Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Attempting writing as catharsis

I thought I'd put my rage behind me.

Lately I've stopped picking physical fights with pavement cyclists and started smiling at babies in buggies. All is well in Wilkieworld.

One of the main reasons for this improvement in my attitude is my concious decision to reluctantly stop taking an interest in politics. I found being a trade unionist, socialist, anti-fascist campaigner instead of giving me a sense of agency and satisfaction was instead more like repeatedly banging my head against a brick wall. A brick wall in the middle of nowhere. I was frequently exposed to some of society's ugliest, most cancerous personalities - on my own side as well as the enemy, and got sick of watching the amazing, courageous, salt-of-the-earth people I worked alongside get screwed over and abused - again by my own 'side' more often than by the 'enemy'.

So I stopped watching Question Time. I unfollowed a number of twitter accounts that I too often found myself drunkenly getting into late night fights with (the abyss was certainly staring back at me). I was still a member of a union, still went on strike, but I stopped being an activist and campaigner. At first I thought I would hate myself, I thought I'd become ignorant and out of touch by not keeping as close an eye on current affairs. In fact, I've never been happier in my life.

But, like an old boyfriend you never got over, politics still from time to time pulled on my heartstrings. When Tony Benn died I read the tributes, listened to him reading from his diary on Book of the Week, and became a messy puddle of sentimentalism. Inspired by his chosen epitaph, "he encouraged us" I sent of my money and rejoined the LRC. It's just a tenner, I thought, I won't go to any of the meetings. I went back to my blinkered, blissful existence.

But then, like an old boyfriend who just won't stay dead no matter how many times you stab him in the chest, a spectre arose from my past. Now first I have to explain that when I went to university a few years ago as a mature student, I did what a lot of people do and got involved in some embarrassingly badly advised politics. I joined the Labour Party. I also joined the SWP, but during Fresher's Week the SWP held a lecture while the Labour Party offered a cheese and wine evening, so I stuck with the mainstreamers. I actually don't regret my time in Labour at all, I made some excellent friends, saw how the party works at grass roots level and up, got ridiculously drunk and well fed at two party conferences and met David Miliband OMGZ!!!

But with the university's 'Labour Club' it was impossible to avoid student politics as the club had very successfully infiltrated the Student Union. I was already a long time cynic of the NUS from my time as a trade unionist in higher education, having seen student politicians fail to support industrial actions time and again. Lancaster's student union was a particularly toxic, incestuous, self-important and pompous example. At its head was a president who was nominally a member of the Labour Club, but was about as popular skidmark amongst its current lefty, well meaning cohort. In my short time at Lancaster (I lasted 18 months) I came to see why.
In my politics-free bubble I'm now one of those people who hear about news stories first via social media, in with all the twerking videos and personality quizzes. So last night an old comrade from Lancaster (who's gone a bit rogue, admittedly) excitedly posted that there is to be a by-election and Lancaster's finest gobshite, Michael Payne, would be the Labour candidate! I expressed my dismay, and told him that I would be hiding his posts from my feed, as any positive spin and propaganda about a shitstain of a bully who made three of my friends cry, whose arrogance and self-importance 'prevented' him from supporting any political campaign with a slightly lefty or liberal bent, whose politics made Tony Blair look like Leon Trotsky and whose ugly ambition oozed from every square metre of his podgy person, would be detrimental to my blood pressure.

At Lancaster I was exposed to things I'd not really had to deal with before, coming from Bootle: Tories and middle class, educated, entitled Labourites. The Tories didn't disappoint: popped collars on their polo shirts and cheating at Laserquest. It was the Labourites who let me down. Their belief that if they went to university, joined the Labour Club, got elected to the Student Union, spent a year or two working for the party or in some related field that they would be entitled to a seat in the House of Commons before they were thirty would have been laughable if it wasn't a reality. In addition to Michael Payne (President of the SU for two years, David Miliband volunteer, local councillor for a couple of year, Parliamentary Candidate while still in his twenties) there was also Cat Smith. Now Cat has the right kind of politics, an ardent feminist who has worked for Jeremy Corbyn - but her immaturity and lack of self awareness was very evident to me (I'm not still bitter about the time she tried to get me to dress smartly at conference, sweetly offering to lend me some of her SIZE 10 clothes, though I do still cringe about the time she celebrated her election to the House of Commons admin union with a resolution to buy the canteen workers a vegetarian cookbook as their polenta was appalling). Another Labour Party candidate who has never worked outside of politics, never sent their kids to school, signed on, been part of a workforce...

Other, older Labour Party activists would wearily roll their eyes at me and tell me to get used to it when I would rant about careerists. My friends in Lancaster will surely still remember my apoplectic reaction to the selection of Luciana Berger as candidate/MP for Wavertree. But this is not some insidious, natural, culture change, this is the result of blatant ambition, greed, entitlement and selfishness that I have seen happening in front of me with my own eyes. The Labour Party is - right now, over there, look! - being wrestled from the hands of the working classes by wet-behind-the-ears bright young things (I will not call them precocious as this implies they have talent) with West Wing box sets, dubiously grounded politics and in some cases, dubious personalities.

Those of us not in awe of Michael Payne's bombastic personality in Lancaster would console ourselves that 'out in the real world' people would see him for what he was and he would not succeed. But the Labour Party isn't the real world. It will be interesting to see, if he becomes an MP, what the real world makes of him.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Av it.

I don't think AV is too complicated.
I don't believe money spent on electoral reform is a complete waste.
I'm not going to use the referendum to send a message to Nick Clegg, the Tories or in the hope of Labour winning more seats.

I'm voting 'no' to AV because I've examined the facts and I don't find it significantly fairer than FPTP, and in fact I find some aspects of it to be completely unfair. Basically, I think if you're shit at voting and your first preference is the Monster Raving Loony Party, the Natural Law Party, the Church of the Militant Elvis or the Greens you have shit for brains and don't deserve another go. In a safe seat like mine (Bootle) where more than 50% of the electorate are likely to vote Labour (unlike I did between 1997 and 2010, incidently) it will make fuck all difference, the rest of the votes still won't count at all. I'm more than a little pissed off that years of lobbying and campaigning for proportional representation has led to the first referendum in my lifetime for something completely different.

I reached this conclusion using GCSE Maths and my own ethical standards. Amazingly, when asked a simple question, 'do you think the country should adopt AV?' I managed to make my own mind up and not listen to the blatantly vested interests of the Tory No campaigners or the Lib Dem Yes ones. It's been a slight comfort to me that my own party, Labour, are spilt on the issue as it hopefully means we're still capable of independent thought (I can dream).

So my stance is Make Your Own Mind Up to AV.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Class Action

Just got back from a talk by the kick ass Danny Chivers. Danny is a climate change activist who was arrested and charged with 'conspiracy to aggravated trespass' during a planning meeting for the aborted-at-conception occupation of the Ratcliffe on Soar coal power plant. He's also an amazing performance poet who I saw a couple of years ago in Lancaster, and he obliged me with my request for 'Consumed'. I want this poem tattooed on my body. All of it. I'm working on tripling my body weight so it's possible.

Find more Danny Chivers

The talk mostly centred around the events beginning with his arrest in April 2009 and ending with the collapse of the trial in January this year, most likely due to the outing of PC Mark Kennedy as a deep undercover officer who was involved in the planning of the protest from the outset (Danny made it clear that the media narrative that said Mark Kennedy 'went native' and supported the protesters was untrue, and he is still in America refusing to help). Danny also had the misfortune to be arrested in Fortnum & Mason on 26 March this year, along with 144(?) others. Some guys have all the luck.

It was incredibly interesting to hear a first person account of a story I'd only really paid half-attention to in the news, and then mainly focussing on the untruths about Mark Kennedy. And what left the biggest impression on me was the account of the unseen consequences of an arrest.

I've heard the UKUncut spin-off protest on 26 March criticised for aiming to draw attention away from the main march (which was my own initial reaction when I first heard of it being planned. However, I soon realised they had taken care to start their action after the march was due to end and had consulted trade unions). I've been told to 'get a job' when marching through Blackpool against the BNP. I've heard time and time again that environmentalists are just smelly hippies. At university, another student told me that 'banner waving' was pointless, and 'one should speak the language of those who hold the keys to power'.

I think these are the most common criticisms of direct action: it's empty attention seeking, activists are all professional troublemakers and it's just generally uncivilised (c.f. the NUS's stance that lobbying is more effective than civil disobedience). Now, there's always some truth in a cliché (I strongly suspect there were some professional, smelly hippy troublemakers at Stokes Croft... still haven't changed my mind on my last post), however it was very clear that over the past two years Danny has spent more time talking to lawyers, politicians, expert witnesses and the mainstream media than he has spent playing bongos and spray painting anarchy signs onto bus stops. The charge of 'conspiracy to aggravated trespass' was a brand new one. Of the 114 initially arrested, 26 were charged. 20 of these used the defence that their plan to cause criminal damage was for the greater good, they were found guilty and given lenient sentences but just this week were urged by the judge to appeal on the grounds that their convictions were unsafe. Danny and 5 others claimed that they had not actually yet conspired to do anything - the charge was a Minority Report, Orwellian invention.

The whole affair set legal precedence and has made the police and the state have to reconsider, however briefly, their boundaries. This wouldn't have happened if those boundaries hadn't been pushed. Whilst the initial aim of the action was to reduce emissions from the power plant, the results have been important in the realm of civil liberties, and so may hopefully enable future successful climate change actions.


I've got to be honest, I still hate the middle class. Not them personally, you understand - some of my best friends are middle class! - but the very fact that your post code and parentage gives you so many advantages that I, my family and my loved ones never enjoy. During the general election campaign, some of my Labour comrades jokingly started a facebook group called 'I'm not middle class enough to vote Green' and this is a stance I've held for too long: that being concerned about the global environment is a luxury you can only afford when the environment right on your doorstep doesn't need drastic action (can you blame me when the Green candidate used to boast that her political awakening was when she saw poverty and inequality... in her 20s in Bangladesh?) but I'm also glad we live in a society where there are enough people who can be devote their time and energy to these issues, and am grateful to them. My main passion at the moment is working class representation in the political arena, but if I can devote more time to climate change activism I will. I started by buying Danny's book, and so should you.

p.s. not that I'm a stranger to environmentalism. It's nearly been three years since I moved onto my boat and off grid. Will mark the anniversary with a blog post, now I'm getting in the swing of things.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Middle Classes are Revolting

I was going to go to bed half an hour ago, but my Twitter feed twitched to life with news of a riot happening in Bristol. In amongst the earliest reports of police vans and a bonfire was a link to this article, explaining the background to the disturbance – twin actions, a squat – 'Telepathic Heights' - due for eviction and an anti-Tesco protest. My heart sank.

I've only visited Bristol once around 5 years ago, and noticed it was a city with both a large middle class, bohemian population and a partly neglected city centre with downmarket shops. It turns out it wasn't the clientèle of Poundworld or Farm Foods that were up in arms tonight at a government who is withdrawing their income and selling off their rights while playing expensive war games in Libya. As @GuyAitchison tweeted: “#stokescroft is a lively independent area with plenty of decent local shops. It doesn't need Tesco.”

Well, fuck.

I'm no supporter of big, megalomaniacal corporations myself, especially ones with conspicuously unethical tax practices such as Tesco. In the short time I was away from Liverpool, a store popped up seemingly on every city centre street, including smack-bang opposite a popular fruit & veg stall and a failed attempt to open next to the beautiful, listed Philharmonic pub. But tonight's riots (initially it seems sparked by the eviction) lacked any hallmarks of a class war. I can't help but worry that the gap year travellers and organic grocer quoted in the piece are motivated in some way by snobbery. There, I said it.

Here in Litherland on the outskirts of Liverpool, there has been a large Tesco for about two years. Before that, there was a vast expanse of derelict land for as long as I can remember. It had been known for some years that Tesco were planning to build there, and it became knowledge to me because of the, it seems, inevitable protests – in this case local people were worried about the impact on the traffic on an already busy dual carriageway serving the docks. However, I also remember people writing to the Deputy Prime Minister (Prezza himself) to ask when the hell was our Tesco going to be built. The reply was that local issues had to be taken into account... as a new Tesco tended to generate income into an area and central government wanted to make sure this knock on effect was felt in the right areas. The loathsome 'trickle down' effect of capitalism was taking a long time to trickle its way to Litherland.

And now our Tesco is here, I can only say I've seen an improvement in the immediate area – though there is still a long way to go. There is also a new business park, new housing and even the canal is now used by boaters for the first time in decades. It's hard for me to say what the effect has been on small independent shops in the area, many of them have been boarded up my entire life, opening and closing briefly as video shops, blind fitters and tanning salons as the years go by. However except for the Co-op which is now a betting shop, and a pub that is being turned into flats, all ten or so shops at the end of my street, a couple of hundred metres from the new Tesco, have remained open since I was small.

But they don't sell organic hummus, fair trade clothing or chic objets d'art. There's never been that much call for that sort of thing around here. Search for a Waitrose or even Sainsburys with an L postcode and see how little the goats cheese and acai berries market has penetrated Liverpool. We get Tesco, like it or lump it, and the same often applies to our career prospects too. That's not to say we're all knuckle-dragging, uneducated neanderthals who don't know any better, but that's not far off how we're treated, by government and big business alike. Capitalism keeps us in our place.

It goes against all my natural instincts not to show solidarity with essentially anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation protesters, especially when many of them will find themselves on the receiving end of a police baton for peacefully exercising their democratic rights. But I can't help but feel that these well educated, privileged southerners have more avenues available to express themselves and so I question their motives and actions. Why aren't we rioting about this: the gross inequality in Britain, in particular between the North and South, between London and the rest of the country? Tesco isn't innocent, but in a market-driven society like ours it's bound to exist and prosper. Rally against it all you like, the government and the police are on their side (another classic sign of a middle class 'riot' – the mass outpouring of utter shock and bewilderment that police actually resort to using violence on innocent people... give me a break).

There's more distasteful things in life than blue and white carrier bags.