Needed: Our own Garibaldi to Trump Trumpism

 

(photocredit – author)

Inauguration Night saw a demonstration of several hundred in St Peter’s Square Manchester, where I happened to be. One of very many, and very understandable:  His election statements were incendiary, explicitly and xenophobic. And yet….

And yet, of course, he won.  “Down with Trump”. Is that what we are saying?  Down with the outcome of an election we lost. Down with the will of the people? Down with democracy?

We are in potentially dangerous territory here. If we are democrats, then we can’t just accept the results we like.

But of course, “we” may not all be democrats.  That shouldn’t be shocking. Didactic politics are not only the preserve of the (extreme) right.  So, fair enough, if you do not believe in democracy, there’s no problem rejecting its unpalatable outcomes.

But that’s not going to account for very many people.  So the rest of us are facing a wrestling match with our principles.

Well, refuge can be sought in a number of places: The election was fixed – most likely by Russian smears and internet interferences.  The electoral system is unfair – Hilary won the popular vote.  Votes were miscounted in key states.

All these positions would lead us to challenge the election – to call for a rerun.  That is a different tack to excoriating the victor.

Even if you accept – as most do – that Trump has torn up just about every precedent and norm in the political playbook and we are in truly exceptional circumstances, do we abandon democracy? States of Emergency and other similar suspensions of the people’s mandate are usually the work of governments under pressure and are either short-lived or a staging post to autocracy. So are we the people really saying democracy no longer applies?

But look again at the poster.  “Oppose Trump and his racism” the emphasis is added but important.  This is not about the man, nor his position as president – it is about the racism that was undeniably evident during his campaign. Other placards and posters proclaim that in the “US, Britain Everywhere, Stand Up to Racism.” That  “Black Lives Matter”. The objection here is to racism. It’s easy at present to see Trump and only Trump on the flip side of the racist coin, and understandable  how the demarcation line  between objecting to his racism and respect for a democratic process, can be blurred.

Roll forward twenty-four hours and across the UK there is a huge response by women motivated by Trump’s unambiguous sexism.

And there, in the space of those 24 hours, we see the ability of race and gender to act as a prism. To provide the common platform on which to hold the powerful to account.  What is missing from that troika is something that unites and motivates people on the basis of our shared economic experience or views about society in general.

You might call it a class-based view of the world, but whatever the label the absence of it is the crucial element in the context of our own politics.

Because with no shared set of experiences or shared view, where is the basis for a wide-ranging inclusive, community based approach?  Where is the basis of a Labour Party revival?

That’s why the NHS is so important – it remains the exemplar of a shared set of views and experiences.  It’s why in London, public transport is such a key concern and touchstone.

And we have a major, almost existential problem here.  Because the UK landscape is so impoverished,   commoditised,  ghettoised, and atomised it is  hard to  identify and sustain  the very shared experiences and  values that are  necessary  for  progressive populism.

Instead, what we have is internet-driven individualism with increasing xenophobia used to explain short-comings and hardships.

Progressives recognise the challenge and necessity of recapturing populist values from the right. But thinking on how this can be achieved is still developing – or is muddled. For example, hostility to “liberal elites”, so visible in Trump’s rhetoric is seeping from the right-wing into the mainstream,  requiring contributions  from  surprising  quarters to  remind us that the left needs to expose reactionary nonsense,  not  ape it.

As talk of a “progressive alliance” gains ground, especially in the run-up to the two Parliamentary by-elections on 23 February, does this provide a hopeful way forward? I am irresistibly drawn to the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland as a loose comparator.  Would it be possible for the centre and left in Britain – or even in England – to set aside deeply established tribalism to the extent necessary to capture power?  Despite the energy and intellectual fire-power of groups like Compass, I am not hopeful.

So step forward Momentum.  Let’s be quite clear – more than half a million people joining or supporting the: Labour party is a big deal.  They didn’t split off to form a UK version of Podemos or Syriza.  There has been a clear reconfiguration of the Labour Party, whether that is to your taste or not. So now comes the crunch time, where the stated aims of this group need to be implemented and hopefully validated.  It will be big ask, even without the current internal “policy debates.”  550,000 party members, sure, but only 20,000 in Momentum (with another 200,000 registered supporters).

What is the answer? Where is our salvation? An under-explored area is the devolution debate. This is seen by some as a last refuge/fertile opportunity to build bespoke, local alliances that engage with voters and can achieve electoral success.  The down side is that devolution, certainly in England, is becoming a case of responsibility being decentralised, without the accompanying power. But I like the idea of the left in Britain almost being reinvented and rejuvenated by this city-statism (but, oh,  who will be our Garibaldi?)

But one thing is undeniable: Those few hundred in Manchester and the several tens, hundreds of thousands in London and elsewhere. These are all expressions of hope.

So let me take you back to St Peter’s Square.  The crowd is bigger now – respectable for a cold-ish Friday night and growing. Someone’s brought a big drum. A smattering of incessant whistles, and a throaty growl of appreciation for each speaker. A harbinger for the even bigger demonstrations to follow.

We the people are entitled to say to elected representatives – especially those who exert influence over our lives – racism, sexism, hatefulness, should be no part of what they say or do.

Bang that drum a bit louder, sister. So everyone can hear and join in.

 

Trump’s Travel Ban is a Revolution in Action (so what do we do?)

(photocredit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

 

President Trump’s travel ban is clearly controversial – but I would argue it is also revolutionary. Here’s why.

The ban is a triumph of belief over fact.  The seven “proscribed” countries omit those which have harboured or generated the most murderous of foreign nationals to have assaulted the US and its citizens – like Saudi Arabia.

If we look to the stated aim of keeping America safe, the greatest threat to US citizens in the US is not any foreign national but their own fellow citizens – Over 1000 deaths due to home-grown gun crime for each life lost to terrorism.

And the blanket ban on all refugees is a strikingly obdurate, almost paranoid act against some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, which has unsurprisingly been termed “un-American.”   It may only be 90 days (initially) but that is absolute purgatory if your life is hanging by a thread on a day-to-day basis.

Hang on though – we might not like it but to “dump Trump” is to overturn democracy. Right?

Wrong.  It is easy to see how the office and person of the President is being confused with the policies of his administration.  There certainly should be a distinction between the two.  But the personal responsibility and accountability that Mr Trump has taken for the leadership of his administration makes it difficult to disentangle this.  Nevertheless, if he suddenly comes to his senses and changes tack,   I would happily welcome him round for a cup of tea. (I’ve not put the kettle on just yet though).

“Ok,” you say, “even  if it is legitimate to “dump Trump”, all he is doing is honouring an election pledge?”

I would make two points here: First, what you say to gain power is not what you do to keep power.  Thank you Machiavelli for distilling that universal truth. Second, whatever you may want to do, in the US there is the small matter of the Constitution.

And this is where it gets even more disturbing.  The Attorney General, arguably the  most senior, learned and respected custodian of constitutional wisdom outside of the US Supreme Court, says “Hold on – really not sure about this.”  And the President sacks her.  And the White House describes her act as one of “betrayal”.   Breitbart really has got its feet under the Presidential table, hasn’t it? Disagreement will be not tolerated and vilified.

Three concluding points:  Where is all this going to go? What has all this got to do with us in the UK? And what on earth do we do about it?

The President’s apparent desire to not just “drain the swamp” but to throw every baby in reach out with the bathwater is unlikely to deliver what his supporters want – jobs and security. The instability that his administration is both reacting to and furthering   is not constructive.

So Trump may not see out his term.  Then we have Vice-President Pence.  The US has a history of conservative VPs becoming progressive part-term Presidents (step forward LBJ).  But Pence’s election statements are just as worrying, in many ways, as his boss’s.  It doesn’t look good, but Congressional elections in 2018 will be an early indicator either way.

What’s it to do with us?  Well it’s a global world.  We didn’t have a vote, but the US administration affects us all deeply.  We have a right to say clearly “Not in our name” and “No state visit”. And we certainly need to choose our friends and trading partners with great care as we plan for Brexit Britain. As the Observer said last weekend on a possible US-UK deal last weekend – Trump doesn’t want free trade, he wants a free ride.  Disturbingly it sounds like some senior UK ministers would be happy to accommodate him.

And then finally, what on earth to we – as honest, decent, caring compassionate, democratic civilised British citizens?

We have a great challenge in our own country, the encouragement of intolerance and the schisms in society pre-date Trump’s inauguration.  The “serenity prayer” (non-religious version)  is never far from my mind. There are many things we cannot control, but some things we surely can:  How we chose to live our lives, the values we display as we go about our daily business. Courtesy, respect, compassion. Being inclusive, treating others as we wold wish to be treated.  These are not platitudes or homilies but the defining characteristics of progressive human society underpinned by one factor: Hope.

A better society starts, as it always has, with us as individuals. I’d say it’s just our human instinct to search and find those “sunlit uplands”  and you can’t change that.

To outgoing US Attorney General Sally Yates we say “thank you”

 

On Leadership

All eyes on Washington DC this week for the inauguration of the 45th President of the USA – the leader of the free world.

There are lots of ways of looking at leadership – that it is born, not made. That it’s the results, outcomes that matter, not how they are achieved. That it is the office and not the individual.  That timing is everything – “cometh the hour, cometh the man”.

Some believe that leadership and the exercise of power are synonymous, and that it is all down to class, or race or gender

All these things may be true, but the concept of leadership is prevalent through just about every society on earth. Be it an individual or collective, it is desired, sought-after, debated, criticised, regarded, refined, reviled, lauded, darn-near inevitable. From football teams, to local communities, to powerful nation states

So however leadership comes about, one thing is clear – if you don’t do it then someone else will either want to or have to. Some seek out leadership; others have “greatness thrust upon them

And however it comes about and however leadership is exercised, two things are utterly inevitable.

First, what leaders do matters.  There are consequences of action – or inaction. You could, credibly, say that this is no different to decisions that all of us make as individuals every day. Except the outcomes will generally be greater.

But second, leaders model behaviours. This prospect of such responsibility horrifies some – I have had leaders vigouroursly deny that how they behave acts as a benchmark for more junior colleagues. But leaders are not just ambassadors for their community/club/country, they are role models.

By virtue of their position, leaders unavoidably set standards. Obama embodies the notion that Americans of colour can be President. Margaret Thatcher broke the mould on homogender Prime Ministers.

And similarly, Trump’s behaviour says to the USA and the world generally,   that abusive ranting, tax-dodging, sexism, racism and homophobia are ok. And because it is ok  for the leader of the free world,  then it is permissible to  live out those  values  at a local level. The violence that this creates is already visible.

That’s why the line-up for his inauguration party is sparser than a Christmas tree put out for recycling. That’s why the Million Women march on Friday is set to be one of the US’s biggest ever protests.

That’s the challenge of and for the President-elect: the meaning of leadership.

Trump: Will he Learn Lessons From History or Repeat Them?

Democrats are out of power, across that great wide ocean. Trump is President-elect, fascist god in motion” So goes a song from my youth, updated for today

Trump. Oh my goodness, where do you start. “Brexit times ten” someone said – no by a thousand would be an accurate retort.

Because there are of course great similarities between the two electoral earthquakes: The “left behinds” turning over political establishments, the triumph of post-truth politics. The legitimising and unmuzzling of bile, bigotry, violence and narrow views of society. To all my American friends, I wish you well in this new world.

But this commonality – written on endlessly over the last week or so – can only take us so far. That’s partly because Brexit was a vote to leave a multinational proto-state, but Trump was a decisive shift of power within one unified set of borders. Succession as opposed to reactionary revolution. But it is also partly because Britain has (had) a long record of essentially being at ease with itself in a way that the USA doesn’t.

Yes, we can see real stresses in the notion of a UK national identity, but this is as nothing compared to the US. There is, still, a prevailing generally affectionate relationship with national – and unifying – institutions such as the NHS or BBC, or sporting success/failure.  We have over a thousand years’ worth of assimilating migrants. It is 350 years since the last sustained armed conflict on British (though not Irish) soil.(Forgive my crude, optimistic summation in three sentences, and no offence intended by pre-dating the Jacobite rebellion).

And if the ties that bind us together are stronger and more numerous, the manifestations of dissent and discord are less strident too. Until recently, there was a safety net of sorts that stopped most of our citizens falling too far behind. And the potential for killing and murder is so much lower in our gun-controlled country.

Look across the ocean and we see a country deeply and dangerously divided.   The protests against the election result are understandable but what exactly is being said?  We refuse to accept the democratic mandate, the outcome of the election? Really?

Well, no, not exactly. Leading figures such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been careful in their language. Co-operation where possible, resistance and opposition as necessary. Red lines clearly set down.  Warren in particular has clearly nailed the argument that fear and opposition  to  Trump is just a  case of sour electoral  grapes.

But you can well understand if others are not so measured. Trump aggressively pilloried so many during his campaign. There is what seems to be widely institutionalised racism (that has spawned the Black Lives Matter movement) and in the deeply ingrained sense of disempowerment so well portrayed by Paul Theroux in Deep South you are forcibly reminded that a bloody civil war is less than three generations’ distant.

Looking back it is indeed amazing that the Union survived such savage fighting and sharp political divide. Some may convincingly argue that despite amendments to the US constitution extending suffrage, economic advancement lagged a long way behind political progress – and that progress itself was always at risk.

So if you prefer an economic rather than racial perspective, you can see how  a period of sustained  growth  might visibly erode these vicissitudes. Will a booming economy be able to provide enough energy and power to alleviate despair and disenfranchisement, to distract or even dissolve racial divides?

I doubt it. Even if the US economy is described as “near Goldilocks” (not too hot, not too cold, just right) growth in employment does not equate to jobs paying enough for people to live on, let alone live modestly well. This now seems to be regarded as normal. And future automation is likely to exacerbate that trend.

As the President-elect surveys this landscape, I wonder what he sees? I wonder if he even gets it? Everyone knows that those who do not learn the lessons of history will repeat them – but is the 2016 Presidential election a throwback to the past or, perhaps, unfinished business from it?

One thing I feel for sure; this cannot be normalised. This is serious.

And the lesson for us? In a play on the consistently marvellous Daily Mash, we have to conclude that when it comes to the US and UK, there is now much more than a common language that divides us.

Brothers, sisters…….”

 

img_2476

Things were so much simpler then…….. A poster from 1982

 

 

A New Populism? Talk Like You Mean It

There have been growing calls for a new populism – but we have one already. Unfortunately it has delivered first Brexit and now Trump. It is clearly just not the sort of populism we like.

It doesn’t take 20/20 hindsight to see how this has happened. If you simultaneously create a thirst for material things whilst dissolving the mortar in the walls of society, it is not surprising   that there is profound change and instability.  The desire to own and the push to sell Council and social housing is an example.

Then technology makes the thirst become unquenchable – those material goods become ever more alluring, desirable, essential, cheaper.   This is not a new process.  In 1987 the British  labour movement had already  grasped  what was happening – ‘What do you say to a docker who earns £243 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say, let me take you out of your misery, brother.’  said trade union leader Ron Todd.

But although the risk  was  recognised,  the trend  continued and was in many ways accelerated until we end up  with inevitable  dissatisfaction (because  you can never have too much “stuff”) ,  and hyper-individualisation,  with the most important  relationship  being  that  which each individual has with the internet.

The alienation that comes from this dissatisfaction and absence of community, or is borne of straight-forward unfairness in society, pushed many to vote against “the establishment”. A prevailing view is that it was the “left behinds”  that  account for both the shock election results of the year.

What supreme and incontrovertible irony. The Brexit and Trump victories reinforce the factors and structures that widened social inequality and depressed social  mobility.  There will be no “catching up”

So what is to be done? You might say it is too late already. From Black Lives Matter to racist, fascist, murders,  have we passed the  point of no return? Are old notions of community, collectivism and progressive populism  are dead.  If that is not true, it certainly feels that we are teetering on the brink.

Despite some common features, the US and UK are very different political theatres. For us here I think the solution has to be some truly bold political thinking to seize both initiative and imagination.

In policy terms, we are surely going to need to go to where people are rather than where we would want them to be. The people have spoken on Brexit and it would be wrong to ignore that.  So we come up with a progressive Brexit programme that acknowledges the referendum result as paramount,  but  engages the public in  the necessary  discussions about, for example,  public service resourcing  in post-EU UK.

We need to rethink organisation and engagement too. Progressive collectivist and populist ideas are simply not reaching many, especially  young  people.  The excellent TUC report on young core workers shows how things have changed and why this demographic has little option but a “living for the weekend” lifestyle.

We also recognise that people feel policy is made too far away from where they are, so we must  look to an expanded programme of devolution accompanied by electoral reform.

Jonathan Pie says it best in his latest contribution:  We can make these changes and pull ourselves back from the brink.  But it will take sustained self-discipline, stamina and determination. The starting point is to understand just how difficult it will be.

Why I’m Voting Remain

Just  so  you know, I’m voting Remain in the EU  referendum. But I recognise the sincerity and the views of many who want a Brexit.

Let’s face it, many – very many – people in our country have urgent pressing issues that need sorting out immediately if not sooner.  Few decent jobs,  even  less  social or affordable housing,  industries changed  beyond recognition from  privatisation of Royal Mail  to  the  strangulation  of the UK fishing  sector, (although the suggestion that Michael Gove’s family business was wrecked by the EU  has been shown to be “codswallop“),  the uncertainty brought about  by changes in population.  It is wrong to dismiss these as unimportant or imagined, and blaming EU membership for failings mostly in domestic politics is worryingly attractive.

I’m voting Remain on the basis that progressive voices are louder as part of the EU than outside it,  that the social dimension to economic and industrial  policies remains stronger on the continent than here in the UK, that unrestrained by  the EU  the Tories will be even more destructive than they  are at present.

There is also that the EU will still be there if we leave and we can exert more influence from inside than out. And finally,  something  not spoken of enough – it is a much better  way  to  regulate international affairs than  the military carnage mainland Europe suffered in the  hundred years  that preceded the original Treaties of Rome.

I get that decent people with sincere beliefs will sway towards voting Brexit. But just look at the company that you would be in – some Conservatives have already switched sides because of the fantasists and xenophobes who dominate the Leave campaign.

I will name just two – Boris and Michael. Mr Johnson has been publically condemned for putting his Prime Ministerial ambitions ahead of any dignity or integrity.  And Mr Gove’s dog-whistle, fear –fuelled, deliberately disingenuous tactics belie the intelligence he reportedly has – and demeans the high offices of state he has occupied.

Yes, I know the Remain camp has a few characters of its own you might not want to spend time with – Michael O’Leary for one – but they do seem to be a minority.

But we don’t have to look very  far  to see where the isolationist, chauvinistic nationalism can lead us – Look at the rise of Donald Trump in the US and his response to the “Pulse” mass-murder which surely plumbs new depths.

But controversial and complex  as the EU debate undoubtedly is,  I think  there is a  another reason   why the debate has become some bitter and fraught. It is simply that our country is not at ease with itself.  The “haves” have too too much.  Too many survive rather than live. Politics seems remote, cut-off, insulated from too many. Politicians are seen as part of a self-serving establishment that includes mainstream media.  Political debate ping-pongs between the sterile and the toxic. The blame-game is everywhere and tribalism is rampant. Is it a surprise so many  are turned off?

Even if our politics is as grey and stormy as this month’s weather, this does not have to be a given. We can change things and there is an alternative. “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.”  For “kindness” read humanity, tenacity, integrity, cooperation-not-conflict, for-the-many-not-the-few.

Whilst all those around us may lose their decency, we must never use that as a justification for abandoning our own. I believe  the EU referendum  is a defining moment for us – but what  happens after the vote (whichever way it goes)  will be even more important.