Wednesday 30 April 2008

It's All Over!

That's it. The last door has been knocked on. The final leaflet folded and posted. The campaign is over. Between 0700 and 2200 hours tomorrow, in one small corner of Stoke-on-Trent, approximately a quarter to a third of the electorate in Burslem South ward will find their way to a polling booth and mark a cross against one of six names on their ballot paper.

For once I'm at a loss. I have no idea how the Socialist Party will poll in this ward. We could get anything between seven votes and 700. There's just no way of knowing. We were unable to canvass the whole ward even once - I would estimate we covered approximately one quarter of total households. I will say the response on the doorstep seemed more favourable than the last election campaign I seriously worked on (good old Abbey Green). But you can't extrapolate on the basis of the limited returns from this time round.

Andy on Socialist Unity has ventured that results below 4% are poor, and those above 10% are good. I would concur, but counsels wiser and more experienced than I have said they'd regard anything above 100 votes a decent outcome!

In this ward, we're not the only ones likely to benefit from the local disaffection toward the three party coalition who rubber stamps the mayor's decisions. Ted Owen is the sitting councillor for the Potteries Alliance group, a small scale split from the local Labour party. It is very localist and its leaflets are almost a politics-free zone. Owen's campaign strategy has been to trade heavily on his reputation as a "community councillor".

Then there is the independent, David Giltrap. Again no politics are to be seen in his leaflet, unless you count the rant he launches against the PA (who he brands as loony lefts). Very strange for an independent not to have a go at the mainstream parties too. Is something going on behind the scenes? However, despite a rubbish leaflet and nothing of a campaign to speak of he will probably get a respectable vote. In Stoke there are large numbers of voters prepared to give self-described independents a punt because of their perceived distance from party politics.

Stoke SP has had two advantages over these "alternatives". First is activists on the ground. We have managed to out out three different leaflets. There is no house in the ward to have gone without at least one. And second is their content: our material articulates a clear political alternative to mainstream business-as-usual politics and the localism of our other opponents.

Whether this translates into a decent vote remains to be seen. Sadly, to avoid paying workers over time, the city council will be holding the count on Friday morning so the party has to wait until lunch time to find out. I'll put them up as soon as I have them. Watch this space!

Tuesday 29 April 2008

University and Utopia

This afternoon the Keele sociology research seminar series heard Mark Featherstone speak on his ongoing project on utopianism. In this session he concentrated on the utopian dimensions of the university campus, or rather the contradictory demands placed on it as a utopian space.

He began by outlining the difference between the commonplace understanding of the term and that deployed in the burgeoning field of utopia studies. Its object is not so much visions of the perfect world or the ideal society, but rather the key characteristics of utopias: spatial order and the control of thought. Utopia is an enclosed space constructed through executive power and authoritarianism, which rules out certain modes of thought and prescribes correct thinking. There is no room for internal opposition.

Unfortunately this vision of utopia has leaped off the pages of 1984 and become real blueprints that are layered on to reality. We are not talking large scale utopias here of the kind that led to the gas chamber and the gulag. (Post)modern utopias are small and comparatively limited, but for all that more pernicious and widespread. Drawing on the ideas of Castells and Virilio, Mark suggests contemporary capitalism is too fast and too interconnected to allow new stable certainties to form in the spaces vacated by the old. The viscosity of fluidic social space has allowed greater freedoms and opportunity for the few but these same processes also engendered a coagulation of 'paranoid reaction formations' which aspire to orderliness against the backdrop of global uncertainty. This is where utopianism comes back in. Utopias are the dominant species of reaction formations. Their control of space fosters illusions of certainty and safety. Paranoid anxiety underwrites calls for more prisons, more detention centres, more gated communities. The utopian promise is security in an increasingly insecure world.

Hence far from dying with the passing of Nazism and Stalinism from the stage of history, utopia is back with a vengeance. We live on Planet Utopia, a global society where the conditions for the formation of new utopias are always overdetermined by the operation of the networks that criss-cross the world. Speed, superconnectivity and volatility render the dominant tendency of mainstream politics toward technocratic management utopian in the original sense of the word. The idea society can be shaped by a pragmatic approach to reform is out of date. Long term planning is impossible. But here lies a paradox. The philosopher kings of old have been dethroned, but the only modes of governance deemed practicable to the new society is premised on intuitive thought. And it is only existing elites who are capable of exercising it.

Mark argues intuitive thought is thought at high speed, without deliberation and unencumbered by democracy. To give an example, American foreign policy is based on pre-emptive action. We don't need evidence to show Iran is up to dastardly things, we just know it is. This governance is well-suited to an unpredictable world. If the world is too complex, if social relations are moving too fast, if the causes of crisis cannot be fathomed and their origins are impossible to pin down, why bother?

As one node among many in the global network, the campus university lies across contradictory social processes. It has its utopian dimensions. Thought and modes of thought are segregated through spatialisation. Research and experimentation are separated from the library, the lecture theatre and the seminar room. And these are separated from accomodation, eating areas, administration and recreational facilities. Through the control of space thought is compartmentalised and disciplined. But the functions demanded of the university are different from other utopian spaces. It cannot retreat into itself. It always has to look beyond the campus to the world to produce adequate knowledge about it to feed the insatiable appetite of global capital. Therefore the university campus finds global contradictions telescoped into its tightly regulated social space. The utopian impulse is locked into antagonism with the possibility of freedom. This tension is expressed in a series of oppositions - outer space vs inner space, democracy vs enlightened despotism, developing critical thought vs the vocationalisation of degrees. Unfortunately, the utopian is in the ascendent and the balance of forces tilt in its favour.

Utopias are riddled with irony, and this case is no exception. Utopian campuses evoke market fundamentalism to legitimate the measures they take. However what is done in the name of the market is often not what's best for the market. To reap the rewards of global network society requires an ability to think imaginatively and creatively. One cannot take up an entrepreneurial position if the skills one has acquired have trundled off an HE assembly line. The global marketplace may generate utopias, but they can and do undermine its efficacy. Capital's gravediggers they're not - instead utopia is a sympomatic of fatigue.

A number of questions were raised. One asked about the operation of time in utopian settings. If you close of space, you close off history too, which is next to impossible in the era of turbo-charged global capitalism. What utopianism does is slow down time and, within an enclave, offer a possibility of micro-scale management. From my perspective, what was interesting was the seeming absence of agency in this world. Mark suggested there does remain a space for radical politics, and it lies in resisting the seductive qualities of utopianism. The aim is not to seek positions within the quai-natural relays of the network but finding ways of bringing them under control. He didn't elaborate further, but at least this model shows alternative possibilities to the postmodern totalitarianism of global capitalism. And one good place for alternatives to flourish are in the problematic environments of the contemporary campus university.

Sunday 27 April 2008

Meme-Tastic II: The 'Last' Meme

A very simple meme this one. Ideal for when you have no time for blogging but still want to show the world you haven't lapsed into hibernation.

1) What was the last 1980s song you heard?
(I Just) Died in Your Arms - Cutting Crew. What is it with Nick van Eede's flasher mac?

2) What was the last thing you saw on Youtube?
Darth Vader covering Chocolate Rain (Don't ask).

3) What was the last entry on Wikipedia you viewed?
Atari ST

4) What was the last computer/video game you completed all the way through?
Nemesis on the Nintendo DS.

5) What did you last pig out on?
I had a whole apple crumble to myself this tea time. I'm not ill yet.

6) What is the last undeleted text message on your mobile phone?
Just arrived in burslem, where do i find you? I'm on duncalf street by the gymnastics place

7) When did you last have a conversation with someone other than a family member?
Yesterday in B&M's in Hanley. It was about refusing to serve booze to a drunken customer (that customer was not I).

8) Aside from where you live, what is the last village/town/city you visited?

9) What was the last competition you won?
I won a tenner a couple of weeks ago on the lottery (does that count?)

10) What are the last three blogs you visited?
Luke Akehurst, Lenin's Tomb, Socialist Unity.

I hereby tag Jim Jay, Stropps, Noel, Leftwing Criminologist, Roobin and Air Pollution

Thursday 24 April 2008

Pubs Ban English People, Apparently

Seeing as Septic Isle has taken a few days break from savaging the press, I thought I'd better have a go. Especially when I saw this piece of garbage, brought to us by that most august of publications, the Daily Star. While never the most serious of newspapers, it did at least used to have Judge Dredd and Beau Peep to keep us amused. Even Linda Duff's atrocious celebrity column used to be worth a laugh for the unintentionally hilarious recycling of weeks-old stories. But since Richard Desmond got his hands on it, if anything the content has gotten worse. Staff cutbacks has seen it transform into a pure soft core porn rag, beaten only in the gratuity stakes by the Daily Sport. A sample of the last week's headlines are typical of its fare - 'Becks Lover to Tell All', 'Chanelle Big Bro Sex Tape Leaked' and 'Mucca's '£10k Lesbian Romp''. Each front page tastefully adorned by scantily-clad young women, of course.

As for the stories themselves, they're unbelievably poor. I forget the amount of times I've chuckled when this self-proclaimed 'Official Big Brother' newspaper has acquitted itself with three day-old "exclusives" long-since reported in The Sun and The Mirror. Naturally, these exclusives usually revolve around alleged sexy goings-on between house mates. In short, The Star reads as if it was written by embarrassing and slightly pervy middle-aged dads trying to be down with da yoof. It's pathetic.

There is another side to The Star too. Being trashy and sexist is not enough. Like its more "respectable" cousin, The Express, it is incredibly xenophobic. It has no problem stirring the pot of national resentment on a slow celebrity news day, such is the case today. Here's their front page article in full:
......but it's ok if you are a Pole

Pubs banned English drinkers from marking St George’s Day with a pint yesterday but kept their doors open for Polish immigrants.

The Punch And Judy pub in Covent Garden, central London, barred anyone wearing the cross of St George, the English flag. Even a lapel badge was enough for a reveller to be shown the door.

In London, barred drinker Lisa Rathbone, 29, fumed: “We are not thugs, we have come out to celebrate St George’s Day and have a normal drink.

“Who the hell’s country is this now?”

A spokesman for Spirit Group, which owns the Punch And Judy, said: “We had problems last year.

“We stopped people coming in to protect the safety of other drinkers. This wasn’t intended to offend anyone.”

A similar ban sparked a riot in Boston, Lincs – where a quarter of the population now are immigrants – after a pub put up a sign saying: “No English.”

Shops were looted, a police car was torched and windows smashed by enraged yobs.

Rioters caused £1million damage in Boston after the “No English” sign was put up at a pub in the town after England lost 2-1 to France at Euro 2004.
Hold on a moment here. We're talking about one pub, The Punch and Judy, in London. And the people who were banned from entering were those wearing the cross of St. George. So can we not say the headline was a little misleading? English drinkers were as welcome to The Punch and Judy as Poles, Irish, Romanians, Stokies ...

And then there is the second part of the article. It informs us a riot took place in Boston, so enraged were the local citizenry after a pub banned English people. Hang on, it actually turns out The Star is referring to events that took place FOUR YEARS AGO, while implying it took place yesterday! Surely there must be some mistake? I've checked the BBC North West and indeed, short of a cover up, nothing appeared to have happened in Boston at all.

So what we have here is a story about a single pub banning drinkers decked out in St George regalia. But fed through The Star's news filter it becomes an inflammatory piece inciting hostility toward Poles and implying a politically correct conspiracy against plain normal English folk. What a load of hateful cobblers.

The Star stands as a the indictment against trashy tabloid journalism. The sooner the media ceases to be the plaything of vile, right wing press barons, the better.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Stoke SP Election Leaflet

This is the text of the second election leaflet Stoke Socialist Party has put out in the Burslem South ward. I hope it will be of interest to some readers.

Jane Mellalieu Campaigning for All, Not the Few!

Housing Renewal?
In the name of "renewal" our council have flattened more homes than the German Luftwaffe did in the Second World War! Jane says: "We welcome new low cost housing but oppose demolition of homes unless agreed by the community. We demand community control of housing renewal".

Keep Serco Fat Cats Out of Our Schools!
We are for community control over our education. We are against privatisation and campaign for new publicly owned schools on all present school sites without any loss of jobs. With increasingly fewer children in schools it's an ideal opportunity to reduce class sizes which would benefit teachers, students and parents. The government could provide us with extra funds by, for example, ending the occupation of Iraq or by increasing taxes for the super rich.

No to Post Office Closures!
We have fought vigourously for 18 months with postal workers to defend our post offices and postal services from privatisation.

Tackling Crime in Our Communities
The Socialist Party is opposed to criminal and anti-social behaviour and support democratic community action to tackle these problems. Working class communities, young and old, bear the brunt of crime.

The super rich can protect their homes with sophisticated security measures and even rent a cop for £350 a day! Meanwhile, many ordinary people don't phone the police because they know that nothing will be done.

At the same time in working class communities, nothing is done to provide young people with hope of a decent future - a good education, a good job and a decent home.

Youth clubs and other facilities have disappeared. Yet, there is no doubt that providing such basic rights would prevent the vast majority of young people from being sucked into crime.

The Socialist Party fights for democratic community action to tackle crime. As Jane says, "We need a police post to cover the Burslem South area. But one which is controlled by the community to ensure that the police work with and implement the policing priorities decided by people who live in the area".

End Labour's 'Them and Us' Society
New Labour is no different than the Tories and have betrayed ordinary working class people. We no longer have a major political party to represent us.

This is why the Socialist Party has helped to launch the Campaign for a New Workers' Party to provide a new voice to millions of working class people. For details see or call 07845893607.

Build a Socialist Alternative
On Stoke-on-Trent council New Labour, Tories and Lib Dem councillors are now three wings of the same political party, dedicated to slashing jobs, closing or privatising our schools, libraries, care homes, leisure centres like Dimensions, flattening our homes, pushing up council tax and wasting our money. Nobody knows what Independents or Potteries Alliance candidates stand for because they don't have a clear set of principles or ideas. This wishy-washy approach will not be enough to challenge the slash and burn policies of the council and the New Labour government. It's time now for real fighters with clear demands to be given a chance to stand up to what's going on.

Socialist Party - Proud of What We Stand For. That's Why:

*We produce a 12 page newspaper EVERY WEEK - written, produced and sold by ordinary working people. You can even have it delivered to your door. Long on to

*We set up Stoke Socialist Party website at and also have a national website at where you can examine in detail what we stand for 24 hours a day.

*New Labour councillors have a surgery just once a month for people to visit for advice, etc. To see the Potteries Alliance candidate in Burslem South you need to make an appointment! Socialist Party members are on the streets at least TWICE EVERY WEEK! In the last year alone we have spoken to tens of thousands of people on our stalls in Burslem, Hanley, Stoke and Longton.

All the other political parties put together can't match that!

Stoke Socialist Party Campaigning All Year Round!

*10,000 names collected on our petition which stopped University Hospital of North Staffs from closing the Outpatients' Department for one day a week! Set up North Staffs NHS SOS which organised a march of 2,500 to fight job cuts.

*Over 10,000 names against moving Hanley Post Office into WH Smiths. Although this didn't stop the move, hundreds of people are still supporting our call to boycott shopping in this store.

*Built support for Burslem postal workers fighting for justice against victimisation - we have thousands of names on our petition and helped organise two marches which drew support from 22 different cities.

*Keele University wants to close some courses for working class people. Socialist Party members are helping to build opposition among lecturers and students.

*School closures - we have an ongoing petition calling for a new school on every site.

*Working closely with postal workers at Stoke to save Leek Road mail centre - already 2,500 names on the petition.

We are for a democratic socialist society with resources used to benefit ordinary working class people. Join the Socialist Party!

Monday 21 April 2008

Emotion and Embodiment in Social Research

Keele played host today to a series of talks on the place occupied by emotion and the body in social research processes. We heard papers that looked at the ethics of lying about one's identity in ethnographic field work, the surprising intimacy of online interviews, the distance between researcher and the subjects of research, and the role of conferences in constructing academic identities. I would like to concentrate my remarks on the paper given by David Knights - Censoring Embodiment in Research: Reflections on Masculinity and Ethics.

His contention is the social sciences have conspired to keep the body out of the research process. There may well have been a turn to theorising the body within social theory over the last 20 years, but this "discovery" has not yet been reflected in sociological commentaries on the research process itself. Bringing the body, or rather embodiment (i.e. the unity of emotions, corporeality and cognition) back in requires a new way of writing sociology. To demonstrate the problem, Knights recalled his PhD experience. His was a participant observation of newspaper staff who were employed to sell advertising space. It appeared the staff spent their days finding creative ways to skive off, meaning very little got done. However, because of the workplace knowledge he had gained the staff grew concerned about the exposure of what they were, or rather, were not doing. So the union threw him out and barred access. Though this experience was a bit of a shock there was no place in his PhD to reflect on the effects it had on him. Similarly he recalled an ESRC project where one of his research team died after falling from a hotel balcony, and another ran off to Germany with all the data. Again the traumas of these experiences went unspoken in the final report.

Why is this the case? Knights suggest the fundamental assumptions of the social sciences remain organised around the mind/body split inherited from Descartes; and the domination of most fields by 'masculine' logics and discourses. In other words, this silence about the emotional production of academic work not only reflects hegemonic masculinities, but serves to reproduce them. This conveys an image of smoothness and orderliness, it affects a presentation of sociological knowledge as something produced without effort or difficulty, and suggests the social world itself is less chaotic, confusing and complex than it really is. This is an outcome of privileging one set of attributes over another. The sociological field still strives for objectivity, rationality and reason. It is much harder for one to accumulate the necessary cultural capital if the work is subjective, irrational and emotional. And of course, historically, these are gendered. The first set of three are male. The latter set female. The former are properties of mind. The latter are properties of the body.

This can be clearly seen in Sartre's existentialism. Knights argued his work could be seen as a search for order, which he eventually found when he became a communist. Sartre was anxious when it came to nature and particularly the contingencies of nature - its disorder, excess and viscosity. In common with other thinkers, he wanted to ensure a closure of meaning, where identity and theorising around identity could be grounded in some form of order, one that denies the corporeality of the body.

Another social scientific strategy of creating orderly presentations of the world is ironically the same method that has done much to undermine the claims of grand theorising. That method is ethnography. Its pretension to capture the detail of the social world reflects exhaustiveness. In other words it once again plays a discursive masculine game - to secure identity against contingency ethnography paints a detailed picture of the settings it operates in. The researcher is located in this space too, but again the emotional labour of getting into the field is often glossed over.

If sociology is to explain the totality of the social world, it needs to overcome the gendered norms embedded deep within its architecture. Social science needs to inhabit the space between subjectivity and representation, of acknowledging its gendered character and work to incorporate both sides into its output. The prize of doing so is a social science better able to theorise the social in all its complexity.

This is particularly useful where my own work is concerned. As I've noted previously, doing a project that boils down to a socialist interviewing socialists throws up all kinds of methodological issues around bias, familiarity, the conflicting "economies" of politics and academia, etc. Already I have used Bourdieu's notions of fields, capital, strategies and trajectories to map out the social space I inhabit as an activist and a researcher. Following Bourdieu, I believe sociological work cannot escape the conditions under which it was produced. Therefore this kind of reflexivity towards one's position in the academy, the field of power and the wider social field is a fundamental prerequisite of any properly scientific work of social analysis. What Knights' argument does is add another dimension to this enterprise; it allows for reflexive embodiment. It gives me an opportunity to acknowledge the emotions that have driven my research, governed how I've interacted with participants and informed my interpretation of their statements. Instead of buying into the ideology of smoothness, the frustrations that came when the original research plan began unravelling can be identified and inform the discussion of how the problem was overcome.

Perhaps there will be room to talk about panic too.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Knocking on Doors

When I stepped out the car for yesterday's canvassing session, the wind was howling and bitter. The streets were deserted and few cars were parked up. The omens were not good. But appearances can be deceiving, as I was to discover over the next few hours.

Burslem South is a very different ward from our normal stomping grounds in Abbey Green. The latter is almost exclusively white and is split between two geographically contiguous areas (Abbey Hulton and a part of Milton). Burslem South on the other hand is made up of half a dozen enclaves. It contains the full range of Stoke housing, from the brand new to the very old. Parts of Cobridge and Middleport are earmarked for demolition and is a major issue in the ward. There are no definite plans for demolition where we canvassed yesterday, but some of the housing stock is very poor. A huge hole in the roof of one uninhabited middle terrace was clearly visible though the top window from the street. The terraces either side of it had occupants. And this was by no means the only example.

The ward is multi-ethnic with many recent arrivals from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Subcontinent. Like where I live in Shelton, there is an established (mainly Muslim) Asian community. Unsurprisingly the BNP stay well away. Drugs and prostitution are big issues too - it was in this ward where teenage prostitute Samantha Bennett was found murdered earlier this month. The sitting councillor is Ted Owen of the Potteries Alliance.

On the doorsteps we were very well received. Most people I spoke with had already read the leaflet we distributed the week before, and so it was pleasantly surprising to find a few saying they were voting for the Socialist Party even before I began patiently explaining why we were deserving of their votes! For some the calibre of our candidate was important. Jane Mellalieu is a Burslem postal worker who has been at the forefront of the struggle to get the 12 reinstated. On the strength of this one self-identified Tory said she was switching her vote to us. Another woman disappeared into her house and came out with a fiver for me!

There was a lot of anger directed toward Labour, anger of the kind that should make any member of that party feel ashamed. I spoke to one former miner who hasn't worked since a cave-in at his old pit. He's disgusted he will be forced to go through humiliating tests and maybe forced unfit back into the workplace in the name of clamping down on a few cheats. This life long socialist and Labour voter will not be going out to support the party that kicks him in the teeth. The story was the same elsewhere. No one identified themselves as a Labour voter, though people were quite happy to call themselves former Labour voters. It's probably a measure of the depth of feeling in the area that the Labour candidate had press ganged two young lads - presumably his sons - to go round leafleting for him!

I also ended up speaking to one guy from Abbey Green who was visiting his mum. I got the vibe from him that he would be voting BNP. This wasn't because he endorsed their politics, rather Labour couldn't have found a more repugnant and unpopular candidate to stand for them.

This was one of the most inspiring and positive canvassing experiences I've been on. If we get a similar reception in other areas then we're on for a respectable vote.

Time for a few unscientific observations. I wonder if comrades elsewhere engaged in canvassing have come across them? Are these just Stoke phenomena?

1) Women are more likely to answer the doors in their dressing gowns.

2) People with barking dogs are more likely to buy a paper from you than people without.

3) Am I the only one to have door-stepped a Jehovah's Witness, instead of vice versa?

Friday 18 April 2008

Branch Meeting: Crime and Policing

Last night's Stoke Socialist Party branch meeting looked at the thorny issue - for the left - of crime and policing. A opened with a few observations on the nature of the police. He said that because the police's are historically the state's front line in the defence of capitalist property relations there is the temptation to dismiss the police as an undifferentiated reactionary mass. This is precisely what ultra lefts do with their present day calls to smash up the police and replace it with a workers' militia. But if the revolutionary left want its ideas to be taken seriously we have to be rather more subtle and skilful in our approach. The problem is this: what constitutes a strategy that neutralises the police as a repressive apparatus; and to make this strategy compatible with tackling crime in the here and now.

A briefly noted how the police are as capable of struggling for their own interests as much as any other section of the working class. This was the case in 1919 when sections of the police went on strike, resulting in the breaking of the independent police union and its replacement by the Police Federation. Moving forward to 2008 we have rumblings of discontent against the government's attempts to impose peanuts pay rises across the public sector. This offers socialists an opportunity to drive a wedge between the police and the state. We should support the police's right to strike, their right to form an independent union and the right of that union to build relationships with the wider labour movement. The state's ability to shield the police from the rest of the working class has made it a more effective servant of capital's interests.

The other strand is bound up with policing and tackling crime. Traditionally Militant and the SP have called for the placing of the police under democratic community control. At present crime fighting tends not to be determined by the priorities of the communities they police but government initiatives or media hobby horses. Here in Stoke there has been Operation Nemesis, a clamp down on the city's cannabis factories. We've also had raids on take aways and restaurants and the arresting of "illegals", threatening many of the businesses involved. These make tough-sounding headlines but do the residents of Stoke feel any safer?

There was once a small element of democratic oversight of the police. In the past there were local authority police committees which drew on representatives from the force and the council chamber. For there to be any meaningful democratic control of the police such bodies need to be reintroduced, expanded and vastly strengthened. The only other proposal reintroducing an element of democratic accountability into the police comes from UKIP(!), who favour the election of chief supers and commissioners. This would be more cosmetic than far reaching and do nothing for community policing priorities.

In short democratic control of policing has a number of positive effects from a socialist point of view. Increased democracy makes it more difficult for the state to act as capital's handmaiden. The police will be more responsive to pressures from below. Crime prevention, containment and reduction actually become what policing is about. At the same time it would empower communities, foster more cohesion, erode the division between the police and the mass of our class and see to it residents' concerns are properly addressed, not routinely ignored.

In and of itself this is no panacea. For it to be truly effective it has to be linked to wider policies that tackle the roots of crime, encompassing social policy, a programme of decriminalisation, and punishment and rehabilitation. But it is practical, empowering and meet the concerns of working class people head on.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Democracy 4 Stoke

Stoke-on-Trent is many things, but the world centre of global revolution is it not ... yet. Therefore readers are forgiven for not knowing the issues that generally exercise The Potteries' citizenry. One issue is the role of the elected mayor's office. At present Stoke is run as an elected dictatorship. Labour mayor Mark Meredith basically shares power with the council's top civil servant. Advising him are a "cabinet" of councillors from the Labour, LibDems and the Conservative and Independent Alliance groups. Between them they muster a majority of councillors happy to rubber stamp whatever neoliberal scheme the mayor comes up with. The opposition is split between the Potteries Alliance, City Independent Group and our friends the BNP.

What this state of affairs has meant for Stoke is a wholesale attack on local public services.  And local democracy has now become something of a political hot potato since Meredith announced plans to close and merge local schools into city academies. Initially this was to affect every school in the city but has since been scaled back. However if he gets his way this is likely to be a pilot programme and a portent of what is to come for the rest. What was even more scandalous was how the Labour group was given the right to protest against school closures ... as long as they voted the package through at full council. Incredibly, they did just that!

However, this appears to have been the final straw for many in the Labour group. Meredith has made many enemies among the local party, to such an extent that Labour candidates are stating their opposition to the mayor and the mayoral system on their election material. There is also every chance he could be deselected should he seek Labour's nomination next year. 

It is at this juncture that the local campaigning organisation, Democracy 4 Stoke, has written to all 90+ candidates standing in Stoke-on-Trent for their views on the mayor. Their preferred alternative to our most New Labour of electoral systems can be viewed here.

I reproduce below our letter replying to Democracy 4 Stoke. I hope it will be of use to socialists elsewhere should local democracy become an issue in their council elections.
Many thanks for your letter and allowing me the opportunity to volunteer information about Stoke Socialist Party's approach to elected mayors.

As socialists we believe democracy and socialism go hand in hand. We stand for the fullest democratisation possible, at international, national, regional and local levels. We also believe democracy needs to be extended, taking in everything from the workplace to the management of public services.

In Stoke and across the country, wherever there have been moves to set up presidential-style local mayors the Socialist Party has opposed it. This is because elected mayoral systems are the least responsive forms of local democracy possible. As we have seen in Stoke this has allowed the mayor’s office to dominate the council chamber to the detriment of the city’s education and local services provision.

The alternative offered by Democracy 4 Stoke is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough. We would like to see the mayor’s office dismantled and replaced by a council chamber with increased powers, but subject to annual elections on a ward-by-ward basis. It is far less likely councillors will vote for cuts, school closures and privatisation if they have to get themselves re-elected more regularly. The Socialist Party also stands against the system of privileges available to councillors; such as generous expenses, large allowances for sitting on committees and so on.

Whilst democratic structures are of course important the policies of councillors and political parties are far more important. Therefore, whilst we support the fullest democratic structure we are totally opposed to job losses, cuts, closures and privatisation.

I hope you find this information of use.

Socialist greetings

Tuesday 15 April 2008

The Power of Q?

I recall gatecrashing a conversation between a mate of mine and his PhD supervisor a few years ago. As you do in these sorts of encounters you get asked what you're doing and how you hope to go about it. I explained my research was looking at the life history of Trotskyist activists and my methods were based on a series of in-depth semi-structured interviews. "Have you thought about Q Methodology?" he asked. I hadn't, because at that point I didn't know what it really was. He went on to suggest it was more scientific than my approach as it eliminates researcher bias from the research process.

I came away not entirely convinced. This is partly because not only had years of reading around the qualitative research literature had convinced me of the problematic character of quantitative methods, but also my own (then recent) traumatic experience with SPSS and statistical operations had showed me that a great deal of it is little better than mathematical masturbation. But nonetheless I knew I would at least have to undertake a brief study of Q Methodology, even if only to justify why it wasn't used in my study.

Much to my surprise, I found that Q Methods could have been useful as a supplement to my interview-based data. Despite my aversion to quantitative methods, I would agree with Robbins and Krueger's assessment that "Q method dovetails with the interpretive and cultural turn ... and is a powerful tool for anti-essentialist approaches to subjectivity and for constructivist inquiries into categories of nature, urban form and scientific activity".

So what's it all about?

Q Methodology was developed by the psychologist William Stephenson as a means of revealing someone's subjectivity without the "distortion" caused by the presence of the researcher as facilitator or mediator. This "revealing" takes place by examining an individual's traits and relating one's opinions to all the others. What this suggests is far from being a dark continent the mind, or rather an individual's frame of reference can be observed and modelled.

The application of Q methodology goes through a series of steps. Firstly the researcher must identify what Robbins and Krueger call 'the domain of subjectivity'. This is more than just the topic the researcher's interested in. For example, one question I often asked my respondents was what they thought of the Labour party. If I was interested in using Q to determine the range of opinion among socialists, I would have collated a number of statements from these interviews and pared them down to a series of claims that can be made about Labour. For instance, Labour is '... a party of big business'; '... remains a bourgeois workers' party'; '... committed to social democracy'; and '... is still the workers' friend'.

The respondent is given a number of statements and is invited to rank order them according to preference. The arranging takes place on a scale from (-)5 to (+)5, denoting least to most representative of the subject's opinion. In the case of most Socialist Party members, it is reasonable to expect statements emphasising the erosion of the Labour party as a viable vehicle for working class politics be grouped toward the most representative end, and statements extolling Labour's socialist virtues clustered in the least.

Once completed the sorts are subject to Q factor analysis. What this does is identify correlations and the strength of these correlations between subjects across the sample of statements. If there are clusters this is indicative of a common subjective outlook, which can then be further investigated using whatever tools the researcher desires.

Strangely I haven't been able to find much in the way of critical literature from a qualitative standpoint on Q. One objection that comes to mind are issues where a respondent may give equal weight to contradictory statements, which is something that may be too nuanced for the scale of preferences to pick up. For example, seeing Labour as a party of big business AND as a key arena for socialist political activity is not necessarily mutually exclusive.

That said it could have been useful for the kind of life history research I have been doing. Take for example my interviewees' school days. Their experiences run the full range from school yard tearaway to studious swot. There is no reason why such experiences cannot also be boiled down to a number of statements, and indeed it would be useful to see if there were clusters around certain sets. But it could only ever be a supplement to the core interview data. Q can indicate how one's opinions link together, but that is all it can do. To explore how they actually relate demands an examination of the respondent's narrative, which is only possible through painstaking coding and close analysis of the transcripts, with all its attendant problems and dangers.

Monday 14 April 2008

Socialist Party on London Elections

Below is an extract from Paula Mitchell's article from the current edition of The Socialist looking at the London mayor and assembly elections. I've omitted the sections on Livingstone, Johnson and the BNP. For what it's worth if I had a vote I would be giving my first preference to Lindsey German and the second to Livingstone, as the article recommends. In the constituency sections I would support the Left List, except for Greenwich and Lewisham, where the SWP's sectarianism won out over serious consideration of how to build a left of Labour alternative. Here the SP's Chris Flood deserves a high vote. And finally in the list section I think Respect Renewal is the best bet. Whatever one thinks of George Galloway he's likely to be very effective in holding the mayor to account.

... workers should have no illusions in Livingstone. The only solution is for trade unionists and campaigners to stand candidates, as a step towards building a new workers' party.

In this election a big opportunity to do this has been lost. Well before the election campaigning began, the two Lewisham Socialist Party councillors, who are helping to build the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, wrote to various campaigning and trade union organisations in London to propose a broad anti-cuts, anti-privatisation list for the GLA, and possibly a mayoral candidate too.

They wrote to the London bodies of trade unions that had come into conflict with the Labour government, or who are outside the Labour Party, and to health campaigns and workers in struggle in different parts of London.

At the 2007 National Shop Stewards Network conference, RMT general secretary Bob Crow declared that the RMT would consider standing candidates in the GLA elections.

This would have been an important step forward.

London Socialist Party members entered into discussions with him, raising the possibility of the RMT taking the lead in pulling together trade unionists and campaigners into one list, which could include Socialist Party councillors, with the RMT at the head. Socialist Party RMT members successfully moved a resolution at the London Underground regional council to this effect.

If such a list had been achieved, the London elections would have been different. A working-class alternative would have been presented which could have articulated the enormous anger at the gap between rich and poor, at the decimation of our services through privatisation and cuts, at the crises in both health and housing.

It could have cut across some of the support for the BNP, by not only being clearly anti-racist, but most importantly, by offering an alternative to the small layer of working-class people who vote for the BNP in desperation over the ruin of their jobs, homes, services and communities. It could have been the starting block for a conference of trade unionists and campaigners to campaign for the formation of a new workers' party.

Unfortunately the RMT stepped back from standing candidates. Without a bold lead from a serious force such as the RMT, the creation of a workers' list that could have a major impact has not been possible.

In the assembly election the Socialist Party is, however, standing one of our Socialist councillors, Chris Flood, in the Greenwich and Lewisham constituency. For the vast majority of Londoners though, the options are severely limited.

The Socialist Party is calling for a vote for anti-cuts, anti-privatisation candidates where that is possible. For the mayor, there is only one such candidate, Lindsey German of the Respect 'Left List'.

Understanding the vicious attacks on workers that Boris Johnson would make and the desire of large numbers of working class Londoners to defeat him, we are calling for 2nd preference votes for Ken Livingstone, while arguing strenuously that the most important thing is to fight for a new workers' party.

In the all-London lists for the assembly, there are three to the left of the main parties: the 'Left List', George Galloway's Respect Renewal, and the Communist Party of Britain's 'Unity for Peace and Socialism'.

A vote for any of these would at least be a protest against the main parties. But unfortunately none of them represent forces that are likely to lead to a new workers' party at this stage.

Galloway's Respect Renewal and the SWP-led Respect 'Left List' are two rival organisations emerging from the split in Respect at the end of last year. The Socialist Party expressed its concerns about Respect from the start. The most important of these was that a new workers' party will not develop simply through a group of people declaring themselves to be the new party, and saying that everyone must join them.

A successful new party will only be formed through the participation of a number of serious forces - a fresh influx of workers and young people, and trade union bodies, community campaigns etc - all of whom need the freedom to argue their own points of view and democratically arrive at a programme and method of work.

Unfortunately though, both sides of the Respect split are now calling themselves the alternative and are calling on everyone else to join them or stand aside.

Scandalously, the Left List is even standing a candidate in the Greenwich and Lewisham constituency against longstanding socialist campaigner and health worker, Socialist Party councillor Chris Flood.

The Socialist Party will continue to campaign for significant steps towards a new mass workers' party, including the presenting of a serious and united challenge to the big business parties in future elections.

But we understand that to succeed, alliances and a new party must be developed on a federal and democratic basis, drawing in a new layer of workers, and rejecting the top-down centralised approach that resulted in failures and splits in the small new formations of recent years.

Saturday 12 April 2008

Resuming Normal Service

AVPS is back after a week's hiatus. It got bored with the rubbish Stoke weather and migrated to Blackpool, while your humble contributors got stuck into their PhDs and assorted bolshevik activities. But now it's back and the misery didn't even get us a stick of rock. Is your blog as mean to you as ours is to us?

Luckily we're above such pettiness. Look with wonder upon the changes wrought recently on the blog roll. Added to the list since the last links update are The Norm, A Cloud in Trousers, Brizblog, Citizen Steve, Culture Sluts, Isn't It About Time We Tried Socialism?, Louis Proyect, Newer Labour, Philobiblon and A Modern Libertarian. Seldom is such an attractive roll of honour seen. We really are too good to this ungrateful wretch of a blog.

This week should see posts on the usual mish-mash of comment, sociology, Socialist Party things and sectariana.

While AVPS has been away we were unable to update the books and music selections. When the blog was knocking about on the pleasure beach I had my nose stuck in The Union Makes Us Strong by Tony Lane. Published in 1974 if it was still in print it would be standard reading for all socialists. It's more than just a straight forward history of British trade unions. It examines the conditions and pressures on union officialdom; the leaders and parliamentary representatives, the mid-ranking full-timers and shop stewards. It looks at how the division of labour sets the working class at sectional loggerheads with its fellows and how this is reflected in the organisation of the labour movement. For a book over 30 years old it remains as relevant now as it was when it first rolled off the presses. It's also persuaded me to tackle Ralph Miliband's Parliamentary Socialism after an age of gathering dust on my book shelf.

Music-wise, my pick of the week has to be Portishead's Machine Gun. The album is excellent too. And with the old choon it's back to 1989 and 808 State's seminal Pacific State.

Top blogging, incisive analysis, must-read books and conspicuous displays of the correct music taste. We do spoil this blog ... but you can spoil it too. If you know of any decent left blogs that deserve a wider circulation just let us know via the comments.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Louis Theroux's African Hunting Holiday

In South Africa hunting is big business. If you book with Safari S.A. you can have "comfortable camps, great food and unforgettable hunting" for as little as $350 a day. You can bring the kids along as well for $25. We wouldn't want them to miss out on the fun! Should you bag something for the office wall prices range from $100 for a hapless baboon to $3,200 for a red lechwe (a species of antelope). Louis Theroux's semi-Fortean hunt for weird phenomena takes him to Shingani Safaris. Proprietor Riann Vosloo has the animals that can attract the big spenders. Fancy bagging a hippo? That will be $8,000 thanks. If you have money to burn how about offing a rhino? A mere snip at $100,000! For hunters on a budget there is a cheap menu, which is made possible by fencing in animals on reservations and the advent of controlled breeding. A cheap and easy experience opens up South African game hunting to the masses!

In his typical fashion, Louis latches on to a couple of neophytes. Paul and Ann-Marie are the first arrivals at Shingani of a 22-strong party of hunters from Ohio. For Paul the chance to hunt South African game is a dream come true. He's looking to hunt zebra and baboon. The latter, says Vosloo, make a beautiful trophy, not least because their intelligence makes them difficult prey. Ann-Marie however has never been hunting and is just along for the experience. Louis heads out with them on their first hunt, accompanied by their personal hunter and a couple of trackers, to retrieve the animal in case it gets wounded. Their jeep stops and Paul takes aim with his rifle but this time he is unsuccessful. No blood trailing into the bush means the zebra got away unscathed. He tells Louis he's shaking and his heart is hammering. Ann-Marie's caught up in the excitement too. She likened it to being in a casino surrounded by gamblers. Because everyone's doing it you feel the compulsion to join in. Asked if she thinks she would feel bad she said it would be if the animal's death was meaningless. But the meat of the animal is either sold or given away, so it isn't wasted.

Ann-Marie does have a problem with the zebras because they look too much like horses. But she was excited by the sight of the animals. Inevitably, she relents. Her small party take up residence in a blind overlooking a watering hole. The bolt is loaded, she takes aim and fires. An unfortunate impala who had stopped for a drink dies almost instantaneously. Ann-Marie's bolt tears through its lungs and passes out the other side, spraying much blood to the delight of the onlookers. They emerge from the blind and take trophy shots. She describes feeling overwhelmed - it was intense and interesting. She feels bad looking at the dead beast but then philosophically muses whether its quick death was preferable to the drawn out fate it would likely face on the reservation.

Louis hooks up with a couple of others from the Ohio hunting party. In their real lives, Anthony owns a haulage firm and Rich works in a recycling plant. They go on a night time hunt where Anthony shoots and fatally wounds a kudu. The trackers find it on its back, its head eerily propped up by its horns. Anthony is eager to pose with his kill; "this is important once you kill a wonderful beast like this". The Ohio party returns to camp with a bumper haul of animals. Louis reflects on not being able to share the hunters' excitement and presses Anthony on his. He tells Louis you need a passion for hunting to enjoy the celebrations, to understand why to "take an animal like that is a dream come true".

So much for the hunting experience. Louis explores the business side with Pete Warren, a big game breeder who sells his animals to safari outfitters. He's quite blunt about what he does. There's more money in breeding game than raising cattle. He doesn't love his animals, they're merely livestock, commodities. They're part of an artificial hunting experience feeding a demand. For example, Riann recalls that when he was a boy he would be pleased if he managed one kill in the three month hunting season. Because of the industry even novices can bag five or six in a day.

Louis, as the liberal stand-in for the voyeuristic audience fields the questions us outsiders are dying to ask. Is hunting cruel? Riann thinks opponents of hunting just do not understand. They are especially hypocritical if they eat meat - the difference between a carnivorous opponent of hunting and a hunter is the former's separation from the reality of the slaughter house. With hunting death is visible and out in the open, and it is this what is deemed so objectionable.

Pete is grilled about the seeming pointlessness of the exercise. Breeders spend time and effort raising these magnificent animals only to sell them on and have them shot, so why bother? Once again Pete is typically hard headed. Once-endangered species like sables would never have been brought back from the brink if it wasn't for hunting. With the development of a market for game livestock there is an economic incentive to conserve. It allows for stronger and more physically impressive specimens to be bred and is a means of making money out of what is here. If hunters from overseas want to come to South Africa to kill animals they are ensuring the survival of the species.

And here lies the rub for socialists. On the one hand the commodification of species ensures their protection. Great stuff. Safari outfitters provide jobs, hunters' bloodlusts are sated and South Africa has a real economic compulsion to protect its biodiversity. But hunting markets cannot be a lasting solution. Conservation is only possible in so far as it delivers the animals hunters want to shoot. What of fads? What happens to a species that becomes "unfashionable"? Breeders will, of necessity, tend toward what the market dictates. In other words some species win out at the expense of others through a process of selection that is anything but natural. And what happens when the market contracts, as it surely will at some point? Capital has no problem wastefully disposing of unsold commodities. Game are no different. It is quite possible they too could find themselves bound to the abattoir just like conventional livestock.

Friday 4 April 2008

Branch Meeting: The Politics of the SWP

Brother A began his lead off at last night's branch meeting by observing how bitching about the SWP is almost a bonding exercise among leftists outside its ranks. Perhaps I'm unique because I haven't had what you would call bad experiences with the SWP. At a Derby SWP branch meeting many moons ago I was told contemporary criticisms of the anthropology underlying Engels' Origin of the Family were "bourgeois". Then there was the time they kept on at me to join - it go so bad I did just that to appease my would-be comrades (I resigned 12 hours later, is that the shortest SWP membership in history?) And how can I forget being on a demo last year and getting told by a young activist from Tower Hamlets SWP-Respect that the Socialist Party didn't stand candidates in elections? They aren't too bad. Many comrades can speak of worse (in fact, I get on very well with Stoke SWP, such as it exists). However A said it's not enough to tell each other stories about the SWP. To understand why it does what it does requires a sober analysis of its theoretical approach, its organisation, its strategy and its tactics.

He gave brief outlines and criticisms of the SWP's positions on state capitalism and the national question (extended critiques can be found here and here). But the biggest problem in its politics comes down to a question of programme. It is to the International Socialist tradition's credit that it saw the flaws in Trotsky's Transitional Programme of 1938, but Cliff and co mistakenly threw out the transitional baby along with Trotsky's programmatic water.

To reiterate the basics: the transitional method is about raising demands that relate to the present consciousness of working class people. These act as a bridge to the drawing of socialist conclusions. For example, the reversal of PFI, abolition of internal markets, the taking back of sub-contracted services and the extension of democratic control by patients and staff in the NHS are all demands that are theoretically possible in the here and now. But if workers and patient groups take up these demands would quickly run up against the logics of the system. They become aware through their own experiences of the forces arrayed against them and some may reach socialist conclusions. To get these demands taken up by large numbers of workers in the first place is no mean feat. Socialists have to skilfully and patiently relate them to the uneven consciousness of working class people. If one's demands are too far ahead they want get a decent hearing. If they're too far behind there is the danger socialists could hold back the development of class consciousness.

A programme of transitional demands that is constantly enriched by engagement with our class is vital for any socialist organisation. It keeps our feet on the ground. It tells us what policies, demands and campaigns are likely to gain an echo among our class. Therefore the SWP's rejection of the transitional approach is its major political flaw. Without it the organisation as a whole is dependent on the direction of its leadership to steer it. And with no programmatic strategy to guide them the SWP can find itself all over the place. This is exacerbated by a political culture that stymies debate in the organisation and reduces its capacity to learn from its mistakes. Factions are only permissible in the three month period prior to conference after which they are expected to dissolve. Such measures ensure that if opposition congeals around certain questions it can never act as a serious alternative to the present leadership. Ties of patronage between the London-based apparatus and full timers in the regions mean the latter depend on the former for their livelihoods and will, in the most part, work to undermine opposition where and when it appears. It is no accident none of the comrades critical of the leadership's handling of the Respect crisis were delegated to the last conference.

This culture finds an expression outside its ranks in its relations with other left groups and activists, none of which really need going into. The flip side of this bureaucratic approach to socialist politics is what A termed a light-minded approach. Because the leadership is substituted for the programme what drives its strategy is the need to secure its existence. This means subordinating activity to party building and paper selling. Consistent work by the SWP in certain areas on certain issues are the exception rather than the norm.

To back this up, J, a Burslem postal worker, noted the SWP were not interested in the events at her depot until the campaign around the 12 suspended posties gathered national momentum. They occasionally turned up on picket lines at the beginning of the year and were all over the national demonstration that took place. They haven't been seen since. This compares unfavourably with Stoke SP's behaviour, who have consistently been involved with solidarity work from the very beginning and continue to do so.

P offered an observation about the SWP's commitment to 'socialism from below'. The key conclusion Cliff drew from his state capitalist analysis of the USSR was you cannot have a workers' state without the workers, regardless of how degenerate or deformed it may be. This was because if socialism was anything it was the outcome of conscious self-activity of the workers themselves. By fetishising "proletarian" property forms at the expense of actual social relations of production, adherents of Trotsky's "orthodox" degenerate workers' state position on the Soviet Union lay themselves open to the risk of supporting all kinds of non-working class movements and forces, if there is a chance a deformed workers' state (albeit one without the workers) is set up. It's ironic that the SP and CWI - the majority of whom who hold to Trotsky's classical analysis - pursues a politics far closer to Cliff's vision of socialism from below. While the SP believes hope lies with the proles across the world's geopolitical hotspots the SWP finds itself tailing various 'anti-imperialist' regimes and movements.

He also spoke of the SWP's lurch from ultra-leftism to opportunism in the trade union movement. He recalled how the SWP greeted the end of the 2005 pensions dispute between the PCS and the government with shouts of 'sell out!' Contrast this with their stance during the postal workers' national strike last year. CWU president Jane Loftus is a well known member of the SWP and refused to publicly campaign for a no vote to the deal on the table. By the same token the SWP more or less gave the CWU leadership an easy ride in the pages of Socialist Worker. So what was the difference between the two? In the PCS the dominant left trend is the SP. In the CWU it is the SWP. In the former it was about attacking opponents and acquiring factional advantage. The latter was about keeping that advantage. Once again the requirements of the SWP apparatus came before the needs of our class.

F recounted the year he spent within the SWP. They were the first socialists he had come across and was attracted to them on the basis of their anti-BNP stance. But very quickly he became disillusioned. On an anti-fascist mobilisation somewhere in the West Midlands, he remembered "we were screaming 'Nazi scum off our streets!' much to the bemusement of the locals whose streets we were walking through!" He concluded what was needed was a class-based electoral alternative to the BNP, seeing as vote-catching is their priority, for the moment. Militant-sounding slogans combined with alliances with Tories and vicars is not the best way of fighting fascism.

In sum the discussion helped clarify some of the differences between our organisation and the SWP. It was useful because Stoke SP hasn't had to "compete" with a local SWP branch for over a decade. But now our fair city is the site of two key struggles - Burslem and Keele - chances are we'll be bumping up against them again.

Thursday 3 April 2008

Save Jobs, Save Keele

Ever since the plans to close Keele's School of Economic and Management Studies and Centre for Health Planning and Management were announced shortly before Christmas, university management has met with three demonstrations, a one day strike, email bombs, non-cooperation on some admin, boycotts and leafleting of open days, adverse press ... all of this was leading up to this morning. At 10am Keele University's governing body, the council, heard Vice Chancellor Janet Finch's plans to force through 38 redundancies and replace SEMS - a key trade union academic resource - with a smaller and less specialised business school. This body, made up of sundry local notables, had within its power to rubber stamp the proposals, ask for significant modification or have them thrown out. Would they listen to the voices of staff, students and the wider academic community?

Even if they didn't listen the 250 demonstrators protesting outside made their chants and whistles heard! Considering the demonstration was taking place in the middle of the Easter holidays with many staff and students away from the campus such a turnout was good. It was boosted by contingents from the local labour movement and numbers of UCU activists from other HE institutions. There was an excellent atmosphere as the banners of Burslem CWU mingled with Telford Unison, Brighton UCU and West Midlands PCS. The march around campus was noisy and good natured and the left had a fairly good reception - Keele Socialist Party members and Socialist Students had no problem distributing literature and neither did the Socialist Worker sellers who parachuted in for the occasion.

The demo was followed by a packed meeting in the KUSU ball room. We heard a number of trade union speakers. Notable contributions came from UCU Scotland president, Alastair Hunter; Roger McKenzie of the Midlands TUC; KUSU's Mark Holland; and SEMS action committee member and famous ethnographer, Paul Willis.

Alastair Hunter said something is wrong when a known centre of excellence is under threat. Is it coincidence SEMS teaches Industrial Relations? Coincidence it receives trade union income and trains labour movement activists? Coincidence it is not "business facing"? This attack is nothing to do with cutting costs - it is about ideology.

Roger McKenzie echoed many of Alastair's comments. "If this was about quality HE we would be talking about more resources". He argued the VC's plans are wider than Keele. It is about the elite's vision of higher education. They want education to be a service industry for business. Courses teaching working class people about the nature of the workplace have no place here.

Mark Holland said the VC tried to drive a wedge between staff and students by pretending it was a local departmental difficulty, that staff did not have students' best interests at heart. Fortunately KUSU's decision to back the UCU's actions were overwhelmingly passed at its AGM earlier in the year. "It would be misguided of us to side with management" he concluded.

Paul Willis took apart management's empty market forces mantras. They evoke markets and skills in reified ways - if this was the bottom line, Keele's actual "market dominance" of Industrial Relations would rule out SEMS closure. But it isn't. They are code words for discipline, control and fear. He finished by saying the heirs of the university are not the outside consultants the VC employed to dismember SEMS, but we are - the staff and students who constitute the academic community.

Unfortunately slightly after three news came through that the VC's plans were passed by council. Though it was a body blow this outcome was not entirely surprising. A general members meeting has been scheduled for next Tuesday to decide what the next steps will be. It is very likely the UCU will vote to escalate the dispute.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

PhD Methods: Decisions, Decisions

At the start of the project I envisaged employing a methodological strategy using three different kinds of research tools. The first was interviewing volunteers about their time in the Trotskyist movement. The second would be a degree of participant observation, with the aim of capturing a sense of how Socialist Party and Socialist Workers' Party activists behave in particular settings, such as the demonstration, the paper sale, the picket line and the branch meeting. Thirdly I thought a small-scale survey of SP and SWP members would be useful in establishing how representative my interview sample was.

Unfortunately it quickly became apparent that, for a variety of reasons, it would prove to be very difficult getting hold of SWP volunteers for the project. Certainly being members of rival organisations was a factor - a number of SP comrades stated they wouldn't have participated if I wasn't a member. But what I think was the overriding key factor was a lack of acquaintances with active SWP comrades. This lack of a prior relationship led me to conclude that an attempt to do a survey standing on the steps outside Marxism or Socialism would not be very successful. It meant abandoning the claim to having a representative sample beyond what the respondents themselves say about their perception of being a typical member of their organisation. But it also didn't really matter. My concern was establishing a case study showing how a sample of activists got into socialist politics and remain committed to them, as a means of intervening in existing academic debates in social movement research.

I'm more ambiguous regarding participant observation. In the first place it was, like the survey, a bolt-on extra. The interview was always going to be my primary means of data collection. The role of ethnography was to brighten up the finished work as a presentational flourish and not really be treated as data to be analysed. However, because this is a project inspired by Bourdieu's work on fields, strategy and cultural capital I have to be aware of how my own political and academic interests impacted on the structuring and framing of the research. Perhaps an auto-ethnography exploring my experience of being an active member of the SP could be useful for uncovering the biases and assumptions that meant certain questions were asked and remained unasked.

The interview in social research, as we have seen, has had to move on from the traditional hierarchical arrangement to acknowledging it as a co-constructed interaction process. Again, this calls for more reflexivity on the part of the researcher, but in my opinion the interview remains the best way for a respondent to tell their story, albeit one bounded by the concerns of the researcher. I decided upon a modified version of what I.E. Seidman (1991) called 'in-depth phenomenological interviewing'. This requires three interviews with each participant. The first is focused life history, which establishes the lived context of the experiences the researcher is interested in. In other words, it establishes a narrative of their life up to that point. The second is the detail of the experiences themselves. The final session is a reflection upon their meaning and how they understand them within their own biographical narrative. For the interview sequence to be set up in this manner each of them need some sort of structure to make sure the co-constructed narrative stays on course.

This does have a certain advantage when it comes to validity. It's true one cannot generalise findings beyond the sample, but the interview sequence provides comments with a certain consistency and enhances the truth claims of a respondent's story.

However once my interviews were underway experience suggested I change my 'model' of interviewing. I found the three-step model extremely useful. It gave myself and the interviewees plenty of time to explore certain issues. But what I did to enhance the "meaning making" of the third interview was to return the transcripts to the respondents and ask them to read it before it took place. This was for a number of reasons.

1) It allowed them to go over the transcript for typographical errors and make corrections.

2) Afforded them an opportunity to take out information they may regard as sensitive or mistaken.

3) Reinforce the sense of co-construction, of seeing the transcripts as something belonging to them rather than something dragged out of them.

In addition the third interview became the place where "tougher" questions were asked, such as what criticisms or differences did they have with their organisation, and what they would likely do if they ever found themselves outside of its ranks. I also asked a series of methodological questions about the interview process, how they felt reading themselves back, my "bedside manner", the fate of the PhD research and so on. These responses were very interesting and hopefully I'll be able to write more substantially about them in the future.

The other major change I made was extend the life history approach across the two interviews. Typically the first interview would end at the point my volunteer joined their organisation or when they started seeing themselves as a socialist. The second interview would run from then up to the present day, looking at how their commitment to socialist politics were progressively assimilated into everyday life and, in some cases, how the latter came to be subordinated to the former. I found the interviews flowed better and made easier reading when the transcripts were handed back.

The big draw back I found with the three-step process was finding the time to transcribe in between data collection and pinning people down for follow up interviews. Seidman suggested they should take place within a relatively short period of time of one another. In some cases that didn't happen with me. The other problem was incomplete interview schedules - after two interviews a few comrades dropped off the radar completely. But all told I was left with 50+ hours of data to sift through, so these problems proved to be an inconvenience rather than a major issue.

This is why I ended up doing what I did. But there are alternatives not discussed here, which I shall look at in a future post.