Saturday, 28 February 2015

Saturday Interview: Zaeba Hanif

Zaeba Hanif is a Labour activist from Stoke-on-Trent who stood last year in the contest to replace Joan Walley as the party's parliamentary candidate in the Stoke North constituency, where she made it through to the shortlist. An inveterate crisp muncher, you can peruse her website here and follow her on Twitter here.

Have you ever thought about giving blogging a go?

Yes! For a long, long time. zaeba.co.uk had been in the pipeline for a few years with a view to blogging, but I launched it last year for a completely different purpose. I really need to get onto my tech savvy friends and family members to redevelop my site with a blogging function.

Are there any blogs or other politics/comments websites you regularly follow?

Yours of course! (*smiles and winks*)

Well, the usual stuff people in our circuit read, my social media feeds include The Guardian, The Independent, The Huffington Post. Occasionally, I take time out to read LabourList. I like it because it gives people from across the labour movement a platform to write independently and it tends to draw more constructive writers. It also allows us in the movement to appreciate our diversity and different points of view.

There is another blogger who I have been following more recently, party member and a strong trade unionist. I’m interested, because he is local, similar politically, works in the same sector as me and travels around the world. He also writes about the spiritual shrines, which is another interest that strikes a chord with me.

Do you also find social media useful for activist-y things?

Yep, networking and all, also it reminds you of upcoming events. Good way of sharing progress of campaigns and other projects.

Are you reading anything at the moment?

Yes, but pretty dull to mention here - I’m reading. Organisational Behaviour by Huczynski & Buchanan.

Do you have a favourite novel?

To Kill a Mocking Bird

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

Well, there are a few. You know what!? I’m going to approach this differently. I think sometimes we don’t appreciate the influences that are physically around us enough.

My family are a massive influence, I could go on forever, so keeping it to politics. My first influence is my former secondary school English Teacher. I will tell you all about that another time. But it’s almost like she had me prepared for another one of my real life influences, our retiring MP Joan Walley.

I first came across Joan when I was still at school and saw her more and more of her when I became for involved in various kinds of activism. Throughout the noughties I had pretty deep discussions with her, in passing, at gathering or at meetings. Most of the time, not always but mostly she agreed with what I had to say. Back then I got super excited when Joan used to argue her part of the debate. I mean credit to her I was an intensely passionate young teenager.

Back in 2002 she told me to continue my good work and that I should strongly consider getting involved in the labour movement. Joan kept a healthy dialogue with me into my adult life which has been inspiring and influenced me a great deal.

Eventually after many years I emailed Joan expressing interest in joining the Labour Party and becoming politically active. Joan arranged to get a later train to Westminster that Monday and came to visit me at home. I’ll never forget the big hug she met me with!

What was the last film you saw?

At the cinema, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Transport and General Workers Union for a short while before it rebranded as UNITE.

Still a member of the Cooperative Party (whoop whoop), The Labour Party (of course), The Fabian Society and Unison.

I am also a member of NorSCARF, our local anti-fascist campaign group.

Is there anything you particularly enjoy about political activity?

Meeting people?? Sounds clich├ęd, I know! But listening to people’s point of view and learning from them is valuable. I hope people learn from my activism too in terms of awareness raising, the arguments around certain issues, and so on. Empowerment all round, best way forward I believe.

You also put yourself forward for the Labour PPC selection in Stoke North. How was that experience?

My only regret was submitting my application too late. I handed my papers in a day before the deadline when most, if not all of the other candidates had begun their campaign. Saying that my campaign wasn't disadvantaged a great deal by this. I thought I did well, I got a lot of support and I’m pleased to have made it to through to the final part of the process.

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

Social media. I really used to be annoyed with hearing Facebook this, and Facebook that! I then joined Facebook in 2010 to support the ‘Save Stoke Children Centres' campaign. Back then I said that I will only be actively for the duration of the campaign! Am I still on Facebook? Yes I am, actually too much at times. Not only useful politically, but I benefit from it personally by keeping in touch with people.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

Don’t always follow popular beliefs. Seek out information from other groups, other sources and check out other media outlets and campaign groups you’re not used to. Often our favourite news channels and broadcasters may not share all or even accurate information. At times news that sells is the news that is shown.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Always, always discrimination toward any group or persons. More recently the ongoing demonisation of Muslims is a concern. Extremists from all over the place hijacking the faith is not helping.

I’ve heard about the Muslims forming a ring around a synagogue in Oslo tonight to offer their symbolic protection to the Jewish community. It's those kinds of actions that need reporting more.

Who are your political heroes?

These questions are difficult, quickly I’ll go with Clement Attlee, Tony Benn, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.

How about political villains?

Hitler….. I’ll chuck in all the other Nazis. I’d like to add George W Bush. Let's stick Thatcher in there too, my family will be pleased!

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Getting people to vote in May.

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Better maternity rights and free sanitary care for women with average to low incomes.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

Lack of empathy and care towards those you feel are different to you, follow a different religious belief to yours or have a different ethnicity to you.

What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Be careful when you trust, because when it’s broken, it’s broken!

What is your favourite song?
This is so, so, so tough. I don’t have one, I have many! Sonnet, by The Verve (played it twice on shuffle today, one of my favourites). But! I will go with Bob Marley’s Redemption Song.

Do you have a favourite video game?

Again many ... I’m stuck. I’ll go with Streets of Rage.

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?

Loyalty and selflessness

What personal fault in others do you most dislike?

Disloyalty and selfishness.

What, if anything, do you worry about?

War, any wars ...

And any pet peeves?

People not cleaning the toilet seat after use ... Errrr, yuck!

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Don’t rush into anything, take your time and better opportunities will come your way.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Socialising with my family and friends.

What is your most treasured possession?

My prayer beads from Jerusalem.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Crisps mmmmm X

What talent would you most like to have?

To write perfectly in all writing styles.

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

World peace? Or is that already over used?

I will go with something a little practical. I’d wish for authorities in each country/state to assist people in meeting their basic needs including access to education. The rest would hopefully follow.

Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

Unlikely, that should happen, but since you’re asking ... after making sure people close to me are secure I would then probably set up a charity to support women during pregnancies.

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Diane Abbots, Russel Brand and Sir Stanley Mathews

And lastly ... Why are you Labour?

Because I want power and wealth spread throughout society fairly not just concentrated in the hands of a few. I believe the labour movement can be inclusive of all people regardless of their background. I am Labour because I want a society that is just and takes equality seriously.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Rumours of UKIP's Demise are Very Much Exaggerated

More's the pity. There has been some talk (or is it wishful thinking?) that UKIP are a busted flush. They've had their moment, but shit's getting real. As people with lives and interests outside of politics start thinking about who should form the next government, the purple barmy army aren't going to get much of a look-in. So, the argument goes, expect their polling numbers to fall steadily between now and May. It's only February, but most polls might be indicative of a trend about to set in. This from UK Polling Report:


Time will tell if this is significant or not. Yet this hasn't stopped some of the more excitable comment pack from forecasting its imminent demise. "UKIP are heading for the political scrapyard!" says Tim Montgomerie(£), after discovering that the party is an amateurish mishmash of anti-politics types, refugees from other parties, the terminally bigoted, and the odd. It can only go so far before it goes kaboom, or something like that. Poking around the rickety bandwagon, some significance is being read into Douglas Carswell's comments about Enoch Powell. This sets him up against the party's less-than-PC majority - as if his silly libertarianism ever sat easily with UKIP's authoritarianism - and is also, apparently, evidence of "manoeuvres" and hence UKIP fighting like ferrets in the proverbial.

Unfortunately, UKIP aren't going anywhere. Despite a recent Survation poll for South Thanet predicting Nigel Farage's victory (I agree with Dan Hodges' take), I remain of the opinion the party will only return Twee Dougie in May. At the very least it will do not as well as some of its more frenzied adherents suppose. This will cause ructions, fallings out, and feuds aplenty but when all is said and done UKIP will remain with us.

It's very difficult for a political party to die. Look at the pummeling the LibDems have had, they're still not dead. Yet, according to the political science literature, parties do have a lifestyle of sorts. Two of the key works here is a 'Towards a New Typology of Party Lifespans and Minor Parties' (1982) and 'The Birth, Life and Death of Small Parties in Danish Politics' (1991), both by Mogens N Pedersen. He argued that a new party has to cross four thresholds to establish itself. These are authorisation (official registration), declaration (the announcement of a party's foundation and subsequent media coverage of it), representation, and relevance. UKIP passed the first two in short order after its foundation 21 years ago, and has since seen its candidates successfully elected to democratic bodies of all levels, apart from the Northern Irish and Welsh Assemblies, and the Scottish Parliament. UKIP has also proven its relevance because it has deeply influenced the terms of debate around immigration and the EU, and have required the three traditional Westminster parties change their strategies and tactics to meet the electoral challenge it poses.

None of this alone guarantees UKIP's survival into deep political time. Its fate hinges on 'linkage'. In Western liberal democratic systems, the primary functional outcome of party activity is the appointment of leading office-holders in the state apparatus, enabled by and recruited from voluntary party organisations rooted in one or more constituencies of people. Parties, if they're doing their job properly, act as bridging mechanisms between parliamentary elites and the wider population. Each party condenses the interests and aspirations of their constituencies and feed them upwards, acting as a spur to and a check on those at the top. New 'challenger' parties, like UKIP, appear to stake their success on articulating grievances and issues hitherto ignored by dominant political elites and haven't, for whatever reason, been properly taken up by the existing parties. However while this may help small parties, the danger is that either the issues which led to their success become less salient over time, or might be co-opted by parties capable of forming governments. Therefore small parties need to orientate themselves to a number of constituencies and establish a linkage function if they wish to be long lasting.

UKIP has experienced some success in this respect. In the first place, prior to 2010, they fed off disaffection with Labour. It went somewhat under the radar as the BNP grew more adept at attracting headlines and media attention, but nevertheless it furnished them with a band of regular anti-politics voters alienated from New Laboury managerial politics, and full of anxiety caused by increasingly insecure work patterns and the perception of immigration as a threat to a secure life. After the general election, the organic crisis of the Conservatives began biting. This most vicious of governments swaddled its iron heel in velvet slippers as it kicked in and ground down living standards, upping the insecurity ante all the while. The biggest difficulty, of course, was Dave's determination to push through equal marriage for same-sex couples. In Tory association after Tory association, activist resignations made their way from the provinces to CCHQ. Not only were these people opposed, they weren't being "listened to". For many thousands it summed the party leadership up - elitist, arrogant, out of touch, too liberal, not concerned with what the members thought. Off they went to the UKIP tent, which with the low cunning that comes naturally to opportunism, has junked its libertarianism to provide a home for refugees uncomfortable with the country Britain has become. Even worse for the Conservatives, having lost their monopoly on being the voice of business during the New Labour years, now sections of capital - mostly finance - have started to get behind UKIP too. It is starting to represent a coalition of interests. UKIP will persist as long as that configuration of forces persist.

Beating UKIP, destroying them, reducing them to a footnote in British political history is a tricky job. The idea that if Tories dropped the namby-pamby stuff and bared its fangs to the world kippers swim back to the shoal is a non-starter as far as Tory electoral interests are concerned. Nor will carrying on as they are doing, hoping an EU referendum will lance the UKIP boil once and for all. It therefore falls to Labour and the labour movement to take up the medium-to-long-term fight. If the well spring watering its grass roots are social anxiety and insecurity, only a programme designed to tackle those twin evils will do. Labour is part the way there, but unfortunately its hobbled by austerity fundamentalism. If the government after May doesn't change tack, UKIP will not be eradicated. Regardless of how it performs this May, Farage or no Farage, the constituency for the party will still be there unless it is positively undermined. And if they are, so will UKIP too.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Local Council By-Elections February 2015

Party
Number of Candidates
Total Vote
%
+/- Jan
Average/
contest
+/- Jan
+/-
Seats
Conservative
 5
1,924
  25.6%
  -5.0%
     385
   -98
    0
Labour
 5
2,696
  35.9%
+13.2%
     539
 +102
  +1
LibDem
 4
   638
    8.5%
   -3.4%
     160
  -122
    0
UKIP
 4
1,136
  15.1%
  +4.0%
     284
 +108
   -1
SNP*
 0
      0

 -15.4%
       0
-1,460 
   0
Plaid Cymru**
 1
   313
   4.2% 
  +4.2%
     313
 +313
    0
Green
 3
   486
    6.5%
   -1.3%
     162
    -85
    0
TUSC
 0
     
   
       
      
    0
Independent***
 2
   233
    3.1%
  +2.8%
     117
  +101
    0
Other****
 1
     80
    1.1%
  +1.1%
     +80
    +80
    0

* There were no by-elections in Scotland.
** There was one by-election in Wales.
*** There were no independent clashes.
**** 'Others' this month consisted of People First (80 votes)

Overall, 7,506 votes were cast over five local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Only one council seat changed hands. For comparison see January's results here.

A much better month for Labour, all told. Not only did it come top of the polling pops but managed to take a seat from UKIP in the process. More results like this as we lead into the big day, please.

Apart from that, there isn't a great deal to say. With only five by-elections taking place it's somewhat slim pickings, making wider generalisations problematic and foolhardy. Still, it might be worth noting a squeeze on the UKIP vote spotted in recent polling (and predicted by some pollsters ahead of the general election) doesn't appear to being making itself felt this month, though all these contests took place before the Channel Four mockumentary and BBC Two's Meet the Ukippers.

Next month, as far as I know only four by-elections are scheduled to take place. A disappointing time for trend watchers.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Postmodern Effacement of Class

From the mid-90s I became very interested in social theory for two reasons. In the first place, the clunky, cruddy Marxism imbibed at A-level were tools enough to help me understand the peculiarities of the social world. Was it a framework and a method appropriate to make proper sense of it? Or, indeed, had college taught me the proper stuff or instead sold me a pup that merely barked when Marxism was called? I was also very, very angry. Rather than let the SWP burn me up with pointless paper sales, I interrogated social theory and sociology for new ideas that might help change the world. When we finally got round to postmodernism and post-structuralism, precocious 19-year-old-me nommed it up. Its 'question everything' radicalism was very appealing. Here you had the flavour-of-the-decade and the philosophical knives were out. The Enlightenment and its unthought sexist, racist, and heteronormative assumptions got carved up in conference paper after article after book. Some of it was interesting and useful for refining my nuance to the subtle ways power and inequality operates, but ultimately it made me feel uncomfortable.

I'm from a working class family. My parents and grandparents had working class jobs, as did (and does) my brother. My extended family - aunts, uncles, cousins - all were from the sort of stock politicians fall over themselves to flatter and patronise. Despite being confirmed non-labour movement people, we never had it very good. My family lived in a small, cramped house and we knew some very tough times. Class is never a neutral demographic category, it wounds deeply and I am one of millions who carry the scars. This is precisely why Marxism appealed. It explained class, its role throughout history, and why it and capitalism are inseparable. If the history taught at school was the collective biography of the haves, Marxism was the story and condensed experience of the have nots. And this was also why your pomo types, be it the more activist-oriented scholarship of Michel Foucault or the sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show fatalism Jean Baudrillard, left me cold. In the name of anti-essentialism and anti-totalisation, Marx and Marxism was utterly dismissed as mechanical and irredeemably authoritarian, as if forced labour camps and the NKVD could be found wrapped up in the analysis of commodity fetishism and the materialist conception of history. When Marx went, so did any kind of class analysis. In book after book, it was explained that radical politics could do no better than contingent alliances between oppressed groups in pursuit of strictly limited objectives. There was no place for the experience of class and the place it occupies in a set of abstract but nevertheless real and systematic power relationships. It was as if millions of people like you and me didn't matter or exist.

Simultaneously, while the postmodern social theory I read was doubting the relevance and social weight of millions, the neoliberal restructuring of the world economy was in full swing. The political common sense was that the state should regulate capital and actively intervene in economic matters to secure socially just objectives were pooh poohed. At best its role was officially relegated to making one's country an attractive and safe place for footloose global capital looking to turn a buck. This may have meant holding down higher rate taxes, deregulating whole industries, and providing an educated and mostly docile workforce. At its worst, the state raged relentless class war upon social democratic reforms and labour movements. Once Thatcher had given the miners a kicking, the floodgates of privatisation really opened up. A deluge of wealth and power drained away from people who sold their capacity to work as well as those dependent on social security support in some way. Those at the very top were swamped by more cash than they ever could spend. The balance between capital and labour was tilting and inequality accelerated. Class analysis, which is and will always be relevant for as long as capitalism exists, became even more urgent, and yet was largely absent.

Why was there this disconnect between real world events and academia? 10 years before entering HE, class analysis generally and Marxism particularly were in rude health. My old university library had a well-stocked Marx and Marxism section, but the titles tapered off after 1985/6. It was as if the miners' defeat saw an almost withering of interest in the topic. In its stead came not only the fashion for all things post-structuralist, but also a wider sociological turn toward studying consumption and identity. This isn't to say academic treatments of gender, race/ethnicity, and sexuality suddenly exploded. They did not as throughout the 1970s and 80s they steadily grew in importance. Unfortunately, as the latter decade wore on as academic Marxism withered away so the politics that imbued this radical sociology slowly bled out. The collapse of the Soviet bloc at the 80s' end presented as the logical culmination of socialism's effacement in British academia.

Is that all there is to it? As any student of social dynamics will tell you, x does not translate automatically into y. The path of causation from one phenomenon to another is never smooth. Yet there are no real coincidences in the evolution and development of societies. Albert Einstein doesn't get much of an outing here, but he keenly observed that the gravitational pull of one object exerts a pull on every other object everywhere. There is a link, small, infinitesimal, and overwritten by the intervening influence of planets and stars between my laptop and the galactic centre, but it's there nonetheless. Similarly, the dynamic always moving/always changing stuff of social relations are interconnected and mutually conditioning down to the most micro of levels. This interpenetration constitutes social relations everywhere and encompasses all that have ever existed. Hence the triumph of capital over labour and the looting of the social commons that followed it on the one hand, and the voguish hegemony of a set of theories and thinkers who decried class analysis and declared Marxism old hat in the academy cannot be coincidental. The former conditions but does not determine the latter.

Going back to the angry young man I was (alas, the only difference now is I'm older), I didn't catch or appreciate any of this. The postmodern erasure of class for me was a function of faddishness, selling out, and the cotton wool cocooning of the ivory tower. In the context of the UK academic left, all of those were true, but they in turn were made possible and constituted by the myriad dynamisms spiraling outwards from that most key of class battles. What is required is an analytics of defeat, to understand how the state was emboldened, how an independent working class culture was weakened, how it impacted subsequent struggles and the mindsets of activists, how it helped efface class from popular culture, official discourse, media reporting and, for the purposes of this particular bugbear, how the comings and goings of academic personnel, balances of forces within the academy, the rise of vocationalism and traducing of the humanities interweave themselves, the events of 1984-5, and other continuities and trends not apparently immediately related to it. Irony of ironies, postmodernism's disappearance of class can only be exhaustively investigated with the tools and theories it rejected.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Will Natalie Bennett's Trainwreck Derail the Greens?

Doing okay in the polls ... has some popular, left wing policies ... yet there are questions surrounding the leader's competence. We've heard the story many times before, but on this occasion it's the Green Party and Natalie Bennett under the spotlight. In late January there was the Andrew Neil interview where she had certain difficulties outlining her party's position on the citizen's income. And today was her train wreck with Nick Ferrari on LBC, which you can listen to here if you're yet to hear it. The thing is, as awful as Ferrari is, his tone was measured (some might say gentle) throughout, and it's precisely that that made it so devastating. And as we know from Lord Fink and Malcolm Rifkind, the fashion in politics at the moment is to make a mistake and then compound it. Here's Baroness Jenny Jones helping make Natalie's day that little bit worse.

While this is a second media stumble in a month, I don't think this says much about Bennett's competency as a leader. Say what you like about her, regular slots on Question Time and various other politics programmes have done little to stymie the rapid growth in members and opinion poll scorings.

Does today's trainwreck matter? Not really. Like many others I winced by way through the LBC interview, but I'm in that tiny minority who pay attention to the comings and goings of campaigns and Westminster whimsies. Others not so engaged might have thought it a bit stilted and awkward, but had forgotten about it within five minutes of broadcast. The kids are unlikely to play excerpts to each other in the playground tomorrow. Furthermore, Bennett explains it all in terms of having a "mind blank". That happens sometimes, as the poor souls forced to listen to me drone on at work will tell you. However, what was so painfully obvious was Bennett did not have a handle on her brief. Whether that's because she was having a bad day, or her crib notes were poor, or because the Greens have yet to do proper costings on their pledges (which, as we know, will be in the manifesto), it looked very bad. Yet when the campaign cranks up all of his will be but a footnote. Journos are a predictable bunch and will try catching her out again in future. As we speak, I bet she and her team of friends and advisers are looking at ways of properly polishing up.

The second question, of course, is will it have any discernible impact on Green support. We will find out later in the week. I suspect not, though. This is not a Gillian Duffy moment, nor "the day the Green Party surge hit a cliff", as Adam Bienkov put it. 

It's long been established in the political science literature that the growth of Green parties are related to long-run shifts in class structures and values systems in affluent societies. As such the core Green voter tends to be "post-materialist". Their political participation is value rather than interest-oriented. In Germany the Greens were able to intersect with this growing constituency and build a substantial party with some serious electoral clout.

In Britain, the same broad strata also emerged but they tended to be ranged across the Labour Party, a section of which has always been an alliance between the labour movement and professional associations, and from the 80s onwards the SDP/Liberals and latterly the Liberal Democrats. With the collapse of the latter and the "under-promising" of Labour, the Greens here have finally been able to make inroads into this layer. Because this grouping has rejected the interest-based game of conventional politics in favour of something seemingly more radical, committed and would-be Green voters are unlikely to be phased by Bennett's lack of polish. Indeed, it might elicit sympathy and help secure that vote intention.

This then is but a blip. A bit of raucous fun for partisan saddoes, a bit of a face palm for some Green activists. In the grand scheme it will matter not a jot.