this tweet in the following way:

@andrew_harrop Good ideas – bit surprised by order. IMHO shd be: coalition legacy; culture & mrkts; fiscal trst; better state; pledge card.

Which is to say:

  1. Coalition legacy
  2. Culture and markets
  3. Fiscal trust
  4. A better state
  5. Pledge-card ideas

What really am I up to here then?  Well.  As horsemeat’s all the rage, it did seem to me that a few “cart before the horse” games were being played in what at first glance might appear to be a casually ordered list.  The question I ask of myself – and, through this post, of you – is whether the order the list was served up in was quite as casual as it first appeared.  In particular what stuck out as that proverbial sore thumb was “pledge-card ideas” at position number 2.

How so?  Using a pledge-card strategy as your second big idea or test for adequacy in government two years down the line is hardly the most convincing, nor politically solvent, move to make, now is it?

So what about the list I went and suggested?  By 2015, when the next general election hits us, for sure it’s going to be hitting us hard.  The coalition legacy will be clear for all to see; uppermost in people’s minds; a massive constraint on what Labour’ll be able to promise and deliver; and, more importantly, a starting-point for everything.  On the back of that legacy, we have a far older one – political and fiscal culture and markets.  One which this government will have done absolutely nothing to convert.  One which will be living on its highs of inviolable dominance.  And only if Labour knows how to deal with these two items first will the third on my list become at all possible to engineer and acquire.

A better state is my fourth, of course – something I think all of us on the left are aiming to create.  But it comes as a result of dealing with the first three – the first three being either the obstacles or opportunities to bring back some sense and sensibility to a “one nation” perception of the British body politic.

Whatever “one nation” might eventually mean for a group of islands where so many peoples live.

The pledge-card idea surely has to come last of all, mind.  You can’t know what you’re going to be able to deliver until you’ve been through the difficult process of deciding what’s available.  You can’t argue: “Shopping-list first!” – and then scrabble around for the pennies when you get to the checkout.  That this seems so self-evident to me and not to whoever drew up the intro makes me wonder if there isn’t some hidden agenda in all of this.  A bit too much input from marketing perhaps – and not quite enough from sensible political and financial observers?

In truth, of course, they’re just words – and words are only this important to silly wordsmiths like myself.  I may indeed be making a massive mountain out of stupidly trivial molehill.  But if that’s the case, do let me know.

It doesn’t harm to inform.

I don’t bite.

Mar 282012

I’ve just had a disagreement about the lentils I prepared today.  I used black pudding to flavour them instead of chorizo.  One member of my family was decidedly unimpressed – quite before even trying the dish.  I’d already removed the offending substance from the final presentation in anticipation of such a complaint.  It was the little pieces of black pudding that had split off from the main body – and that I’d therefore been unable to remove – which drew their immediate attention and disapprobation.

Which led me to wonder, as it does if thinking is what you do, whether the world isn’t divided up into two kinds of people: those who are hard-wired to resist any sign of difference and those who are hard-wired to embrace it.

Yes.  Just in that sentence you can see I uncover my own preferences.

I love new food; strange shapes; peculiar people; wacky opinions; unusual combinations of colour; curious furniture; patterned rugs; wallpapered walls; decorated ceilings.  People I live with, however, do not.

It’s not always easy for either side.

Translate this issue to the politics which separates us.  If our instincts are so very opposed – some of us just loving the challenge of permanent flux, others just loving the consistency of permanent perpetuation – how can we possibly even begin to construct the kind of ground we could share in order that we might successfully and productively debate?  And never mind the people who claim to be on the same part of that infamously two-dimensional political spectrum.  Surely more important and more confusing is the state of the people who manifestly occupy a space within the same political grouping and yet, all the same, appreciate difference in the different ways I have described above.

This, of course, may explain why Blairites are seen with grand suspicion by the rest of us.  Or, indeed, why so many different colours are beginning to make their solid appearance in what is rapidly becoming a coalition of rainbow-like proportions at the heart of the British Labour Party.

The question is really whether we want to reach out to people who use the same processes to think or who simply reach the same conclusions.

In my case, I have recently requested that I be allowed to join the Labour Left grouping – after assuring myself it does not aim to become a party within a party.  I am already a member of the Fabians and – outside Labour politics – a recent paid-up supporter of Open Rights Group.  I am also an associate member of the trades union Accord.  In all these cases, I suspect I have joined because they are organisations which have reached the same conclusions as myself on subjects I think are of societal importance.  But in the vast majority of these cases I honestly and sincerely suspect that very few of their representatives use the same processes to think I am most familiar and comfortable with.

Long-term, Blairism has added very little to Labour – except a thirst to win at all costs.  It also, however, thought as I would – even as the conclusions it reached were probably, in most cases, unhappy for me.  Some people who see how I write and act without clear commitment might assume that I’d be better off seeing my destination in Progress – and that anything else was just a journey.  I don’t think that’s fair, though. And I’ll explain why.

A perfect grouping for someone like myself?  Where magpie minds can freely consider all and every issue entirely on its merits and from scratch.  Where tribalism guarantees association with a grouping but does not limit the right to non-conformity.  Where brainstorming and ideas generation are part and parcel of every single day.  Where communication is not tacked on at the end but informs the whole process from the very beginning.  Where organisations do not consult or listen in one direction from the top to the bottom but aim, instead, most importantly, to engage and dialogue in multifarious and multicoloured direction.  Where a proper appreciation of the needs of volunteer supporters and their lives is clearly couched in the language of such sensitivities.

And finally, where the concept of leadership – devolved to all levels of action – constitutes enabling and facilitating over expressions and instincts of impositional frustration.

Perfection doesn’t exist, of course – but at least some of the above would be pretty welcome!

We will, of course, as time goes by, see how all this develops.

As well as, most significantly, what real and lasting impact left-leaning voters and supporters of Labour might now be able to properly engineer.

Jan 152011

I’m not going to fisk this speech, the full transcript of which can be found at the Fabian Society website here.  I’m simply going to copy and paste that part of the speech which resonated and reverberated most for me:

Among the many strands of the British Labour tradition, two have proved particularly influential.

The first was the idea of socialism as a kind of missionary work to be undertaken on behalf of the people.

I’m sorry to give the Fabians a hard time, but this view is most obviously associated with the early Fabians around Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

The alternative strand, represented by the co-operative movement and the early trade unions, saw Labour as a grassroots, democratic movement to enable people to lead the most fulfilling lives.

As we seek the right traditions to draw on as a political party in the 21st century, it is so important that we understand the appropriate role of each tradition.

The Webb Fabian tradition was born of an era where the challenge of the Left was meeting people’s basic needs for health, housing, education and relief of poverty.

That need will always remain.

But people rightly expect more out of their lives than simply meeting basic needs.

The New Labour tradition which embraced dynamic markets is also important for our future and creating wealth.

But people don’t just care about the bottom line, there is so much more to life.

So the bureaucratic state and the overbearing market will never meet our real ambition as a party, that each citizen can be liberated to have the real freedom to shape their own lives.

To do that, we need to draw on that other tradition based on mutualism, localism and the common bonds of solidarity that captures the essence of our party at its best.

Labour List argues that on the back of this speech we’ve now got the “what” – all that remains to be effected is the “how”.  I’d be inclined to question what some of us may interpret as an assumption bordering on insensitive smugness.  Down in that old London town, that extremity which in Britain too often serves as the navel-gazing centre of all which is seen to importantly go around, these may be self-congratulatory times.  But in times of regeneration, in the first few moments, inclusive process is far more important than quick results.  If we are now to assume that Ed Miliband has – all on his lonesome – struck Labour gold and identified what needs to be done over the next decade, we are running the risk of luxuriating once again in the pyramidal and hagiographical politics of Blair, Thatcher, Reagan and Kennedy – of all the historically incisive and moment-crystallising political leaders we so initially loved for, if nothing more, their clarity and ability to communicate … only to then end up despondently so terribly disillusioned with.

Process is not just for the “how”.  Process is not just for the implementation of what “wiser” and “more important” people decide.  Process should include the “what” from the start. 

If ten years down the line we really don’t want to end up as we currently find ourselves, we need to get completely away from the reputational approach to political discourse – where everything depends on one acquiring a single-minded ratio of rhetorical victories versus defeats and where nothing depends on one’s interactions in amongst and as a part of the crowd. 

If only, in fact, instead of mirroring our competition and becoming evermore like them, we chose to walk our own path and create our own environment.  If only.

That is the future I would argue in favour of.  A future where we must engage on our own terms.

We must engage with the “how” and the “what”.

Can Ed Miliband be a leader for a crowdsourcing and social media generation?  I would love to think so.  But I have recently blogged on my suspicions that this will not be the case.  Time will tell – but then it always does.  And those who win these kinds of battles will be those who make it their business to make the time one always needs to outlast bitter opposition.

If we are not careful and do not understand the wider historical dynamics.

I suppose a successful politician (in at least what we might term the mould of Old Politics) is like a successful businessperson.  Both get where they are not because they have avoided failure but, rather, because they have survived it – more than likely several times, more than likely really rather painfully.

Such failure then forges for these individuals a protective armour and common distance from the trials and tribulations of those who have failed in other, more mundane, kinds of ways.  So it is then that our makers and shakers become subtly different from the rest of us.  And in the end it’s not the material wealth their position assigns them which makes them different but, rather, the mindset of having survived failure and come out the other side.

If they can do it, why not the rest of us?

Unfortunately, for the rest of us, who now live this new generation of communication, such assumptions are not really part of the crowdsourcing and social media worlds – worlds where communities are generally built out of agreement and adhesion to clear and guiding principles.  Anathema to the Old Politics if anathema there ever was.  So we already see a stumbling-block – an obstacle to coherent regeneration in this New Politics which they would have us believe and emotionally invest in. 

A New Politics which I sadly suspect is going to become little more than a clever rebranding of impulses awfully older than humankind.