Saturday, 3 November 2007

Harrogate on the move?

My apologies for absence. I guess that until I get the hang of this blogging business, the visibility of Wainwright’s World will be in inverse proportion to the amount of activity going on within it.

Being an unfashionable creature, I still have this superior feeling that I have better things to do than blog.

So what ‘better things’ have I been doing? For a start two weeks ago, I was of an attempt to ‘Drum Out the US base’ at Menwith Hill, which this July the government discreetly allowed the US to use as the UK base for its Missile ‘Defence’ System. (actually a highly aggressive attempt militarily to conquer space). Well, to be truthful it was the Bradford Samba Band that did the drumming: I, my mum and Red Pepper researcher Jaimie Grant swelled the determined crowd and I took my turn at the microphone with Jean Lambert MP and the mega determined Lindis Percy. With an impressive network of Yorkshire CNDers, Lindis has kept the protests going week after week for the past seven years, monitoring the every move of the US military. Needless to say, at our demonstration, Bush’s footsoldiers never showed their faces behind the fences. They are protected by the Ministry of Defence Police (incidentally, when these police work on American bases are under the operational control of the American government). When there’s a crowd the North Yorkshire Police help out.

The pressure is slowly building. Labour and Lib-Dem MPs are asking questions and proposing an Early Day Motion, trying to get a debate after the government sneaked in the decision to give the US the permission to use the base. In July Des Browne the Minister of Defence had almost casually told parliament that the Menwith base was to be the UK host for the new US missile defence system, as if this was merely an administrative decision about new MOD car parks.

He further insulted the intelligence of the public – or demonstrated what a prisoner he was of the system – by saying: ‘ The UK will have full insight into the operation of US missile defence when missile engagements take place that wholly or partly influenced by data from radar at Fylingdales’

In other words, we’re allowed to know how it the missiles work after the event but to have no influence on whether the operations should take place.

Des Browne did n’t taken of the vigilance of a spirited network of Yorksire CNDers, Greens, Quakers and socialists of various hues – including my 80 year old headmistress, Joyce Blake from York who is regularly to be seen at the regular protests, I’m proud to say. Their regular marches round the bases, occasional trespasses and inevitable arrests has meant that the US military cannot move without being watched and their every activity reported. Lindis has her spies in the most surprising places.

Now the campaign benefits from and contributes to two international networks: Global Network Against Nuclear Weapons and Power in Space. and No US Bases: Lessons and inspiration are exchanged, solidarity built up. Menwith’s nearest town Harrogate (15 minutes drive away) has similarities with the conservative town of Vicenza in Northern Italy where earlier this year, hundreds of thousands came on the streets to protest against Prodi’s decision to allow the US to expand the local base. What will bring the citizens of Harrogate out of Betty’s tea shop, the spa baths and the posh shops? What will turn the elegant Stray into the site of a protest against being dragged into the US’s military ambitions?

I can’t say I know the answer but one part of it is information; information about how without any of the government’s much vaunted consultations, the citizens of Harrogate and their discretely comfortable lives are being effectively made a target in the ’war against terror’ as the presence of the missile system draws them unknowingly into the bewildering ‘war against terror.’ Last year Harrogate resident and health visitor Lindis Piercy stopped paid work and made it her job to make the base accountable. She’s been active over the unaccountability of US bases since the campaign to close Greenham Common in the 1980’s.

She and her allies are building the kind of campaign where everyone can feel comfortable. It just needs people to break their routines and show the government that their consent to hosting the means of military aggression cannot be taken for granted. They’ll be made at home with delicious soup and cakes to ease the transition from the armchair to the demonstration. If blogging will encourage people to join important but insufficiently high profile campaigns like the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases, then I’ll make more of a habit of it.

Photo Hilary (left), Hilary's Mum (centre), Jean Lambert MEP Green Party (right)

Party conference to networking opportunity

One of New Labour’s particularly philistine features is its bipolar view of the world, which says ‘if you don’t agree with our view of change then you’re stuck in the past’.

I remember when the term ‘dinosaur’ was flung at anyone defending Clause Four of the Labour Party’s constitution (incidentally, this included quite a modern commitment to democratic forms of public administration); and yesterday I was alarmed to hear it used again by a friend who is an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) tutor.

She was describing the difficulties in getting any real debate about the substance of the educational issues at stake, in my friend’s case, for ESOL. In her college, the conditions set by the government-imposed funding regimes represent ‘change’ and staff making criticisms of these conditions (informed by their teaching experience) are made to feel their views are illegitimate - and if they pursued them, they would be seen as ‘dinosaurs.’ It was alarming to find how deeply embedded this limiting political culture has become.

There were no signs at this year’s grand ‘Networking Opportunity’ (it’s no longer a party conference) of any attempt to shake out this culture, stimulate substantive debate or build a plural and creative political culture. On the contrary, all those opposing the party leadership-defined change (which this year is to end the ‘contemporary resolutions’ system, where topical motions are submitted to a ballot for debate at the party conference) were defined as against change itself. As dinosaurs.

In the end, lack of substantive debate kills an organisation. Real debate and argument is an organisation’s oxygen. The debates at the Labour Party conference were definitely in need of modernisation but there are many ways of change that would have enabled party members to argue through both the principles and details of party policy.

Judging by the fringe meetings I attended - on corporate responsibility, the low carbon economy and what to do about private equality - it seems the death of party debate has almost killed the party organisation too. Constituency delegates were ominously absent while NGO staff, business lobbyists, researchers and journalists were plenty. A few trade unionists but hardly a constituency delegate in sight. Only three years ago at the last Bournemouth conference the main hotel bars were full of them. Now it’s only officials and lobbyists.

This shell-like character of what used to be a more or less active membership party isn’t of course unique to Labour. Political theorist Peter Mair’s analysis of parties across Europe found a strong trend for them to move towards the state and away from society, becoming more similar in the process. The end result, he argues, is ‘cartel parties’, a situation where politics becomes increasingly self-referential, professional and technocratic. He describes this process in his recent article Ruling the Void for New Left Review.

Increasingly, it makes elections events to observe from a distance rather than moments of public debate and popular political participation. But beneath the cartel politics, with its culture of change defined by government rules, there is a real desire for debate about substance and for change rooted in people’s needs and everyday attempts to find solutions.

The frustrations of my ESOL teacher friend are a sign of it. How do we help to build a collective, and personal self-confidence, for these desires and efforts to break through? Especially in an election or pre-election period when official political debate narrows and at the same time becomes more difficult to escape.

Coming into the world

Political books often come into the world a bit too full of themselves. They come over as definitive statements when really they are most useful as work in progress, a long-winded contribution (maybe necessarily so) to a continuing debate.

Also their means of production can be a little romanticised. Look at the acknowledgements in most political books and you can see that rarely has it been the product only of lonely toil in a writer’s attic (though speaking for myself I yearn for a few months alone – well, more or less – in a cosy attic with an inspiring view. Anyone got an empty attic in the Lake District?)

Blogging, web forums and other techie tools could come in handy here and open up the culture of political book writing, possibly also making the books themselves more useful.

These web tools open up the possibility of connecting with strangers who might have arrived at similar questions by other routes, from different traditions and cultures. Blogging or being part of forums or e-lists (very selectively) in the build up to writing a book takes away the pressure of imagining you are embarking on some definitive tome; it brings alive the sense of contributing to a wider and visibly active debate. It cuts both your author’s ego and anxiety down to size.
These new tools have the potential to increase the political impact of books too, through increasing the possibility of drawing on, spreading and synthesising diverse but connected experiences. This can turn books into handy tools for organising, building common values, understandings and a shared sense of purpose.

My first prize for ‘Books with Impact’ goes to Reclaiming Public Water, produced by the Transational Institute/Corporate Europe Observatory. Through this book, activists internationally have documented and analysed their own struggles to reclaim public water from the privatisers. Within just two years, the book had been translated into 13 languages – Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, three Indian languages …

Each time the book is translated those responsible have added stories and lessons from their own country and new movements are drawn into the network. Producing the book has made it a shared learning tool and a means for organising and extending the pressure for water to be recognised as a common good. Very impressive. And web debates and communications have been crucial to the process.

So, under instructions from Red Pepper’s fearsome web editors to do my blogging duty, I thought I’d use my blog to encourage contributions and feedback for a search and a book that is already part of an international collaboration. It’s on a theme on which many Red Pepper readers are already working in practice and theory. We sum up the overall collaboration as: ‘Networked politics; rethinking political organisation in an era of networks and movements’. There is already an extensive email list and website ( providing shared resources, including a growing e-library.

With several others in this project I’m beginning to focus on a book around this theme. Its part of my day job with the New Politics Programme of the Transnational Institute. Since one of the purposes of Red Pepper has always been precisely to be a tool for rethinking political organisation at a time when social movements are providing the most significant sources of innovation for social change (including in response to problems and setbacks – it’s not all plain sailing), it makes sense to make this blog a diary of work in progress on a theme of common interest.

My first recommendation from the last day or so’s reading is Challenges for Respect by Salma Yaqoob, Respect vice chair. As well as raising serious questions about the whole Respect project and the role of the SWP leadership within it, Salma also provides a glimpse of a very different kind of political organisation from anything we have known in the UK. (You can read George Galloway’s letter to the Respect national council here.)

In the next issue of Red Pepper, we’ll carry a full analysis of the debates and prospects for Respect. Meanwhile, down in Bournemouth this week, the last juices of democratic debate are being squeezed out of the Labour Party. Consequently the issue of political representation to the left of Labour – and the constitutional changes necessary to achieve it on a significant scale – must surely become an issue for us all.