Will Self on the end of champagne socialism

The Policy and Politics Annual Lecture this year was delivered by Will Self. The theme of the lecture was ‘the end of champagne socialism’ and was presented as a mixture of personal reflections, concerns and challenges, all seeking to highlight the mess that Will believes politics has seemingly descended into right now.

The lecture was at times depressing, confusing and uncomfortable, whilst at the same time managing to be amusing, engaging and thought provoking. Will has a style of delivery that captures the imagination whilst challenging the mind, often leaving the audience unsure and uncertain about their own thoughts, but also in no doubt about the central message he is trying to convey. That message was about how things have changed, about how there’s been a shift in the way people view politics and politicians, and about how we are now seeing change for change’s sake without any real concept of the consequences.

Will described 2016 as a momentous year in Britain and the world, where a significant proportion of the electorate woke up to the fact that no one knows what is going on, even our leaders don’t know what is going on, and for once enough people woke up to this fact and voted for change. The common theme of 2016 seemed to be that people just wanted things to change. They didn’t know what would happen as a result of that change, but they wanted change, a dangerous attitude to take to political events according to Will. In his words, what we are now seeing is ‘the rise of the idiots and the government of the stupid’.

He then went on to explain this desire for change as a break from the usual left-right dichotomy, exemplified by Brexit where the usual left versus right arguments couldn’t be applied. There were pro leave and remain campaigners on both sides of the political divide, the politics-as-usual approach no longer applied to the debate as the dualism deeply ingrained in British politics since the 1970s seemed to be unraveling.

On Corbyn, Will was conflicted. Whilst sharing many of the same beliefs as Corbyn he described how for some reason he was unable to feel pleased about his election as leader of the Labour Party. He went on to explain this using a series of examples about how Corbyn had failed to stick to his principles and wasn’t saying many of the things he should have on becoming leader. He appeared to feel let down by the failure of the new leadership to display honesty about what being a socialist party really means, about what a redistributive party would actually do, what they would change and what the impact of this would be. The disillusionment he clearly feels was apparent to all as he described the endless dilemma for politicians needing to ‘square the circle’ to retain votes meaning they generally lack any real ability to be honest about what they are trying to achieve.

He launched a scathing attack on the Labour Party and the British Left, who for over 40 years have sat back and done little whilst income disparities have grown consistently across the UK. He described them as sitting in their own bubble failing to acknowledge the changes that are needed. He was pretty damning about Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, about their role in changing the very foundations of the Labour Party during what he calls the Blair Witch Project, the New Labour movement, that moved Labour away from its traditional support whilst at the same time re-creating a new breed of champagne socialists. This he describes as unsustainable, and a nonsense that will never work based as it is on the wealthy middle class socialists’ idea that everyone should be raised to the same level and that redistribution will mean personal betterment and improvement, rather than a reduction in their own personal wealth. He pointed out that there was little evidence of the kind of large-scale voluntarism that would be needed to bring about a socialist society. For example, who among the audience would be willing to curtail their annual spending to live within median average income levels, redistributing any surplus to others earning less than us?

Will seemed to reflect the experience of many in the audience when he challenged us about our own feelings, when he described how those on the left are currently unhappy with things, but that we had done little to actually change anything over the last 20 years as income disparities have increased. As he put it, we knew the poor were getting poorer, we knew inclusiveness was largely cosmetic but we didn’t do much about it and now we are really upset, but still don’t do much about it.

He went on to explain the impact of this on young people and how we need to speak to young people about the state of the world today. He explained that we should think long and hard about what we say to the younger generation and made the point that we live in a time of democratic crisis, where older people have capital and younger people don’t’. He then asked the question about how this affects our politics when our homes make more money in a year than we do and how do we square that circle with young people.

Will’s final comments focused on the hollowness of political rhetoric and how collective action can no longer work as there is no socialist dawn waiting for us and no wheel to put our shoulder against. His description of a new socialism based not on collective action but on autonomy and individualism is a difficult one to grasp. It relies on individuals making changes – for example giving directly to the homeless, picking up litter in our communities – and taking action in an arena where there is more quietism, compassion and thought. In his words, we don’t need to organize to help people, we need to show more compassion and just do something.

This blogpost appeared originally on the Policy & Politics Blog

Labour is not a ‘project’


poster 3A post by Lilia Giugni from November last year, on the New Labour ‘project’ and how it profoundly changed the Labour Party is worth looking at again. Particularly now as the Party begins the process of working out what to do next and how to win the next election.

Whilst many were indeed carried away by the rhetoric and spin of the New Labour Project in the beginning, in more recent years there has been a real backlash in response to the reality of what it actually meant and what it has done to the Party. It has left the Party in turmoil, not quite knowing which direction to take and who their core voters are. It’s left a Party devoid of values or ‘soul’.

“In 2010 and in 2015, Gordon and then Ed allowed themselves to be portrayed as moving backwards from the aspiration and inclusion that are the heart of any successful progressive political project,” (David Miliband, 11-5-15).

According to David Miliband (in that TV interview), and Peter Mandelson, we lost because we ditched New Labour and now is the time to return to their political project! I can’t tell you how much I detest this notion of labour as a political project, please can we move away from this?

This piece by Zoe Williams pretty much hits the nail on the head – Labour’s leader is not the problem. The Party’s missing soul is. Those at the core of the Labour Party need to stop seeing it as one big ‘project’ and start thinking about values, principles and its wider membership. They need to reflect on what went wrong, but determine to change things by engaging and involving the membership. The Party needs to take its time and consider what it stands for and what its core values really are before it can choose the right leader. I agree with Zoe, it’s not about who the leader is, it’s about what the Party believes in and stands for.

At the moment I would be hard pushed to really answer that point. I used to know what Labour meant, I used to be a member. I stood for election to my local council and served for 8 years as a labour party councillor at a time before and during New Labour. I left because of my disillusionment with the New Labour Project, and the notion that something that I felt was about values and belief had suddenly turned into a political project for a group of intellectuals and spin doctors. Labour did of course gain power during this time, and like others I was initially carried along on a tide of optimism and enthusiasm. Until, that is, I realised that actually the political landscape had shifted so far to the right during the previous administrations, that there was a mountain to climb to turn things around and sadly, New Labour never really seemed to have that as their agenda.They appeared content to just get re-elected and move ever further into the right of centre political ground where English politics has been for some time now.

I have listened to all the narrative about Ed Miliband being too left wing and how Labour lost this time because of the return to left wing politics. Well, really, I seem to have failed to notice just what was so left wing about much of the Labour manifesto. To me, Labour very much seemed to be trying to fight the Tories on their own ground, spouting the same kind of policies and underlying approach, just being a bit nicer about it. The Party has undoubtedly, in my view, lost its way. But now there is time for a fundamental rethink. There’s time to talk to Party members and time to re-evaluate core principles, values and beliefs and once more become a party that has a soul that is connected with its members and beliefs that matter. I just hope someone picks up that challenge before the leadership contest begins and falls into the same traps as before – it has to be about real people and what matters to them, not some political project run by people with little experience of the real world!

Decisions, decisions, decisions – green, red or yellow?

With the Euro elections approaching the dilemma of who to vote for is upon us. Now from a personal point of view this isn’t a dilemma I normally face as I have, until recently, always voted Labour, even though where I live in North Somerset that is pretty pointless and in the local elections there wasn’t even a Labour candidate to vote for! But this time, I’m just not sure. I detest the way Labour seem to be vying for the centre ground, tweaking Tory policies rather than dismantling them, using the same detestable terminology as the Tories and failing on so many policy areas that should be at the heart of the Labour Party I used to be a member of and believe in. How times have changed, a slow gradual change, which leaves too crowded a centre ground of politics, moving ever further to the right under the current regime – it seems to be working though doesn’t it, Cameron almost seems to be more right wing than Thatcher was, but in a more acceptable way? For me one of Blair’s biggest failings was that he didn’t use the massive majority government he had in 1997 to do anything radical and to move politics back to the centre-left, leaving us in this situation now where the left is all but a myth in party politics.

Anyway, apologies for the indulgence, but I decided to take a rational, logical approach to this dilemma, at least that was the idea – by reading the party literature and watching the political broadcasts to see what the priorities of each party are and to see which fit best with my own beliefs and values. Just a week before the election and I have only received 3 leaflets through the door – Tory, Labour and Green, nothing as yet from Lib Dems, UKIP (thank goodness) or anyone else. Now I’ll break from the logic briefly to say there is no chance in this world that I would ever vote Tory or UKIP, so they are discounted from the consideration from the start as are any of the other marginal/extreme organisations standing for election this time round. So that leaves me with Labour, Liberal Democrat, or Green to consider and a short, superficial ramble around their policies and my thoughts on them follows:

Labour – I truly hated their election broadcasts, the focus on hardworking people is just too Tory for me and the un-credible shrinking Clegg was just too crass for words. The election leaflet I got was a mix of Euro and local policy/politics – I don’t have a local election to vote in, so much of it was irrelevant. AND even worse, they used the term ‘hard-working families‘ in the leaflet – Labour are putting them first apparently – not sure where that leaves the rest of us!  Now for a Euro election leaflet there really was far too much focus on national policy and having a go at the Tories, most of which I may well agree with, but not really that relevant to whether or not they are the right party to get my European election vote. Overall it was pretty poor and a bit thin on policy and not at all convincing in terms of where they stand on key European issues like regulation, environmental policy, climate change, immigration, trade agreements, employment rights etc. There’s more in the Manifesto, obviously, which I did glance through, but for me the biggest omission was around environmental policy and climate change, this got the merest mention, it should be much higher up the agenda for all parties particularly in Europe. This is an area where the Labour Party constantly under perform and was one of the reason I quit my membership several years ago. Not a great start, and sadly they won’t be getting my vote this time. Here’s hoping the general election policies and manifesto are significantly better developed and thought out than current evidence suggests.

Liberal Democrat – don’t recall much about their party political broadcasts apart from the Incredible Silent man response to Labour’s attack on Clegg, I actually thought this was quite amusing and makes an important point, at least Clegg had the guts to debate with Farage, even if it did backfire slightly. Now at the time of writing I hadn’t received a Lib Dem leaflet but I have read through their European Manifesto which covered all the things you’d expect it to. Compared to Labour they do have more on climate change and the environment, which was good to see and overall there wasn’t a lot I would disagree with. From what I have seen of Graham Watson MEP he’s a good, decent MEP who does a good job for the South West in Europe – I hope he gets re-elected, but I’m not sure he’ll get my vote, mostly because I can’t get past the thought of the Lib Dems nationally and some of the policies they have voted for over the last few years as part of the Coalition government. So sorry Graham, you are being let down by your national party, but good luck and I hope you get back in.

Green – many of the foundations of Green Party policy are very close to my own values and beliefs, but in the past I wouldn’t have counted them as a credible party with a wide enough range of policies (not until the last 10 or so years anyway) so have never voted Green nationally or locally. I liked their leaflet and I have to say their party election broadcast was one of the best I have seen for some time now. They come across a lot more professional and credible now than when I first got to know them back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, soon after they formed. They certainly hit more of the right buttons for me in terms of prioritisation of policies on climate change, environment, jobs, public services and workers’ rights both nationally and at a European level. I can’t help but think they have taken advantage of Labour’s shift to the centre and grabbed some of the centre-left ground with their policies, but hey at least someone is! I also thought that Molly Scott Cato, as lead candidate, did an excellent job in the hustings meetings/interviews I have watched and/or listened to. So maybe this time I’ll vote Green, it’s certainly looking likely and it would be good to have a green MEP in the South West.

With European elections on the same day as the local elections in Bristol, it will also be interesting to see how this impacts on local voting patterns. One third of the seats are up for election, with the current Lib Dem leader, Tim Kent, a likely target along with Gary Hopkins. It does however all seem slightly pointless now we have an elected mayor in Bristol, who doesn’t belong to any political party. We will undoubtedly see Labour gain more seats and extend their majority, but so what, what difference does it actually make to how the council works or how decisions are taken? But I will no doubt watch with interest as the result pour in and will undoubtedly blog about the results.

Whatever your political beliefs and voting intentions, it is of course important to actually use your vote, so do remember to vote on 22nd May!