“While modern capitalism constantly develops new needs in order to increase consumption, people’s dissatisfaction remains the same as ever. Their lives no longer have any meaning beyond a rush to consume, and this consumption is used to justify the increasingly radical frustration of any creative activity or genuine human initiative — to the point that people no longer even see this lack of meaning as important.” - Pierre Canjuers, Socialisme ou Barbarie #27

Friday, 25 March 2016

Baby's First Constituency Labour Party Meeting

I joined the Labour Party back in September, as a lot of people did, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected as its leader.  I wouldn't say I'm particularly socialist in my politics - I lean more towards anarchism, if I'm honest, but I stubbornly resist all ideology to the best of my ability.  There is no political ideology that could ever create a perfect society the size of a modern nation state.  There are too many variables.  Individuals on their own are complex, contradictory entities.  I don't even know what I want, or what is best for me.  Neither do you, I imagine.  Of sexual relationships that even make it as far as marriage, 50% of those end in failure, and those only involve two people.  The children that couples produce as often as not end up dysfunctional, neurotic and ill-equipped for adulthood.  There's no test you have to pass before they let you have children.  Anyone old enough can do it, no questions asked.  It shows.  So the idea that any one person, or political group, could presume to know how to improve the collective lives of millions, is preposterous.  There are no gurus in politics, no saviours.  Just some people who are less corrupted by its insane operations than others.

Anyway, I joined the Labour Party because it was a relief and, I must admit after that extraordinarily cynical paragraph, inspiring, to see it so suddenly and unexpectedly lurch to the left.  (As the leadership election wore on, I started to wish I'd put a hundred quid on Corbyn when the odds had been 100-1 against his victory.  That would have come in handy).  I like Jeremy very much.  I like how he has no time for tabloid media nonsense and did his best not to play their game at all.  I liked how he answers questions by actually answering them.  I like how he says words that actually mean something.  This, really, is a pretty basic requirement for a politician - but we live on a political landscape so warped by idiotic media sensationalism that anyone who acts in public like a human being with a mind of their own cannot help but look like a crackpot.  So anyone who can hold their own, or even retain a modicum of sanity, in that sort of environment automatically has my respect.  I think it's what makes it all the more important to get directly involved in politics yourself, wherever it finds you where you happen to be.  Forget about the media.  Refuse to be mediated.  I happen to be in the centre of Manchester.

I was in total agreement with Corbyn when he said that one reason Labour did not do well at the last election was because they hadn't presented a coherent alternative to the Tories, and I still am.  Instead, all they offered was "austerity lite", nothing really worthy of the party whose purpose had been to be the opposition for the last five years.  The whole point of the opposition is to hold the government to account - to oppose them.  From 2010 to 2015, Labour didn't do a lot more than say to the Conservative government, "hey, now hang on second...  Please don't cut that essential public service.  Oh, alright then.  But please don't cut it quite so much.  Please... OK fine, but don't blame me when disabled people start committing suicide...  Oh alright, alright, you can blame me, but don't do it on the telly.  At least not every day..."  This was not good enough, and apart from the Green Party, nobody else was offering an attractive alternative to the ideologically blinded Conservative regime.  (Sorry, the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition government - and there my analysis of the Liberal Democrat's success ends.  Their approach was more or less the same as Labour's, far as I can tell, but without have the excuse of not actually being in the government to fall back on).  So given that I live in central Manchester, a Labour stronghold if ever there was one, I was confident the Conservatives had no chance of winning a seat whether or not I voted, and so I didn't.  I don't like protest voting: I find it tacky.  I like to be able to vote for something, and in 2015 there was nothing to vote for.  Lucy Powell was duly re-elected to her seat with a healthy 47.7% majority.  Well done me.

Last night I attended my first Constituency Labour Party (CLP) meeting since joining the party six months ago, because I thought it was finally time to do something more than liking facebook posts about Jeremy Corbyn.  Also it costs £23 a year to be a member, so I thought maybe there'd be some free butties.  There weren't - but Lucy MP was there, as were about 40 other members.  Having nothing to compare it to, I'll take the word of the chairwoman who described this as a good turnout.  I managed to get a seat around a the main table with my own microphone, which made me feel more important than I actually was.  I started to wonder whether I'd be called on to make a statement of financial disclosure to the House, or to report back to the committee on my recent fact-finding trip to Uzbekistan.  This, fortunately, did not happen.

The few people I spoke to were pleasant and fairly welcoming, and there was a convivial atmosphere, despite the wood panelling that surrounded us, but the meeting began with the announcement that as so many people had turned up, there wouldn't be time for us all to introduce ourselves.  Or so the smiley chairwoman explained, while introducing herself.  I'd spent the preceding few minutes chatting to the bloke sitting next to me.  I confirmed this was my first CLP meeting and that yes, like him, I'd joined because of Jeremy Corbyn.  He asked if I'd been to any Momentum meetings yet; I said that I hadn't and he took my email address, saying he'd let me know about future ones.  A good start.  It was his first meeting too, but he took copious notes in a scruffy notebook (which came out his pocket attached to several squashed and empty crisp packets) while I sat there with my arms folded.  A wave of cynicism washed over me, as waves of various negative emotions often do.  I tried to look left-wing.

Most of the meeting involved a discussion of education policy and this week's announcement by the government that they are going to turn all schools into academies.  It was agreed unanimously that this was a bad policy and would be a disaster for children and their teachers for lots of reasons.  Apparently there are only two schools left in Manchester that come under Local Authority control; and once the government have their way, there will be none.  The unspoken assumption of the room was that local government control of schools is good, and that market control is bad.  Intuitively, I agree, but had no other evidence on which to base an opinion.  It occurred to me how little I know about how education works, and also how little I care.  Some people who spoke made reference either to teachers they knew personally - more referred to their own children and what sounded like very legitimate worries about their futures under Conservative educational policies.  I was not surprised to learn that, just as in health and social care (the area I do know something about) there have been enormous cuts to funding, and that services have suffered.  Numbers of teaching assistants (an initiative related to the previous Labour government's Surestart programme, which was periodically praised throughout the meeting) are plummeting.  Thousands of teachers are leaving the profession altogether, or looking for work abroad.  Children are being tested far too much under a needlessly complicated and bureaucratic system of examination that nobody understands.  Teachers have no time to use their own initiative or to allow children to explore ideas outside of a prescribed curriculum.  Some schools can not even afford to teach science any more, let alone more peripheral or vocational subjects.  Conservative governments fuck things up.  This much is obvious.

I noticed a number of people at the meeting refer to one another as 'comrade'.  This seemed to make Lucy MP slightly uncomfortable, but she remained diplomatic.  (She is evidently an intelligent and decent person, compassionate and well-informed.  As Shadow Education Secretary, she clearly knows her stuff.  Earlier in this parliament, she voted in favour of bombing Syria, something that had given her a black mark against my her name in my mind.  That sort of thing means less when you're in the same room as the person in question and can see them in three dimensions.  My cynicism subsided somewhat).  Without (m)any words being said, a certain tension could be felt between the 'old' Labour presences, who were gathered closer to where I was sitting, along with the evidently 'new' members, the Corbyn enthusiasts, some of whom I also heard use the word 'comrade' - and the apparently more established members, who it was difficult to picture using words like 'comrade' - and who, in fact, didn't.  There was no animosity, and no disagreement as such, but the tension was there.  It was reassuring to hear Lucy MP say that things had "calmed down" a lot among Labour MPs, most of whom are now much more concerned with "taking the fight" to the government than in ousting "Jeremy" as leader.  In reference to their division on the subject of Europe (something else I know little about) Lucy asserted that "the only party who are divided in Parliament at the moment are the Tories".  (This could easily have been a soundbite she had up her sleeve for the next pointless round of 30-second interviews  she'll be thrown into, but as it came out of her mouth, among friends, it sounded like a simple statement of fact.  This made me smile).  When it came to nominating members to the NEC, I had to ask what this was - apparently it's the people who get to set policy at the Party Conference, but the meaning of the acronym was unknown - so when I got home, I looked it up) my friend to my left with the crisp packets enthusiastically nominated 'Comrade Ken Livingstone' through his microphone.  Comrade Ken received nine votes overall.  Confusingly, the comedian and marathon runner Eddie Izzard won this particular election, with 27 votes.  It wasn't made clear exactly what this means, but I'm happy with the idea of Eddie Izzard making government policy in five years from now.

In summation, an interesting experience.  I kept my mouth shut, as I had only come to learn.  There was an esoteric atmosphere I didn't find entirely comfortable, and my thoughts turned frequently towards the problems with the very idea of party politics.  Somebody asked a question about Europe and what to say to people when they go out campaigning and knocking on doors.  Lucy MP asserted unequivocally that Labour Party policy was for an "in" vote in the referendum this summer.  Not everyone seemed to like this, but that nipped debate in the bud.  I left the meeting ambivalent.  There is an unshakable faith in the need for a Labour government in 2020, which obviously is exactly what you'd expect at a Labour Party meeting - but I couldn't help but feel that despite the shake-up of Corbyn's election this isn't a party ready to think 'outside the box' when it comes to politics.  I'll be staying a member of the Labour Party for now, but won't be giving up my membership of the UK Transhumanist Party any time soon.  Nobody said anything about universal basic income, or the mass unemployment that automation is apparently going to bring.  Climate change wasn't mentioned either.  I suppose this was only one meeting, but this being the Labour Party, everything was still all about 'jobs' and 'work'.  I'm thinking longer term than that.  Bigger picture.  Wider skies.