Sunday, 14 April 2013

We need a new kind of Opposition

"[Community Organising] is best understood as a means by which to formulate and embody a contradiction to any given instance of injustice. ... Political actions for Alinsky are simultaneously to declare the unjust way to be untrue and to present a possible alternative through which all may flourish. Alinsky’s insistence on having a constructive alternative means that the declaration of a “No” to something is always premised on the prior celebration and upholding of a “Yes” to another way, a way in which both oppressor and oppressed are invited to participate."[1]

We urgently need a new kind of Opposition in Britain.

No alternative?

In the aftermath of the death of an old Prime Minister, it is clearer than ever that the three main political parties are, with minor variations, Thatcher's children. Most disappointingly, the self-proclaimed 'One Nation Labour' party have offered no coherent, imaginative alternative to the dominant neo-liberal narrative which governs this country for the ever-increasing wealth of the richest, depending on the anxiety of those who are told they are the 'squeezed middle' (see my earlier post on this pernicious language game), and marginalising and stigmatising the poorest.

Iain Duncan Smith, demonstrating unapologetically to the world his near-total 'empathy deficit', proclaims breezily that he could live off £53 a week, and yet has no intention of proving it, while Liam Byrne, his opposite number, would not even dare challenge him, because he has positioned himself in a no-win corner, trying to play the Right at their own game, suggesting merely that 'people who put more in' to the welfare system 'should expect to get more out' - a policy that neither has any economic grounding in the practice of other kinds of insurance policy, nor any serious capacity to provide a safety net for those most precarious and vulnerable.

At the same time, trade union leaders anxiously warn Ed Miliband against contemplating scrapping Trident, the multi-billion pound psychological fiction of the nation's power and security, impotent against terrorism, and utterly ineffective against the kind of nuclear escalation we are currently being scared about with North Korea. £25 billion for 13,000 jobs - that's roughly £2 million per job, which is by all accounts a rather large amount of money which could be invested in a more creative, and less destructive (in many, many senses), job creation scheme.

And while the passionate anger of so many of us finds something of a voice in anti-cuts protests, the distortion of language by the decision-makers that uses the apparently reasonable-sounding word 'reform' for something which in practice is little more than 'ruthless slashing', means that those on the other side of the picket line have already had the game taken away from them, left to doggedly 'defend public services' against the crashing waves of the 'There Is No Alternative' ('TINA') argument - while often having to admit, with an air of some desperation, that they find it hard to imagine any alternative beyond 'keep going as we are'.

Glimpses of imaginative possibility

To be fair, there are glimpses of imaginative possibility around. UK Uncut at its best does what the 'Occupy' movement does at its best - occupying public (and often 'private') spaces and creating within them, at least temporarily, an 'alternative economy': 'bailing into the banks and setting up libraries, forests, hospitals, schools, playgrounds, leisure centres and everything else that needs saving'. These 'micro-actions' ring more than a few bells with Alinsky's 'embodied contradictions' described in the quote with which I began - they open up a crack of possibility in the dominant 'TINA' discourse - but they are all too easily dismissed as 'stunts' without serious credibility...

...which, of course, is how Iain Duncan-Smith labelled the petition, at the time of writing just shy of half a million signatories, which challenges him to put his money where his mouth is, and attempt to live off that £53 a week that he so casually claimed he could do, for a year. But I would suggest the 'stunt' is actually something much more serious - something that might even herald a new kind of political 'Opposition'.

Bridging the 'empathy deficit'

If poverty is, as Alastair McIntosh defines it, 'a form of violence that comes from a deficit of empathy between those who have much and those who have little', then we need a new kind of politician: not the comfortable millionnaires (whether Tory, LibDem or Labour) living in their gated mansions and pronouncing about people about whom they have learnt little, and from whom they have learnt even less, but courageous human beings who are prepared to bridge the 'empathy gaps' and root themselves in the communities that, in conventional language, are 'the least well off' - and by 'root themselves', I mean live and move and educate their children and do their shopping and so on. Perhaps we need to make it compulsory for MPs to work part-time - and spend the rest of their week volunteering with local voluntary organisations - enabling them, in passing, to get a better grip on the challenges faced by those of us in the so-called Third (or 'Tired') Sector...?

But the empathy deficit is, of course, not just an issue for MPs. They may occasionally be opinion-shapers, but they're also so often opinion-seekers, desperately trying to speak the language they think the majority (so often the slimmest and most precarious of majorities) of the country want to hear. We are a deeply divided country, and the fact that politicians of all shades pander to the so-called 'squeezed middle', and marginalise and stigmatise those on the lowest incomes, only highlights the problem. What can we do about it? The brilliantly practical, passionately 'heart-broken' blog post last week from Sara Kewly is a great place to start - but it's for the people who already care, who are, like us, already heart-broken. What about the rest? What is going to challenge the 'divide and rule' politics of the professional politicians, and the finger-pointing casual fascism of the Daily Mail and its ilk?

Community Organising

Community Organising is one 'way forward'. In another superb discussion piece from the past week, Cormac Russell and friends from the ABCD Europe network remind us that collective, direct action can be the 'opening of the door' to negotiation and building a shared vision, the shared 'Yes' to which the Bretherton quote points. As Cormac puts it so persuasively:

"the biggest challenge then for our leaders and us, is not to organize the protest of all protests, or in framing the heads of negotiation for a better social contract, or even to orate the grandest of all dreams. It is in the slow, and humble convening of a conversation where every voice can be heard, including the ones that don’t share our ‘dream’, until a shared vision can be hued from the confusion, frustration, conscientization, possibilities and potential, that combine to make us who we are."

Here in Birmingham, the building of a broad-based alliance of schools, trade unions and faith-based organisations is not just about growing a power base that those 'in power' will not be able to ignore - it is about bridging those divides on which those 'in power' often subtly depend. It is not just about building a new kind of 'Opposition' - it is about building a new kind of society in the process.

Re-defining 'work'

But we need to push our imaginations further. Perhaps it is not just MPs who should work part-time and spend part of their week outside their comfort zones. In this job-strapped society, perhaps we really could limit the working week for all, share the work around, and lure people into civic engagement with their newly-found 'spare time'? Those at the bottom of the income ladder would need to be paid a decent living wage of course. And those at the 'top' would discover, through time banking perhaps, that an hour of their time is worth no more - but also no less - than an hour of the time of those who clean their offices and make their coffees. Perhaps we might also be able to more explicitly 'value' the time given by so many to caring: for children, for elderly relatives, for friends and relatives with illnesses and disabilities, for neighbours, for their communities, for the environment we all share...? Perhaps we might be weaned off our addiction to 'paid work' as the only solution for human idleness and society's poverty, and - as I've suggested before here - broaden the definition of 'work' to include everything that makes for a livelihood, nurtures healthy and supportive relationships, and enables discovery and growth in 'vocation'?

At a wedding of a friend and colleague yesterday, full of wonderful people who care deeply about their neighbours, their communities and their world, I got into a conversation with an old friend about 'the welfare problem'. What do we do with the young men that he works with, in their late teens and early 20s, who, challenging backgrounds and unpromising contexts notwithstanding, can't see the point of getting up before mid-day because the JSA they're on gives them a comfortable disposable income? Beyond the simplistic 'carrot or stick' question, how do we crack it? My friend's first suggestion was to ban X Factor, Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire, and any other TV programme that seduces us into imagining the 'lifestyle of our dreams' will simply fall into our lap. My immediate thought was that we might also need to ban all those people who fill the so-called 'news', for whom the 'lifestyle of our dreams' has, in fact, very much fallen into their laps - including many of our politicians, bankers and 'celebrities' - simply because of where, and to whom, they were born.

'Aspiration' - but not as we know it

But just as pernicious is the 'a' word so beloved of our professional politicians, all heirs of Thatcher: the aspiration of the individual, the aspiration for 'social mobility' (always 'upward') - not the aspiration for a different kind of society. And that is what we really, desperately need now. Not a 'Big' society, that patches up public services cuts with voluntary action, while the private sector creams off the profit-making bits. But a more connected, empathetic society, where we are encouraged, and enabled, to 'walk in each other's shoes' as a routine part of life - and where the first thing we ask of politicians is who they are listening to (and, incidentally, where Iain Duncan-Smith tries to live on £53 a week and realises, as he fails to do so, that no one in the UK can, for any sustained length of time, with even the most basic level of well-being). And a more citizen-led society, where we regularly hold our politicians to account with not just the ballot box, but in conversations at the school gate, and the Job Centre, and the local supermarket; and where the first question we ask of public services is not how much they cost, but how they are supporting local people to build healthy, flourishing communities for themselves.

We need a new kind of 'Opposition' urgently. And if Her Majesty's Opposition are not going to provide it, then the people of the so-called United Kingdom are going to have to do it ourselves.

[1] Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, Chichester: John Wiley, 2010, p.79

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