I’ve seen the big picture – and it doesn’t look good

Summary

Some thoughts on the 20th October “A future that works” march

I’m throwing this up having just got back from London with an over-excited dragon fairy who to all intents and purposes had a great time on the march. Puffles had many a photograph taken, and got to meet up with past friends and some long time Twitter correspondents for the first time, including Dr Stella Creasy MP - currently Shadow Crime Prevention Minister but a top tip from me for a future Cabinet post should Labour get re-elected.

Yet despite this, I’ve come away from the march feeling utterly deflated and pessimistic about the general future – of politics in particular.

I wanted the march to be a little bit like the last one – where we all met up for breakfast before heading down together. Unfortunately that didn’t happen this time around – mainly because I didn’t get my act together in time. So I headed down with placard (from the last march over a year ago) and with Puffles (who was new to all of this). Not really knowing who was driving the flying umbrella, I headed towards Russell Square assuming I’d find a feeder march heading in that direction. I followed what I thought was the tail end of it – a group of NUT marchers from Sheffield.

I had a hunch we were going in the wrong direction – heading towards Trafalgar Square rather than the muster point at the Embankment. Having got to the Square, I pondered whether to go to head to Embankment or head to the Mall where I knew the route was going to pass. Just as I got there, the very front of the march approached. The best thing I thought was to perch myself halfway up the rise (as Whitehall feeds into Trafalgar Square) so that anyone who recognised either myself or Puffles would be able to grab us.

What do activists left of the political centre look like?

As it turned out, I got a close-up view of the tens of thousands of marchers that streamed past – with me partially hidden both by my placard and by Puffles who was perched on top, grabbing all of the attention. (It’s what dragon fairies do when they are attention-seeking).

While Puffles was busy posing for photographs, I spent the next couple of hours people-watching. It struck me that very few people in mainstream politics have ever done anything like this: People-watching a demo almost for the sake of it. That’s pretty much what I did for the first half of the afternoon: getting a close-up view of what tens of thousands of left-of-centre and far-left demonstrators look like – warts and all. And it was fascinating to see.

Do leaders of political organisations have an understanding of just how diverse the trade union movement is?

I don’t know whether they do. This is not about standing on a stage looking over a big crowd, or even working a room at a conference. This was standing at a specific pinch point where most of the marchers walked past, getting a close up view of ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, political views (judging by banners and slogans) and affluence. As an experience alone, it taught me a great deal. For any politics’ watcher out there, for the next large demonstration (there will be another one I’m sure), I recommend doing the same thing: Finding a narrow point along the march route and watch the procession from front to back – and draw your own conclusions.

I’d actually say the same for any Liberal Democrats and Conservatives too in terms of people-watching – to get a feel for both the diversity of the people taking part, the strength of feeling and also the thrusts of argument. Chances are with the latter two you won’t like or agree with them at all, but it might increase your understanding about what others are going through with austerity. I’d also say the same for Labour and left-of types should a Countryside Alliance-style large demonstration takes place in the future - for the same reasons.

Politicians – and policy civil servants too – live in bubbles. I used to live in one such bubble once. It was one of the reasons why I was so desperate to get out and about to meet people on the front line in the policy areas I worked in. You could say I would turn up to the opening of an envelop or a front door, but doing so taught me a great deal. Yet it was always one of the things where everyone agreed we should do more of it but where everyone never really got round to it – certainly not on a systematic basis anyway.

Yet what was significant about my perch point on this march for me was being able to see so many people from all over the country up close over such a short period of time. When else do people get the opportunity to do the same thing? When you are on a march you miss most of it because you are moving with the tide. When you spend the whole of it standing in one place as most of it goes past you, you get to see far more of it.

But numbers were significantly down on last year. Why?

I can only speculate. Around a quarter of a million people were there in 2011, but just over half of that were there today. (The official website claims that half a million people were there in 2011). I was expecting the stream of marchers to continue until way past 4pm, so was quite surprised to see the back of the march and the police escort arriving in Trafalgar Square around 3pm. That was when I knew that turnout was going to be significantly lower than the previous year.

Reasons? The weather, the fact that the job cuts have bitten hard in the public sector especially, breaking the trade union organisational links that could otherwise have mobilised more people. Cost of transport too – a day out to London is not cheap. If you’re unemployed, getting to London is out of the question without support. An air of resignation perhaps? Or is it that the political opposition to the Coalition has simply not inspired the people?

The 0.001%

At the end of the march, Puffles got spotted by a number of followers from the Young Green Party – with whom we went off to a pub just round the corner from Selfridges. Many other marchers had done the same and it was standing room only in most places. Yet as the sun began to set, so the spawn of the super-rich in their sports cars came out to play. And that was when it struck me.

Although this march was primarily an anti-cuts one (certainly as far as the non-branded  protest banners and placards were concerned), the ultimate powers that todays politicians and institutions are up against are the ones that have spawned levels of ostentatious consumption and wealth that even the hoarders of such riches cannot consume it all. This was a point Josie Long made at her show in Cambridge a few days previously. How is it that we have got to a situation where we have such extremities of wealth and income inequalities? How have we got to a situation where this is tolerable – even acceptable? (To the extent that next-to-nothing is done about it).

Given the scale of everything that is going wrong – Tar sands in Canada and the predicted collapse of the Arctic ice caps in the very near future due to climate change as far as the environment goes, to the continual malaise that is the Eurozone (along with the frightening rise of extremism in some parts) to…well…I don’t even want to go further. But having seen a number of our senior politicians up close, I can’t think of any of them – whether as individuals or as a team – who could get to grips with the scale of the challenges we face locally, nationally and globally. Recall back in June 2012 I slammed top politicians over their woeful lack of leadership in these crises.

A crisis of politics?

This is where we seem to have got to. It’s not just mainstream politics either. It’s interesting to see both Labour and the Conservatives struggling to deal with challenges from the more extreme wings of their movements – whether the Greens as far as Labour is concerned, or UKIP as far as the Tories are concerned. The far left were there with mass-produced placards and papers. They sensibly kept away from Puffles – going near fire-breathing dragons with large amounts of combustible materials is never a good idea. Yet slogans, methods – and even clothes and hair styles of the people trying to sell or give out their materials seemed ever so similar to demonstrations of over a decade ago. It was as if nothing had changed – despite the fact that digital and social media are revolutionising communications.

The negative connotations of political language

This made me think about the loaded nature of many of the key words and labels we use in politics. In the minds of the wider public, are they loaded with negative connotations? Does the language make you want to get involved?

This is perhaps why Cameron with his PR background came up with the concept of “Big Society”. The problem was that the idea was so devoid of structure and content that it never caught on. Given that mainstream politicians seem to have accepted the straightjacket they are in, everyone is fighting to find something that differentiates them policy-wise inside this tiny little box. One Nation Tory, New Labour, Orange Book Lib Dems – a different colour from the same little box? In the current media climate, all things environmental can be spun as high tax, anti-business and anti-jobs. Feminism can be spun as something anti-male, and as for the “S” word (socialism) – well…as far as the media is concerned it’s no longer mentioned in polite society. Also, a couple of activists who had lived in other countries mentioned that as past or current repressive regimes had labelled themselves as socialist, such language inevitably had negative connotations for them too. Just think back to pre-1989 and the USSR – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. You get my point.

How did the institutions of nation states become so small in comparison to large corporations?

When we then look at the size and scale of political institutions vis-a-vis the multinational corporations and the wealth of the super-rich, there is a massive imbalance. I covered this during the DfT West Coast Mainline debacle. Public institutions responsible for regulating business have been hollowed out to such an extent that we ended up with things like the banking crisis. Such were the sizes and scales of the banks that no regulator on the planet could get anywhere near soundly regulating them. Not only that, there was a financial incentive for ‘light touch regulation’ given the financial donations to political parties made by people and institutions from that sector. And if the going gets tough, such firms can bring in heavy artillery in the form of lobbyists, PR firms and expensive lawyers and barristers that the state today simply does not have the resources to compete against.

“So, what’s the solution Pooffles?”

I don’t know. I genuinely do not know – and that frightens me. So much of what comes out of policy-wonkville-and-thinktank world feels like tinkering with the edges. Yet as Josie Long said earlier in the week, violent revolution doesn’t feel like a nice alternative either. She also alluded to the idea that we had regressed as a society – where once things like health, education and public utilities belonged to all of us; that free education, free healthcare, good pensions were things to be proud of. “You can’t get more bigger society than that” – was her point.

This made me think about the relationship between five institutions: “The People”, “The Crown”, “The Government”, “Parliament” and “Public Services”. I remember reading a US prosecution document citing a number of banks & bankers over LIBOR fixing. The preamble was along the lines of:

“Under powers vested in me by The People of the State of New York under the … Act…” before going onto detail the charges and the laws allegedly contravened.

Mindset-wise, this made me ponder about the both the powers and the wording around the terms & institutions “The Crown” and “Parliament” we could insert words along the lines of “The People of the United Kingdom of…etc” to acknowledge that ultimately it is the people that should be sovereign, and that the wearer of the Crown (and the institution) only wear that Crown (and hold the powers vested within that institution) because they have the consent of the people; consent that can be withdrawn at any time.

It may only be symbolic. It may only be a first step. But at the moment it feels like our systems of party politics, of government, of law making, of law enforcement and of accountability are so dysfunctional that they’ll need one hell of an overhaul to sort them all out. And with that I wouldn’t even know where to start.

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7 Responses to I’ve seen the big picture – and it doesn’t look good

  1. Jon says:

    “So much of what comes out of policy-wonkville-and-thinktank world feels like tinkering with the edges. Yet as Josie Long said earlier in the week, violent revolution doesn’t feel like a nice alternative either. She also alluded to the idea that we had regressed as a society”

    Society has not regressed without violence. Each penny taken from someone’s pension is a violent act. Cutting access to healthcare is a violent act. Political acts are often extremely violent, and have real victims.
    This is structural violence.
    The market is the ultimate violent structure – now more than ever property law is weighted heavily against common ownership in favour of private ownership. See, for example, Apple’s landmark patent lawsuit against Samsung which essentially established ownership of a rounded rectangle. Witness the recent removal of squatter’s rights. Establishing private control over formerly public spaces is a violent act, in exactly the same way that a revolution is violent.

    • Andrew Bower says:

      Jon, what nonsense (apart from the bit about patents). You seem to have no conception of how bad it is for human liberty and dignity for the public ownership to win over private ownership, as it is increasinly doing, backed with the threat of violence from the state which has a monopoly on it. Property law is the cornerstone of liberty. If you want to live in a facist left wing utopia fine but don’t inflict it on the rest of us.

      • paulgriffithsuk says:

        ” In the current media climate, all things environmental can be spun as high tax, anti-business and anti-jobs. Feminism can be spun as something anti-male, and as for the “S” word (socialism) – well…as far as the media is concerned it’s no longer mentioned in polite society.”

        I hate to say it but I suspect a combination of PR and social media are too blame here (and both left and right are equally guilty of this). Many political problems require ugly compromises because there are no neat an elegant solutions. Yet the politicians who admit as much is considered to have “gaffed”. The net effect is that we end up with politicians making infantile soundbites rather than discussing the issues in a meaningful way.

        A good example of this is the discussions around the deficit. Instead of a discussion around balance of risks between cuts and a deficit, printing money and potential risks/benefits and/or structural versus cyclical deficits, we end up with silly soundbites such as “need to balance the books” or “cutting too far and too fast”. I’m afraid that we only have ourselves to blame for this sorry state of affairs.

      • paulgriffithsuk says:

        That comment wasn’t meant as a reply to Andy!

      • Jon says:

        Would you care to list any particular examples of public ownership winning over private ownership? Also, would you care to explain precisely how property law underlies liberty?

  2. The line ‘So much of what comes out of policy-wonkville-and-thinktank world feels like tinkering with the edges’ is definitely the most important line of this piece – it gets to the core of why so many politicos and non-politicos alike feel thoroughly disillusioned with our current politics. But I don’t agree that violence is the only way out.

    The reason that so much policy and political discussion feels like tinkering is that so much of our politics has been so successfully captured by the neo-liberal ideology that say that markets must be king, and anyone who questions is this is either not serious, not prepared to face the facts or hopelessly idealistic. This leaves the mainstream ‘left’ and ‘right’ to squabble over how much the state should do to tidy up around the edges of the havoc unrestricted markets cause to both people and the planet.

    But there is an alternative. We don’t have to accept that the only serious way for a government to run an economy is to do the bidding of globalised mega-corporations with their huge accumulated wealth, in constant fear of the consequences of corporate displeasure. There is an alternative view: that the role of government is to ensure the well-being of people today, and of those who are yet to be born, by balancing the interests of the private sector with those of ordinary people and the environment which sustains us all. And there are serious, even, dare I say it, wonkish people who are starting to do the policy work to flesh out this vision: the new economics foundation, Compass, Green House thinktank and the Green Party’s in-house policy work are all good places to look for (at least the beginnings of) an alternative. They are currently vastly outnumbered in wonkville of course, and fight to get their voices heard, all too easily dismissed by those who have been seduced by the myth that There Is No Alternative. Exposing that myth, and pointing out how things could be different, is a vital step in moving from away from politics as tinkering. Perhaps Puffles is starting to be ready to join in on that mission?

  3. Perpetual growth under present circumstances threatens the ecosystem. The current system of energy usage is unsustainable. Zero growth in a depression threatens to create a permanent class of unemployed and underemployed persons, however. Debts and imports can rob wealth, but simply cutting deficits without generating wealth and growth will further erode living standards and democratic control. Scarcity leads to infringements on democracy and worsens poverty. The growth of waste–tied to war, rising administrative overheads in bureaucracies, consumption of less than socially useful luxury products, and use of energy-intensive transportation systems–will promote the kinds of growth that threatens the ecosystem and the economy. Oil imports can reduce security, increase debt and further the kinds of waste that undermines the economic foundations of a national economy.

    What do we mean by “growth” in a regime where new wealth is created? A new definition of growth is needed, based on the expansion of wealth-generating activities tied to sustainable energy systems, locally anchored jobs, the development of innovations promoting human needs and energy-reducing investments like mass transportation. Technology that provides clean energy locally and to developing nations, reduces energy consumption in homes and buildings, facilitates home care for older citizens and reduces surplus packaging adds sustainable value when economic activity is expanded.

    Therefore, we must grow the number of wind mills, mass transit systems, engineering activities that reduce or design out waste, and other means to reduce carbon footprints while simultaneously expanding jobs. Locally anchored production is necessary so that jobs don’t get offshored through global sourcing, unless there are real benefits to the majority of working people from doing so.

    We also need to package or organize wealth in new ways. Mandating alternative energy is a critical and necessary step in the right direction, building incentives and markets for sustainable energy. Yet, sometimes the alternative energy is supplied by foreign firms, so the resulting jobs dividend is diminished. Wind cooperatives, municipal utilities and new financing systems are needed to encourage this local jobs dividend. The generation of green economic capital will extend green political capital. Building up a local complex of flexible domestic suppliers will facilate growth and change.

    We need to understand the limits to “green jobs” proposals that don’t address: (a) how jobs will be locally anchored, (b) the quality of the job, (c) the need to build job ladders that promote qualified jobs, (d) the advantages to unionized jobs, and (e) whether a green job proposed is backed by socially responsible financial institutions. The very scarcity environment encouraged by austerity politics and wealth erosion has often lead to the scapegoating of trade unions. The attack on public investment and cheerleading for the privatization of everything is based on a political vacuum which only citizens’ active political mobilization can challenge. Deindustrialization, financial bailouts and war promote austerity by eroding wealth. Reindustrialization, alternative financial institutions and “ecological conversion” promote sustainable wealth. This “ecological conversion” involves the design of the economy, housing and living arrangements leading to decreased energy usage, commuting times and emissions.

    The concentration of political, economic and media power sustain the present economic system and probability of negative outcomes. Yet, social and organizational innovations can provide alternatives and reduce the probability of these outcomes, depending on whether, how much and how people organize. Neither wishful thinking, nor sitting on the sidelines is appropriate in these times. The potential for trade wars, fights between localities, and even greater mass unemployment mean that we must put ourselves on the pathway towards comprehensive solutions. Piecemeal change is no longer the “pragmatic” option.

    Inequitable tax systems, the permanent war economy, and power concentrated in companies lacking any sense of civic duty or social responsibility will deplete both the economy and the institutional foundations of democracy. Our ability to challenge big government and corporate actors that engage in this depletion is enhanced by our capacity to organize our own media, political and economic power. Voting, consumption, procurement, and audience power, can be integrated and extended through new institutions and networks that provide economic, ecological and democratic alternatives.

    For further reading: Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power, New York: Random House, 1976; Seymour Melman, Profits without Production, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983; Manish Bapna and Vinod Thomas, “Three ideas that are good for both economy and environment,” The Guardian, January 6, 2012| via @globalteachin

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