Saturday 24 September 2016

Saturday Interview: Ravi Subramanian

Ravi Subramanian is a Labour activist and full-timer for Unison in the Midlands. Splitting his time between Nottingham and Birmingham, Ravi blogs at More Known than Proven, where he uses data to fact check and challenge some of the more egregious idiocies touted by leading politicians and commentators. Ravi also composes sentences of 140 characters or fewer at @RaviSubbie.

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

I follow dozens of blogs on my Feedly RRS feed reader, so I’ll stick to a few key ones.

First, your blog is a must read for me and I always recommend it to others because you understand the labour movement at a deep level and I find your insight helpful. I always find your blog worth reading, even on those rare occasions I don’t agree with you.

My other must read is Chris Dillow’s blog Stumbling and Mumbling. It is superb. He writes about economics with a clarity seldom found. I’ve learned a lot from his blog, particularly around cognitive biases and behavioural economics. He is thought provoking and engaging. Thoroughly recommended.

Political Betting is another must read. Everything you need to know about opinion polls is here. What I really like about this blog is that is it is written by, and for, people who bet serious sums of money on politics. Consequently, there is a real attempt to deliver an objective analysis, because although the writers have political allegiances, their primary motivation is making money. Serious gamblers are generally good at objective analysis. Their take on opinion polls is particularly good.

Finally, although I read lots of other left wing blogs like Left Foot Forward, Union News, Labour Uncut etc. Another of my must reads is The Spectator magazine’s Coffee House blog as it gives a good insight into mainstream right wing opinion. I’m firmly on the left but I like to know what the key ideas are on the right and to my test arguments against them. Also, Isabel Hardman who edits the blog writes about Westminster perceptively and in an even handed way. The only real downside to the Coffee House blog are the posts from the Pound Shop Jeremy Clarkson that is Rod Liddle.

Are you reading anything at the moment?

How Not to be Wrong: the Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg. A book that describes, with great clarity, the power and utility of mathematical thinking in everyday life, including in politics. There are hardly any equations in it as Ellenberg focuses on the concepts and the process of critical mathematical thinking. Thoroughly recommended for all types of reader, including those who don’t get or like maths. Read the book and you will probably change your mind about maths.

Do you have a favourite novel?

Kelly and Victor by Niall Griffiths is a love story for the rave generation written in the Scouse vernacular. Like all Griffith’s work it is dark side but it is beautifully written and poetic in places.

Are there any works of non-fiction that has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

Seize the Time: Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton by Bobby Seale. My mate bought me this when I was in my early 20s and it had a big effect on me. I love the soul and funk music of the 60s and 70s and this book explained the story of the civil rights movement in a way that both illuminated the music and illuminated my political thinking.

A stand out part was “We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with Black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.”

The leadership of the Black Panthers were clear that “a poor black man has more in common with a poor white man than they have with a rich black man.”

More recently, reading Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein made my jaw drop. Of course I know that big corporations rapaciously take advantage of disasters. However, reading her book that forensically dissected the way global corporations exploit national crises really hit home in a way other books have not. I think her analogy with psychiatric electro-shock therapy is a little overplayed but she argues her well-researched case intelligently.

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

I trained and worked as an engineer before becoming a union official so my intellectual influences are less political and more scientific as I’m passionate about evidence based politics and decisions.

Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman had an approach to science is one that has influenced me. He said many wise and interesting things. One of my favourite quotes is “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” He was talking about the practice of scientific enquiry but it applies equally to politics.

Over recent years I’ve become fascinated the study of rationality and cognitive biases. It’s clear to me anyone interested in politics needs to have an understanding of these biases as they shape how people see the world. Daniel Kahnamn’s work on cognitive biases had a profound impact on my own analysis of politics.

For example, understanding false consciousness as being derived from a serious of cognitive biases gives a greater insight into what it is, and how it might be combated. Also if you understand and accept confirmation bias as existing, you might manage to heed Feynman’s advice and not fool yourself!

And has there ever been an event/moment that has exercised a similar influence?

In my early 20s I was very involved in the anti Poll Tax movement. It definitely shaped my worldview and I saw what could be achieved when communities worked together.

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Currently I’m a member of my union UNISON and the Labour Party. In the past I’ve been a member of the Co-Op Party, Compass and The Fabians but I’ve come to the conclusion I feel more comfortable just being a member of the Labour Party with no side distractions such as Momentum, The Fabians, Compass etc.

Is there anything you particularly enjoy about political activity?

Meeting people and hearing what they have to say. The camaraderie that comes with the short campaign before a general election is great. I also enjoy talking to other political activists - there is always something new to learn, for example about history, or a political issue. Being a numbers junkie I do like to look at election and polling data and see what I can uncover.

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

Tories. I used to have a very simplistic, visceral hatred of all Tories. But my time as a union official meant dealing with Tory councillors in their role as employers and I found some to be decent people who cared about the staff at their council. I’ve sometimes had more constructive relationships with some Tory councillors than I have had with some pretty awful Labour councillors. Of course I still think Tories are wrong but characterising them all as bad people with ill intent is plain wrong.

Also proportional representation is another thing I’ve (nearly) changed my mind on. I used to be passionately against it. Whilst I’m not yet definitely for PR, my opposition has massively softened and I feel like on a journey to becoming an advocate for it.

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

In wider society the urgent need to fight inequality and redesign our economic system so that social utility is at the heart of the economy.

For the left we need to learn to be honest with ourselves and not just retreat into the warm confirmation bias filled comfort zone of only talking to people who agree with us. We need to find a different way of persuading people. If all we need to do to persuade people is to give them a self-righteous lecture, then we would have fixed things a long time ago. The left, myself included, are great at giving self-righteous lectures but the evidence is that it does not work.

The left needs to learn how to listen to those who do not agree with us and find the right questions to help people change their views themselves. I’ve been exploring how the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy technique of Socratic Questioning could be adapted for doorstep campaigning.

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

Bigotry in all its forms. The fact that people are judged, discriminated against and attacked because of a physical/biological characteristic, their religion or who they chose to love appalls me. As human beings we should be above this. Aside from the obvious immorality of bigotry, it needs to be tackled because it provides a convenient distraction to the much bigger, systemic economic issues.

Do you have any political heroes?

It sounds cheesy but for me the real heroes are the women and men in workplaces and communities who stand up for what they think is right. Politics is not only done in Westminster and the Town Hall. It’s done in the workplace, on the doorstep, in our front rooms and in the pub. And, it is not always done by politicians.

A politician who stands out is Barbara Castle. She had an incredibly tough time fighting the male labour movement establishment to get equal pay laws enacted. What is saddening that despite this major leap forward the gender pay gap still stubbornly persists over 40 years later.

How about political villains?

Farage. Why? Look at the increase in racist and xenophobic attacks over the past few months. Farage created the conditions for this to happen.

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

For the left it has to be organising. The surge in membership in the party under Jeremy’s leadership is impressive and to be welcomed. But despite lots of noises about movement building I’ve seen little evidence. Too many on the left confuse mobilising (for rallies) with organising (in communities). Jeremy’s recent proposals for an Organising Academy are to be welcomed but very long overdue. I’m hoping that his aspirations are met because if they are then it’s definitely “game on” for the 2020 general election.

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

Housing is such a fundamental issue and it needs to be addressed in a transformative way that will be hard to be undone by future governments. I’d like to see a massive social housing building programme with the abolition of the Right to Buy. To stop such a social housing programme being undone by future governments, I’d want to see blocks of social housing to be transferred to housing co-ops owned and run by the tenants. That way tenants can control rents, improvement programmes and who gets access to vacant houses; and the co-op ownership structure protects the status as social housing.

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

More immediately it has to be a Trump presidency. His childlike lack of self-control when he feels insulted or slighted is dangerous given he would be Commander-in-Chief of a massive army. It is truly frightening to think about.

Longer term it has to be dealing with the inevitable massive migration that will happen as a result of climate change. There will be huge population shifts and wars as resources are hit by the changing climate. Every government has to be ready to respond in an effective and humanitarian way.

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

Two things. First, value your education and always keep learning.

Second, be prepared to change your mind on things. A quote from the philosopher WOV Quine has always stuck with me: “To believe something is to believe that it is true; therefore a reasonable person believes each of his beliefs to be true; yet experience has taught him to expect that some of his beliefs, he knows not which, will turn out to be false. A reasonable person believes, in short, that each of his beliefs is true and that some of them are false.” We almost certainly all hold some false beliefs so we all need to be prepared to be wrong.

What is your favourite song?

Ain’t no Sunshine by Isaac Hayes live at Wattstax. Without doubt the best ever recorded version of this song by anyone. Every time I’ve played to someone they have always gone “wow.”

Do you have a favourite video game?

I don’t really play video games much now. But one that did take up a large part of my life a few years ago was Football Manager. Utterly addictive. “Just one more game …” I’d say to myself and find myself still playing hours later.

And what was the last film you saw?

I cannot remember. Which tells you that I haven’t seen any films for a while. Which is sad. So, thank you for this question it has motivate me to make sure I watch some films soon.

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

I’m going to cheat and have two. First, a capacity for self-reflection that allows them to consider their impact on others. Second, empathy.

What fault in others do you most dislike?

A lack of integrity. I accept that we are all humans and we sometimes fall short of acting with integrity at all times. But most people do try. What I cannot abide are those who are so self-serving that they don’t give acting with integrity a second thought.

And any pet peeves?

The misunderstanding and wilful misuse of numbers, especially from those who should know better. Numbers have the power to illuminate the world around us in a way that words cannot. But the wilful misuse of numbers is a dishonest distortion of reality.

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

There are so many important things my younger self got wrong I really don’t know where to start. I could write a couple of books. Perhaps the best advice I’d give to me teenage self would be “your education is massively important – don’t waste it.” My dad said this to me all the time and I ignored him, so I doubt my younger self would listen to my own advice, as even for a teenager I was unbearably stubborn. I did not make the most of my educational opportunities in my teens and had to study part-time in my 20s to catch up.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Number one pleasure is spending time with my two grandsons who are five and two. Being a grandparent is the best job in the world and you don’t really get it until you become one. Weird as it sounds I like finding data that can be used politically and then analysing it. It helps me stretch my Excel skills and forces me to think about the numbers. I’m trying to learn the stats programme R just for the intellectual challenge.

I used to do a lot of DJing but haven’t done so for a few years. Though I think in the next few weeks I may be dusting off the headphones and record box to play at my mate’s newly acquired pub in Nottingham.

What is your most treasured possession?

I treasure my grandsons more that words can describe, though strictly speaking they are, of course, not possessions. As for inanimate objects that’s a hard question as aside from photos, I’m not really sentimental about inanimate objects. Though I do have a 1970s Admiral England tracksuit top that I am fond of.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I can scoff a packet of biscuits or tub or ice cream in one sitting.

What talent would you most like to have?

I have a 3,000+ vinyl collection and spent 20-odd years DJing so music has been a big part of my life. But I can’t sing, dance or play an instrument. So I’d like to be able to do all three.

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true, what would you wish for?

A Labour government would do. I’ll leave it to your readers to decide if that is realistic wish or not.

And if you were to suddenly win or inherit an enormously large sum of money, would it change you and how would you spend it?

This is very hard. The most important thing for me is for my grandsons and other family members to be secure in their future but I am not a big fan of unearned income so I would think carefully about how I would spread the money about.

Would it change me? I think it would be inevitable it could change me so I’d want to use it in a way that would minimise any negative impact. I think I’d want to use the money to fund some political project or activity. It would allow me to continue with political activity and it would keep me grounded.

If you could go for a drink with three people, past or present, who would they be?

Barbara Castle to hear her story of battling for Equal Pay. Richard Feynman as he is a fascinating character and could explain given me a deeper understanding of physics. Huey P Newton to hear first hand about the Civil Rights movement.

And lastly ... Why are you Labour?

My primary political identity is as a trade unionist. Being a member of the Labour Party is a natural extension of being a trade unionist.