Wednesday, 8 July 2015

What do we do NOW? (Part 3 - If this is class war, how do we love our enemies?)

In my previous post (Part 2), I described the possibilities that began to emerge for me in the experience of running a local hustings event. The possibilities of honest, critical conversation at local level that begins to take back politics as the domain of us ordinary people at the grassroots, and puts the politicians in their place. But there was more to be said...
When we looked at the geography of the 2015 General Election result, we saw the stark reality of a divided country. In England at least, the urban areas were red, and the rest was blue. Parliamentary constituencies are such that, even though there are substantial 'pockets' of poverty and deprivation spread across the country, 'pockets' where large numbers might well be at the sharp end of this government's policies, the majority of people in those blue constituencies were people for whom the Tories seemed the best, or at least the least worst, option. And what we have seen, time and time again (and most recently in today's budget), is a government which invests in Tory-voting areas and disinvests from non-Tory-voting areas. Just look at the recent decisions around rail investment (northern routes postponed, Great Western main line goes ahead), or funding to local authorities (the 'spending power' of Labour-controlled urban authorities with the highest levels of poverty and deprivation are now dramatically less than those Tory-controlled authorities in more affluent areas).
So if a change of government isn't the answer (and as Labour tear themselves to pieces yet again, in a fight over nothing more substantial than to be more electable, perhaps, than the Tories, the so-called 'opposition' isn't looking like a great alternative), then what can be done? Well, I'm not a political theorist, merely a grassroots community-builder with a bit of faith and a bit of theology, but here's an idea or two...
Firstly, let's acknowledge there's a class war going on here. But let's be clear about the sides. This isn't a 50-50 thing, blue against red, white-collar against blue-collar. No. The wealthy, powerful elite - among them, a whole load of politicians, 'business-leaders' and most of those pulling the strings of the media - don't give a monkeys about those at the other end of the wealth-and-power spectrum. In fact, they see them as a drain on the economy, 'defective consumers', at best people who can be put to work (for the lowest possible wage an employer can get away with), at worst an unwanted cost to the system. And so the cutting, and the scapegoating, and the sanctioning, and the incarcerating, and so on. Divide and rule, blame the poorest and most vulnerable, and get those higher up the income ladder to do likewise, and to live in fear - more than anything else - of sliding into a similar situation themselves.
And in that fear lies a glimmer of possibility. If the Occupy movement left any kind of lasting legacy, it must surely be in that slogan: "we are the 99%". As hard as it might be, those of us who are naturally left-leaning need to acknowledge that the 'we' we need to work on includes a whole bunch of people who voted Tory. Not simply out of selfishness or greed, but out of fear, insecurity, precarity. Many of those who voted Tory might have big incomes, big cars and big houses, but they also have big mortgages. They might not be living hand-to-mouth, not knowing where they'll find the money for the electric meter, like an increasing number of my near neighbours. But they are often in their own, substantial, kinds of debt, and if they lose that well-paid job, well, there might be a bit of a cushion, but the lurking fears are of losing it all. The middle-class might be more 'comfortable', but they're precarious in a way that those in the 1% will never be. They're precarious in a way that the 1% need them to be - to keep working, to keep spending, to keep borrowing, to keep voting. In the class war, the vast majority of Tory voters are helpless conscripts, who can see no alternative.
So secondly (and this is where I get Christian on you), if this is class war, how do we love our enemies? Because that's what my faith calls me to. What does reconciliation look like, in this context?
I have a hunch, and it's no more than that. The hunch is that it looks like an extension of those local conversations I talked about in Part 2. Extending them from the local to the trans-local. Finding ways to put in a room together both people on the sharp end of poverty, deprivation and the brutal austerity regime, and people in middle-class 'comfort', with all their anxious precarity. And getting them to listen to each other, really listen to each other, so that they can be honest enough to share their flawedness ("yes, some things are a result of my own choices, and I wish I'd chosen otherwise"), their privilege ("and if it wasn't for the rental income from our second house, we'd be drowning in debt right now"), their captivity to their desires ("I just can't give up smoking", "I just can't give up the 4-wheel drive"), and their fears (illness, isolation, disability, death - they come to us all, in different ways).
Russell Brand's suggestion (I didn't manage to finish his Revolution, but in what I read I found more grounded insight than hypocritical narcissism, even though there was a bit of both) that AA offer us a model for 'coming to our senses' as a society, as consumers as well as the more traditionally marginalised kinds of addicts - I reckon it's got something going for it. But we need to find ways of bridging the divides of our society in such 'political therapy' groups - or else the scapegoating will continue. We need to recognise our enemies, find them, sit down with them, and learn to love them. It will be immensely vulnerable and costly on all sides. But it is perhaps the only way that real change is going to happen.
There's even the beginnings of a model, in the amazing work of Poverty Truth Commissions in Scotland and in Leeds. Courageous people in these places have come together, from the sharp end of poverty and the sharp end of power, and the former have mentored the latter, and the two have become friends - or if not friends, they have at least grown to understand each other better, and all have changed in the process. And in little ways, slowly, the structures, the processes, the policies, the systems, have begun to change too.
It's not coincidental that in both Scotland and Leeds, the churches have been instrumental in making the PTCs happen. As institutions, or networks, the churches are perhaps better placed than almost anyone else to bring together two sets of people who spend much of their time at war. Because the churches include both in their own bodies, and engage both, externally, from day to day (even acknowledging the ways the churches have often failed and excluded the poorest).
But it remains to be seen if our churches can break out of their own addictions and insecurities, their own fetishism of 'growth' (read, 'institutional survival'), their own tendencies towards top-down, managerial modes of operation and organisational change - to discover their calling as genuinely, radically political bodies, catalysts of grass-roots politics, of trans-local conversation and reconciliation and transformation. I'm hopeful, but I'm under no illusions how much of a challenge it's going to be.
Also worth reading:


  1. Al, this is brilliant, and chimes very strongly with the work we're planning at the moment. Is it OK if I repost this on our blog?


    Liam, Church Action on Poverty

  2. Hi Al,

    Just stumbled across this - and found much that resonates with my own thinking. You linked to the post I wrote in the aftermath of the election, so you might appreciate the follow-up I posted this week, prompted by the Corbyn phenomenon:

    All the best,

  3. Your website is terribly informative and your articles are wonderful.

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