Friday, 31 May 2013

“Check your privilege:” from the people who brought you cultural relativism

I usually make it a rule not to get caught up in debates on topics I know little about. For one, everyone likes to think they can ‘win’ an argument. We all suffer from self-delusion on occasion. Second, you risk looking like a fool when you run out of things to say. Hence, not a bad rule to stick to.

And so a couple of months ago I stumbled across one such debate - if you can call it that where social media is concerned - on Twitter. Helen Lewis, New Statesman’s deputy editor and witty Twitterer, was facing a barrage of abuse from a number of (predominantly) women about a short piece she’d written on “perfection in language.”
The main thrust of her argument was that certain contemporary feminists have become unhealthily obsessed with language to the distraction of almost everything else. In fact, her point wasn’t just confined to feminism.

I found myself nodding furiously in agreement as Lewis highlighted the utter futility of attempts to police language, and for some to decide what is and isn’t acceptable discourse:
“Ruthlessly stripping every potentially problematic phrase from your language is utterly impossible in practice. I’ve seen people try: they contort their prose into long, rambling sub-clauses, strings of acronyms and neologisms. And by refusing to use any word or formulation that anyone, anywhere might object to, they make their writing unreadable by everyone.

“There’s no point in your language being “correct”, if only 12 of your friends can understand it.”
Various Twitter exchanges saw Helen attacked from a number of “IFs.” That’s Intersectional Feminist to you and me. Essentially, a group of feminists who believe that in order for one’s theory (or world view) to be valid, it needs to recognise – through language, amongst other things - the lived experience of other marginalised groups who may intersect with one another. The white liberal feminist ignores the oppression of the black, disabled, transgender one, at her peril. You get the picture. Although I’d believe you more if you said you didn’t. Few do.

The phrase now commonly used to berate someone who has failed to include other oppressed groups in their thinking is “check your privilege.” An irritating phrase at that.
Yesterday, Louise Mensch took on the enticing challenge of exposing “CYP” for the reductionist nonsense that it is.

“CYP” is basically an exercise in semantics which leaves feminism (and other theories) with almost no meaning. Most crucially, it gets you nowhere, except caught up in a game of linguistic gymnastics which never ends.
It’s not just something one finds in feminist circles. Anyone, anywhere, risks having their ‘privilege checked,’ should they be so bold as to utter a word or two about any topic, no matter how mundane.

Dan Hodges wrote an amusing tale of his own privilege checking, and liked what he saw. Well, he would wouldn’t he?!
By the end of yesterday, we were all at it. I even wondered whether there was some sort of league table with its own points system. From the very oppressed heading the pack, to the too privileged by half, facing the threat of relegation. One point for being a ‘PoC’ (person of colour. Keep up), two for being a ‘WoC’ (yep, you guessed it. Woman of colour.) With bonus points up for grabs depending on sexuality and disability. You’d probably be on minus points if you fall into the male, white, middle class category.

Tragically, that’s me. Until it dawned on me that I’m also Jewish. A proud member of one of the most oppressed groups in history. Privilege check mate.  But, then I realised that lefties don’t regard Jews as oppressed minorities. Pesky Israel always gets in the way, and some of the stereotypes about Jews must have some grain of truth, surely? Look at Hollywood and the world’s media. I was back on minus points again.
The thing that’s most struck me about all this is how much it bears the hallmarks of the very people who brought you moral and cultural relativism: the postmodernist lobby. There is no one set, accepted, view of the world. No right or wrong, but a collection of opinions, each as valid as the other. Passing judgement must be done whilst recognising disparate voices, but one must not be too loud so as to drown out the rest. In the end, what you’re left with is noise.

The “CYP” brigade may claim they’re not trying to censor to debate, but merely asking us to be aware of where we’re coming from in time and place. I have no qualms with trying to empathise with others. Understanding that some of us live very different, and yes difficult, lives, is basic humanity. This is a good thing.
But, this need to pick people up on every word and phrase that leaves their mouth, because their language has (inadvertently) offended or excluded is counterproductive in the extreme. Trying to create a world of words that pleases everybody is destined to fail and will only do what the privilege checkers and intersectionalists set about hoping to avoid. A world where only a select few can join and even fewer understand. 

This comment piece was first published by The Commentator on Friday 31sth May 2013

Friday, 17 May 2013

Can boredom explain the Tories’ rebellious class of 2010?

Maybe it’s the logical result of being in coalition, or maybe it’s a sign of David Cameron’s diminishing authority, but the Conservative’s class of 2010 has helped keep this parliament lively and unpredictable. It’s also provided us with a lot of fun. The government can’t seem to do anything without another rebel emerging from the shadows.

Fierce euroscepticism of course explains some of their behaviour, with Europe causing hyperactivity like no other issue. But, could there be another, unspoken, simpler reason?
According to The Economist’s Bagehot, many of the 2010 intake feel neglected and underused. Overlooked for promotion, partly due to the constraints of coalition, they’ve been left with little to do, expect be a nuisance, with Europe the obvious cause to take their frustrations out on:

“The 2010 Tory intake was among the biggest in parliamentary history and excited high hopes. Its members were diverse and included high-flyers from business and academia.
“There was talk of such talents reinvigorating Tory policy, bolstering David Cameron’s standing within his party and restoring trust in politicians. Many began vigorously, starting research groups, joining select committees and blogging and tweeting like anything. But now they are stuck.
“Only a few of the new crop have been given junior ministerial jobs: mostly those—such as Nick Boles and Matthew Hancock—with long-standing ties to Mr Cameron and his coterie. Far from bolstering the prime minister’s authority, the rest have proved exceptionally mutinous.

“Overlooked for promotion, and in the rebels’ case unofficially barred, many of the brightest 2010ers are now demoralised.”

A report out this week by Nottingham University revealed that of the 148 Conservatives who have voted against the Prime Minister since the general election, 90, or 85%, have come from the 2010 cohort.

Independent-minded MPs, those without a “filter,” as Nadine Dorries would put it, are a refreshing and much needed change from the clones we were subjected to under the last government. Who wants to hear MP after MP trotting out the party line, when listening to someone off-message is far more enjoyable?

Tim Montgomerie has argued that the class of 2010 could end up being Cameron’s greatest legacy to his party, combining the best of popular and compassionate conservatism. But, it’s their route into parliament that gives us another reason to explain their tetchiness. Montgomerie notes that many are seasoned campaigners:
"One of the other strengths of the 2010 intake is that many have fought two or three elections to win their seats – often emulating the best of the Liberal Democrats’ pavement style of politics.”

Anyone fattened up on a diet of Blairite/Brownite control-freakery could be forgiven for thinking that politics has entered a different era. And in some respects it has. With little chance of ministerial positions, and the odds firmly stacked against a Conservative majority in two years’ time, what is there to lose? Best go out with a bang some might be thinking. At least if a large chunk of the current crop lose their seats, they can hold their heads high and say they did things their way.
But, “benign neglect” is no way to treat backbenchers, cautions Bagehot. The system is broke and needs fixing. Parliament will have to adapt to accommodate future new blood:

“Party bosses are going to have to find backbenchers more meaningful employment. This might involve, for example, beefing up the powers of the select committees to summon witnesses, or encouraging the currently gentle bill committees to give legislation real critical scrutiny. They will also have to adopt a more conciliatory approach to whipping, making it less an exercise in carpeting than in constructive career advice.”
This parliament has already shown what happens when you leave too many MPs unoccupied. Rebelling becomes their only taste of power.  

This comment piece was first published by The New Statesman on Friday 17th May 2013  

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Miliband’s Progress speech was virtually ignored. That’s a worry.

Ed Miliband made a speech over the weekend that literally dozens of people will have read. More were there to see it live. I was one of the former. Opposition leaders make speeches. That’s what they do. That’s what they’re expected to do. Some get labelled as “keynote,” i.e. this is quite important and will probably form the direction of policy X so pay close attention. The leader’s address at Conference fills a few column inches for several days. Either we have a Prime Minister in waiting or it’s back to the drawing board. Saturday’s speech falls into the “strictly for diehards” category.

To sum it up: it wasn’t very good. That’s the charitable conclusion. Being brutally frank, it was actually pretty dire. Or maybe that’s the charitable conclusion. Speaking on Saturday, to the Blairite think-tank Progress (not exactly on home territory for Ed), Miliband said….something. To be honest, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what he said.
It was a hotchpotch of his responsible capitalism vision; the usual to be expected attacks on the government; listening to voters; learning lessons from New Labour – where we got things right, where we got them wrong –  more listening to voters; with sprinklings of One Nationism added for extra flavour.

One Nation: the slogan that just will not budge. Still being drummed home to death. We may have tired of it but we’re not going to forget it. The mark of a successful slogan? Not really. I still don’t understand what it means. Or more accurately, what we’re meant to do with it. Alone, it’s meaningless: Labour has broad appeal. It will unite the whole of Britain.

But, all parties profess to do this. Besides, One Nation fails the “elevator pitch:” able to be summarised in one elevator ride. Which isn’t 100% accurate as I’ve just summed it up in a sentence. Unfortunately, the summary alone is so vague it requires several more elevator rides. Heck, it might be easier just to get in one, hit the emergency alarm, and hope the rescue takes several hours.

I couldn’t help but feel I’d read/heard this speech several times before. Probably because it’s been delivered several times before. Ed’s Conference address last year (rightly hailed a triumph) has been regurgitated more times than should be humanly possible.
One Nation is about everybody having opportunity and having a responsibility to play their part.”

Sounds very Big Society to me.
“A country that acknowledges the difficulties, accepts the anxieties, knows that times are going to be hard, but that is confident that change can come.

“A country that knows that we work best when we work together.”
See above.

“All the lessons of our history, from the industrial revolution to the post-war reconstruction, are that we need a recovery made by the many.”
This is David Cameron speaking.

The best parts of the speech were the references to the government’s failed economics. It wants to cut welfare, it wants to cut the deficit, but its actions on the latter will stop it properly achieving the former:
“For all their rhetoric about welfare reform, for all the cuts they’ve made, this government will be spending more on social security at the end of this Parliament than at the beginning.

“Not because they’re generous.
“But because they haven’t taken the action on the economy and they haven’t created the jobs we need to keep the social security bill down.”

This remains Labour’s best line of attack. Far from healing the economy, the coalition is harming it. Simple, concise and easy to preach.

My main problem with Saturday was that it could have been delivered by either Cameron or Clegg, bar the odd amendment here or there. There’s nothing in it that grabs you. Nothing stands out.

Take a step back. Imagine you were listening to it as a non-Labour member or swing voter. You’d be thinking something along the lines of: “yes, this is all very well and good, but you’re not giving me a convincing case for why should I vote Labour.”

Anthony Painter was probably right when he noted: “The problem with reviewing speeches is that you think they are better than they are if you are there and worse than they are if you are not.”
So, why does it matter that a speech given on a weekend and which barely featured in the media didn’t set the world alight? It matters for this very reason. Not every speech has to have that killer soundbite, but it should at least have one or two ideas that you take away and discuss.

Might it be that the media have also heard this speech several times before and have simply stopped listening? Because if this is the case, and they’ve already concluded that Ed Miliband has nothing new to offer, Labour’s legion of advisers and speechwriters should be very concerned indeed.
Fanciful though it sounds, the media and the public sometimes act as if UKIP are now the official opposition. Time to think of something new to say. And fast.

This article first appeared on Labour Uncut on Tuesday 14th May 2013

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Economy, not UKIP, will decide the next election

It’s probably fair to say that the pundits and anoraks are enjoying events in Westminster far more than the political class. The establishment are getting a kicking by…one of its own. The difference being Nigel Farage does normal, down to earth, far better and with far less effort than either Cameron or Miliband.

The prevailing wisdom on UKIP can be summarised three ways. One: UKIP are here to stay. They will continue to vandalise the political landscape, gobbling up disillusioned Tory voters, and thwarting a Conservative majority in 2015. The right is permanently split.
Two: UKIP are a transitory nuisance. Typical mid-term protest by a chunk of the electorate fed up with the usual suspects. A sizeable number of their supporters will rush back into Cameron’s arms come the election. They’ve made their point, now comes the important stuff, like electing a PM.

Three: UKIP are the latest repository for working class anger. A section of society who feel left behind, bewildered by the modern world, with neither Labour nor the Tories speaking for them. Many will vote Conservative in two years, but many won’t vote at all. They don’t care who’s PM, but given a choice, most prefer Cameron to Miliband.
Points one and three are bad news for the Conservatives. It means another hung parliament, with Miliband the most likely beneficiary. The Conservatives will be praying that theory two comes true, and that enough Ukippers switch back in time.

As a Labour man, standing back and watching the Conservative Party self-combust is always a pleasure. The best leader they’ve had in years, still their greatest asset, the most media-friendly Tory in an age, and yet that’s not enough for some people. Move even further to the right they cry, ignoring the fact that for the last three years the party hasn’t stopped moving.
UKIP satisfy peoples’ anger with immigration and welfare. But, they’re unable to explain the reason for this: the economy. It is, and always will be, the economy. When times are tough people lash out. They want someone to blame for an unforgiving job market and a cost of living reaching unsustainable levels. It’s either the immigrant’s fault or the benefit scrounger at number 32.

UKIP are experts at telling us what’s wrong with Britain and listing all the things they’re against. Not so good at setting out a vision for how to make things better. The economy part of their manifesto doesn’t really matter because they feed off populist hyperbole. Their sums have been taken apart more than once. When asked why they had voted UKIP last week, most just shrugged and said “because.” Asked to name any of their policies: no idea, they responded.
Farage and his motley crew are so transparent it’s embarrassing. But, not as embarrassing as the hysteria they generate. The only way to combat UKIP is to sort out the economy. Taking them on where they feel most at home will only backfire. No party is going to outflank them on immigration. Nor should they try to. No amount of Conservative Euroscepticism can compete with a demand for EU withdrawal. You can’t get more Eurosceptic. Cameron can bang on about a referendum all he likes, but he’ll be hamstrung from day one: he’ll be campaigning to stay in the EU. Those who most demand one do so because they want it to lead to Britain’s eventual exit. Cameron doesn’t.

People can smell authenticity. They know Farage is being sincere when he talks of closing borders and waving goodbye to the EU. Voters don’t buy Cameron’s tough talk. They certainly don’t trust anything Labour says on immigration. Its stance on Europe is as muddled as most of its policy ideas. Labour has gone backwards over the last 9 months or so. The party seems most at ease talking in the abstract.
UKIP can be tackled two ways: take fright and fight back by trying to ‘out-Kip’ them. Or give people a reason to feel positive and hopeful about the future. Only a reversal in the economy’s fortunes can do this.

This comment piece was first published on Speaker's Chair on Thursday 9th May 2013