Sunday 30 March 2008

Interviewing in the Interview Society

As I'm writing up the methods section of my PhD, I hope this and future posts on my research will help clarify a few thoughts. In this post I'll be looking at some ideas carried in Jaber Gubrium and James Holstein's 2003 edited collection, Postmodern Interviewing. These have raised some problems my research on Trotskyist life histories need to address, and briefly, how I aim to manage these difficulties. I will discuss possible alternatives to the three-step life history interview strategy I used here in a future post.

The editors' own paper, 'From the Individual Interview to the Interview Society', argue we live in a society permeated by the interview form. It is the primary source of news as well as the favoured means of gathering it. Celebrity is dependent on the interview and the bulk of everyday life would be impossible without interview encounters lubricating the untold myriad of encounters between strangers circulating around the social metabolism.

Gubrium and Holstein argue the role played by the interview is a distinctly modern phenomena. Historically, micro-level social processes have been negotiated through close relationships between individuals familiar with one another. For example, the exploitation of serfs by landlords were cloaked in discourses of fealty, responsibility, obedience and protection. What made these possible was the immediacy of the relationship. The serfs were legally bound to their lords by their ties to the land. They had no freedom of movement and required the lord's permission to leave their immediate locality. Strangers coming into these closely-bounded social settings would likely be met with suspicion and fear.

With the development of capitalist modernity people were thrown together in huge numbers. The dissolution of feudal ties and its displacement by exchange relationships meant 'strangeness' became the norm. Talk and interaction between strangers was necessary and the interview, understood in its modern form, was developed as the formal vehicle through which the exchange of personal information between strangers could be established. Crucially for modern individualist sensibilities it accepted the individual as the authority to talk about their experiences. In the post-war period, this coincided with other individuating 'technologies of the self' where "the concrete, socially and historically located institutional practices through which a relatively new sense of who and what we are as human beings was constructed" (p.24).

What this has given us is a society where the interview is the technology par excellence of the confessional apparatus. Through the mass media and its prevalence in the everyday, there is a widespread knowledge of interviewing conventions. In short, everyone knows how to be interviewed. But not only that. In the development of the 'interview society' argument, Atkinson and Silverman's 1997 paper suggest the interview can be a means of uncovering the authentic self; an operation putting the interviewee's subjectivity and experience centre stage. However, one should avoid essentialising the information elicited from the subject. Their truth is the product of a self reflecting on socially mediated experience reacting to the interview situation in which they find themselves. Hence the interview is not innocent - it is a constitutive practice of self-presentation.

This understanding of the interview cuts against traditional conceptualisation of the process. Typically interviewing is understood as an encounter where one extracts information from the other, while they sit in a passive/subordinate relation to their interlocutor. The subject then is but raw material of experiential data and opinion. Interview practice therefore is concerned with developing questions that can mine and yield information uncontaminated by the process of its refinement.

However, though this traditional model may be demanded by employers and journalists, sociology has long consigned its naïveté to the dustbin of discredited concepts. The wide dissemination of technique requires a reconceptualisation of the interview, one where both parties are seen as co-constructors of a narrative ostensibly about only one of them. This is where the question of validity is seriously problematic. Stories told by an interviewee are always uniquely theirs, but to what extent is it inflected by the interviewer's voice? In other words, to what extent are a respondent's replies overdetermined by the researcher's objectives? Do they say what they think the other wants to hear?

These are difficulties any piece of social research based on interview data has to negotiate. Especially mine - most of my respondents underwent two interviews approximately 90 minutes in length. These were transcribed and returned to my volunteers, and were reflected upon in the third session, which lasted around 45 minutes. All three were in-depth and semi-structured around the kinds of stories I was interested in. The study's participants are all activists and militants, and the bulk are members of the Socialist Party. Someone, like a PhD examiner for example, may ask how valid can the data be, given its validity is made all the more precarious by the fact interviewer and interviewee are members of the same political party? What's to say a respondent didn't massage one's militant credentials to emphasise their standing, or, give a story a certain gloss to present the party in a more favourable light?

Perhaps posing the validity question in terms of true and false is too simplistic. Though it is right attention be drawn to the conditions under which an interview is produced, one must avoid the temptation of lapsing back into the concerns that animated the traditional model of interviewing. Instead it is better one abandons the pretense of being a disinterested observer of the social world. It is not enough to situate the interviewee as a product of the interview society; the researcher themselves must be so positioned too. Hence, to avoid the creep of hidden bias and to fulfill my project’s claim to authenticity and validity, the interests bound up with one’s position taking must be openly acknowledged and investigated. As Bourdieu puts it in his Sociology in Question, this “sociology of sociology is not one ‘specialism’ among others, but one of the primary conditions for a scientific sociology” (p.10).

Friday 28 March 2008

The Chance of a Lifetime

Last week, I was sitting in my flat trying to get motivated to mark some essays. As usual, the TV was on as I desperately sought a distraction. There was an old black-and-white movie being shown on Film Four. For the first ten minutes I took little notice of it as I psyched myself up for the grim task that lay ahead of me. Then I paid more attention when I realised a good old-fashioned British Leyland-style car park meeting was being played out. The scene was a plough factory in some rural idyll in 1950, and the managing director was telling his petulant workforce a few home truths. He told them that he worked 12 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week (the concept of work-life balance wasn’t yet in vogue) and that if any of the workers wanted his job, they could have it. This was only an act of bravado, but the workers took him up on his offer and rented the company off him. A workers’ co-operative had been born and my interest in The Chance of a Lifetime had been awakened.

Two of the workers now formed the new board of directors. But both suppliers and the bank were wary of this Brave New World and the firm was soon hit by a ‘credit-crunch’. It looked as if it was going under, but the workers had a whip-round to save the day, prompting the headline ‘Workers pledge assets to save the factory’ in the Daily Worker. Then the firm got a lucky break in the form of a huge order from the Zanatobian Trade Delegation, who all looked very dodgy to me with their black hats and Trotsky-like beards. The works-engineer, Adams played by a young Kenneth Moore talking in his trademark Douglas Bader staccato, announced that the firm would have to ‘retool’, concentrate just on the Zanatobia order and ditch its existing customers. This was too much for one of the worker directors who quit and returned to the shopfloor.

Adams now embarked on introducing Fordist mass-production techniques. As a result of such Taylorism, piece-rates were lowered and the workers found themselves losing 12 bob a week. This led to an unofficial strike although this was attributed to four agitators (one of whom was Irish, lol) as we all know that strikes are usually caused by red troublemakers! Full-time union officials were called in and they naturally advised moderation telling the workers ‘you are striking against yourselves’. Does it sound familiar? Everyone throws coins into the Irishman’s tea mug to make up his twelve bob, a stray coin lodges in a busty woman’s cleavage (that of Hattie Jacques of Carry On fame) causing much mirth, and everyone has a laugh and goes back to work.

But there is another crisis to contend with. The Zanatobian government cancels all import orders citing currency difficulties (I told you they looked dodgy!). It looks as if all is lost until the old managing director, Mr. Dickenson, comes to the rescue. He has given 30 years of damned hard work building up the business and his father 40 years before him. He is not going to let it all go down the plughole without a fight. He looks up some old international contacts, gets some new orders and the business, after Stakhanovite contributions all round, not only survives but looks all set to flourish. Mr. Dickenson returns to the Board as is joined by the Fordist engineer. The surviving worker director, knowing his place, returns to the shopfloor announcing that ‘he would rather work for a living’. Hard-headed capitalism had triumphed over naive idealism.

On the face it of it was just another quaint, endearingly silly and typically British old film. But I think that if you locate it in its time with the Atlee administration that some people must have regarded as positively Bolshevik and the growing fear of the ‘red menaces’ of the Soviet Union and China, there was a definite political message. Anyway, it was also good fun and I got my marking done eventually.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Sleazy Beats

I couldn't let the week pass without passing comment on the AVPS top tune. Put simply, Kiko's Slave of My Mind is the filthiest slice of electronic sleaze I've encountered since the much-coveted track of the week has been running on this blog. But what makes it really special is the fusion of bleak disco with old school goth. That's right, Slave eschews your latter day goth-lite whingey emo outfits. We're talking Fields of the Nephilim here. Have a listen - just keep those razor blades out of reach.

Allow me to take advantage of this musical interlude to draw attention to who's in and who's out on the old blogrolls. Incoming are Homo Ludens, London Communists, and Ye Are Many. The Establishment welcomes Liberal England and The Wardman Wire. And the photo blogs open themselves to Paddy's and Green Ribbon's Flickr streams; and the new photo blog, Nom Nom Nom. But alas some have fallen by the wayside. Hopefully it's a temporary farewell to Broad Left, Karl Marx Strasse, Next Left Notes, Plattitude, and Workers' Control.

As ever if you have a hot and happening blog let me know and it will be added.

One last thing - the Carnival of Socialism is imminent over at Leftwing Criminologist. Check it out!

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Socialist Strategy After the Third Way

It may be too early to tell, but last week's monthly ICM poll for the Graun suggests the government will be dumped out of office at the next election. It puts the Tories on 42% while Labour trails at a miserable 29%. The LibDems and Others clock up 21% and 8% respectively. The 17th March YouGov poll for the London Evening Standard makes grim reading for Livingstone supporters too. Boris Johnson leads on 49% while Ken languishes way behind on 37%. Paddick posts 12% support and the rest have 3% to split between them.

Interestingly, there is an international dimension to New Labour's woes. According to Ernst Hillebrand writing in March's issue of Prospect Magazine, the centre left across the EU (including Norway) are in trouble; it "looks set to lose out in Italy and has lost direction in Britain. Four of the five Nordic countries - social democratic societies par excellence - now have conservative heads of government. The German SPD is in power as a junior coalition partner but threatened by a new party to its left; in France the Socialists are in a mess. Is this merely the normal swing of the pendulum, or is it the result of something deeper and more worrying for the centre left?"

Hillebrand's answer is yes. The turn toward the centre right across Europe is symptomatic of the exhaustion of Third Way-style politics, here defined as mild neoliberal economics married to a broadly progressive socio-political agenda. This is the politics not of wealth redistribution (well, not in favour of the least well off anyway) but of producing the skills and knowledge bases European economies need to compete with and for markets in the emerging Far East. It is an overly technocratic project about managing and encouraging globalisation for the benefit of capital. What it is not is a means of solving long standing social problems. Where they are acknowledged, the interlinking promise of education/training, job creation and trickle down was supposed to deal with them.

Everyone but the most blinkered Blairite/Brownite knows the traditional working class base of labourism and social democracy have not been the winners in Third Way politics. The proportion of income across the EU has fallen from 72.1% to 68.4% over the last 25 years - and this is despite employment rising from 61.2% to 64.5% from the mid-90s to today! The education, education, education promise made by Blair was also taken up across the EU, and failed to deliver. Hillebrand argues school graduation rates remain unchanged, the quality of HE institutions has declined along with their ability to secure favourable returns in Europe's labour markets. As a rule upward social mobility has remained static. Under pressure and scattered to the four winds by widespread deindustrialisation, tensions have been rising from actual and perceived competition between 'indigenous' and immigrant workers. It has been further stoked up by 'get tough' policies on illegals and the free movements of the emerging EU-wide labour market. And to crown it all off European social democracy believes it has no alternative but to pursue this course.

With this disconnect between the centre left and its base the parties have become rootless and beholden to policy by focus group, opinion polls and newspaper headlines. They are not in a position to respond to what Hillebrand sees as a creeping conservatisation of social values - a reaction against social liberalism probably best exemplified by Britain's 'official' multiculturalism. Conservatives, on the other hand, are very well placed. Though it may be difficult getting a credit card between Blair/Brown and Cameron on economic issues, their "new" soft conservative social agenda is a blend of the traditional and the liberal. This compares more favourably to Labour's petty authoritarianism of ASBOs and cigarette bans. The main beneficiaries of this state of affairs on the continent so far, as well as the centre right, has been the far right populists and neo-fascists, and to a lesser extent emerging new left formations.

These chickens haven't fully come home to roost in Britain just yet, so what can the centre left do? Hillebrand's solution is an inversion of their present strategic direction. Labour and other social democratic parties should be more conservative regards social values, and more left wing on economics and social justice issues. It has to retain the centre ground of politics and speak to the aspirations of society's middling layers, but also rebuild its working class base. Hillebrand also rules out a return to the "old, failed statism" of the past. The centre left has to make its politics relevant by speaking to people on lifestyle issues and crucially matters of work/life balance. The trumpeting of low inflation figures, employment and economic growth statistics excite only the few. But what makes the pursuit of such an orientation particularly challenging is that the right have already travelled some way down this road. The battle with them will be on the ground of their choosing.

As things stand and New Labour remains on its present course, the Tories will win the next election. But is there anything the far left can learn from Hillebrand's forecast analysis? Yes, but I fear his strategic arguments are beyond our movement as presently constituted. But what we can do (and some sections of the far left are doing) is develop a strategy encouraging cooperation among instead of competition between our meagre components. And the second part is to connect with those sections of our class abandoned by New Labour. The Socialist Party, Respect Renewal, the SWP and some parts of the Labour left have limited but noteworthy successes in this regard. But beyond this we have to do what the centre left has done in the past and appeal to all sections of our class, from the poor and disenfranchised to the aspirational and better off. There is no problem talking about quality of life issues either, after all it is often a (silent) component of the campaigns we routinely engage in. And we have to make clear democracy is at the heart of our politics. Through practice we can convince our audiences that the authoritarianism of the Stalinist and social democratic stripes are alien to socialism.

Unlike Labour and the other mainstream parties, our principles are not for sale. We cannot dispense with the socialist case for expediency's sake. This won't be easy, but they don't call it a struggle for nothing.

Sunday 23 March 2008

Wendy Alexander: "Change Is What We Do"

New Labour is in big trouble. It is a party going nowhere, except down in the opinion polls. The green shoots of renewal aren't anywhere to be seen either. Brown's government is bereft of vision and values. Its politics is a mere continuation of what went before, namely managerialism with a dour twist. The fact only 19 members of the Parliamentary Labour Party voted against the government's post office closure programme illustrates how deep the neoliberal rot goes. It's unsurprising party membership is in free fall, that working class voters prefer to stay at home than support "their" party as Ken Livingstone faces the fight of his political life against Boris Johnson.

Some sections of the Labour party are alive to their predicament, if this article in the Scotland on Sunday is to be believed. Dramatically entitled 'Labour Faces Split with Left' it states a group organised around the soft left Compass grouping have been agitating for the removal of Scottish Labour's hapless leader Wendy Alexander, at the party conference later this week. Their petition states "people know they're not living in the 'good society' promised to them. The Scottish people wanted Labour to do this for them, to explain what we did wrong and address it; it failed to do so. Labour forgot or was scared to do what the Left has always tried to do; to critique capitalism and to make markets the servants of society."

In an attempt to parry these criticisms (and save her own neck), the party has released Scottish Labour: New Directions. Now, this is a document all about change. It is subtitled 'Change is What We Do' and across its 28 pages the word 'change' appears no less than 19,773 times.

So what does Alexander's pamphlet say? Its opening does not bode well. She correctly notes that if Labour are going to make a come back "we will have to work in every street, every community, and in all corners of our country to command the respect of, and win back the support of, Scotland". And how is this to be done? By emulating the examples of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown of course! She argues the SNP have learned the chief lesson of these "most gifted politicians", and that lesson is to capture the prevailing mood. The Scottish people wanted change - and found Scottish Labour wanting. This is where she gets to the meat of her argument. Labour is the party of change. Arrayed against it are the Conservatives who "wish to conserve what already exists because that is how the privileges enjoyed by them and their supporters are maintained." On the other hand "the Nationalists seek to disguise their conservatism in the language of radicalism. But at heart, they are deeply conservative. They want to turn the clock back 300 years to a past that never was in order to achieve a future that never can be." No words on some mildly progressive policies the SNP has introduced already, then.

The scene is set for laying claim to social housing, the founding of the NHS and the public ownership of utilities. Yes, these are achievements Labour party members can be proud of. However it seems Alexander is unaware that New Labour has done nothing to reverse the privatisation of utilities, and everything to undermine what is left of social housing and the NHS. Indeed, she's under the impression the latter has been enhanced by "the transfer of those [council] houses to community ownership" (code for landlords and housing associations) and the ban on smoking in public places. She continues in breathless fashion how Labour reached beyond its core constituencies and listened to all sections of Scottish society. In fact the more you read, the more convinced she is that her party's eight year administration did absolutely nothing wrong. The only thing going awry is Labour's connection to the Scottish people.

The solution is listening, to be in tune with Scotland's aspirations. Revealingly, and coming as no surprise, these are defined as "second home ownership, two cars in the driveway, a nice garden, two foreign holidays a year, and leisure systems in the home such as sound, cinema, and gym equipment." In other words, the aspirations of the middle class. I suspect these are far from the priorities of the majority of the Scottish working class.

Inevitably constitutional politics have to be dealt with. Alexander's response to the SNP's challenge is two fold. First is the resort to bourgeois economism - why be faffing about with independence when people's priorities are education, services, crime, jobs, etc? I know Labour like to treat the Tory front bench as their think tank these days, but going back to 1997 to recycle William Hague's arguments against devolution is a bit extreme. But I digress. The second plank of her argument is no "credible" opinion poll has shown a majority for independence whereas two "academic" surveys show no more than a quarter of Scots believe in separation. Sadly, no references are given to support this contention. This is backed by the fact 65% of voters supported unionist parties in 2007, and majority support exists for devolution. The argument she makes for the maintenance of the union is couched in terms of partnership, that in increasingly volatile times it's wise for the nations of the UK to stand together. It was through the "partnership" that Scotland was able to reach its full potential as an integral component of a world power. She is willing to concede the union needs to evolve, and as Labour is the party of change, it has nothing to fear overseeing necessary reforms. Her criticism of the SNP amounts to Scotland not having the resources to stand alone, and being irresponsible for inadvertently stoking up English nationalism.

And then, no sooner had it started it's finished. Her concluding remarks merely reiterate what's already gone before. Scotland is abuzz with entrepreneurial dynamism and confidence, etc. etc. In reality, under New Labour's watch, though the democratic reforms it made should be critically welcomed, Scotland has been as ravaged by neoliberalism as any other part of the UK. According to a study published for The Scotsman in 2006, life expectancy for Glasgow's wealthiest suburb is 87.7 years. For the poorest it's 54. And since 1992 the latter figure for the poorest third has fallen by eight weeks, whereas for the upper two thirds it has risen by two years.

Basically, Alexander's grand vision amounts to nothing. There is nothing in the document to enthuse and recharge disgruntled party activists. Even careerist hacks will be hard pressed to find anything to moon about. In short, this was a chance to show a Scottish Labour party coming to grips with the lessons of its defeat. Instead, it is the embodiment of Brown's party. It dresses banalities up as profundities, pretends excitement over a vacuous agenda and is bereft of ideas. It sums up the exhaustion of New Labour and does not begin to answer the critique of the Compassite left.

The stock mantra of New Labour to left criticism is the need for it to go beyond its traditional base. However, Blair and Brown not so much 'went beyond' their core support as abandoned it. Nor are they particularly concerned with getting it back. This has and continues to present the left with a golden opportunity, but the three-way split for the London Assembly list shows we have a lot of growing up to do if we are to fully capitalise on Labour's difficulties.

Friday 21 March 2008

Sexing Up Sociology

Sue Scott, Dean of Keele's faculty for Humanities and the Social Sciences recently gave a paper on sex and sociology. Her contention is that the sociology of sex, sexuality and sexual behaviour has been submerged in recent decades. The continuing popularity of (post-Freudian) forms of psychoanalysis and the poststructuralist turn in the humanities has eclipsed sociological accounts. Instead of treating sex as a social phenomenon, in the hands of these perspectives it has been reduced to either a naturalist compulsion or something completely unyielding to sociological analysis. Scott's project is to bring the social back in by way of symbolic interactionism.

The starting point of her argument is John H. Gagnon and William Simon's 1973 book, Sexual Conduct. This is generally regarded as the foundational work for the sociology of sex and remains key for its critique of naturalist/metaphysical sexual essentialisms. In their view the sex drive is not repressed by the social as was argued by Freud. Instead social relations are the precondition and producers of sexual behaviour - what is held up as the most natural is in fact representative of humanity at its most social. Gagnon and Simon argue sex is commonplace, everyday and mundane. Far from being the driver of human behaviour, sex is as amenable to conscious and reflexive action as anything else. For example, sex can be used as a means to non-sexual ends in much the same way non-sexual behaviours can be deployed as the seductive path to the bedroom.

To reinforce their argument and account for variations in behaviours across cultures, sexual identities only become possible when a child has sustained access to social-sexual 'scripts'. Instead of overdetermining psychic processes Gagnon and Simon lay stress on three levels of the social. The first is (intersubjective) culture. This is where the "borders" of the sexual are defined and with it the dominant signifiers, tropes, scenarios, values and expectations. The next level down are interpersonal relations, the point where we make sense, act on and modify sexual behaviour through our relationships with others. This ranges from the intimacy of the encounter to everyday sex talk. Finally, the micro level is the domain of intrapsychic scripting, or one's sexual subjectivity, the domain of preference, desires and fetishes. This is the most private and individuated level of the analysis of sex, but nevertheless an interior mental life that is socially based and is where one's sexual behaviour is reflexively monitored. All three levels mutually condition and make possible each other.

This is the model informing Scott's interest in women's experience of heterosexual sex, and particularly the social performativity of the female orgasm. As we know normative heterosexuality is heavily scripted along gendered lines up to and including social definitions of sexual pleasure and the climax. Generally speaking the male orgasm is uncomplicated in heterosexual discourse. Not only is it visible, physically speaking, it is also the unstated/assumed objective of sexual activity. Sex normatively ends with the man's orgasm and this is reinforced by countless mainstream and pornographic depictions of sex. On the other hand women's orgasms are not so physically obvious, but are nevertheless prized within a sexual culture that has the visible climax at its heart. The male performance ethic central to masculine heterosexuality (and thereby a key marker of masculinity itself) therefore demands women affirm their pleasure through display. If a woman does not perform - regardless of whether she has an orgasm or not - the absence of orgasmic cues partially devalues the symbolic capital of the man's and can challenge his esteem, self-worth, and self-perception of sexual competence. There are rules governing the performance. Above all it has to convincingly communicate her pleasure to her partner - if one is too theatrical or unenthusiastic she is open to accusations of faking. Again the degree of pleasure she actually experiences is irrelevant. Therefore the performativity of the female orgasm involves real emotional labour.

Just as 'canonical orgasmic signatures' are an accomplishment, one needs the competence to recognise and interpret them. Scott illustrated this point by referencing Howard Becker's famous study of marijuana use. That the drug elicits a physiological response is a given, but we can only define the effects as pleasurable through mastery of the rituals and behaviours associated with it. The same is true of the orgasm. Short of bluntly asking if she came, he has to draw on his sexual experience and knowledge to read her display and perform the rituals he thinks are necessary to bring her to climax.

Because sex is experiential and always socially mediated, sexual scripts are dynamic and fluid. What is individually and collectively scripted as the norm are open to rapid changes over short periods of time. For example, it has been noted how the passage of (mainly female) pubic hair removal from fetish to norm, and retention of the "natural" look from normal to fetish only took place very quickly. Another contemporary change is the increased currency of 'bi-curious' as a sort of aspirational sexual preference. Alongside this can be reckoned moves away from the male orgasm as the be-all and end-all of heterosexual sex. This state of flux rules out mechanically determinist accounts of sex, but what is ruled in is understanding sexual behaviour as an embodied and corporeal experience that is simultaneously meaningful and symbolic.

What Scott managed to show in her brief presentation was how a sociology of sex is possible. It reinforces the trends within feminism that already are or working back toward materialist social analysis and explanation. I think the bare bones sketched out here could be fleshed out in a number of ways to encompass all spheres of sexual activity, from the most mundane to the extreme. But also it opens the road to understanding how other social processes play a role in the regulation and production of sexuality. For Marxists and feminists it holds out the promise of investigating the intimate chain linking commodity production, commodification of sex, gender relations, capital accumulation and class in mutually constitutive relationships, while avoiding a rerun of sterile debates about whether patriarchy or capital has analytical primacy. A flourishing materialist scholarship in this area could go a long way to challenge the hegemony of poststructuralist/postmodern thinking in the social sciences, and put the humanities on a more radical political footing.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

Strange Maps

Sorry for not updating as frequently as I should - I am stuck with blogger's block. I blame the PhD myself. My brain's preoccupied with stuff about research methods and the like, so I don't really feel like holding forth on the usual eclectic mix of topics. That said once it does clear up something on sex and sociology is due to appear, along with a couple of TV-related musings, a little bit of Trot catastrophism and perhaps something about the next Stoke Socialist Party branch meeting.

In the mean time I have to share this wonderfully original blog with you. Strange Maps is, well, all about strange maps. If you have a mania for obscure cartography I cannot recommend it enough. The picture (above left) is one example of what you can expect, so check it out!

While I've been idle posting-wise, the blog roll has been updated. Allow me the opportunity to welcome Climate and Capitalism, CNWP Blog, Sadly, No!, and The Mustard Seed to the counter-hegemonic bloc of blogs. Remember, if there are any good socialist blogs I've missed let me know and they will be duly added.

Monday 17 March 2008

What is Britishness?

Defining Britishness is a vexing enterprise. But this was what we attempted to do at tonight's discussion hosted by Keele Against Racism and Fascism. The meeting opened with two short Youtube clips. The first was Real Members of the BNP, a piece featuring Sharon Ebanks (now formerly of that fash parish). She said the BNP were neither left or right, but British. They were the only ones who cared about the working class, and if anything they were more socialist than not (I couldn't resist slipping in a loud snort of derision). They didn't hate other people, but why she asked, do minorities feel the need to celebrate their separate identities? They have the MOBO awards and the Black Police Association, so why can't whites?

This was contrasted with the second clip - an interview by the BBC's Matthew Amroliwala with Mohammed Shaddiq of the Ramadhan Foundation on the 'national day' and oath-swearing controversy. He argued a day set aside for celebrating Britishness is potentially a good idea. It would be an opportunity to celebrate the diversity and inclusivity of British identity and talk about want unifies us all as Britons. But on the other hand the idea of swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen is a bad idea. For all sorts of reasons a large proportion of British people would be unhappy to do so - this traditional institutional embodiment of national unity ironically cuts a divisive figure in the British body politic these days.

Here we have two competing visions - the narrow and exclusive versus the broad and inclusive. This was the starting point for a wide ranging debate on a number of themes. Among the participants was an Algerian student who drew attention to the differences between the national identities of our respective countries. He argued that while different (self-defined) communities are to an extent supported by the state here, Algeria's approach to minorities was similar to that in France - all are citizens of the state, nothing more, nothing less. He suggested this bottom line was basically the case in Britain. If we are to define Britishness, ultimately the only officially delineated commonality is citizenship. Therefore the state is the repository of national identity. To an extent this is true - the state officially promotes an inclusive, bourgeois multiculturalism AND expects/demands minority communities learn and speak English. The new citizenship tests require migrants to learn about so-called British customs, which help determine the outcome of their applications.

But how inclusive can Britishness be? All national identities must exclude someone, they all need an 'other' through which it can be recognised as a nationality. But how this exclusion is realised becomes more problematic the further we move away from the tidy concepts of citizenship. Take values for example - as George Galloway is often fond of noting on his radio show, how is tolerance, individual liberty, democracy and freedom of expression unique to these islands? Can't Danish, Portuguese, German and French national discourse lay equal claim to them? The same is true of negative traits - imperial elitism, bigotry and xenophobia are far from particular to Britain. And to what extent is Britishness itself really a cover for Englishness? Can British people wear kilts and speak Gaelic? Even if you take the very narrow view of Ebanks and her Mein Kampf-inspired rants about blood and soil, her xenophobic nationalism still had enough room for a mixed race woman like herself. Unfortunately we didn't make much headway in beginning to answer these questions.

But there was a fertile discussion of religion. Someone noted how Britain is virtually unique to have members of the clergy sit in its legislature (a distinction it alone shares with the Islamic Republic of Iran), so what place does religion play in British identity? The state has an official religion, but that doesn't stop it from extending its 'official' multiculturalism to religious observance. There is talk of Charles Windsor adopting the title 'defender of faiths' rather than 'defender of the faith' if ever he assumes the throne. But there is also a tacit secularism at work - no one expects politicians, to quote Alastair Campbell, to 'do God'. It seems, generally speaking (and leaving aside Ulster protestants, for whom religion is the bedrock of a highly politicised British identity) liberal tolerance of religion combined with a skeptical/critical attitude toward strong public displays of belief is a central British value. And so it seems this is one streams feeding into contemporary Islamophobia. The idea Muslims are extremists working to turn Britain into a fundamentalist caliphate has a certain popular currency because, as well as tapping into everyday anxieties around immigration and racism, it appears as if Islam demands its adherents act in a way contrary to British religious convention. For example, take Rowan Williams' proposal to incorporate elements of Sharia Law into English civil law. Though a serious secular critique can be mounted of his argument, most of the voices raised against him evoked images of a predatory Islam muscling in on British legal traditions.

Given it was an anti-fascist society hosting the debate it was only a matter of time before the BNP featured in discussion. Throughout the night reference was made to the perceived disenfranchisement of the white working class. There was some controversy whether no platform policies, such as that operated by KUSU, are a help or hindrance in combating the BNP's influence. Some argued from a libertarian position that all arguments should be out in the open. Others correctly pointed out the BNP were not interested in political debates, merely whipping up hostility to their scapegoat of the month. Nor is it exactly appropriate for a labour movement body, which KUSU is (albeit somewhat tenuously), to allow an organisation fundamentally opposed to the hopes and aspirations of that movement a platform within it. However it would be wrong to dismiss all the concerns the BNP articulates as being of no consequence. I pointed out the rise of the BNP and racist/xenophobic ideas do not come out of nowhere - they have real material causes that can be addressed. Fascism is not a moral problem solved through better education. It is a political problem that requires political solutions.

There is a fundamental disconnect between establishment politics and the working class. Whereas the Labour party was perceived to be and was (to an extent) the primary political vehicle of the working class in Britain, this has increasingly not been the case for the last 20 years. I cited the recent school closures in Stoke-on-Trent as a prime example. Labour councillors were given leave to campaign against the mayor's schemes but were nevertheless required to obey the whip when the plans were voted through in full council, which they dutifully did. Taken with a never ending avalanche of cuts and closures it's small wonder large number of white Stokies take the BNP claims to be the party of British workers at face value. In their defence the Labour candidate for the forthcoming election in Longton North said the party was listening and changing, and cited their ousting of the hapless BNP'er Steve Batkin from that seat last year as evidence. Unfortunately this was more the result of NorSCARF and Keele Labour Students getting the core Labour vote out rather than any Damascene conversion to working class politics. And it has to be said the new Longton North councillor showed he was "listening" when he voted for the school closures along with the rest. Only when bourgeois politics take working class people seriously again can it hope to recover its old legitimacy, but there's little sign of that happening.

We never really got close to an agreeable definition of British identity. I put it to the meeting that positive values of liberty and freedom are as British as the imperial legacy of bigotry and intolerance. What socialists need to do is try and annex positive British values to our projects. It's not about reclaiming "our" flag for ours remains deepest red, but used skilfully it can challenge the right's uncontested use of Britishness for their own ends.

Sunday 16 March 2008

Burslem Posties Against Victimisation

It's not very often Stoke becomes the scene of a key industrial dispute, but between September last year and this January, it was just that. In a short space of time Burslem postal depot went from an obscure and little known corner of Royal Mail to one of the most important struggles to have taken place over the last 12 months. In Burslem Postal Workers' Struggle Against Victimisation, the new pamphlet by Andy Bentley and published by Stoke Socialist Party, looks at the course of the dispute, its results and what lessons socialists and trade unionists can draw from the experience.

The roots of what took place go back to December 2006. In that month 700 postal workers across North Staffordshire went out on strike over management's attempt to foist part time working hours on full time staff. Royal Mail were forced to back down in the face of the resistance, but they were determined to extract a blood price for their humiliation. Dave Condliffe, a 62 year old postie with 13 years exemplary service at Burslem depot was singled out. The bosses accused him of "behaving aggressively" toward a couple of managers while out on his rounds. It was a baseless charge. Two members of the public who witnessed the incident said nothing had happened. And the managers themselves, people supposedly traumatised by his attitude, were seen laughing and joking back at the depot afterwards. Management didn't care for the facts and 'Big Dave' was sacked. Burslem workers came out unofficially for four days upon hearing the news, and this was backed by official strike days in March last year. Unfortunately the CWU did not ballot for wider action, presumably because the leadership were taken up with the complex and increasingly non-productive talks with Royal Mail over pay, changes to working practices and pensions.

In May management declared its "full and final offer" - a below inflation pay "rise", flexible working and more modernisation (i.e. more neoliberalisation) of the post office. The CWU balloted its members and went into its first nationwide confrontation with Royal Mail for 11 years, backed by a 77% vote in favour of strike action. From day one the strike was solid, which is all the more remarkable when you consider the lengthy recess for more talks between the first and second block of days. By October the CWU negotiated a deal that was a real disservice to the determination shown by postal workers. Unfortunately the bulk of the workforce accepted the leadership's strong recommendation and the posties went back to work, with little in the way of real improvement.

On September 11th Burslem management removed 12 workers from the shop floor. They were accused of harrassment and bullying and were suspended on the spot. The office walked out straight away and only went back once the CWU agreed to hold an official ballot. The accusations were just a flimsy cover. It was a calculated attempt by the bosses to neuter one of the most militant union branches in the country. "Coincidentally" the Burslem 12 comprised all the CWU reps and many of the depot's key activists. A few workers were caught up in the dragnet to give it a bona fide appearance.

Stoke SP were out on the picket lines from the very beginning. We had been supporting local postal workers and making their case on the streets. This also included the campaign against the closure of Hanley post office, where we worked with North Staffs Pensioners' Convention. With the 12 we began solidarity work immediately. We held a couple of public meetings and with the local CWU branch, we built a 100-strong march from Burslem depot to the middle of Hanley.

The pressure from below persuaded the union bureaucracy to announce a ballot on the dismissals. But unfortunately it was a full three months from the suspensions to eventual strike action. Nevertheless the strike was absolutely solid. As it progressed the mood, if anything, became more militant. Workers who were previously quiet found their voice and became increasing confident at the weekly meetings. More and more came out to picket - at one point there were 70 workers on the line! It even became something of a local cause celebre. The local Labour MP, Joan Whalley, was a regular sight on the picket line. Rob Flello went on deliveries in Longton to show his solidarity and Mark Meredith, that most New Labour of New Labour mayors graced Burslem with his presence. The strike culminated on the 19th January in a magnificent national demo through the streets of Stoke, followed by a powerful solidarity rally for the 12 at Hanley museum.

On 23rd January the weekly Burslem meeting was presented with a deal negotiated by Dave Ward, CWU deputy general secretary for post. This settlement represented a partial victory - management took back its threat to reduce the annual leave entitlement of the strikers, agreed not to victimise any of the strikers, conceded an independent review of workplace relations and recognised the need for the National Appeals Panel to have an independent element. Management also pledged to deal with the 12's cases very quickly. This deal was presented to the members as the best Dave Ward could do under the present circumstances. Furthermore it was endorsed by all the 12 (though some were later to change their minds). Burslem voted 63 to 23 to return to work, which they did in the early hours of the 24th.

The pamphlet puts a lot of flesh on the bones of this thumbnail sketch. Not only does it cover the key stages of the struggle and the actions of the workers, the role of our branch is examined in encouraging and supporting the strikers, as well as the parts played by the CWU bureaucracy, Labour and the SWP. There are useful lessons in it for every socialist and trade unionist.

However Burslem Postal Workers is very much an unfinished pamphlet. As I write more local disputes are flaring up and the spectre of a national strike is haunting Royal Mail. The writing was on the wall from the moment the deal had been signed - the senior manager responsible for negotiating it was sacked. And now management has once again gone on the offensive. Bosses at Longton depot have targeted six workers and are investigating harassment "complaints". Last week Royal Mail announced its intention to close Stoke postal depot and move some of its work to Wolverhampton. This has sparked a rolling series of zero-notice unofficial sit-ins. And very significantly, six of the Burslem 12 have been sacked at what can only be described as a mockery of a hearing. Their cases now go to the National Appeals Panel and will be heard at the end of April. Shortly before then Big Dave will also learn of his fate, 15 months after his sacking! Nationally, the closure of the final salary pension scheme on April 1st has caused the CWU to organise a consultative ballot over action. Leaving aside the wisdom of such a move (why not just a straight ballot?) another nationwide strike is surely inevitable.

The final chapter is very far from being written.

Messages and donations can be sent to CWU Midland No.7 Branch, Lindsay Street, Stoke-on-Trent. ST1 4EP. Cheques are payable to CWU Midland No.7 Branch. Solidarity messages can be emailed to with copies to (remove the NOSPAMs).

Copies of Burslem Postal Workers' Struggle Against Victimisation cost £2.00. More details and ordering information can be found here.

Friday 14 March 2008

The Apprentice

Whispers reach my ears that Alan Sugar will be gracing our screens again very soon. Ever keen to catch a bandwagon just when it's started rolling (and because I've got a touch of blogger's block at the moment) I've dug this old review/reflection out from the defunct Militant blog.

After a hard day's bolshevist activity, there's nothing the Marxists at Hepscott Towers like more than settling down to an edition of The Apprentice.

We know we're not the only socialists to indulge this guilty pleasure. It makes fascinating television. Hardened sectarians are no strangers to arguing the toss, falling out, developing vendettas, and plunging the knife into one another's backs. It's strangely satisfying to see our actual and would-be rulers are more or less the same, though a £100k job with Amstrad is small beer for us Trots. We much prefer fratricidal shenanigans over weightier matters, such as what was the correct side in to be on in the Fourth International in 1953.

Tonight's episode was as entertaining as always. Alan Sugar is convinced anyone can start a business these days, and to prove it he gave £200 a piece to the teams and a day to try their hand at whatever they fancy, as long as the money rolls in. And as he brusquely reminded them, someone on the team that makes the least is going to get fired.

Cue scenes of both teams running round like headless chickens. The girl's team, 'Stealth', hit the streets of sunny Richmond to bully young kids into having their faces painted. And at a fiver a pop, initially they did a roaring trade. The boy's (plus token woman) team, Eclipse, elected to go for a spot of gardening. Problem was lawn mowing was out because of the previous night's rain, but this didn't stop our budding entrepreneurs from pressing ahead ... with mowing. But nevertheless three of them turned in a creditable horticultural performance, even if one of them tried "dressing" a branch with a weed. The other half of the team spent the day swanning around the 'burbs, one of them sulking and the remaining couple appearing in desperate need of a room.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse for Stealth. After the morning rush of yummy mummies, Richmond high street was effectively a sprog-free zone. With no customers or suitable locations on the horizon, out came the bitching. And this is all Stealth did for the next few hours. Why bother making dosh when you can point fingers instead? Having missed the home time school run completely and with the option of being able to change the business later in the day, Stealth went for the easy option and became kiss-o-grams for the evening. Some of the women expressed their disquiet but such objections were brushed aside by the more determined volunteers. "It's just business", they mused.

Eclipse junked the gardening and hit the bars as semi-inebriated pay-per-songsters. And they did pretty well as drunken people and their cash are so easily parted. If Trotsky's pamphlet was called Their Morals and We Ain't Got Any I'd expect this would be quite a lucrative sideline for the old fighting fund.

Anyway, to cut a long story short Eclipse managed to realise more surplus value than Stealth, so they got to smoke the cigars while Sugar called the losers into the boardroom. It came down to project manager Naomi, wannabe spook Gerri, and gobtastic Jadine. With an eye on the ratings "Sir" Alan kept Naomi and Jadine on board, not least because of their fractious relationship, and particularly the latter's ability to rub everyone up the wrong way. So a not-so-fond farewell to Gerri. We trust she'll make her way up the greasy pole somehow.

There's so many things Marxists can say about The Apprentice. It's easy to put the boot in and decry its exploitative characteristics as leftists regularly do with Big Brother et al. But this particular slice of reality TV is more sophisticated than its stable mates. As comrade Louise pointed out over at the Socialist Unity blog, "the dog eat dog side of capitalism is celebrated not condemned. Capitalism turns even its own rotten ideology into a saleable commodity." But not all is hopeless. Just as a capitalist will sell you the rope you hang him with, so The Apprentice paradoxically undermines the managerial spirit underpinning the career structure of the capitalist firm. We all know middle management upwards are out of touch egotists, but seldom do we have such appalling examples of their incompetence splashed across our screens. What Alan Sugar and the BBC have done is to demystify management. It shows that there's nothing unique about those who strive to lord it over us. They are not especially intelligent, driven, or competent. They might be slightly more sociopathic, but so is business. It sucks in people stilted by the system to reproduce its command and control functions. If you're a human being, you can forget it - as was brilliantly demonstrated last week when Sugar fired Ifti for the crime of feeling down because he missed his family.

The BBC is often criticised for failing to inform, educate, and entertain. But from a socialist perspective in this rare instance, the BBC has managed to fulfill each, and then some.

Tuesday 11 March 2008

The Other Black Gold

Can the market be used to overcome the negative effects of the market? An affirmative answer is implied throughout Black Gold, the 2007 documentary looking at exploitation in the Ethiopian coffee industry.

Coffee is very big business indeed. After oil, it is the second most actively traded commodity in the world. Global sales have climbed from 1990's $30 billion a year to today's $80 billion. The industry is dominated by four multinationals - Kraft, Nestlé, Proctor and Gamble, and Sara Lee. And despite coffee's growing popularity, the prices beans command are at a 30 year low.

Ethiopia is the largest coffee producer in Africa. 15 million of its 27 million-strong labour force depend on the bean for their livelihoods, and it accounts for 67% of the country's export revenue. Like many countries overly dependent on the export of one commodity, it is particularly sensitive to the fluctuations of its market price. Black Gold shows the effects the low price has on Ethiopian farmers through the eyes of Tadesse Meskela, the manager of a 75,000 member coffee-producing cooperative. It documents his quest to get a better price for coffee growers. To illustrate the disparity, he shows a group of workers how a cup costing the equivalent of 12 cents in most villages retails at $2.90 in the USA. Typically farmers get 23 cents per kilo. The cooperative usually gets a better price but for individual farmers outside of the union, they can receive as little as eight cents.

One reason for the huge mark up between the point of production and the point of sale in the West is the supply chain. The beans are brought to auction and are purchased by processors. These in turn sell the coffee to another set of buyers who export it and sell it on to roasters in the West. The roasters in turn sell it on to the retailer, whereby it's sold to the customer. Tadesse's cooperative aims to repatriate profits lost to the supply chain by assuming as much of the Ethiopian side of the business as it can, with a target of removing 60% of the middlemen.

But even so many workers are aware of how coffee dependence stunts community development. Low prices means schools are not adequately funded (there is no state support for schools), clothing is of very poor quality, housing is extremely substandard and overcrowded, and food is in short supply. Generalised across Ethiopia's vast agricultural sector (farming accounts for 80% of employment) this means millions are susceptible to famine. Seven million people are dependent on food aid given by the USA and EU. We are shown how because if the price, one farmer cuts down part of his coffee crop so he can produce Khat - a drug banned in the West but one that nevertheless commands a greater price on the market. Compared with coffee's 23 cents a kilo, Khat can sell for four dollars per bushel of 20 branches. However, this is an act of desperation because coffee is a medium term investment for farmers - it takes five years for a coffee plant to mature and begin producing beans.

In sharp contrast to the poverty we are shown snapshots of Western coffee culture, taking in coffee houses, plush boardrooms, coffee tasting, the World Barista Championships, and the coffee house tour of Seattle. We are introduced to the present manager of the very first Starbucks to open in 1971, a woman who's obviously had an implant fitted. It was as if her personality had merged with that projected by the business. She waxed lyrical about the excitement of being part of Starbucks and "the lives we are touching".

As far as Black Gold was concerned, the main blame for this disparity lies with the World Trade Organisation and the subsidies the US and EU channel into their agriculture (this is particularly galling as many African nations subject to IMF "structural adjustments" cannot subsidise their farmers). The camera whisks us away to sunny Cancun for the fifth ministerial conference of the WTO in 2003. The G20 group of developing countries entered the talks aiming to change the rules of global trade. Their chief target was the US/EU agricultural subsidy and the tariffs that prevent them from competing in Western markets on more of an even keel. As was widely reported at the time, the talks collapsed on the fifth day. For all their neoliberal cant the West were unwilling to budge on agriculture, tariffs and intellectual property rights. But in an act of breathtaking hypocrisy they still demanded the G20 economies and other southern states opened up to more Western capital. They were singularly uninterested in poverty and development.

Tadesse was asked about what can be done to help his members. He said change was dependent upon raising the awareness of Western consumers. They need to be aware of the poverty that lurks at the bottom of their coffee cups and demand more fair trade products as a whole. On one level it is difficult to argue against. Time and again the farmers stated a rise of a few cents per bag would be enough to transform their lives and communities. The Black Gold website itself follows in a similar vein - those wanting to take action are requested to show the film, ask multinationals to pay a fairer price, write to your MP, and join one (or all) of the many worthy developmental NGOs. Western consumption is the cause of the problem, and it is Western consumption that will find the solutions.

The problem with this is despite the combustible material on show here Black Gold is a politics-free zone. Tories, Blairites/Brownites, and Orange Book LibDems would come away without any of their basic politics challenged. All that's needed is an opportunity for the poor nations to trade their way out of poverty. But all this is rather naive - it assumes the US and EU would consent to ceding their strangleholds on markets out of charity. Just supposing they did, multinational corporations will step in where states have stepped out and ensure global markets remain rigged in their favour. In other words, trade isn't the solution to the problem, it is the problem.

As long as production is subordinate to the market, as long as workers are not paid the full value of their labour power, superexploitation and one-sided development/underdevelopment will remain the lot of Africa. And no amount of consumption with a conscience will change that.

Sunday 9 March 2008

More Distractions from the Class Struggle

According to Same Same Australia, these are the 50 gayest songs of all time, as voted by the public. I'm sorry, this list is just plain wrong. For starters, where the hell is Crucified by Army of Lovers? And what about these two? How can these classics not qualify? While we're talking music, I may as well embed this week's top tunes. First is I Lust U by Neon Neon, the electro outing of Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals plus friends. It's out in a week or so. The second humble offering is yet another early 90s rave classic. Spice by Eon is built around a sample from the yawn-inducing Dune film that hit the cinemas in the mid 80s. The movie may have been pap but this track is not. Check it out. Last but not least there have been a few additions to the blogrolls since the last tidy up. Please visit Insurgelicious, Practically Insurgent, Violet Ink, and Greater Surbiton. But it's also goodbye to A Bit Like Lenin, which after an all too brief stay in leftyblogland has now got its feet up at the retirement home. I also knew the AVPS policy of linking to blogs that link here would throw up a bizarre result from time to time, and it has done. For some reason a footy blog, Two Footed Tackle, has blogrolled us. Here we couldn't give a monkeys about football - beyond a very very casual interest in Stoke City and Derby County - but reciprocating the link is the courteous thing to do. Remember, if you've got a blog and you want it on the blogrolls just let me know via the comments box.

Saturday 8 March 2008

RIP Leon Greenman

It's with great sadness I learned veteran anti-fascist, Leon Greenman, passed away yesterday at the age of 97.

As Hitler's blitzkrieg rolled over the Low Countries in 1940, Leon and his young family were trapped in Rotterdam. Despite being Jewish, their status as British citizens should have meant internment. But having lost their papers they were swallowed up by the Nazi death camp system when Leon was called up for forced labour in 1942. For the rest of the war, Leon was shunted from camp to camp, and was on the final march of prisoners from Auschwitz as the Nazis fleed before the advancing Red Army. He was at Buchenwald when the camp was liberated by the Americans a month before the war's end. Leon never knew the ultimate fate of his family - he saw them last when he was separated from them at Auschwitz. so it was extremely likely they perished in the gas chambers. When he was repatriated after the war, Leon dedicated much of his life to educating successive generations of young people about the holocaust, and vigorously campaigned against the fascists. And this is what he did to the very end.

I never had the opportunity to meet Leon, but I did hear him speak five years ago. Though the meeting itself was an insipid and farcical affair his contribution was captivating and deeply moving. His story of suffering at the hands of the Nazis and how, by then well into his 90s, he still had to put up with attacks and intimidation by fascists is something I will not forget in a hurry. As if to underline this, then local fash "independent" and later wannabe BNP councillor, Jenny Holdcroft, accused Leon of telling a pack of lies.

So long Leon! Your activism and commitment shines like a beacon to anti-fascists everywhere!

More obituaries here, here, and here.

Populist Politics, the Student Way

In this guest post, Brother G reflects on the state of student politics at Keele University.

Last week saw Keele University Student Union's sabbatical election. This, for those not in the know, is the annual extravaganza whereby our current union administration put in enough personal appearances over the course of a fortnight to fool people into believing that student politics matters. With Keele finding itself teetering on the precipice of management-instigated ruin in recent months, one would be forgiven for believing that such an event would bring a sense of urgency to the contest. Would a team of student officers prepared and capable of dealing with the growing issues surrounding the university be elected, and with that bring a fresh wave of optimism as the current (inarguably lacklustre) administration’s ekes out the final months of its term of office?

There is no lack of problems developing in Keele, and indeed within the education sector in general, that need addressing. University management, headed by Vice-Chancellor Janet Finch, have recently decided to fast-track the redundancies of over half of the teaching staff within the School of Economics and Management Studies, shamelessly violating legal obligations and their own procedures in the process! Students in one Halls of Residence have found themselves thrown out of their regular accommodation with the promise of it being ‘renovated’, only to be sent back to blocks which would still fail a routine health and safety inspection (though admittedly they would last slightly longer due to the obvious difficulty for a construction expert in spotting mould through an additional coat of paint). Meanwhile, in nearby Stoke-on-Trent, the threat of school closures hangs over the city due to a lack of government funding and the continuing trend towards privatising public services. With such a rapidly escalating spate of problems within the education system, surely this would be the time for students to stand up and speak out against the issues affecting them.

Unfortunately this was not the case. Indeed, these elections have done nothing except further validate the claim that modern student politics is little more than a glorified popularity contest. However, what is less clear is whether this is truly a result of apathy within the student body, or merely due to a campaign system that leaves little scope for broadcasting any serious political message. With only one 3-minute speech and a two-page manifesto to properly explain their policies, candidates are then forced to rely on social networking, excessive leafleting and shameless flattery to garner the vote of the rest of the student body. Given the amount of students who openly refused to vote on these grounds, and the apparent lack of turnout even from the more politically conscious section of the student body, it seems likely that a system which lent greater emphasis to the issues that mattered and reduced the social voting element which serves as a crutch in current Student Union campaigns would go a long way to alleviating the negative stigma which overshadows student politics.

All in all, this campaign served as little more than a disappointing reminder that student politics is but a faded shadow of its former glory. However, with the current undercurrent of dissatisfaction at the state of the NUS (most clearly seen in the recent ‘Choose Change’ campaign), it seems that on a national level at least students are beginning to once again find a voice that isn’t slurred from alcoholic voting bribes. Likewise, the continued presence of the higher education community at national anti-war and climate change rallies, combined with the burgeoning number of politically active societies within universities, show that all is not lost within the world of student politics. While it is clear that the days of student bodies acting as the vanguard of radical movements are far behind us, and perhaps even further ahead of us, for those of us who can muster the optimism to see it, the consciousness remains; all that is missing is the spark.

Thursday 6 March 2008

Branch Meeting: British Perspectives 2008

As a preview of this weekend's Socialist Party conference, M gave a lead off on the party's strategic document for the year ahead, British Perspectives. He began by laying out the prospects for the British economy, which, as we all know, isn't great. Whether the credit crunch will manifest in terms of a recession or slower economic growth remains to be seen. This is complicated by the fact the British economy is very lopsided with finance capital in the driving seat and other forms of capital having to sing from its hymn sheet. However, at base, the document argued manufacturing is the rock to which all economies are lashed. And its here that Britain's weakness is rather pronounced. At the moment, just three million workers are employed in manufacturing (this excludes transport workers), but nonetheless that level is the lowest since 1841. Despite this the sector remain a strategic part of the working class - their potential power far outweighs what their numbers suggest.

Undoubtedly, any slowdown will impact on the working class as a whole. But crisis does not mechanically beget radicalisation. Consciousness tends to lag behind conditions, but nevertheless events can bridge the two at times. Consciousness can become as radical as the reality it faces. But as things stand now its likely that workers' struggles during the course of 2008 will develop around issues of pay. Brown's obsession in keeping public sector pay down will likely find an echo in the private sector as they demand their employees accept paltry pay rises to keep the profits flowing. The potential, however, exists that of one or two struggles are successful they could act as an impetus for further action. However, the biggest problem remains the absence of an independent workers' political voice. The SP believes a call for a new party made by several trade unions could rally tens of thousands to its banner. For example, if such a party was in existence the upcoming vote on disaffiliation from Labour at the CWU's conference would be far more likely to succeed. However, in its absence, if disaffiliation goes through the union is likely to become more syndicalist and reinforce a certain anti-party mood.

On immigration and the far right, official statistics would pitch the number of new arrivals since 2004 at 700,000 workers, though the actual figure is likely to be greater. In the most part these workers are appallingly exploited and low paid, and can allow the government to play politics with racial tensions. They're not the only ones who use race and immigration to suit their ends. The BNP may well be in disarray at the moment, split as it is between Griffin's hateful bunch of degenerates, and those daft enough to have taken the fuhrer's turn to populist nationalism seriously. But it is far from finished. Atomisation and alienation from mainstream politics still provide the ingredients for BNP growth, and the coming of a crisis could give them a boost and transform them into a stable far right formation akin to its continental counterparts. On the other hand the seeds for mass anti-fascism are there too - there is widespread opposition among young people toward racist and bigoted ideas.

Finally, one consequence of any crisis could be widespread questioning of capitalism. What that means now, for the SP, is careful and patient preparatory work, to contribute toward and help steer any leaps in consciousness in a socialist direction. If one looks at the SP's forerunner, Militant, in 1978, it then stood at 1,500 members. By 1988 this had climbed to 8,000 and became a household name thanks to the Liverpool City Council struggle and later the fight against Thatcher's Poll Tax. In 2008 the SP once again can claim 1,500 members, but on top of that it has far more experience to draw from and a small, but nevertheless a greater weight in the organised working class. This isn't to say the SP is expecting a repeat of the 80s, but rather a recognition it's better placed now to influence and intervene than was the case 30 years previously.

The discussion touched on many issues - immigration, house prices, credit, and progressive policies in Scotland and Wales. But it was A's contribution that will be of interest to readers. Again he reiterated the need for patience, but also we have to be ready for sudden upsurges. For example, last year's strike action and localised disputes against Royal Mail are coming back to haunt a CWU leadership who thought they were settled. In Stoke the local CWU branch is watching the situation in Burslem as, contrary to the deal that saw the depot back to work, the 12 have yet to have their hearings (the suspension issue was supposed to have been resolved at the end of January). This week management announced the closure of Stoke sorting office, which led to an occupation and could entail further action in the near future. And six workers in Longton depot are being victimised. Behind these local disputes looms a more significant shadow. Like all bosses who plead poverty and manage to award themselves huge pay increases (Royal Mail found £4.5 million to throw at Leighton and Crozier) , management have announced the closure of the final salary pension scheme on April 1st. Unfortunately, in response the union leadership have only organised a consultative ballot rather than an actual ballot. This closes on March 25th - hardly enough time to implement an effective counter to Royal Mail's plans!

The point is seemingly quiet periods contain the combustible material that can ignite later on.