Monday, 23 July 2012

Digging myself a hole

I made the trek up to Durham last week for Unite’s political school and the Miners Gala. Just a fortnight after Unite’s Policy Conference in Brighton, and with a cold hanging over me, I had considered whether I was really this committed. However in the intervening time I received a (completely unsolicited) letter from the Communist Party. So, figuring my hopes of a career at MI5 were already dashed, I set off for the North.

It was a great few days in a beautiful city with old friends and new. There was however one particular incident that I will remember, and that is getting into an argument with the redoubtable Ian Lavery MP, the ex-president of the NUM, about class.

Mr Lavery, along with Jim Sheridan MP, gave speeches to our little group and then fielded questions. Something set me off. Maybe it was his admission that he loved to argue. Perhaps it was the mention that as an NUFC supporter he clashed with Man Utd fans, at a time when I know my dad was in the Firm. Beyond that though, there seemed to be a disagreement about what it meant to be part of the labour movement.
A full and frank exchange of ideas ensued. We shook hands afterwards, and while he won the room I gave a decent account of myself for a cocky 24 year old. However my little run-in did get me thinking about how we all put people in boxes.
There has always been a tendency in the labour movement to create our own aristocracy, and in the mythology miners sit at the top. From Orwell’s vision of “iron hammered iron statues”, to Peter Clarke and his exhortations about 1926, to the Gotterdammerung of the 1980s, there has been a fascination with this profession above all by those on the Left, in some ways akin to what the Right feel for certain elements of the armed forces. This hasn’t often crystalised in the leadership, but then the Tory Party hasn’t elevated many guardsmen to the top jobs. Both parties seem to prefer Old Oxonians after all. Yet still that veneration is palpable, and perhaps nowhere more than on that day in Durham.

I do occasionally wonder how much of this yearning is for the reality or the fantasy. Bevan, who actually started in a colliery, seems to have gotten out of it as soon as dignity allowed. His subsequent diet, particularly the champagne, rarely gave the impression he wanted to go back to dying for eight hours a day. Dennis Skinner worked in the pits for twenty years, but he’s been a Parliamentarian for over forty. One struggles to believe he would have kept going at the coalface fifteen years after he could have retired, or that he would have been as useful to the causes he supports.

Part of this fascination is top down, the dialectic daydreams of Fabian intellectuals seeing themselves commanding hordes of broad-shouldered proletarians at the barricades. Somehow organising Britain’s million call-centre workers lacks the same romantic edge. The mental check being applied is how good you’ll be hitting a copper with a pick-handle. Yet this attitude isn’t revolutionary, but profoundly reactionary. The notion that you’re better than someone because of the way you speak, dress or earn your living is a Tory idea, regardless of which way round you apply it. Equality of respect for our fellow men and women, because we all have value, is at the heart of the labour movement.

Now I know how this will come across, as some posh lad objecting to his privilege coming to an end. I leave that for you to decide. I lived on a council estate. I went to private school. My mum was a single parent. I went to university. I have a Mancunian accent. I work in an office. I hate the ballet, classical music, and football. I love poetry, brutalist architecture and strong tea. I’m not entirely sure where that puts me, so answers on a postcard please.

I don’t think every Labour councillor and Parliamentarian should be judged by how closely they resemble Alexey Stakhanov. Old Hayleburian Clem Attlee didn’t, and neither did the former Viscount Stansgate. And nor will the next generation, particularly the women, BAEM or disabled candidates whose participation is essential for our movement to be representative of Britain as a whole.

Just as we viewed the American arguments about whether Barack Obama was ‘really black’ with incredulity, so would most people see our agonising over one’s working class credentials as distracting at best and cultish at worst. Now, to be perfectly clear, Parliament is far too narrow. There is a difference between knowing what the poverty and unemployment are intellectually, statistically, and having lived through it, and both views are needed. The great thing is that we don’t need to wrestle with exactly what ‘class’ is in Britain to fix the democratic structure, as long as we ensure a diversity of experiences. The problem is not that Parliament includes journalists, or lawyers, or even public school boys. It is that it contains a disproportionate amount of those groups compared to the wider population. It probably always will.

But moves towards a more diverse House of Commons should be welcomed and fought for. The way to do this is through better organisation and bringing more people into the movement, so candidates are less reliant upon their own resources of time and money to run. It is about making processes transparent so that selection processes aren’t restricted to those ‘in the know’. It is about giving opportunities to learn the skills of communication and public discussion, so those who didn’t get their practice in at the Bar or the Oxford Union aren’t excluded from the debate.

It is not, however, about deciding whether your clothes make you the enemy, like Labour were some coalition of Mods and Rockers. To paraphrase Billy Bragg, just because I dress like this, doesn’t mean I’m not a socialist.

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