Archive for December 2011
Recently, a close straight friend made a slightly startling, off-hand comment. “Being gay is more common among middle-class people, isn’t it?” He hadn’t thought it through and, when I challenged him, he felt a bit silly. But he was merely expressing a commonly held prejudice – that there’s something a little bit bourgeois about rolling around with other men.
Jokes about what public school boys get up to in shower rooms have long been common. The myth of the affluent homosexual has even been used by dictatorships to crack down on gay rights. Although the Bolsheviks decriminalised homosexuality after the Russian Revolution, Josef Stalin banned it as a “bourgeois decadence”. Today, talk of the “pink pound” often suggests the pockets of gay men are overflowing with dosh (to spend on Kylie concert tickets and camp tat, obviously).
There’s also a presumption that acceptance of gays is confined to the sorts of middle-class Guardianistas you might find crammed into Islington wine bars. Working-class people are often portrayed as knuckle-dragging bigots who are about as keen on gays as they supposedly are on immigrants. Interesting, then, that a recent survey for social research group BritainThinks found that 76% of working-class people felt that gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples. The figure was only 70% with middle-class people. Another poll for the Times revealed that skilled workers were more likely to have an openly gay family member than middle-class professionals.
The findings don’t surprise me. When I worked as a barman in Manchester’s Gay Village, both the staff and the clientele were almost exclusively working-class. Mums and dads would have nights out with their out-and-proud sons; and groups of straight Mancs would pop in for a pint after a day slogging away at work.
On the other hand, I’ve encountered numerous heartbreaking examples of middle-class homophobia. When my first boyfriend came out as gay aged 15, his well-to-do mother sent him to a pseudo-doctor to “cure” him of his “illness”. Other friends who hail from leafy Home Counties suburbs have told me of growing up in an oppressive atmosphere of intolerance.
The term “gay community” is bandied around as though we can all be easily lumped together just because we like sleeping with other men. But in reality, we’re as socially diverse as the rest of the population.
Our massive class differences even emerge in our sexual tastes. There’s currently a study underway at University of Leicester into so-called “class tourism” among gay men. Above all, it focuses on the appeal of so-called “chav culture” to middle-class gays. Some go “slumming” it at “chav” nights in clubs, occasionally dressing up as the stereotype for the occasion – above all, baseball caps, sportswear and bling.
A whole genre of porn exists starring young men who live on council estates and so-called “scally boys”. Even the lust for so-called “straight-acting” gay men is wrapped up in class. Sometimes it springs from an insecurity about being gay; but often it’s a desire for a caricatured, rugged version of heterosexuality associated with working-class men.
Class tourism isn’t only a fantasy of gay men: after all, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Titanic there’s a whole tradition in fiction of straight people turning the class system upside down in the bedroom. Crossing class divides – or the privileged being sexually dominated by those lower down the social pecking order – is a big turn-on for some gays and straights alike.
But we rarely ever get to see the real diversity of gay men – not least because, more often than not, we appear on TV as one-dimensional uber-camp clowns being served up for entertainment. It’s starting to change, though. Last year, former Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas came out: unlike in England, rugby is a working-class sport in Wales. Here’s an example of a working-class gay icon that can help puncture the stereotype.
We’ve come a long way in our battle for legal equality, but the struggle for social acceptance is still far from won. In part, that means taking on the narrow images of gay men that appear in the mainstream. We’re a diverse bunch; let’s face it, we’re just as complex and divided as everybody else. It’s a reality that’s waiting to be shown.
2011 was the year the phoney war ended or – as the kids say these days, so I’m told – shit got real. When queues of anxious customers demanding their money suddenly formed outside Northern Rock over four years ago, it seemed like a slightly surreal – but one-off – disruption to normality, like an eerie re-enactment of a scene from Depression-era United States. As the entire global financial system faced total meltdown a year later, a sense of normality was mostly still preserved thanks to taxpayer bailouts and multi-billion fiscal stimuli. But more than one commentator conjured up the image of the global economy as a cartoon character who runs off a cliff, legs still flapping, suspended in mid-air as the scale of the fall sinks in. This year, the tumble began.
The declared strategy of the Conservative-led Government was that, as it pushed forward with the most devastating cuts since the 1920s, there would be a private sector-led recovery. By the end of 2011, unemployment had soared towards 2.7 million, a level not seen for 17 years. And while 67,000 public sector jobs were lost in the third quarter, just 5,000 private sector jobs were created. As had been predicted by those the Conservatives and their outriders had sneered at, the cuts were sucking growth out of the economy. Four years since the crisis began, Britain once again stands on the brink of another recession. Even on the Government’s own terms, its strategy is a failure, with George Osborne forced to borrow more than was projected under Labour’s plans at the last election. No wonder Osborne stood accused by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of being “a medieval doctor bleeding his patient.”
“We’re all in this together,” or so George Osborne and the Government told us. Throughout the year, it was a sentence that veered between the ludicrous and the insulting. The average Briton is experiencing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s. The majority of us will be no better off in 2016 than we were at the turn of the millennium. But there might as well be an economic boom as far as those at the top are concerned. The wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain surged by a fifth, one of the greatest leaps recorded. In the corporate boardrooms of the top 100 companies, pay went up by 49% – nearly as much as it did last year. Here was a silent class war waged from the top.
Bleak stuff, and enough to leave the Government in serious trouble, you would think. After all, the Conservatives had the last election on a plate thanks to the biggest economic crisis since the Depression and a woefully unpopular Labour Prime Minister – but they lost. Cameron is only ensconced in Number 10 because of the duplicity of the Liberal Democrats. But with a coherent alternative still lacking from the Labour leadership, David Cameron looked smugger with every passing month. Even as Job Centres became more crowded, the PM and Chancellor remained (perversely) more trusted on the economy than Labour. The genius of the Conservatives’ strategy of turning a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending – and the failure of Labour to challenge it from the start – was paying off.
And as 2011 advanced, the Cameron regime looked a whole lot more like a hard-line Conservative government. “We are making cuts that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s could only have dreamt of,” boasted Tory minister Greg Barker in April. As those on benefits became more demonised than they were before mass unemployment returned to Britain, a Government report proposed forcing cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to be assessed for their fitness for work. With little co-ordinated opposition, the Government pushed through the first stage of the privatisation of the NHS, without bothering with the courtesy of putting it before the electorate first. And as Cameron flounced out of the EU Treaty negotiations – after making sure journalists were briefed he had eaten a full English breakfast – it was clear Britain had the most Eurosceptic government since World War II. But still the Liberal Democrats – a now indisputably rag-tag bunch of opportunists – kept the Government in power in cynical defiance of their (former) voters, with just the odd bit of choreographed “letting off steam” to keep up the pretence they were anything other than Tory voting fodder.
Though Cameron remained largely untouched, economic upheavals invariably cause things to “kick off”, as the BBC’s Paul Mason puts it. The students had led the charge at the end of 2010, throwing off illusions about British passivity and proving that it was possible to resist. They had put the trade unions “on the spot”, as Unite general secretary Len McCluskey put it. Many an obituary has been written for the labour movement since the hammering it suffered under Thatcher, but in 2011 it returned to the stage. Its unique potential to mobilise was showcased on March 26th, as it organised the biggest workers’ demonstration in a generation. The theme was ‘March for the Alternative’, and though that alternative remains far from properly sketched out, here was the biggest show of defiance against Tory rule yet.
But it was a Tory attempt to impose a deficit tax on public sector workers that forced the trade unions into action. Superficially, it was about pensions: they were becoming unaffordable, claimed the Government, even as a report it commissioned by ultra-Blairite New Labour ex-minister Lord Hutton revealed that pensions would shrink as a proportion of GDP in the years ahead. Indeed, the money raised from increased contributions is to flow straight into the Treasury’s coffers. On June 30th, teachers and civil servants went out on strike, and Tory minister Francis Maude had his arguments torn to shreds on national radio. Then came the biggie: on November 30th, public sector workers ranging from dinner ladies to top civil servants, lollipop ladies to nurses came out in the biggest industrial action since the 1926 General Strike.
There was a sense of exhilaration that comes from sharing a common purpose on the day. It didn’t last. In the face of media hostility, the union leaderships (with honourable exceptions) failed to present their compelling case in a way that could resonate with an increasingly union-free workplace. Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, had promised “the fight of our lives”, but looks set to lead a capitulation to Government proposals. No concessions on the key issues were offered, and civil servants’ union PCS – whose leader, Mark Serwotka, had shown the most determination of the trade union leadership – was locked out of talks. And so 2011 could end with what may come to be seen as the biggest trade union defeat since Thatcher.
Resistance came in unorthodox forms, too. On 17th September, protesters set up tents in Wall Street in protest at the injustices of economic crisis; in part, they were inspired by the Spanish indignados (indignant) who occupied Madrid’s main square in protest at the political establishment in May, and they, in turn, looked to the example of the Egyptian revolutionaries who seized Tahrir Square. Occupy Wall Street was the catalyst for a global movement that finally came to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral on 15th October. It was a drama that dragged in the usually irrelevant Church of England, forcing the resignation of three priests. But Occupy clocked up a real achievement: it reminded us all who caused the crisis, and who was being made to pay for it. Indeed, one poll revealed that 51% of Britons felt the protesters were “right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people.”
Britain’s tearing social fabric could manifest itself in uglier ways. After 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot dead by police, riots exploded in Tottenham on 6th August; within two days, rioting and looting were tearing through London; other English communities were next. Anger and fear provoked a ferocious backlash: mid-way through the unrest, one poll revealed one third of people wanted live ammunition used. Newspapers blamed single parents; and I was all too paralysed as I sat in a TV studio while Tudor historian David Starkey attempted to scapegoat black people by arguing that what he described as their “culture” had turned white people into rampaging thugs. As Government supported plans to evict rioters and their families if they lived in council homes and to confiscate their benefits, a precedent was set in Cameron’s Britain: if you are poor and commit a crime, you will be punished twice. With talk of “feral underclass” being bandied around, there was little sympathy for those – like myself – who argued that there were growing numbers of young people with no secure future to risk.
And so Britain leaves 2011 with an increasingly triumphant right in office; a broad opposition not lacking in passion, but scattered and lacking in coherent alternatives; a Labour leadership still failing to make the case against the Government; brutal cuts and economic crisis biting away at people’s jobs, living standards and futures; and swelling ranks of people with nothing much to lose. If it doesn’t sound pretty, it’s because it isn’t.
But it’s no time to flail around in despair. 2012 could be bleak, or it could be the year that a resurgent left gets its act together, unites around an alternative that resonates, and starts building pressure from below. Rather than assailing Ed Miliband for being hopeless, political space could be created for progressive policies, and the Labour leadership dragged to support them – willingly or not. But a note of warning. If the left doesn’t tap into the inevitable growth of anger and frustration, then somebody else will. And a cursory look back over the 20th century tells us just how disastrous that can be.
It was the year that sticking it to the status quo re-entered the mainstream after an all-too-long long hiatus.
And yet 2011 showed just how far that resistance remains from mounting a serious challenge to the Tories, let alone giving capitalism much to worry about, four years into its worst crisis since the Great Depression. But the foundations have been laid – leaving 2012 all to play for.
A trade union movement that never recovered from the hammering of the 1980s apparently roared back into action. The marching, occupying students had set the example: as Unite’s Len McCluskey admitted, they put trade unionists “on the spot”. Long mocked for their irrelevance, the trade unions mobilised hundreds of thousands in the biggest show of force against the government yet on March 26th – and the largest workers’ demonstration in a generation.
As well as marches, the strike returned to the political scene after years of record low levels of industrial action. Technically, it was over government pension “reforms” (a term whose meaning long ago went from “progressive social reforms” to “rolling them back”). In reality, it was a deficit tax on public sector workers – with the extra contributions flowing straight into the Treasury’s coffers.
The first wave of resistance was on June 30th as teachers and civil servants walked out. But it proved a dress rehearsal for November 30th, when public sector workers ranging from dinner ladies to senior civil servants abandoned their post in the biggest industrial action since a previous Tory government warned of “red revolution” in the 1926 General Strike. Inspiring stuff, but Unison’s leadership looked set to lead a capitulation to the government, despite no movement on any of the key grievances. 2011 ended with a looming union defeat.
With the political left still fragmented and weak, resistance manifested itself in unorthodox ways. Taking its cue from Occupy Wall Street, tents were erected outside St Paul’s Cathedral in protest at the injustices of the economic crisis. It was a reminder of who caused the crisis – and who is being made to pay for it.
Unrest wasn’t always orderly, however. Riots spread through London and other English communities in August, originally sparked by the police killing of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in Tottenham. There was much talk of a “feral underclass”, but little appetite for understanding the growing numbers of young people with no future to risk, resentment at a heavy-handed police force, and a toxic mixture of inequality and consumerism.
And perversely – although government austerity was driving hundreds of thousands out of their jobs and giving living standards their biggest hammering since the 1920s – David Cameron looked more secure than ever. Labour’s leadership failed to construct a coherent alternative to Tory cuts, leaving Ed Miliband looking weak and indecisive. With the left failing to build countervailing pressure to the diehard New Labour elements who are still calling the shots, this was hardly surprising.
2011 was a bumpy ride, and 2012 looks set to be tougher yet. The last year proved that growing numbers of people have an appetite to fight. But unless the left gets it act together and gives growing frustration a political direction, the coming year could be one of Tory triumphalism, even as working-class communities are hammered. After the hangovers have subsided on January 1st, the labour movement has a big task ahead of it. At stake is its survival – and the futures of millions of people who depend on it.
This appeared in the New Statesman’s ‘The political studies guide 2012′ on 21 November 2011
When Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008, it felt as though the world had fallen off a cliff. Amidst the panic, there was a sense that a profound political shift was all but inevitable. “Laissez-faire is finished,” declared Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President who, when he had entered the Élysée Palace in 2007, was described as France’s Margaret Thatcher. “The all powerful market that always knows best is finished.”
Three years on and a Conservative-led government is in Downing Street implementing cuts that – as the Tory minister Greg Barker put it in April – Margaret Thatcher “could only have dreamt of ”. In Britain (as pretty much everywhere in the Western world), a crisis of free market economics has perversely opened the door to the most radical programme of free market economics yet.
Without bothering with the hassle of consulting the electorate, the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is paving the way for the privatisation of the NHS. Large chunks are being hacked off the welfare state; Michael Gove is driving the market into schools; tuition fees have trebled. And back in July, David Cameron announced almost all public services would be opened up to private companies.
A cursory look at history suggests that any presumption the left would emerge victorious from the rubble of neoliberal dogma was always a long shot. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Labour Party was almost wiped out, and the Conservatives ruled with formidable majorities. The situation was even bleaker in the rest of Europe as fascism snuffed out democracy (and the left), country by country. In the economic crisis of the 1970s, both left and right abandoned the post-war consensus in favour of a renewed radicalism. As Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne put it recently: “For a while, it was wholly unclear which side would win, and indeed for long periods it appeared the Left was in the ascendancy.” But Thatcher was so successful that – by the time she was sent packing from 10 Downing Street – the traditional left had been all but vanquished as a political force.
It’s the legacy of Thatcherism conquering all before it, that – in part – explains politics in Britain after the crash. New Labour accepted the key tenets of Thatcherism – low taxes on the wealthy, weak unions, untrammelled market economics. Indeed, its spell in office laid the foundations for many of the current government’s policies: the expanding role of the private sector in the NHS, for example.
The great departure from Thatcherite orthodoxy was investment in public services, but with the biggest programme of cuts since the 1920s now underway, no one can seriously argue this established a new political consensus. As a result, Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour party
has been unable – even if it was willing – to offer a credible alternative to cuts.
This is the baggage that has prevented Labour from assuming the unchallenged leadership of opposition, even as the government’s YouGov approval ratings languish at between minus 22 per cent and minus 31 per cent. It’s worth remembering Labour lost five million votes between 1997 and 2010, while the Tories gained just one million. It was never likely that all of those disillusioned with Labour would enthusiastically flock back within 18 months. Many are resigned to cuts in the belief there is no alternative (not surprising when none is presented by mainstream politicians); but for those who oppose them, the perceived betrayals of the Blair-Brown era do not necessarily make the party an attractive option. Ed Miliband promised a break from New Labour; but much of the Blairite old guard remain highly influential.
The opening shot for a wave of protests, occupations and strikes was last November when 52,000 students marched through London. It proved an inspiration for other discontented groups: as Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite trade union, put it, the students had put unions “on the spot”. Derided as the apathetic X Factor generation, thousands of newly politicised young people used social media to coordinate student protests unseen in scale since the 1960s.
In previous generations, the traditional left may have expected to benefit from unrest. But the left has yet to recover from the battering it suffered in the 1980s, and the neoliberal triumphalism that followed the collapse of Communism, best summed by political philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s argument that liberal capitalism represented “The End of History”. Many of the new movements consciously reject the principle of leadership or even political demands. The Occupy movement – inspired principally by those who set up tents in Wall Street in the US – has refocused attention on the banks at the centre of the economic crisis, but it has largely eschewed proposing alternative policies. Political discontent currently lacks any unifying ideology; many protesters are keen to reject it altogether.
But it hasn’t just been these new, leaderless movements that have powered dissent. Trade unions’ membership has collapsed from over half to not much above a quarter in a generation. Nonetheless, they remain the biggest democratic mass movement in the country, with up to seven million members (or about nine times the membership of the main political parties put together). Unions are keen to learn from the mistakes of the 1980s, when Thatcher picked them off one by one. Partly, that’s because Cameron’s government has a strategy of “shock-andawe” – implementing a range of radical reforms simultaneously, rather than the more piecemeal approach of the Thatcher government. As a result, a strategy of coordinated resistance was agreed on not long after the Coalition came to power.
The first real flexing of union muscle came on 26 March, when the Trade Union Congress staged the biggest trade union demonstration in a generation. It was symbolic, but it demonstrated the labour movement’s ability to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people. Three months later, teachers and civil servants staged the first stage of what may turn out to be a rolling programme of strikes. The government’s attack on pensions is the official reason for industrial action: an important issue, to be sure, but chosen because stringent union laws forbid strike action unless workers are in direct conflict with their employers. Cuts, pay freezes and the rest of this government’s agenda are also driving the unions to take action. With what amounts to a public sector general strike to take place on 30 November, trade unions may well assume leadership of the anti-Coalition movement.
Not that unions aren’t faced with a series of obstacles. Polls carried out during the June strikes revealed widespread sympathy and support for the unions’ case. But while over half of public sector workers are unionised, the level is just 14 per cent in the private sector. Unions are susceptible to government attempts to encourage resentment by workers in the private sector, where pension coverage has collapsed from half to a third in a decade. The success of unions depends on overcoming accusations of being public sector “vested interests” by laying claim to be best placed to speak for working people as a whole.
There have been attempts to construct new political movements at the top. Blue Labour is the best example: spearheaded by academic Maurice Glasman, it fuses a critique of the free market, opposition to the supposed statism of “Old Labour”, with social conservatism. But it is a topdown project constructed by academics and politicians, with little genuine grassroots base.
If there is to be a political shift, it will be driven by pressure from below. Already Ed Miliband has felt it necessary to adopt the Occupy movement’s rhetoric on backing the 99 per cent against the wealthiest 1 per cent. The growing struggles outside parliament may lack political direction now, but – three years on from Lehmans – they remain the biggest potential threat to an entrenched neoliberal consensus. A sea change may be coming – if it does, it will be born on the streets.
It’s been a ridiculously hectic few weeks and I haven’t been publishing my articles to this blog – so apologies for just vomiting them all over the website at the same time. (I’ve included links to them at the bottom). Apologies to email subscribers who have been spammed with all of the posts – it won’t happen again. Whoops!
Here’s a few other things that might be of interest but just some of it just sounds like shameless bragging when I put them in a list (sorry):
- Chavs got some nice mentions – as one of the New York Times‘ 10 non-fiction books of 2011; as one of the books of 2011 by one of my heroes, Britain’s finest 20th Century historian Eric Hobsbawm; as the Sunday Times’ best-selling political book of 2011; as one of the Metro’s best non-fiction books of 2011; in the Telegraph‘s Literary Year 2011; and as one of the California Literary Review‘s Best Books of 2011. (Self-puff ends).
- I took on those scrounging public sector workers on November 30th with my friends Mark Ferguson and Laurence Durnan
- I had an argy bargy with Edwina Currey over poverty
- The Independent on Sunday put me in their (self-described) “highly subjective” ‘Great Britons of 2011′ list along with Hobo the bomb sniffer dog
The most important part of the last few weeks has been travelling around the country to talk to people – from school students in Newham to students in Liverpool to local people in Newcastle – and hearing from people’s experiences. At a dark time for the left and the labour movement, I’ve seen and heard lots of reasons for hope in the future.
At the moment I’m working on a new introduction for the mass market paperback of Chavs - and I’m going to start work on a second book… watch this space.
And finally here’s the articles I’ve just spammed everybody with:
In a church in Birmingham Ladywood, one of Britain’s poorest communities, I recently sat next to Edwina Currie as she lectured poor people that they were not really poor if they owned a mobile phone. Currie, a former Tory minister, had been sent there by the BBC to explain her fact-free assertion that no one had to choose between heating their homes and feeding themselves.
She had form: in the 1980s, she claimed northerners were dying from “ignorance and chips”. She refused to budge even when I pointed out the tragic case of Mark and Helen Mullins. Mark walked a 12-mile roundtrip every day to a soup kitchen; their desperate circumstances drove them to suicide. Here was a damning indictment of Britain in 2011, but still Currie demanded the poor pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
I’m sure Currie felt vindicated by last week’s Social Attitudes Survey. Even as the ranks of Britain’s poor and unemployed have been swelled by economic crisis, social contempt has increased. 54 per cent of those surveyed felt that unemployment benefits were too high, compared with 35 per cent in 1983 – another era of dole queues. If the question had been, “Could you live on £67.50 a week?” – the actual value of Jobseekers Allowance for those aged 25 or above – it’s a safe bet the results would have been rather different. Nearly two-thirds believed that one factor for child poverty was parents who “don’t want to work”. Scroungers and work-shy freeloaders: these are Britain’s poor as far as millions are concerned.
It’s a triumph for the Tory governments of the 1980s in which Currie served. Margaret Thatcher once argued that “there really is no primary poverty left in this country”, putting some people’s lack of money down to a “really hard fundamental character-personality defect”. Unemployment and poverty were not social problems, they were individual failings – or so Thatcherism drummed into the minds of the British public.
An integral part of the current Government’s mission to turn a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending has been to demonise benefit recipients. It was taken to its ugliest conclusion last week when a Government report suggested making chemotherapy patients prove they were too ill to work. Sections of the media happily fan this prejudice. When unemployed people make an appearance, it’s invariably as the “scrounger”. Channel 4′s grotesque TV series The Fairy Jobmother featured the “feckless” being harangued back into work. The BBC’s John Humphrys fronted The Future State of Welfare, condemning Britain’s “dependency culture” and a “sense that the state owes us a living”.
The reality of unemployed people desperate for work – like the 110,000 applications for Royal Mail’s 18,000 temporary Christmas jobs – barely gets a mention. We don’t even really talk about the unemployed any more: they’re more likely to be “people on benefits”, defining them not by lack of work, but by a reliance on taxpayers’ money.
But it is Labour that must accept a large slice of responsibility for growing social contempt. Since the mid 1990s it has opted not to challenge the Thatcherite mantra of individual responsibility for social problems. Ed Miliband used his Conference speech to call for those in work to be given priority in social housing.
Forget the political rights or wrongs for a moment. It is a suicidal strategy for Labour to take. Failing to challenge – and even fuelling – social contempt simply increases potential support for the Conservatives. Those who hate “scroungers” most will never trust Labour to crack down ruthlessly enough: that’s what the Conservatives are for. If Labour won’t take on the consensus, the reality of unemployment and poverty will disappear from the public domain – and ever hardening social attitudes will cripple the party at the ballot box.
Social contempt can appeal to middle-class voters who resent spending their taxes on the undeserving, and low-paid workers who resent struggling to pay bills while others “milk the system”. According to a survey by BritainThinks, it even includes benefit recipients who – belonging to a demonised group – are keen to distance themselves from “scroungers”. A mass campaign revealing the reality of poverty and unemployment is desperately needed to shift public attitudes. Without such a crusade, there will be no political space to oppose benefit cuts or push for progressive policies like redistributing wealth. After all, if poverty is a product of individual failings, why have a welfare state at all?
The winners in all this will be the City firms who helped cause the crisis, and tax-dodging companies that deprive the Treasury of up to 60 times the amount lost through benefit fraud. How pleased they must be that those worse affected by their crisis are turning on each other, rather than on an ever-wealthier elite. As living standards plummet, misdirected anger could turn ugly. Unless there is a political game-changer, Canary Wharf will remain the glistening symbol of a City prospering while others suffer, a middle finger stuck up at the British public as they seethe with contempt for each other.
Watching the trailer for The Iron Lady, the forthcoming biopic of Margaret Thatcher, I shuddered.
All the indications are that her adoring fans will have much to be pleased about: the film apparently champions their image of a determined leader battling against the odds, vindicated by events and toppled by the treachery of lesser beings. Her victims are largely airbrushed out of the script.
But for the left – even those born halfway through her rule, like myself – Maggie remains the stuff of nightmares. An ideological civil war raged in 1980s Britain: at times, like during the miners’ strike, it felt an awful lot like the real thing. Those who “fought” on the losing side – like my family – were comprehensively defeated. We still live in the Britain that Thatcher built.
Thatcher was often nicknamed Tina – There Is No Alternative. The Tina mantra was her most important legacy: it sustained Thatcherism, even after she was toppled. People may have felt uncomfortable or even angry about soaring inequality, fat cats growing ever plumper and private companies raiding our public services. But, in the absence of any other apparently realistic alternatives, people were resigned to it all. They became facts of life. After all, with even Blair’s Labour Party signed up to this agenda, what hope was there of anything else? We’re three years into a crisis caused by market failure, but the Tories have cleverly spun it to launch an assault on the welfare state – and, in the most perverse of ironies, make the market more dominant than ever.
But outside political circles, there’s a shift in the public mood: a break from the resignation to Tina. We’re now in a crisis in which, on the one hand, the average Briton is suffering from the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, and, on the other, boardroom pay has leapt 49 per cent. The status quo is starting to feel untenable.
I’ve noticed it out on the stump. On my desk is a towering pile of rail tickets: over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of speaking at dozens of meetings across the country. They have ranged from youth workers in Manchester, trade unionists in Swansea and students in Glasgow; on Thursday, I spoke to a packed meeting in Hull. It’s been a moving and educational experience. A few are hardened lefties, like myself, but most are just ordinary people who are angry, indeed in shock, at what is happening around them. But, above all, there was a clear expression of revolt against Tina that – in my admittedly short lifetime – I have never experienced.
Perhaps the people who turn up to these meetings aren’t representative. I doubt it, though. A poll at the end of last month revealed that 38 per cent felt the Occupy protesters camped outside St Paul’s were “naive; there is no practical alternative to capitalism”. Even as the world stares into the economic abyss, Tina still holds sway over a significant section of the population. But 51 per cent agreed that “the protesters are right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people”. Does anyone think for a second the same poll would have produced the same results before Lehman Brothers came crashing down?
Occupy is one symptom: the forthcoming public-sector strikes – the biggest co-ordinated industrial action since the 1926 General Strike – is another. Public-sector workers are generally dismissed as vested interests, but let’s be clear: we’re talking about bin collectors, lollipop ladies, teachers and care assistants here. Strike ballots have produced decisive majorities in favour of action, ranging from three to one to four to one.
Workers do not strike lightly: you lose a day’s pay and man picket lines outside your workplace only if you feel you’ve run out of options. In theory, this is a strike about pensions – or, rather, a tax on public-sector workers to pay off the deficit using the deceit that pensions are becoming more unaffordable. But workers will really also be striking about cuts, the privatisation of the NHS and other services – and against the whole attempt by the Conservatives to use the crisis to push policies they would otherwise never get away with. These pillars of our communities will be striking against Tina.
And by God do we need alternatives. Unemployment soared by 129,000 in the past quarter; over a million young people are now out of work. In Stockport, where I grew up, youth unemployment has increased by 69 per cent in a year. Despite cynical attempts to insult the intelligence of the British people by blaming it on the eurozone crisis, here are the consequences of the Thatcherite economics comeback tour. Mass unemployment is here to stay, and, unless the growing numbers cramped into Jobcentres are given hope, anger and frustration may manifest itself in ugly ways.
That’s why Ed Miliband’s Labour Party has a responsibility to take on Tina. If his brother had won the leadership, it would have become even more entrenched: in one speech during the contest, David Miliband argued that Labour should learn from Rab Butler, the post-war Tory politician who forced the Conservatives to accept Clement Attlee’s welfare settlement. But Ed Miliband made a different – and largely ignored – argument during the Labour Conference, that he had learned “that you’ve got to be willing to break the consensus, not succumb to it”. Last week, he slammed “unjustified” pay rises for chief executives and attacked “predatory” businesses.
A break from Tina isn’t there yet. Labour remains committed to widespread cuts, albeit not on the same scale as the Tories. Its opposition to, say, the privatisation of the NHS or the trebling of tuition fees is hamstrung by the fact that New Labour got the ball rolling in the first place.
But shifts in politics don’t come from above, as the “Great Man” view of history would have it. It comes from pressure from below. As the public mood shifts with the ever-deepening economic crisis, Ed Miliband may find it impossible to ignore. It’s what policy wonks call “the shifting centre-ground”. Millions have written Tina off. Labour’s leaders may be forced to follow, whether they like it or not.
The fallout from David Cameron’s “non” once again reveals one of the big myths of British politics. All critics of the European Union in its current form are swivel-eyed Little Englanders, the sorts of people who leave comments on online forums assailing “lefties”, immigrants and the “great climate change swindle”. Or think Jacob Rees-Mogg, the sort of Tory MP who exists to make sure Labour’s core vote comes out on election day, who declared that Cameron was the toast of Somerset. That’s your classic EU critic, or so the uncritical pro-EU liberal lobby would have us believe.
The depressing debate on the EU treaty has focused on how the rightwing backbenchers of a Conservative party that failed to win the general election are more powerful than zealously pro-European Liberal Democrat government ministers. The Lib Dems have swallowed just about every dose of Tory poison – swingeing cuts, the VAT hike, trebling tuition fees, privatising the NHS, and so on – so it wasn’t inconceivable they’d back this too. But uncritically propping up the most Eurosceptic government ever proved too ludicrous even for this rag-tag bunch of opportunists, and Nick Clegg went from accepting the deal to synthetic outrage within 48 hours (when it was too late, of course).
All the criticisms have focused on Cameron abandoning Britain’s place at the negotiating table. Those on the left should have no truck with Cameron’s position. It was about defending the pre-eminent power of the City, whose firms provide more than half the Conservatives’ funding. Despite empty government rhetoric about Britain going back to “making things”, the City still calls the shots.
But that does not mean the left should be applauding the EU treaty. It could hardly be more disastrous for the European left. At a stroke, it effectively abolishes social democratic governments in the eurozone. As Paul Mason put it, “by enshrining in national and international law the need for balanced budgets and near-zero structural deficits, the eurozone has outlawed expansionary fiscal policy”. Furthermore, all eurozone budgets must be submitted to the unelected European Commission for approval.
There will be those who believe that a fiscal stimulus in the current economic climate would be disastrous, and they are entitled to that view. But it is up to the people of Europe to decide at the ballot box. As Economist columnist Baghote points out, it would become “pointless” to vote for a party that advocates “Keynesian stimulus policies or tax cuts”. It’s difficult to disagree with his understated conclusion: “That feels politically very dodgy to me.”
Frightening stuff, but French Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande has handed Europe’s leftwing critics the treaty a lifeline. He has committed to renegotiating the treaty if he wins next year’s presidential elections and, as things stand, he’s the hot favourite. Among his suggestions are measures to boost growth, a bigger role for the European Central Bank, and the issuing of eurobonds. It’s certainly a start. Rather than allowing the debate to be dominated by the City, Labour’s leadership should be making common cause with its French sister party.
But more broadly, now is an opportunity for the left to stop abandoning the EU debate to Ukip and Tory rightwingers like the NHS-hating Daniel Hannan. It is a travesty that highlighting the EU’s palpable lack of democracy has become a rightwing issue. Why should European commissioners nobody elected issue diktats? Here the left can call the right’s bluff. Why not call for the abolition of the commission in favour of an administration made up of elected members of the European parliament, for example?
Successive treaties have enshrined “free competition”, which in practice promotes the privatisation of public services. Take the Lisbon treaty, which includes the following clause: “A European framework law shall establish the liberalisation of a specific service.” One of the main reasons the French people rejected the European constitution in 2005 was precisely because much of the left rejected its neoliberalism.
Want to reverse the almost universally unpopular privatisation of our railways? You’re going to have to take on EU directive 9/440 first, which makes it a legal requirement for private companies to be able to run train services. Treaties and directives that make privatisation a political necessity must be renegotiated.
The left used to have a position on the European project. After all, it was Ted Heath’s Tory government that took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. When Labour offered the British people a say on it in 1975, cabinet ministers were able to campaign on the basis of their conscience. Labour’s 1983 manifesto pledged withdrawal and while Neil Kinnock ended up as a European commissioner, he was once a fervent critic of the common market.
Opposing the EU as it is currently constituted doesn’t put have to put you in the same boat as Rees-Mogg, Hannan and Ukip’s Nigel Farage. Rather than backing withdrawal, the left should argue for a Europe built around the interests of working people, not major corporations. After the treaty debacle, it’s time to make the case as loudly as possible.
This year has been a blur of angry, determined crowds on the move: chanting, barricading and occupying. Each protest movement has differed in scale and ambition. When hundreds of thousands of Egyptians thronged into Tahrir Square in February, they were battling a thuggish dictatorship with few qualms about killing to stay in power. There has certainly been brutality in the west: this month, peacefully protesting students at University of California, Davis were pepper-sprayed in the face at close range. But, while thousands of Arabs struggling for democracy have been butchered by senile tyrannies, there have been few fatalities and far weaker repression against the anti-cuts protests sweeping western cities.
That does not mean links cannot be made between the upheavals and struggles of 2011. Each time I’ve visited the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp around the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, I’ve been struck by how conscious the protesters are of being a small part of a worldwide phenomenon. It is as though someone has thrown seeds of dissent across the globe: here is just one patch where roots of rebellion have poked through. Occupy is, in part, the culmination of a decade of global struggles and experiences. Tahrir Square inspired, in May, theSpanish indignados of Madrid, who occupied the city square in disgust at the political elite; in turn, this action helped to inspire Americans to erect tents on Wall Street in October, which proved the detonator for a globalOccupy movement.
But there are also echoes of the global anti-capitalist movement that rose to prominence at the turn of the century, and of the millions whomarched for peace across the world in 2003 as the Pentagon aimed fire at Iraq. As the New York Times put it at the time: “There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” But after Shock and Awe slammed into Baghdad, faith in the power of marching diminished among many of the discontented. Protest had to be made impossible to ignore, or so went the thinking. The drive to occupy and hold public space for political purposes was born out of that.
Occupy has proved such a contagious idea because it sums up popular resentment at being made to pay for a crisis caused by a wealthy, unaccountable elite. Its signature slogan, after all, is “We are the 99%“. The figure doesn’t have to be accurate: it simply appeals to the sense that the overwhelming majority have divergent interests from those at the top. As the Resolution Foundation thinktank has highlighted, even if Britain were to return to a similar level of economic growth as it experienced between 2002 and 2008 (which is optimistic to say the least), average wages would be no higher in 2020 than they were in 2001. It’s a different story on planet 1%: the wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain leapt by a fifth between 2010 and 2011. Recession for the majority, boomtime for the top. Perhaps the real surprise about Occupy is that there aren’t more angry people erecting tents.
London’s Occupiers don’t owe their existence simply to foreign influences. Last May, all three main parties lost the general election. The Conservatives lost least badly, but they amassed only 36% of the vote, despite the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s and an almost farcically unpopular Labour prime minister. The Tories managed to form a majority government only because the Liberal Democrats junked their key election promises. Since then, the government has used its questionable mandate to reshape society with the biggest cuts since the 1920s, driving through a de facto dismantling of the NHS, stripping workers’ rights, slashing benefits, marketising education and so on.
And yet the emergence of mass protest came as a surprise to commentators and demonstrators alike. When 52,000 students marched in November 2010 – culminating in the storming of Millbank – they ushered in a new age of rebellion: it gave others the confidence that it was possible to resist. Waves of student protests and occupations followed; and, on 26 March, the long marginalised trade union movement showed its continuing relevance by mobilising one of the biggest workers’ demonstrations in history. The hundreds of thousands of public sector workers – ranging from lollipop ladies to teachers – who have voted for strike action this month are part of the same movement. Conservative politicians and commentators question the legitimacy of the coming 30 November strikes on grounds of turnout – even as a party that won the support of less than a quarter of eligible voters imposes one of the most radical programmes of postwar Britain.
Before last November, the consensus on both left and right seemed to be that the supposedly moderate Brits aren’t like the excitable French and Greeks. How quickly it is forgotten that – just over three decades ago – Britain was routinely described as “ungovernable”. Rebellion is part of the fabric of this country, however much British exceptionalism attempts to erase it. It can be traced all the way back to the Peasants’ Revolt of the 14th century, when the priest John Ball assailed the class system to the assembled crowds: “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” It’s an unanswered question worth repeating today on the steps of St Paul’s.
As protest movements have gathered place, I have wondered what role the relatively small number of sympathetic writers should play. It is not to pose as a voice for a movement, because writers are not accountable to those they would supposedly speak for, though they can provide a platform for the otherwise ignored. Neither is it to be uncritical. Out-and-out propagandists may cheer the already convinced, but they generally grate as far as everyone else is concerned. And the power of any writer is limited: progressive change is driven by collective action, not by individuals who write about it.
The sympathetic writer is certainly there to provide counterbalance to a media and political establishment that – on the whole – is inherently hostile to those who mobilise against the status quo. But above all it’s to take a step back and put unrest in a broader context: to have a go at making sense of it from a historical point of view, and to at least help explain where it’s all heading. The new age of rebellion has only just begun. There will be a lot to write about.
Read the original post at the Guardian’s Comment Is Free
Maria is a softly spoken teacher, but she’s clearly furious. As far as she is concerned, she is being mugged by the economic and political elite. “I think they are stealing from us,” she tells me. “It’s theft.” Maria Juan spoke to me in the centre of Lisbon as thousands of striking workers – some even angrier than her – surrounded Portugal’s national assembly.
It’s a different country, but her sentiments are instantly recognisable to a Brit. This is the indignation of someone who has dedicated their life to public service being pummelled by a crisis they had no role in causing. On Thursday, hundreds of thousands of workers ranging from train drivers to hospital staff took part in Portugal’s second general strike against austerity in a year. Next Wednesday, their British equivalents will stage a similar walkout, and “theft” will be on many of their lips, too.
Anyone who has taken part in Britain’s anti-cuts demonstrations over the last year would have felt right at home outside the national assembly. Many of the chants were the same: some, such as “the workers united will never be defeated”, I have heard yelled on protests from London to Michigan. But – as in Britain – workers remain far from united. As I talk to two striking bus drivers, proudly waving union banners, a woman with two kids starts ranting at them. It’s a familiar complaint: she works long hours for worsening pay, but – like the vast majority of private-sector workers – you don’t see her out on strike. It’s a hierarchy of grievances that allows rising fury at declining living standards to be directed at fellow workers, rather than at those responsible for Europe’s economic collapse.
There was a familiar resentment of police, too, who formed lines to stop the national assembly being stormed (which, according to Marta, a young temp agency worker, was exactly what needed to happen). A few bottles were thrown, and protesters angrily remonstrated with them: “You should be protesting with us, not defending the bad guys!”
Of course, Britain’s strike – the biggest since the general strike of 1926 – won’t exactly be a replica. The focus is on pensions – or, more accurately, a tax on public-sector workers to help pay off the deficit. The narrow focus is partly a consequence of Britain’s almost uniquely stringent anti-union laws. In Portugal, anger is directed at the terms of a€78bn bailout package imposed by the IMF and the EU, which is being implemented enthusiastically by the Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho. Christmas bonuses for public-sector staff are the latest casualty. This alone is a crippling blow to workers in a country in which the minimum wage is just €450 (£386) a month, and where teachers such as Maria have a monthly salary of just €1,000 (or £858).
Both Portuguese and British strikes are part of a growing European backlash to austerity that is erupting on to the streets from Madrid to Athens. Like Britain, widespread industrial action is uncommon in Portugal. Since the authoritarian regime of António Salazar was overthrown in the 1974 carnation revolution, there have only been two national strikes – and one of them was a year ago. The strike is not a response to economic crisis, but rather resistance to attempts to use it to remake European societies. Rightwing politicians may have wanted to “shrink the state” before the crisis hit, but the radical policies needed to achieve it were not politically possible. But privatisation, cuts, the rolling back of workers’ rights and the reduction of pay can now be dressed up as unavoidable decisions. Unless resistance to this project is successful, Europe will be a poorer, harsher and more insecure place long after sustained economic growth returns.
Outside the Portuguese national assembly, protesters expressed a determination to stand with other European workers. “We are joined to the people of Europe,” says Francisco, a retired civil engineer. “We have to fight all together or we will lose.” But talk of solidarity is easy: in practical terms, there are few links between Europe’s striking workers. None of the Portuguese workers I spoke to were aware of next week’s public-sector strike in Britain.
When up to 3 million British public-sector workers strike together next Wednesday, they will aim fire at the policies of David Cameron’s government. But Francisco is right: it is difficult to see how a Europe-wide austerity drive will be defeated without an equally Europe-wide movement against it. That dinner ladies, bin collectors and teachers will take co-ordinated action is no small achievement. But the battle for the future of Europe will only be won when nurses in Aberdeen are making common cause with bus drivers in Athens. After all, we’re all in this together.