Gina Miller: Bristol Festival Ideas

Gina Miller @ The Bristol Festival of Ideas

04.10.18: Tuesday night and off to an evening with Gina Miller, who is known mainly for legally challenging the UK Government’s right to invoke Article 50 (Brexit) without reference to Parliament. In the absence of political moderation, for many, Miller has willingly, or unwillingly become the figurehead for those desperately seeking somebody to rally around. As a consequence, Miller has faced an appalling barrage of abuse, including threats of gang rape, beheading, racial harassment, murder and, acid attacks. Her personal office has received packages containing dangerous substances. Her legal team has been subjected to protests outside their offices, and at least eight people have been served with cease and desist notice by the police. In a self-declared act of ‘satire.’  Rhodri Colwyn Philipps, 4th Viscount St Davids, a British peer, described Miller as a “boat jumper” and added: “If this is what we should expect from immigrants, send them back to their stinking jungles.” The 4th Viscount St Davids also offered “£5,000 for the first person to ‘accidentally’ run over this bloody troublesome first generation immigrant.” 

How have we got here? A question I often find myself asking, whatever our views on the challenges we face in our communities. What has stirred up so much animosity, hostility and, hatred? It is a darkness that strikes at the heart. A hatred I have known to have existed in the few but not the many. The grumpy uncle, or neighbour who lazily points the finger at everybody else for their troubles while fearfully avoiding the hallway mirror. Last Sunday evening I spent over 2 hours in a public meeting trying to discuss the merits and genuine concerns of a proposed winter shelter for the homeless in my neighbourhood. These issues are always sensitive, often the catalyst for bringing the worst out of people with locals exasperated by the weak administration of the consultation process managed by the City Council. Yet, none of this provided any justification for the uncontrolled rage, and venom aimed at those most vulnerable in our community who face the threat of freezing to death over the winter periods.

The demands for the council to compensate people for a perceived loss of house value, if the project were to be granted, is one thing and a concern for personal safety is another, these are entirely natural concerns. The council must calmly explain how it will help mitigate these factors, justified or not.  How these adult discussions are able to take place in an environment of open hostility, lack of humanity and outright appalling behaviour is frankly beyond me. At one point I turned to witnesses a group of people poised continuously to interrupt when breath was taken by anybody else contributing to the meeting, tightly clenched hands, a reddening and angry facial expression, like volcanos awaiting explosion. This is not a legitimate expression of concern, but an embolden confident disregard for anybody else. In part a small reflection of where we are as a people at the moment, polarised and unable to reach out, share and lacking any empathy. A smaller reflection of what Gina Miller is relaying tonight.

There is much, which I agree with Gina Miller, Brexit, the general state of politics in the UK, government abuse of power, erosion of accountability and a need to find new ways of opening up dialogue across our fractured political divide. There are also issues where her analysis, on the surface seems naive with the reiteration of the muddle that a ‘kinder, more socially aware capitalism’ will help solve the deep-rooted economic injustice between North and South and in the micro-economies of the UK regions. Not everybody who works in the world of capital finance has, and will never have the values of Gina Miller, and waiting for this type of transformation to take place is a wait too long. Especially for those who have had to live with the consequences of failed 3rd-way market-based (kinder capitalism) solutions since the 1980s. A decade, which brought the promise of an end to ‘boom and bust’ economics by its advocates who often now like to start their narrative from the financial crash of 2007, and the onset of austerity.

Tonight and I can genuinely sense a feeling of the utmost loss, grieving, ongoing bewilderment amongst the audience. It is a feeling captured towards the end of the evening during the Q&A session when Miller to her credit talked about the need to reach out to those who voted for Brexit. The voice is one of that is reminiscent of many who cannot comprehend a loss of power, an elderly man who asks “how do we get into their heads to help change their minds.” A question I am quite sure sounds much more sinister than what the questioner meant but nevertheless gets to the core of the problem. As a proud North East migrant, who voted for remain, but wanted reform. It’s not a case about getting into people heads, but listening, demonstrating empathy and a willingness to support the implementation of policies that will address economic injustice.

Gina Miller is a remarkable woman, and I can list a lot of platitudes. I utterly reject and condemn the vile misogynistic and racists abuse she faces and will no doubt continue to suffer. She is an inspiration to anybody who values common decency, and more people like her are required in public life. Her decision to transfer political allegiances away from the Labour Party to the Liberal Democrats is regrettable but understandable as the Lib Dems seem to offer a better home for her ‘kinder capitalism’ ethos. It is a move that also contains an element of irony given some academics had drawn the conclusion that the seed of Brexit was sown when the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition Government embarked on their policy of austerity. I can only reflect that our appreciation of Miller’s work will be valued more in the post-Brexit landscape, after the storm, than it is today.

I finish writing this blog entry, I open my web browsers and read the headlines. The Institute for Public Policy Research have published a new report (link here) calling for “A radical overhaul of Britain’s economy as far-reaching as Labour’s post-war reforms and the Thatcherite revolution in the 1980s is needed to address the UK’s chronic failure to raise the standard of living of millions of workers since the 2008 financial crash.” As well-meaning and insightful this report maybe I am left thinking, while Rome burns.

Man in Labour

Sitting behind the bluntness of North East folk and our landscape of gradually diminishing industries was a sense of identity, connectivity; some would say community and others would say solidarity. My parents, like their parents before them, were driven by a natural desire of love that is shared by parents from across the globe, for their children to live a better life to which they had experienced. It was a generation that had witnessed at first-hand war on home soil, the effects of absolute poverty, created a welfare system and the movements to resist the unacceptable forces of privilege. Politics for my parents evolved from the experience of actual daily life rather than top-down, textbook theories, but organic, imperfect, slow and at times frustrating. It was a pragmatic type of socialism that built social spaces. Social spaces with stable job’s, the council house I was brought up in, The Worker’s Education Association where I took evening courses, the working men’s club my father frequented, the bingo hall my mother enjoyed, the annually planned visit to the seaside and the Christmas pantomime by a local club.

Yes, there were those amongst us who held views and opinions that were considered aberrant, but sadly these type of people exist in all walks of life, cultures, and classes. Those from outside the immediate community often have a self-interested tendency to point the finger elsewhere to avoid attention to their behaviour and reinforce their imaginary stereotype. In our social spaces, aberrant views could be challenged, filtered, and the values of respect, individuality, social justice and responsibility became interchangeable meanings and refined haphazardly through discussions and blunt observations.

Growing up in the 1960s & 70s in these industrial heartlands the Labour Party, its wider shared values held influence in everyday life. My decision to join the Labour Party in 1979 at age 18 was not in reaction to the election of Margaret Thatcher, far from it. It was in my DNA and a decision born out of my class, but it has not been a journey without frustration or questionable loyalty. At its worst, it can become self-indulgement and eat itself with voracity, but at its best, it is a force for good and can change lives for the better. It is a journey that has witnessed me join picket lines. Enabled me to forge everlasting friendships, participate in endless meetings on the most microscopic detail. Deliver leaflets, be elected as a councillor, play a small part in improving the lives of the people I represented, seek nomination to become a Member of Parliament, become a silent member and witnesses the neverending cycle of highs and lows revolve on its axis again, and again.

No Class, Seriously?

Since the 1990s the Labour Party has seemed more comfortable with an increased emphasis on the politics of equality for women, race, disability, race, sexual orientation and faith while being less confident with the profound inequalities between the wealthy and poor. As a result, inequality increasingly became a technical statistic to be measured and benchmarked. The flesh and bones relationship between people and their role in society, which focuses attention on class seemed to become unfashionable.

Some political thinkers even went as far as to suggest that class no longer mattered and that we were moving towards a classless society. There is little doubt that this thinking informed the emergence of ‘new’ Labour, which central ethos was one of pursuing ‘aspiration’ which slowly withered credibility given the lack of progress in turning around the economic misfortunes in Labour’s heartlands. Immigration and the free movement of people across international borders have had a further detrimental impact on the plight of working class communities, but to raise any concerns immediately draws criticism of being intolerant, thick and racist. It is working class communities who have historically and continue to be the point of integration for those seeking new homelands. It is also working class communities faced with the consequences of the under-resourcing of resettlement, which are subject to the draconian effects of austerity.

Given this can it be any surprise that a minority within working class communities who wrap themselves in a life of bigotry and self-loathing are easy pickings for the dark forces of the extreme right peddling their lies that people from far away land with dark skin are grabbing local jobs and sponging off the welfare system. The fact that the richest countries in the world have historically been the recipients of immigrants should be enough to dispell the lie, but racism and bigotry are not logical. The industrial heritage of the North built on work, skilled trades, production, and selling goods runs deep. Town centres and villages, which were devastated following the collapse of manufacturing genuinely hoped that ‘things can only get better’, but increased expenditure in public services was not, is not, and never will be an adequate replacement for stable employment and a fair wage.

If Labour is no longer capable of understanding this and more importantly be competent to do something about it through a robust industrial strategy, then why should working class communities invest their faith in a party that does not invest in them? The seed that Labour was fast becoming southern, London-based, out of touch with its working class communities and more interested in defending the plight of specific interest groups was not difficult to sew. The political vacuum in working class communities has created a breeding ground for a toxic mix of rightwing, nationalistic, hate filled and reactionary politics. The myth that class no longer exists is quite staggering given in 2017 we live in a world that has never been so unequal regarding wealth, power, food, safe shelter, education and security. This level of inequality between the wealthy and poor has not happened by accident.

A systematic programme of economic, social and environment policies have deliberately destabilised and eroded a whole way of life, as well as forcing a wedge between people who only have their labour to sell be they a computer programmer, street cleaner, bricklayer, or nurse. Divisive policies designed to pit families and communities against one another in an endless downwards spiral of competition. Those pushed to the sidelines have their lives constantly disrupted by the state through an onslaught of ever-changing benefit rules, skills retraining, housing and welfare programmes, which are deliberately designed to disempower and humiliate.

Local to global

The industrial working class is a global, fragmented and impoverished phenomena. According to The United Nations, Human Development Report, the richest 20% receive 86% of the world’s gross product. The middle 60% get 13% while the poorest 20% receive 1%. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 people a day die from hunger-related diseases, yet we produce sufficient food to feed everybody on earth.

In the UK the poorest fifth of households has 6% of national income after tax, while the share held by the richest top fifth is 45%. So regardless if employed in the sweatshops of Indonesia, assembling mobile phones in China, a technician in a UK nuclear power, or whatever social position, you place yourself, the reality remains that if your economic existence depends on you selling your labour, then homelessness is only a handful of paychecks away. These extremes in poverty are not only tolerated but are now part of the natural order of managing economies.

Destabilise, isolate and instil fear

The dark forces, which our grandparents and parents fought against now cast their shadow across the globe into working class communities regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or faith. It is an insatiable machine of greed, which knows no bounds. Its only purpose is to absorb as much resource as possible for those it serves, who are increasingly becoming the new elite citizens of the world, able to move across borders with impunity with their capital in search of safe tax havens, secret banking arrangements and minimum regulation. Their only nemesis is being held accountability and the risk of losing their wealth. It is the same dark forces, which are once again turning their attention to home shores under the guise of populist and nationalist movements, partly due to the instability they have caused in far away places, which has facilitated popular resistance on one hand or fanatical faith-based terrorism on the other.

Organisation’s capable of threatening their status must be owned, controlled or destabilised be it, political movements, The European Union, trade negotiation bodies, or even the United Nations. Elected government, which should provide a platform of accountability increasingly resembles a game show where politicians can sliver with ease from the responsibilities of a nation to dance routines on light-entertainment programmes, while a Member of Parliament is shot dead on our streets by a political terrorist. Hate based entertainment is parading the poor through ghoulish poverty porn shows filled with a never-ending diatribe of stereotypes to be laughed at and repulsed. We have increasingly become immune to the horrors of disasters, and even the footage of dead children being washed up on the shores of Europe like discarded litter is the new undeserving poor.

The optimism initially offered by social media to bring people together has turned into a self-indulgent pantomime of pouting selfies, sexualisation, food envy, cats, dogs and throw away memes celebrating trivia. Political exchanges through the likes of Twitter often slide into derogatory language, death threats and degrading images feeding a narrative that nobody cares or should be trusted if they are in need, different or vulnerable. Protected behind the unaccountability of the keyboard prejudices are recycled time and time again, like a windmill grinding away, unable to move from the foundations it is anchored.

A report by US psychologists suggests that more than two hours of social media use a day doubled the chances of a person experiencing social isolation. The report claims exposure to idealised representations of other people’s lives may cause feelings of envy. The research team questioned almost 2,000 adults aged 19 – 32 about their use of social media. Professor Brian Primack, from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said: “This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults. We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalise us instead of bringing us together. While it may seem that social media presents opportunities to fill that social void, I think this study suggests that it may not be the solution people were hoping for.”

Resistance is not futile, but it needs alliances

Every single life affected by poverty is a stain on our humanity, but we increasingly look as if we are willfully surrendering to blind materialism while declaring ourselves powerless as poverty levels creep up, homelessness increasing and the dark hand of hunger is once again knocking on the doors of many families in the UK. Those prepared to challenge this continuous drift into the abyss are looked upon with suspicion or denounced as part of the liberal elite.

Politics and social attitudes, like an economy, works in a cycle. Alliances come together when people experiencing poverty or injustice can align with people who are naturally compassionate, alongside those who intuitively know when something is far from fair. The conditions for change then become prevalent. The economic uncertainty caused by Brexit, the ongoing degradation of local services like parks and open spaces, care for our elders and vulnerable young, libraries, the current crisis in the NHS and the growing levels of poverty in the UK these conditions should be ripe for the forging of alliances. While no single political party has a monopoly on caring, and after almost a decade of austerity, the Labour Party should be at the helm of forging this alliance. It is not.

Oh, Labour were art thou?

At the moment the Labour Party is obsessed with talking to itself and in danger of becoming fixated with its membership of 600,000 rather than being a champion for 15 million people. The left of the Labour Party continues to recycle the narrative that increased industrial strikes, grass-roots campaigns and local councils refusing to set legal budgets will somehow ignite and build the working class resistance to fight back against capitalism. This narrative represents the type of politics, which in 2017, is more likely to repel most working people given they are not the uniting force they were 50 years ago.

While seeking to tackle tax evasion will always be popular trying to create an alliance on the back of just committing to increase public sector borrowing, spend and state ownership is not likely to attract sufficient support for two reasons. The first and most difficult is that for a lot of people their experience of and loyalty to the public sector is not positive. The second is the perception of economic mismanagement caused by too much borrowing by the last Labour Government.

Poll after poll, beyond any, reasonable doubt has indicated that Labour is not trusted economically even in working class communities, but like a broken record stuck on maximum volume, those on the left resemble a Victorian missionary with little to offer outside the scripture and doctrine handed down to them.

Those on the right of the Labour Party are equally constrained given they have swallowed and continue to eat the economic principle of the deregulated free global market. The very economic policy, which has destabilised, so many working class communities.

Blaired vision

A manifesto solely based on soundbites and hope without any substance is unlikely to rebuild the Labour Party’s fortunes and restore trust north of the border. The fundamental problem runs much, much deeper given neither wing of the Labour Party can look, think and breath beyond the shadow of Tony Blair and New Labour. No debate can be entered into without, in due course, reference back to Blair regardless if he is considered a demon or saint. Lord Peter Mandelson (a new Labour advocate) has been reported to say that he works every day trying to overthrow the current leader of the Labour Party.

The Labour Party, for good or ill, needs to live with its recent history, understand it, learn from it, leave it behind, stop talking about it and focus on the present and future. After all, why should the general public believe in a party that does not believe in itself? The truth is there is no easy way forward for the Labour Party, or indeed a centre-left perspective given there is nothing to give traction for the holding of a broad alliance together outside the anti-austerity agenda and that alone is not sufficient.

Re-socialisation of life

Maintaining and navigating a complex balancing act of a mixed market, which promotes enterprise, protects the environment, delivers robust public services and tackles innate economic and social inequality should provide the foundation, but the thinking needs to go outside the usual comfort zone of the Labour Party. Socialism in 2020 cannot simply be about the refinancing of public services, delivered through monolithic state-run departments with professional bureaucrats sitting at their helm. It must be about the design of personal services, tailored to the needs of the recipient who must hold the decision-making.

To achieve this requires coherence in leadership, able to paint a compelling vision, communicate it and then forge the necessary alliances to make it happen. Being honest, principled and decent are virtues all leaders should possess, the norm, alone they are not enough.

Not since the 1940s has there been a need for a coherent political response to the current state of affairs, which starts to re-socialise our lives, families, neighbourhoods, communities, country and ultimately the world. Speaking like this at the moment to my fellow Labour Party members can at time feel like being in labour. Meanwhile, Prime Minster Theresa May, aware of the tipping point taking place has nudged the Conservative towards appealing more directly to a minority of traditional Labour voters and thus building her alliances across social classes.

%d bloggers like this: