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activism Book reviews Corbyn Labour media Politics

My Christmas Homework, 2016 (or, why we still look back in anger )

Homework, set by members of my CLP 4 years ago: Read Tony Blair’s biography, and write us a piece for the young Corbynites who want to know just who this beast in the shadows is, and how, if he’s good and gone, he’s managed to leave this handful of people in key executive positions all over the party who are so damned good at out-playing the party’s every attempt to change.

I rejected the challenge as not worth the pain – but then happened to find a copy of the book in a junk shop, when we’d jumped on a train for a jolly day out shopping. Oh god! That psycho face gimlet-staring out of the cover pic! It was only 50p, so I caved in and said “oh alright then.”

Even the shop lady thought I was mad. “You won’t learn anything – he’ll only be bigging himself up,” she said, as I handed her the 50p.

First Impressions

It’s called A Journey. What with that, and the gimlet stare on the cover, I decided to discard the dust jacket on the train home. I could cope with the plain blue cover underneath – or so I thought. I nearly chickened out and left the whole book on the train when I realised it had TONY BLAIR embossed on the spine in 2-inch high letters, which fellow passengers were staring at in horror.

If ever the first line in a book was perfectly prescient, this one is. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: “When it was first suggested that I write this book, Bob Barnett, lawyer, friend and negotiator extraordinaire, expertly steered the negotiations that brought me to Random House.” There you have it – Tony Blair in a nutshell. Never mind policies, never mind principles, the one and only quality he notices in everyone and every event, is the potential for effective manipulation – for winning. I had a quick flick through. My eye was caught by the nature of the captions on the photo pages. Here’s an example:

“Clockwise from above right: some of the inner team. Peter Mandelson could tell you what people would be thinking tomorrow; Anji Hunter, possessed of a naturally intuitive political instinct: Jonathan Powell, a key operative in government; Sally Morgan, superbly attuned to the party; Philip Gould, chief pollster, and central to our strategy”

The words of praise are extraordinary – “operative”, “superbly attuned” – remember how the phrase “on message” kept turning up in political columns when Blair was “team building”? Remember how, when the 2015 Labour leadership election was a three-horse race, the three candidates were shunting and shifting, playing chess for the “winning message”, and nobody was unusually stirred… Until a forth contender came along, one who messed up the chess-game by just saying what he thought, regardless of whether it was popular, or part of a pre-agreed “message”. The membership scented truth, and they were in the mood for it. From that moment on, despite the other candidates’ attempts to adapt, taking hasty lessons in appearing unrehearsed, Corbyn was the man: too old and too relaxed to fit the conventional model but, unbelievably, unstoppably popular – because in certain circumstances, people are ferociously loyal to truth, once they’ve spotted some.

Looking at the photos of Blair’s chosen inner circle, I am reminded of a famously machine-oriented councillor I came across at the Labour South East regional party conference. He got on fine with the group he and I were both working in that was about winning council elections – some fine, efficient advice on campaigning… but he was the only one at conference who took to the main stage and advised a (largely Corbynite – as the majority of members are) audience to “stay off social media, it’s just an echo chamber.” The advice was greeted with a stony silence. We knew where and how the membership at large got one up on the Blairite machine, and why he wanted it to stop. If he noticed that manipulative tactics stick out a mile these days, he didn’t show it but then, come to think of it, he didn’t show his own feelings once, all weekend. Educated for politics, groomed, trained and funded for his position, he is a text-book example of Blair’s machine men.

Back cover text: “On 2 May 1997, I walked into Downing Street as prime minister for the first time. I had never held office, not even as the most junior of junior ministers. It was my first and only job in government.”
The back cover sports an early example of the fashion for the hubristic scorning of experience and expertise that has been a feature of every government since Blair’s: “On 7 May 1997 I walked into Downing Street as prime minster for the first time. I had never held office, not even as the most junior of junior ministers. It was my first and only job in government.”

The Message

Pondering this, my eyes strayed to the page opposite the photos, where Blair is describing the role of Foreign Secretary, and explaining why it’s the job everyone wants. “…you basically spend your time with people who are polite to you…generally dispensing goodwill and opinions to those who seem relatively keen to receive them.” Sounds like the queen’s job to me – aren’t politicians supposed to be doing important, responsible things? Not the Foreign Secretary apparently – “…Not for you the horny handed sons of toil badgering you over fuel prices, or complaining about the government’s clearly ill-motivated refusal to spend money on this service or that, the minutiae of road schemes…” Is that, then, the root of the resentment Blairites hold for the Corbyn/McDonnell movement? Is it that they hold the people and their need for services in such total contempt they resent Corbyn’s expectation that all politicians lower themselves to actually running the country and providing services?

Asked at a dinner what was her greatest achievement. Thatcher replied: “Tony Blair and New Labour”.

Not getting off to a very good start, this book review of mine, is it? Let’s see how Tony’s getting on: INTRODUCTION “Most such memoirs are, I have found, rather easy to put down. So what you see here is not a conventional description of who I met or what I did…” That, Tony, is pretty much what the lady in the bookshop said. “There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that’s me.” Well okay, on the subject of Tony Blair’s experience of being Prime Minister, I suppose he has a point but is he going to keep the idea under control, and not write as if he is god of the real world? “I describe, of course, the major events of my time, but I do so through the eyes of the person taking the decisions in relation to them…”The person? Doesn’t this sound a tad like the memoir of a dictator? – “…I hope it is fair.” I doubt it, old son.

The Truth

I will try to be fair. But that’s my problem, not yours. You need not read the whole book with me, I’ll just tell you what was going through my mind while I laboured (sorry!) through the pages. The point is, if “truth” is the agreed, polished, message of the establishment, then it is in trouble. It has been struggling since the early days of newspapers. For most of our history since the invention of printing, the right to print and distribute was strictly controlled. From the 1700s onward, business people agitated increasingly loudly for a right to print news and politics – they scented big profits – but statesmen were initially quite open about their horror of the idea. How could they keep people “on message” if their own doings and sayings in government were passed around freely? You can see some stunning examples of this argument throughout the 1800s if you look for histories of Stamp Duty Law, which is where a lot of the attempts to control newspapers appear and get debated. One of the more recent examples comes at the end of the first world war, where a British politician is on record as congratulating the editor of the Guardian for keeping “on message” during the war. “The British people,” he said, “would never have stood for it if they’d known what was really going on.”

After the shameless drive for profit, technology was the next phenomenon that threatened “the message” of the ruling minority. Popular radio and then television, ease of travel, with roving reporters turning up everywhere, began to be a regular embarrassment to business leaders, politicians and royals. The British Royal family did their very best to keep behind their camouflage but have lost bags of face and loyalty in the last generation or two, largely thanks to the press and the media spreading the shabby reality of their being typically human, only richer.

A feature of technological progress is that new inventions quickly become available to larger numbers of people. That’s what happened to publishing and communications technology. Soon, everyone could do what a few decades back only the professional investigative journalists could. Corporate law would stop ordinary people getting rich by using it, but it could not stop them using it. Even disaffected US soldiers could communicate and publish stuff – and so, via Wikileaks, we received Bradley Manning’s truth, and then even wars started losing the support of a controlled “message”. That was the moment we saw Tony Blair’s tower really starting to crumble.

People’s Truth

People in general have never been particularly insistent on truth. Most of the time, a good story will do but the demand for “truth” arises when people feel conned, or when they’re having a hard time and, with the rise of social media, there are now millions, rather than thousands, out there angrily looking for their truth. George Michael dies, a tabloid paper immediately prints spread after spread of “how we loved George” and an army of social media punters hit back by sharing archive posts of that same newspaper’s “Pits and Perverts” front page at the time of the miners’ strike, and memes with messages such as “Tabloid papers told us Jimmy Saville was a force for good and George Michael was a pervert. They’re still trying to tell me stuff now.”

And once people start doing that, the first response is the “post-truth era” idea – they have just discovered they’ve been conned, so they think “truth” died quite recently and shout about its tragic death. But once you start looking, you can’t find the start of it. Tony Blair may have been a pinnacle of message-over-truth but he didn’t invent it. Take the “Pits and Perverts” incident. People who aren’t currently on a truth mission, still believe the media version of the government-versus unions battles of the 1970s but people who are currently “off message” can quite easily find the archives, look at the history and discover, for example, that the vast majority of those nasty, aggressive miners who ended up in hospital had wounds to the backs of their heads – clobbered by police swinging long truncheons from horseback as they ran away.

Next, the amateur researcher will find that the famous BBC footage of the “battle” at Orgreave was doctored by the BBC (whether with or without government instruction is still being investigated). The police drove miners into a dead end, corralled and beat them, and then furious, cornered miners started throwing stones. The BBC chose to crop the film and show the stone-throwing first, then the police charge, with the obvious effect. Once your amateur researcher knows this, they know they need to adjust most of what they’ve ever been told.

The Post Post Era

Of course, there is a kick-back. The establishment minority know that one game is up, and serious moves are now in evidence to curb social media and the technology that has allowed so many to start down the path of re-adjusting what they thought they knew – but communications technology is a hydra now. It’s going to be a hard job getting every filming, recording and dissemination device back into the hands of the minority. The only alternative is to oppress the majority into silence by starving them of services, homes, health care etc

But – when do people go after truth? When they’re desperate, when they’re cornered and when the stories aren’t working any more. When people are hungry, they’re hungry for truth. Once they start feeling that, you get movements like Occupy, People’s Assemblies, the Anti-Austerity  Movement, the Corbyn-McDonnell movement: fresh, new, up-to-date forces demanding truth and its partner, fair play. They aren’t the first and they won’t be the last but, win or lose, they are proof that truth isn’t over, any more than history turned out to be over when Fukuyama wrote its obituary. It’s still there, it just goes in and out of fashion according to how people are faring, and how well the stories are working.

The era of using the word “post” to dismiss inconvenient things is over. It’s time we started giving our history a serious place in our thinking.

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activism Corbyn Election Labour Politics

Keith and Angela: the true story in all its horrible detail

There’s no shortage of passionate criticism of Starmer and Rayner’s phone bank rewards system out there – but let’s try and stop swearing and explain our frustration properly, because there is an important lesson here for these politicians and their followers to learn.

When this image of the Labour Party’s idiot scheme did the rounds, many of us thought – or maybe hoped – that Team Starmer’s offering was a spoof. As our country plummets into disaster, with the latest failing public school brat at the helm trying to look as though he can handle the gargantuan problems of COVID-19 and Brexit, with no credible opposition in sight, what is the incentive to campaign for the Labour Party…?

…but it wasn’t a spoof. They thought – really thought? – or desperately wanted to believe – not sure but anyway… They thought Corbyn was a celebrity, who’d filled the party with his fans, or cult followers. As a result, having scuppered him, they thought all they needed to do to mobilise that vast army on their behalf was get the PR right, and they could have the same success. It would appear that the majority of the MPs and staffers think the same.

The True Story

It really matters now that they, and the beleaguered people of this country, know the true story so please keep telling it. You often hear people brush off political stories with the stinging comment ‘they’re all the same’ and it’s easy to believe. Certainly, the media tend to paint them all alike. Most politicians and party staffers are careerists, PR people, seeking to be whatever will make them popular. But not all of them. This is the vital  bit.

Probably, the majority are incurable but there are a fair few who went into politics out of a genuine desire to improve things. Some of them only wanted to improve things for their kind of people, or for their constituencies but among the frowned-upon back benchers, there are some who seriously strive to improve things for everyone – or, as Corbyn put it, ‘for the many’.

They aren’t necessarily very good at it, but having their hearts in the right place is enough to keep them on the back benches. A few years ago, the manipulators had a bit of an accident and one of those genuine people, Jeremy Corbyn, won a leadership contest. The confirmed careerists immediately set about a fierce sabotage campaign that eventually forced him out. Maybe it was inevitable, or maybe Corbyn didn’t have enough front-bench experience to tackle them. Some say he was too soft on those attacking him.

On behaving badly

I have criticisms of Corbyn too, but being too soft is not one of them. He was working on the assumption that where a culture is well and truly corrupt, people who could potentially be okay will be in there ‘being normal’ – ie, behaving badly.

Humans are social animals, and are happiest when conforming to the group. Think about it – how many of the things you do, say and believe are just ‘common sense’ – ie, in tune with the people around you? Just how uncomfortable is it, when you’re sitting in a group with one idea and quietly thinking ‘actually, it’s possibly more like this…’

Corbyn believed that the only way to get people to grow up and be honest is to treat them as though they are grown-ups, and give them a chance to step up. It might have worked, but it was a long shot. The point is, he didn’t have much choice. There were precious few genuine, politically adept socialist MPs to call on, so he had to build his cabinet with people who he could only hope would improve. They were not necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer. So we are left with the Keiths and Angelas (sorry, but I’m trying not to be *too* rude – now Corbyn’s civilising influence is gone, we’re back to being rude and cynical. ‘Keith and Angela’ is one of the more polite terms for the current party leadership.)

Keith and Angela

No-one likes a story where they are the bad guys, so those pushing Corbyn out preferred to believe he was a heart-throb, a cult-leader, wrecking the party with the help of his hordes of simple-minded fans. And that is why our new leadership team, having successfully replaced him, are trying to be the celebrities they thought Corbyn and Co were.

They really, truly do not know that hundreds of thousands of people who really don’t like politics or politicians much put down what we were doing, and got behind Corbyn because we were desperate – because we were at the end of our tethers with the lying, the cheating, the fobbing off of our workers with ever-worsening wages, conditions and housing, the selling off of our services and all that playing out to the sound of the climate clock ticking, whilst our politicians prinked and preened and played at being celebrities.

Tony’s targets

There is another aspect of the true story that really needs clearing up. Keith and Angela’s phone bank reward scheme comes straight out of the Tony Blair ‘targets for success’ playbook. A way of going on that demonstrably failed as his initial results dwindled and dwindled, and ambulance drivers complained bitterly that the target set for them left them in a position where they could (in theory – I’m sure they did not) charge around, do everything wrong, arrive at the hospital with a dead patient and, as long they arrived within their twenty-minute target, be logged as a success.

But it wasn’t just the inefficiency of Tony’s targets that led to his downfall, it was the extraordinary insult to public service workers of all kinds, the demonstration that our glorious leader thought they’d be better motivated by approval and silly prizes than they would be by the satisfaction of doing their jobs properly, and helping to make our country work.

Translate that to the phone bank scheme. It’s no fun at all being a part of a local party phone banking session. You sit there phoning people you don’t know from Adam, and try to get them to listen while you explain the Labour Party’s plans for your constituency, and where and how to vote, and why it matters. You might get some good conversations, if you’re really patient. You might win a few more votes. You also get quite a lot of earfuls from people who’d rather be watching telly – but you do it because you believe a transformative Corbyn government is what we desperately need, and you give each call as long as it takes.

But if your target was to get in 4000 calls so you can get a celebrity prize, just how much patience are you going to have for each call? What kind of air-head would  even  be  there making the calls? As we all already knew. Tony’s targets do not work. They just demonstrate that the politicians hold us in contempt. That’s why the Blair-style politics stopped winning elections.

What they need to know

We will not easily forgive the Keiths and Angelas in this story. Their phone-bank reward system, a blatant illustration of their utter contempt for us and what we tried to do, feels like the final nail in the coffin. People are saying this will be the end of the Labour Party. The thing is, they aren’t saying it in triumph, they are saying it in despair – I repeat, for those at the back – they were in the game because we were desperate – because we were at the end of our tethers with the lying, the cheating, the fobbing off of our workers with ever-worsening wages, conditions and housing, the selling off of our services and the climate clock ticking.

Well, here we are, comrades. We are still the many, and we can, and we need to, force the Labour Party to up its game, and take us seriously. Don’t worry about the unfair suspensions and the garbage they’re spouting now. Just keep doing socialism, in, out or in spite of the party. Once they realise how unpopular, how unelectable they really are, even the careerists will have to become more serious about actual issues. After all, they are there to be successful.

We need to make it absolutely clear that only good, honest socialists are going to be taken seriously. We will not be happy with better PR, or an improved ‘rewards scheme’. We can and will do our politics for the many, with or without the approval of the Labour Party. Maybe, when they lose a few seats, maybe even another election, the Keiths and Angelas of this world will begin to learn the truth, and do some growing up.

PS (yes, I got a request for a PS from some distressed activists!)…

If you’ve got some decent councillors, or a real socialist MP to defend, I suggest you do the phonebanking, but stop at 2999 calls (a scribbled note is easier to ignore than a visit from the Keiths and Angelas).

If you don’t have anyone you want to campaign for in your LP, join the Corbyn Project, or Counterfire, or one of the activist trade unions, (if you don’t have the right kind of job for an industrial membership, there’s always Unite Community ) and get on with your socialism there.

PPS Written New Year’s Day – oh look, the government had an attack of ‘Tony’s Targets’ and messed up the vaccinations plan. Link to Independent article.

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activism Corbyn Labour media Politics prejudice women

Listen, question, test

This idea is so important I have given it one of those fashionable three-word slogans to help me remember it.

It’s unlikely you’ll agree with every statement I’m going to make in this article. If you’re the kind of person who needs trigger warnings to protect you from the trauma of being disagreed with, please try to keep calm and tell yourself they are just examples, not weapons. Spoken or written facts can’t hurt you – really they can’t. Nor can spoken or written lies, unless everyone lets them lie there unchallenged. Nevertheless, I’ve labelled the statements below as controversial examples one to four, in big headings, so you can take them one at a time and go and have a lie down in between if you’re easily distressed.

Listen, question, test

If you’ve ever read anything about education, you’ll know that the central aim of most lesson plans is to encourage students to listen, question and test ideas, so that their knowledge is on firm, well understood ground. On that basis, all good teachers present students with both true and false statements, so they can learn to test information and find truth.

If you’ve been in politics for more than a few years, you’ll remember a time when it was understood that debate was central – allowing a variety of people to put forward their views, then allowing everyone to listen, question and decide things.

‘Listen, question, test’ is also the best way to gently and usefully point out to someone that they’re arguing for a wrong idea.

And yet today, Angela Rayner has expressed a new view that has taken over from all that.

Unacceptable truth?

That may be true, but to say it is unacceptable, because it causes distress, she argues.

The most obvious problem with that is that you end up having all your organisations controlled by ‘cry bullies’ – those unscrupulous and/or neurotic people who are professional distress generators whenever disagreed with.

The deeper, and perhaps more important problem is that we none of us can develop firm, properly understood views on anything if we’re not allowed to listen to a variety of views, then question and test theories.

Controversial example one

Prejudice in political parties

It may be true that anti-semitism was exaggerated in the Labour Party but we mustn’t say so because it upsets people.

Consequence: many people believe that the Labour Party in particular is rife with anti-semitism, and the papers are so full of this opinion that we’ve all but forgotten we have a serious, systemic problem with anti-black racism, and that the Tory party is trading in every kind of prejudice imaginable and largely getting away with it.

Controversial example two

Israel- Palestine

It may be true that the government of Israel is breaking human rights and international law, but it’s best not to say so because it stirs up arguments about anti-semitism.

Consequence: Jeremy Corbyn is suspended and no-one’s very clear why, leaving the Labour Party deeply bitter and split, and unable to effectively oppose the most dangerous government in our lifetime – meanwhile, there are fewer and fewer voices free to speak up for Palestinians who are losing everything in an unmentionable dispute over illegally occupied territories.

Controversial example three

Women’s rights

It may be true that women still need their legal rights as a sex-class and our children may be at risk from pernicious lobbyists but it’s unacceptable to say so because it upsets the no-debaters in the trans rights movement.

Consequence: we are left with a Labour Party manifesto that contradicts itself, because we haven’t worked out properly how self-ID can go alongside the current, legal, sex-based rights. Many people – including a fair number of trans people – who are unhappy with the unresolved situation are afraid to ask the questions that would take us forward, so we’re all stuck.

Controversial example four

Virus response strategies

It may be true that some of the things we’re doing to halt covid are not appropriate, but don’t contradict ‘the advice’ because it encourages anti-mask conspiracy theorists.

Consequence: we are all very unclear about what we should be doing and why, now, because most of us don’t trust the government but we can’t question lockdown rules, even for the purpose of testing and improving them, without presenting ‘unacceptable’ ideas.

Don’t make yourself stupid

You can’t learn without listening, questioning and testing. The no-debaters, presumably because they’ve stopped themselves listening, questioning, testing and learning, regularly show themselves up in their resultant ignorance.

Last week, during the free-school-meal debate, Rayner called someone ‘scum’, and was unmoved when Tories cry-bullied their objections at her – and yet at the last UNISON conference she was telling women not to express their gender-critical views because it would upset people and they’d be kicked out. Why is it okay to upset people sometimes, but not others? Now, when it’s desperately important that we identify and clear out *real* prejudice, including anti-semitism, she tells us its unacceptable to express views on it.  

She’s only a no-debater when it suits her.

The best way to argue is to listen, question and test

Please listen, question and test – it’s the way to dismantle bad ideas and the way to learn about and take on board good ones. Above all, please never trust people who say there are truths you cannot tell.

You may know what my position is on the ‘controversial points’ above. That doesn’t matter. Please consider the idea that we need to listen properly and please do feel free to question my views when you think they’re rubbish.

In fact, I object strongly when you don’t. If I’ve got a wrong idea, I trust my friends to question and test it until I figure out where I went wrong. Why not do all your friends the same favour?

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activism Corbyn Labour Politics

For goodness sake

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!!!

For the sake of those struck down by austerity in times of covd; for those who have lost jobs, homes and family; for the sake of refugees still struggling to get a secure foothold in any country; for the sake of black activists being kicked around in the United States, for right-to-return activists getting shot down in Palestine; for the sake of anyone trying to live their lives in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Yemen and disputed territories everywhere; for Julian Assange, and the countless others being threatened with brutal incarceration by the terrified establishment powers; for Evo Morales and all those who tried or are trying to uphold fair governments in the face of North American paranoia; for Greta Thunberg and all the youngsters fighting for a future, each in their own way; for all those communities, organisations and businesses who came together to do the government’s job and help us through lockdown this year; for the women’s groups standing up for their rights, and the people’s movements growing all across the world, for Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders and all those the establishment dare not face in a fair contest…

Whether you be a Labour Party member or whether you’ve been suspended or kicked out or have left in disgust, whether you be a member of The Greens or The Communists or any other reasonable party (you know what I mean); whether you be a trades union activist or a member of a non-establishment group – it doesn’t matter – for the sake of truth seekers and peacemakers and all those willing to stand up for their principles…

Don’t worry what you are or are not a member of – don’t worry whether the people you stand with are or are not a member of the same organisation – those organisations love to make you think you can only act with people wearing the same colours. It’s not true. In fact, you do the cause of peace a great service by standing with those who are not under the same banner, as long as they also stand for peace and justice. Keep together, talk together, act together, keep seeking the truth, keep standing up for peace, for justice, for our environment and our children.

For goodness sake.

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activism Book reviews book shops Earlyworks Press Election flash fiction media Poetry Politics Short stories Uncategorized

In the Absence of Hard Evidence

In the absence of hard evidence of a divine engineer in the sky, I’d say the patterns in your mind are who you are.

This is my thought for the day because it became necessary to clean and decorate the back room, and to do that, it was necessary to move two wallfuls of books, including the poetry and the political sections.

It isn’t a chore. If you’re one of nature’s librarians (ie, your childhood created bookworm patterns in your mind) – if that’s your story then you’ll know that moving and sorting books is the third best thing in the world, coming after reading them and helping to make new books happen (for me, that’s publishing – for others, it’s writing, or buying, or borrowing, or reviewing, or forming clubs around discussing…) books.

Are books better?

Funny thing is, most people don’t read books. In a recent survey among some schools, kids were asked who reads books. “Old people and people with no friends” was a common answer. How much they are missing! To all those who say ebooks are as good as books, or browsing the internet is as good as any kind of book, I say – look to the patterns in your mind. Does bouncing around on the internet, slipping from link to link and forgetting where you started, really lay down a strong, comprehensible and retrievable pattern in your mind? How much do you remember of the stuff you clicked through yesterday, last week, last month? Can you flip to-and-fro, contemplate and come to know an ebook the same way you can a book on your shelf (not just when you’re reading it – all the time).

How gullible are you, how confusable are you, how well do you know your history, your environment, yourself? I suggest to you, along with David Didau, that people who read books have better lives – and the reason for that is the quality and retrievability of the patterns in their minds.

From Ely to South America and Back

While I was moving the political section (remember, we’re clearing out the back room so we can decorate) a hundred and one worlds opened their doors in my head, and reminded me of the richness of the forest in the mind. Here’s one: When I picked up The Open Veins of Latin America, I remembered a beautiful bookshop in Ely. It was a day of beautiful things – the cathedral, the river, the teashop with the samovar and the gunpowder tea – and this bookshop. And this book which, I confess, I picked up because the colours on the cover caught my eye long enough for me to notice what a startling title they presented.

And then, as I look at the book, more and more doors open in my head as I remember reading this tragic history, and how it led me to watch a film about Hugo Chavez, and how I learned that socialism must, and can only ever be, international socialism (act local, think global) because socialism is about people, not flags.

Socialism relies on ‘class analysis’ and you just can’t do that by the kinds of hats people are wearing, these days. Who is the ‘them’ in ‘them and us’ these days? Isn’t it the international corporations? Is it not the case that the ‘them’ we are up against are the world champion border-jumpers? If they can put the cause and the effect of their actions in different countries. And hoover the profits into their (global) banks while you’re watching the misery and chaos on the national news and wondering what it all means, they have already won. You’ll probably end up losing everything, and all the while looking around the neighbourhood for someone who looks a bit different to you to blame it on.

Narrativium – the drug of the post-truth generation?

And then another set of doors opened, and I remembered the more recent discovery that the author of The Open Veins of Latin America had expressed some regrets in later life, that he’d got caught up in what Terry Pratchett called narrativium, that if he’d  had time to write it again, he would have written it differently.

That doesn’t mean the book is wrong, or bad, it means that a story can have the same start and a thousand different endings, depending what lines the author gets a-running along. But sometimes, like the author of that book, you need to retrace your steps, and take a look at some of the things that got lost along the way.

And that opened another, more recent set of doors, about all the things from recent years that are beginning to be forgotten in the daily click-fest – I remembered writing an essay for my CLP, explaining the theory of the ‘Overton Window’, of how the movement that gathered around Corbyn was steadily leading us back to socialism, to caring about others and our environment, caring about the truth – but they really didn’t need my essay – a tide was flowing our way. It isn’t now – and that brings me right back round to today, and reminds me how I need to talk to our local socialist group about the importance of getting that report properly investigated, so the truth will be known properly, and the size of the victory of the anti-austerity movement will be seen, despite the loss of that election, and so that we remember who the enemies were, which brings me to the importance of getting down to some serious political education so that our local socialists don’t forget that socialism is, and always must be, internationalist, analytical, and founded on strong, joined-up ideas – which requires an enormous bookshelf and/or regular, good-quality political education.

And that’s just one book, on one shelf. Going to go move the poetry books now. I wonder what’ll happen to the patterns in the mind then.

Think global, act local

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Many of our Circaidy Gregory and Earlyworks Press books are now available to buy online at bookshop.org

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activism Labour Politics women

What do Rosie Duffield and J K Rowling have in common?

They’re both well known, one extremely well off and the other at least comfortably secure. They both have ways of making themselves heard, and they also, according to those on the left, have allegiances to the wrong kind of Labour Party members.

Duffield and Rowling both recently spoke up about their worries over women’s rights – in Duffield’s case, merely our right to see and hear ourselves called ‘women’ – and I learned all the points above from comments about them doing so – but what matters to me is something else that they have in common.

Knowing your rights, knowing your needs

For various reasons, I made it my business to find, and speak to, as many women as possible who’d spoken up, or wanted to speak up, about what the queer-theory inspired trans rights movement is doing to women. Time after time, when I found those women and spoke to them, it would turn out they were abuse survivors: women who understood firsthand why we need women’s groups, women’s services and women’s health provision clearly signposted and easily accessible and also, why a distressing proportion of the women around us have a deeply emotional need to know that when they’re told they are approaching a women’s service, it will be women who greet them there.

That is why I am still angry. That is why I’ve bashed on with this campaign until I’m absolutely sick to death of it. Please get this, even if you don’t grasp anything else about this tortuous issue: a frighteningly large proportion of the women in this country are, or have been, traumatised by sexual violence at some time in their lives. They are the women most likely to speak out on this issue, and it costs them dear to do so.

And when they do speak out, the more polite trans rights activists tell them they’re being cruel to a group whose oppression and suffering they cannot begin to imagine. The rest send them piles of violent and sexualised abuse. Neither reaction is easily forgivable.

Please pass this message on to all who need to hear it

All women need women’s rights and services. Abuse survivors need them desperately, and need to know that ‘women’ means ‘women’. There are a million and one things we could be doing that make life easier and safer for trans people, things that do not deny traumatised women what they need. If you are so progressive, if you are so righteous and compassionate, could you please go work on those, and leave women’s rights and language alone.

If all you want to do is slap down any and every claim women make, accept that you’re not fighting transphobia, you’re fighting women – that’s just misogyny.

About Duffield’s tweet

About J K Rowling’s tweet

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activism Book reviews book shops Politics prejudice Uncategorized women

The Problem with Wilful Blindness

There was a time back in the last century, when I gave credence to the idea of ‘colour blindness’ as a way of solving racism. It turned out to be a way of convincing yourself it had been solved – if you happened to be white British, that is. While we were being virtuously, wilfully blind, assuming everything was going to be rosy from now on, Liverpool was in turmoil, and school kids were passing around those “Boot Boys” novels. Many of us had completely blinded ourselves to the renaissance of fascism.

It doesn’t work because we don’t have a level playing field. I can see that you are black and act as though it doesn’t matter, but you can’t see that I’m white and act as though it doesn’t matter. I can pretend we’re the same colour, and the problems disappear – from my view. Not from yours.

But now, we have another form of wilful blindness to deal with. Understandable, and well-intentioned, a horde of would-be progressive academics, activists and politicians – to give a random sample: Dawn Butler, Philip Pullman, Owen Jones – and now Margaret Atwood apparently – are pretending to be sex-blind.

As with race, the problem with pretending to be sex-blind is that women have very real, very practical problems that can’t be catered for and can’t be funded unless our sex is recognised. The police, pretending to be sex-blind, record cases of ‘women’ committing violent and sexual crimes, and every time they do it, the statistics that women’s services depend on for their funding get hazier until they become worse than useless; women’s health and wellbeing groups are trying to get by without using any of the words that clearly denote the female condition, and as a result, the grounds for their funding and the efficiency of their outreach go down and down; and teaching on sex and gender has gone the same way – now so far from reality that we have a generation of young people who really cannot tell sex from gender.

What we need to know

Black people can’t escape the problems of being black unless we sort out our institutions and our racist cultural heritage, and we can’t do that unless we see, and talk about, the realities of colour.

It is not wrong to talk about, learn about, and formulate rules about, colour – in fact we need to.

Women can’t escape the problems of being female unless we sort out our institutions and our sexist cultural heritage, and we can’t do that unless we can see, and talk about, the realities of sex.

It is not wrong to talk about, learn about, and formulate rules about, sex – in fact we need to.

Like many people, I’m busy reading up on anti-racism now, because I realise we really, really need to talk about it and sort out the injustices going on around us. I was hoovering up Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” and agreeing with every word… but I ground to a halt on page 181. Feminism, she tells us, must work to liberate everyone. Yes, in a sense. I do believe that if we can deal thoroughly with sexism, we will all be living in a better, healthier society – but, to revert to my first example, does that mean we should be yelling “all lives matter” when black people have something to say? I don’t think so.

Eddo-Lodge says that feminists should be thinking about “disabled people, black people, trans people, women and non-binary people, LGB people and working class people” – well yes, but am I allowed to add “if they’re female”, or is she doing the “all people matter” thing at feminists?

Reality matters

Having included absolutely everyone in the worklist for feminists, Eddo-Lodge then illustrates her statement by saying feminism will have won when we’ve ended poverty, and when women are no longer required to do two jobs by default (meaning the care and the emotional work as well as the money-earning – true, but that’s about female people, isn’t it?). Feminism must combat sexual violence (that is, almost always, males attacking females). Feminism must combat the wage gap (because females earn less). And it must be class conscious (true, absolutely, unequivocally true). And she says feminism must be aware of “the limiting culture of the gender binary”.

And she’s lost it. Feminism is, and has always been, grounded in challenging the social rules and practices based on ‘gender’ – that is, the social constructions that tell us how males and females should behave and should be treated – constructions that are different in different cultures, but that have some commonalities (based on sex). But like many commentators, she’s translated that into telling us we must also disregard sex – wrong. Then she slips from ‘sex’ to ‘sexuality’ and tells us feminism must recognise that sexuality is fluid – well, that’s a whole nother argument and I’m not going to go into that one here but the key point is that reality matters.

Eddo-Lodge tells us that feminism, like anti-racism, has to be “absolutely utopian and unrealistic, far removed from any semblance of the world we’re living in now”. And here, at last, we have the key to a clash that’s been causing endless pain and furore in recent years. Yes, we must deconstruct race and racism. But colour won’t go away, because people are different colours. That’s reality. We must deconstruct GENDER and sexism – but we can’t deconstruct sex, because biology won’t go away. That’s reality.

Rejecting reality in order to be wilfully sex- or colour-blind means blinding yourself to problems that need our attention. If you want to help find solutions, please don’t do either.

Reality matters. Sex matters.

Racism, sexism and classism are the errors to be corrected.

Do please read Eddo-Lodge’s book – it’s excellent, except for page 181. We need to think about, and act on, what she’s saying.

And if you haven’t already, do please go to J K Rowling’s website and find out what she actually said about sex. It is exactly what we need to be saying, and exactly what women are being repeatedly punished for saying.

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activism book shops Labour Politics prejudice Uncategorized

Read this, Sir Keir

We need to tell our politicians something…

Sir Keir’s recent comment on BLM (which he corrected apparently, after a lot of shouting) demonstrated that he can’t see why Black Lives Matter have made many of us want to change everything. He can’t see why people want to change or educate our institutions, including the police.

He’s a long way from being the worst on racism – just look at those Tories – remember Theresa May, Amber Rudd and their development of that ‘hostile environment?’ Remember the list of revolting, racist comments Boris Johnson has to his name?

I know many of us are busy learning to be anti-racists now. I see the books by and about black people leaping off the shelves in the bookshops. If you haven’t done so yet, please do some reading.

If you’ve started already,

please do this now

Get a photo of yourself holding up a book you think would help Sir Keir understand. Spread it all over social media with these tags…

#BlackLivesMatter

#ReadThisSirKeir

And then save the photo somewhere where you can find it again so that every time a politician does or says something that demonstrates they just don’t get it yet, you can post it again, with their name on the tag.

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activism economics Hastings NHS Politics Uncategorized

Who puts the skill in key jobs?

There isn’t *quite* a poem called sweeping the street by George Herbert, but you don’t have to be religious to grasp the wonderful truth of his idea that you can sweep the street ‘for god’.

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activism Politics prejudice Uncategorized women

White woman thinking

Do you remember your personal experience of #metoo? Does it bear some lessons we can use to learn anti-racism?

All the stories

#metoo was a celebrity thing at first, but then it started flowing around social media and those posting their experience, and those reading those posts, began a journey. For me, it was a slow realisation that whilst I’d been ‘pretty lucky’ (a friend pointed out a story that started “apart from the usual groping…”) – although I’d been pretty lucky, I had never realised just what a morass I’d been ‘rising above’.

That morass included quietly accepting the blame for all the shame or confusion I suffered – of digging it quietly in, dodging the consequences of “don’t get yourself into trouble” – but not successfully dodging them – of growing up with a feeling that I ‘handled things badly’, or ‘put myself in the way of harm’.

The backlash

And then came the #notallmen and the #getoverit and the outright aggression from men – and yes, some women – who took any talk of female oppression as an insult to any and every man. We’re seeing all that now in the ‘all lives matter’ responses to BLM.

It hurts

I still clench my fists and cringe when I remember an incident from decades ago – I cringe, and send up a prayer of thanks to a woman I’ve only met once, the woman who stepped in and saved my then teenage daughter from a situation I’d been completely blind to – blinded by the horrible familiarity of unhealthy male attitudes everywhere I went.

I’m not blind to sexual exploitation any more.

#metoo was an excellent learning experience for women. It helped bring us together, and empower the latest wave of feminism. Despite the scary bits, I don’t regret it for a moment but what I’m thinking about now is how raw, undermined and vulnerable many women felt at the time. To participate, you had to speak your pain. To really spread the word, you had to speak your pain in public, on social media, in all the places that would invite the backlash, that would remind you of, and put you in the sights of, the people who want to hurt you.

#metoo was an excellent learning experience for men. Many men did get together and have enlightening conversations, and discuss what was going wrong, and how to help put it right. Even if it made them feel uncomfortable.

Black Lives Matter

Many of us are engaged now in a very similar exercise – we’re learning what’s missing from our history, and in finding out that “I’m not racist” isn’t enough. We have our ‘L’ plates on, and we’re learning how to do anti-racism. That’s great, but it does mean that we have our attention very much on ourselves – what can we do, what do we need to know, etc etc

Black feelings matter

But this morning I read some messages from black women about the emotional toll black people are currently suffering from all these statements and actions. Of what a slog it is to unburden and analyse a lifetime’s defensive reaction to racism, of how many times they’ve already had to try and explain, of the anxiety caused by the attention on them, and the anticipation of the inevitable backlash…

So – if anything I’ve said here about the experience of #metoo resonates with you, please use it to inform yourself about how black people might be feeling right now. We need to tread carefully, we need to be aware of all the stirrings of lifelong struggles that have common elements, but may be far more intense than we realise for some around us.

We need to be honest, and kind, and humble and do a lot more active listening than maybe we’re accustomed to.

Resources for learning and activism

I haven’t been through all the links yet but this looks useful.