We need to talk about work

Stephen Baker addresses the growing problem of work related stress and argues that jobs are about more than subsistence: they should be “meaningful to us, personally fulfilling and socially valuable”.

A long and lonely commute…

In April this year my GP signed me off work with ‘work related stress’. I didn’t see it coming. I knew that I was unhappy at work but it wasn’t until I surprised myself by breaking down in the doctor’s surgery that I realised how despairing I had become about my professional life. I had anticipated a much more routine appointment to discuss an ailment that has bothered me for seven years. But a polite enquiry from my doctor as to my health reduced me to tears. It took about ten minutes for me to recover myself sufficiently to talk, after which I identified my job as a cause of acute anxiety in my life. He told me I wasn’t fit to work – I was at that stage barely fit to speak. I left the health centre feeling like the ground had disappeared from beneath me and that I was in free-fall. With hindsight, I now understand that I had been treading metaphorical thin-air for quite a few years – like the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote in pursuit of his nemesis Roadrunner, who runs off the edge of a cliff but keeps going, legs flailing the air, gravity momentarily denied, reality suspended, before he looks down, realisation dawns, and he plummets into the canyon below.

It seems I’m not alone.

A third of the UK workforce (34 percent) may have a health and wellbeing issue, with the most common being anxiety, depression and stress, according to a new PwC study. These figures follow a Labour Force Survey that reported in 2015/2016 there was a total of 488,000 cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in Great Britain. That’s a prevalence rate of 1510 per 100,000 workers, or 11.7 million working days lost that year due to the condition. However, these figures perhaps underestimate the size of the problem. Research by the insurer Aviva found that workers in the private sector are three times more likely to work while ill than to ‘pull a sickie’. Sixty-nine percent said they had struggled to work when unwell, compared with 23 percent who had taken off when there was nothing wrong with them. This suggests that at a time when the average number of working days lost due to illness is falling, presenteeism – being in work when you are not fit to work – is a greater problem than absenteeism.

Last year to coincide with World Mental Health Day the TUC published a study that marked stress as the top health and safety concern in UK workplaces. This finding was based on a survey of more than 1,000 health and safety reps around the UK who were asked to identify the hazards at work that most trouble them and their workforces. Seventy percent named stress. This chimes with my own experience as a trade union representative, a role in which I am very often the first informal port of call for colleagues feeling anxious, bullied, harassed and distressed in the workplace.

One common response to stress at work is simply not to talk about it for fear that it be interpreted as a sign of personal weakness. Or it might be considered an indication that an employee is unfit for or incapable of doing their job, with all the consequences that might entail. Employers can be equally reticent on the topic, since it might implicate their own employment practices. Certainly the Aviva report found that employers tend to underestimate the incidents and impact of stress at work. When the issue is addressed it is to it is often confined to questions of workload or work-life balance. Without question the quantity of work we do and the time we get to rest and recuperate is important. But perhaps there is something more fundamental going on at work; something more qualitative. In the contemporary work environment, how many of us feel that the work we do is meaningful to us, personally fulfilling and socially valuable? Alternatively, should we even allow ourselves to aspire to such notions at work? That’s the question I’ve been confronted with recently.

 

Higher (Pressure) Education

I work in higher education, a sector that has adopted a neoliberal rationality and the implementation of commercial imperatives that are utterly inimical to the aims and objectives of education. For me universities are (or at least should be) repositories of accrued human knowledge with a civic responsibility to serve by increasing and disseminating that knowledge. In this respect, I see myself as a public servant, a role I regard as a privilege. Teaching and research have always felt like a vocation to me, albeit a relatively well remunerated one. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do for living. But over the past six or seven years I’ve had the creeping feeling that my work has been increasingly trivialised and misunderstood. This is a feeling that has coincided with the hike in tuition fees and rising student debt, which has signalled a clear change in how universities conduct themselves.

In July the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that three-quarters of graduates will never repay their debt, which implies that there is a dearth of graduate employment in the jobs market to enable graduates to make good on their loans. At the same time, the pay of university managers has rocketed. An investigation by the University and College Union (UCU) revealed that the average salary package of university Vice Chancellors was £277,834 in the last academic year. This is more than six times the average pay of their staff. However, university managers aren’t the only ones enjoying a big pay day. The Financial Times described the market in purpose built student accommodation (described by investors as PBSAs) as being “on steroids”.

“Private investors have piled in as numbers of students – and the rents they are prepared to pay – keep on rising. The UK PBSA market is now worth about £43bn, and the landlords are no longer universities staffed by well-meaning but slightly distracted academics, but professional student room providers”.

Seen in these terms, it is hard not to conclude that higher education exists as a means for university managers and private landlords to harvest student debt. If you work in higher education and consider it an honourable vocation, then witnessing this exploitation of predominantly young people, and indeed playing your part in that exploitation, isn’t just depressing, it feels like an assault on your very self-worth. You have been pressed into the service of a nefarious system so far removed from the public service and civic virtues you believe in that it is frankly unbearable. On reflection – and although it surprised me at the time – this is what culminated in the episode at my GP’s. What I felt on that occasion was an overwhelming sense of grief; like I’d lost or was losing something that felt fundamental to me, but I couldn’t quite explain what it was.

A few days after being signed off work a concerned old friend told me in the bluntest possible terms that what I was suffering from was alienation, in the Marxist sense, and since most of the working population are afflicted with it, it was only my own sense of profesional middle class entitlement that allowed me to imagine I should be an exception to the general rule. That’s probably true. We are alienated at work because we are forced to sell our labour in order to subsist, to live. As a consequence our work does not belong to us. It is not an act of self-expression. The product of our labour is appropriated and directed by another, the employer. Of course we can take pride in our work, we can strive to feel a degree of satisfaction in a job well done; we can enjoy the remuneration; the status acquired through work, perhaps; but it doesn’t alter the fact that we’ve sold our time and effort to an employer and what we produce is theirs to do with as they will. For the public servant things might be experienced differently. Her work might be in the service of others, but if that changes and she finds herself working, not in the public interest, but for an iniquitous state or the aggrandisement of an elite, then a feeling of alienation shouldn’t come as a surprise.

 

Self-worth and work

If the Marxist conception of alienation is too abstract for your tastes, you might find American sociologist Richard Sennett’s research more grounded. He has written extensively about people’s relationship to their work; their experience of it and what it means to them. In particular Sennett is sensitive to how our sense of self-worth is bound up in the work we do and his analysis of this across several volumes through the years draws attention to the “triumph of superficiality at work.”

Sennett argues that work in our contemporary economy doesn’t provide what he refers to as a “sustaining life narrative”: that is a biography in which we can locate a sense of pride at a good job well done, and in addition forge bonds of loyalty and purpose. This doleful situation has been achieved, in part, through a preference for short-termism in the work place – the imperative to make a quick buck for impatient shareholders is the bottom line. So employers and corporations invest less and less in in-depth knowledge, expertise and accrued skill or craft, and as a consequence the past achievements of employees are considered obsolete and discarded with indecent and wasteful haste. Sennett argues that it is only an “unusual sort of human being” that can thrive in such a transient, throw-away work environment.

Sennett’s ethnographic approach to his research reveals something beyond employment and productivity statistics. It drills down to reveal how people’s sense of identity and self-worth is intimately bound up in what they do. It achieves this because he encourages people to talk about their work and the place it has in their lives. In The Corrosion of Character, Sennett interviews Rico, a college graduate, son of a janitor, whose life looks like an exemplar of upward mobility and success. Rico is married with kids and runs his own consultancy firm, having previously worked in the computer industry, Silicon Valley. His wife manages a small group of accountants, some of whom work from home, as well as a back office staff located thousands of miles away that she connects to via the internet. Despite the appearance of middle class success, both fear they are “on the edge of losing control of their lives,” a fear built into their professions that are a “flux of networking,” as well as impersonal and flexible working relations. In this context friendship and community develop what Sennett calls a “fugitive quality.” While Rico sees his job as a service to his family he worries that it interferes with those ends. Not in the sense that he doesn’t have sufficient time to spend with his wife and kids. Rather “his deepest worry is that he cannot offer the substance of his work life as an example to his children of how they should conduct themselves ethically.”

The Corrosion of Character was published in 1998, when the contours of what Sennett refers to as “flexible capitalism” were increasingly apparent, but his inquiries into the value ascribed to work predate this, as illustrated in his earlier book, The Hidden Injuries of Class, published in 1972. One of the subjects of that study, Frank Rissaro, from a working class background, left school without qualifications and after a brief spell in the army became a butcher, a job he held for nearly twenty years. Frank was ambitious, specifically he had ambitions to open a butcher’s shop of his own but the capital was beyond his reach. However, a friend introduced him to the branch manager of local bank and Frank went to work there, entering the white collar world. Like Rico almost two decades later, Frank’s story looks like one of upwardly mobile success – a working class boy’s entry into the middle class. But Sennett reveals a more complicated picture. Frank is proud of this working class roots, considering it the grounding that keeps him honest; more honest than he considers his better educated work colleagues at the bank, whom he accuses of shiftlessness; coming to work late, going home early. And he seems ambivalent about his job: “These jobs aren’t real work where you make something – it’s just pushing papers.” If, for Frank, “real work” is the preserve of the blue collar occupations he has left behind, he clearly regards middle class professional life as ephemeral and maybe even swindling. For Sennett, it reveals how Frank’s striving for middle class respectability in the eyes of others has rendered him unable to respect himself.

The Moral Dimension

Both Rico and Frank’s stories reveal that work is not just about subsistence. It has a moral dimension. As I have found to my own cost, to feel ethically compromised or diminished at work; or to feel a loss of self-respect, can be injurious. That is why we need to talk about work beyond the statistics beloved of government press releases and news bulletins. These might reveal something about the economic “health” of the nation but there is no necessary relationship between that and human well-being and flourishing.

Stephen Baker

15 September 2017

Connect and Combine, or: The crank and the cycle

#ConnectCombine

Hurricane Irma

As I write, Hurricane Irma has just ripped through Florida, uprooting trees, overturning cars and bringing flooding in its wake.  The giant storm had already left a trail of destruction across the islands of the Caribbean. And it was the second major hurricane to make landfall in the US in less than a month.

As Harvey receded and Irma began to approach, an influential conservative US commentator, Rush Limbaugh, cast doubt on the storm warnings: “there is a desire to advance this climate change agenda”, he said, “and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it”.

Within days, he himself had fled the oncoming destruction. It remains to be seen whether or not that destruction takes Limbaugh’s credibility down with it. Probably not, unfortunately, at least among his fanbase; because faced with the evidence of the damage he will simply switch to claiming that ‘the left’ is politicising an emergency. Which is a bad thing, of course; something the right, by implication, would never stoop to. That his first reaction to an oncoming storm was to criticise ‘the left’, for example, should in no way be taken as a politicisation of the emergency.

Obvious hypocrisy aside, his credibility, of course, should have been swept out to sea by now. The meteorologists were warning of a dangerous, powerful storm. The authorities were urging people to evacuate for their own safety. Limbaugh was telling them to fill up a few water bottles and watch out for reds under the bed. Effectively, he was prepared to put other people’s lives (though not his own) at risk for the sake of obstinately maintaining his ideological purity.

Climate change deniers keep denying, even as record storms rip through the east and wildfires ravage the west. The Trump Administration has gone as far as to instruct staff to drop the term ‘climate change’, replacing it with ‘weather extremes’ in their publications. The same instruction replaces “reduce greenhouse gases” with “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency”. Moreover, “sequester carbon” is to be replaced by “build soil organic matter”.

But with Texas, Florida, Oregon, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Utah, and California all affected in this season alone, the question is, just how much of America are the deniers prepared to see engulfed before they admit they were wrong?

My guess is, quite a bit. If they are impervious to the 97 percent of scientific papers that support the idea of human-caused global warming, it is clear that facts are not enough to dislodge the belief system conservatism clings to.  Whatever the ‘liberals’ say (and by the way, this term of ‘abuse’, in the conservatives’ lexicon, includes scientists) they simply must be wrong. Where the facts include a flooded East Coast and a charred West, the conservative response will be to denounce anyone who ‘politicises’ a tragedy. As though their own politics didn’t contribute to it.

Conservatism activates tribalism to cling to power, but remains ready to sacrifice the tribe.

That is, those with wealth and power activate nationalism, xenophobia and other forms of ‘denomination’ so that they, the powerful few, can retain power, even if this comes at the expense of their grass-roots supporters. And it is, as usual, the ordinary citizens, the working people, the least well off, who suffer the worst of the consequences. Their houses are less robust than those of the wealthy; they only have one house, and can’t just flee to another property in their portfolio; they can’t afford decent insurance; they can’t afford the repairs; their workplace – unlike Wall Street – has been devastated too.

Similar forces are at work in the UK.

In the crank economy, the model that has been dominant in the US and UK in recent decades, the bulk of the forces are directed vertically, pushing ever greater rewards to the top, squeezing down on those at the bottom. Inequality increases. Poverty deepens. Minorities and migrants face resentment stoked by media owned and edited by the wealthy.

When the whole thing comes crashing to a halt, rather than addressing the inherent problems of the crank, our political leaders on the conservative side set about getting us to turn it faster and faster again. Many self-described ‘moderates’ too seem to think that getting the crank turning faster again will solve the problem: growth will go back up, and therefore we will have the money to go back to spending generously on welfare and public services. After all, you have to make sure there’s plenty of growth at the top (you have to be ‘intensely relaxed’ about people getting ‘filthy rich’) if you are going to redistribute from the top down (‘as long as they pay their taxes’).

But it is the effects of the crank economy itself that have led us into crisis, both in terms of the social and economic inequality that sees a million food parcels handed out even as the FTSE index and Dow Jones keep breaking records and in terms of a climate crisis that is also a food crisis and a migration crisis.

You don’t solve the whole interconnected suite of problems caused by the crank by turning it faster. Not while all the gearing is directed vertically.

Instead, we must direct our forces horizontally. The whole aim and thrust of political economy must be to increase the share of power and income and wealth of those currently with least. Not indirectly, by first channeling it to the top; directly, by spreading power and wealth horizontally at the grass roots. Ordinary workers and their families, people who would be workers, but don’t have the opportunity, people working, but not as many hours as they would like, people trying to raise families on wages that have fallen too far behind to raise families – even as a tier of shareholders and wealth managers soar ever farther above the average.

From the Crank to the Cycle

Spread money and power horizontally, so that it can cycle and recycle, injecting new dynamics into local communities,  and the whole dynamics of the general political macroeconomy can be transformed. The economy can become something that works for the common good, where commoners connect and combine.

The progressive task is to connect the dots, the whole range of issues, and combine with others campaigning to democratise power in this country,  and in our global neighbourhood. And there are plenty of particular issues to campaign on.

Nearly a third of children in the UK live in poverty. McDonald’s workers are on minimum wage, while the boss takes home millions. Ongoing austerity is about to take another fifty pounds a week out of the pockets of the poor. The treatment of people with disabilities has been a national disgrace. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities are still disproportionately adversely affected by inequality, especially if they are women.

The issues all connect.

Ten years on from the bail out of northern rock conservatives still tell people their tale – blaming a private sector fiasco caused by greedy speculation on the public sector and foreigners, then using the opportunity to reduce public spending and regulations.

Somehow, the ongoing inequality, the poverty, the deep problems over Brexit, the failure of Brexiteers’ predictions of an ‘easy’ deal, the exposure of their falsehoods, even Grenfell, do not dent the hold of tale of the take back control brigade.

It is time, as George Monbiot has pointed out, to start telling a new story.

The effects of Hurricane Irma are plain to see. But there has been a storm invisibly working its way through our neighbourhoods for years, just as deadly, just as much influenced by political-economic choices.

Maurice Macartney

13 September 2017

Two Days in 2017

Maurice responds to President Trump’s comments on Charlottesville.

Demonstrator wearing a T-Shirt with a quotation from Hitler.

Events have overtaken me. Yesterday morning I saved a draft blogpost that was going to talk about the two long days it took Mr Trump to get round to condemning Nazis marching in the streets of an American city in the 21st Century – and indeed killing a counterprotester. Yesterday I was going to write that “we find ourselves in the astonishing position of having watched the President of the United States of America wrestle for two days – two days in 2017 – with the question of whether to come down on the side of democracy or that of fascism”.

But it turns out that he hadn’t finished wrestling yet.

Mr Trump’s original statement on Saturday was bad enough:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.”

This was around two hours after a car had been driven at speed into a crowd protesting against the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, killing one and injuring many others.

Mr Trump knew he would be expected to condemn the hatred, bigotry and violence of Fascists, White Supremacists and Nazis – actual American Nazis, nothing ‘alt’ or ‘neo’ about them. But he could not bring himself simply to do that. For his own reasons, he had to blame others too.

At that stage he avoided the phrase ‘both sides’, because it would have been too obvious that he was equating Nazis with those protesting against them. So he said ‘many sides’. Then he repeated it. With a lofty wave from the podium. To make sure you heard without him having to say it.

But it seems he has now given up on such subtleties. He has come right out and equated both sides in the confrontation between the Nazis, the KKK, and open Fascism on the one hand, and at those who oppose them on the other.

The Nazis had thought his original statement ‘good, really good’ and noted gleefully that he had specifically not condemned them.

Today, when he came out clearly equating one side with the other, again the KKK knew how to read this: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage” Tweeted David Duke, “to tell the truth about Charlottesville and condemn the leftist terrorists”.

Mr Trump’s equivocation, and now his withdrawal of a clear condemnation of the Nazis gives them encouragement, and will be taken as some form of permission or authorisation from the top.

This is a decisive moment in Mr Trump’s presidency.

Democracy or fascism Mr Trump? You have to choose. And on the latest evidence, you’ve made the wrong choice.

It has been said many times before, prematurely as it turned out, but surely, surely this really is a turning point!

Maurice Macartney

16 August 2017

Election Breakdown Report

Jenny Muir reports on our Election Breakdown panel discussion event of 20 June. The panel featured (pictured left-right below) Geraint Ellis, Queen’s University Belfast; Ellen Murray, Gender Jam NI and Green Party NI; Stephen Baker (Chairing for the Combination); Liz Nelson, Belfast Feminist Network; Brian Campfield, NIPSA; and Robin Wilson, independent researcher and journalist.

The panel at our #GEBreakdown, 20 June 2017

We were pleased to see around 40 people at our public meeting “Election Breakdown: where now for progressive politics?” in the Crescent Arts Centre on a hot evening in June. We were even more pleased to see it wasn’t just the usual suspects – there were a number of people for whom this was their first ‘political meeting’, and others who have only recently become politically engaged. There was some political eclecticism: Greens, Labour, Socialist Party, PUP, SDLP, our fellow bloggers at The Last Round, and no doubt others we didn’t know.

Our panel was also eclectic: Brian Campfield (NIPSA), Geraint Ellis (QUB), Ellen Murray (GenderJam NI and Green Party NI), Liz Nelson (Belfast Feminist Network) and Robin Wilson (independent researcher and journalist). The meeting was chaired by the Combination’s own Stephen Baker and fellow Combiner Maurice Macartney interviewed most panellists beforehand and also recorded the event.

Here’s a short report on what we covered. We’ll be posting further reflections and extracts from the meeting in the coming weeks.

What is ‘progressive politics’? Geraint described it as working for ‘emancipation of humanity from social oppression’, which requires addressing inequalities of wealth and power, opposing injustice, and ensuring everyone has access to basic requirements such as food and shelter. This requires an active state which takes control of these matters in the interests of the people.  An audience member suggested that the basis of progressivism is about extending rights to those who don’t currently have them.

There were interesting exchanges about what topics should be included: for example, Liz and Ellen spoke about the importance of abortion, disabled and trans rights, as well as campaigning against climate change. We should all be intersectional in our activism (Liz again) – championing each other’s rights. The usefulness of the term ‘progressive’ was questioned by some given that so many parties use it, but as yet we have not been able to think of a better alternative.

The problem is capitalism….and patriarchy, and racism…. Neoliberal capitalism has become, as Brian put it, ‘commodification of daily life and culture’. Geraint said we have been living in a post politics world, which led to the belief that Corbyn was unelectable – but is this over? Are we back to politics as a testing and questioning of norms? Ellen said she felt progress was being made in Northern Ireland, especially through adopting a human rights approach to campaigning, but she was not as optimistic about the situation in the UK overall.

What does progressive politics mean in Northern Ireland? Robin commented that, in the past, republicanism has been portrayed as progressive and unionism as not. This is an inadequate analysis given the complexity of opinions in both communities, and indeed an audience member from a unionist area commented that many people would agree with socialist ideas but would not call themselves socialists and would be put off by the language of rights, which is seen to have been claimed by the ‘other side’. Robin argued for a civic cosmopolitanism to go beyond this division and to include other issues such as workers’ rights, women’s rights and environmental issues, all of which are common to both traditional communities. Brian pointed out that we have to talk about the history of Northern Ireland and its relationship to British imperialism, as part of forming a local progressive agenda.  Geraint felt that the polarisation of party politics into two main parties has reduced the space for progressives, however all opportunities must still be taken.

Liz reminded us that we need to look beyond our local politics to make global alliances, not least because many issues go beyond our boundaries. Although Northern Ireland is now more open to progressive views than in the past, there needs to be more attention paid to why many people continue to vote for parties linked to social conservatism, or not to vote at all.

And what about Brexit? Of course there were different opinions in the room, as it’s an issue that divides progressives. Brian – who had voted to leave – acknowledged the limitations of the EU as it currently operates, but argued that it still provides and protects rights despite giving primacy to the interests of capital. On the other hand, he noted there are opportunities to do better, as indeed is currently the case for maternity leave in the UK. Geraint also pointed out that rights will be damaged without EU protection.

What is a ‘community’ in the 21st century? How do we connect with people nowadays? Robin said we need to find a progressive politics that acknowledges geographical communities are not as important as they used to be. Brian talked about the need for a new ‘community of common values and ideas’ and acknowledged this was a challenge for trade unionism.

This exploration connected with a recurrent theme, the role of social media. Different views were expressed about the social media ‘bubble’, but it was strongly defended by several in the audience and also by Ellen, who celebrated its benefits for people with disabilities. Social media can connect otherwise isolated people and so can be positive. But everyone agreed it’s only part of the picture, and face to face campaigning remains essential.

How to move forward: Robin suggested that Northern Ireland needs a new progressive political entity but it was more likely to be a network than a political party: ‘the broadest secular church possible’. A coalition could form around the universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. If the Additional Member System were adopted for NI elections then a progressive list with candidates from more than one party could be agreed. An audience member thought a new party would split the progressive vote even further, and identified the challenge of bringing progressives from different parties together. There was also a call for the Labour Party to stand candidates in Northern Ireland.

Brian reminded us never to abandon radical ideas. Progressives need to get people elected but also not to abandon protests and lobbying, translating networks into activism. Liz recommended ‘the power of listening’ to people’s stories of their experiences and oppression. Ellen thought there were opportunities at the moment for changing the conversation, such as queer activism, but there is still a lack of disabled candidates standing in elections. Political education is needed.

Stephen, as Chair, commented on the optimism of most of the panel’s contributions. There was a sense that opportunities exist at the moment, and a feeling of having turned a corner, even though the Tories are still in power.

We hope to organise more events like this, funding permitting, and look forward to developing these ideas within a progressive network.

Jenny Muir

30 July 2017

Progressives can do better than just point to the DUP bogeyman

In a guest post, Rowan Tunnicliffe argues that focusing on the DUP’s social conservatism is not enough; progressives must set about building an alternative.

After a tiring and unnecessary General Election campaign, the Conservative Party in Britain joined forces with the DUP. This led to some unsavoury quotes by senior DUP members being dredged up for an audience to whom this brand of ultra-conservatism was a novelty.

Politicians across the water in Great Britain launched a broadside against the party, notably referring to them as “dinosaurs” in the House of Commons.

This was an English response for an English audience. For progressives in Northern Ireland who have long suffered the DUP’s antiquated social beliefs, there was both a space and a need for a more nuanced approach.

Instead, seeing what the English media and politicians were getting away with, some progressives here have sensed it is open season to air their views on the DUP in the knowledge that they have cover from the rest of the UK.

However, this response is ultimately self-defeating. The DUP remain the largest party in Northern Ireland, and only they and Sinn Féin were able to increase their vote share in the June election. Painting them as a bogeyman ignores the fact that they are popular, and increasingly so.

The DUP’s support reaches across social classes. But it is safe to say they get the lion’s share of working and lower middle-class support in the unionist community. In England, the Conservatives are typically seen as a party for the wealthy, but such simplistic analysis ignores the fact that they also have significant support in less affluent segments of society.

Both the DUP and the Conservatives have instinctive appeal to those who seek to improve their lives, to those who aspire to a better job and to those who want to maintain a sense of their own identity. These people’s priorities may – quite understandably – lie in their own day-to-day lives, rather than pushing progressive social policies for minority groups, for example.

Speaking personally, I grew up in a lower middle-class background in England, and would have shared this attitude when I was younger. My grandfather ran a small family company, my mum was a single-parent looking after me. I grew up thinking that the Conservative Party offered a good deal for people like me, an opportunity to improve my life if I worked for it.

As someone who went on to become an economist, I now realise that any success I have achieved has come despite the policies of Thatcher and Major that were in place when I was young, not because of them.

My family were not political. Our priorities did not lie in noble causes. Even if we were sympathetic to marriage equality (and we were), it was not the driving factor that would have taken us to a polling station. Jobs, economic growth and stability were.

Mocking the DUP, and indeed the Conservatives in England, therefore makes progressives seem out of touch. It limits the appeal of politicians and activists who seem to dedicate the majority of their time and energy engaging in cheap attacks on some of the DUP’s questionable social views.

Furthermore, most people in Northern Ireland don’t care about the details of the Tory-DUP deal – the headline figure of millions of extra pounds for Northern Ireland’s healthcare system is enough to welcome it. That is not to say it should not face criticism, but that criticism should not become our defining message.

Progressives hold the solutions to many of the problems that traditional DUP (and indeed Conservative) supporters face. A good example of this is a motion brought to Belfast City Council recently by the Green Party’s Georgina Milne, which called for increased investment in the renewable energy sector in Belfast. This would secure existing manufacturing jobs in the city and create more on a long-term, sustainable basis. These would be better quality and better paid jobs than many currently have.

Instead of dedicating significant amounts of time attacking the DUP, as progressives we should be spending our time articulating and promoting these positive alternatives to the status quo.

It will be much harder work than simply condemning crass and deplorable comments on, for example, homosexuality, but in the end, it will create the electoral growth to take progressive parties to government.

It is only through being in that position that we will be able to implement the policies that will help those whose equality we rightly campaign for, as well as those whose priorities lie elsewhere.

 

Rowan Tunnicliffe is an economist who lives in Belfast. He is the Secretary of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. Any views expressed in this piece are personal views and should not be taken to be representative of the Green Party.

17 July 2017

Love Equality

The Combination, reflecting the range of progressives in our society, includes people who identify with a faith and people who do not.  This post by Tanya Jones addresses the issue of equal marriage from a Christian perspective.

The Love Equality March in Belfast

Three events in the past few weeks: the Tory-DUP pact, the amendment of the German Civil Code by the Bundestag, and the LoveEquality march in Belfast on 1 July, have brought the issue of same-sex marriage back into full focus.  In a swathe of Europe which includes the rest of the British Isles, Scandinavia, France, Spain and Portugal, Northern Ireland stands alone in refusing to authorise or recognise the marriages of two women or of two men.  Notoriously, public opinion here is now clearly in favour of changes in the law, and, in the last Assembly, so were a majority of MLAs, with the DUP using (or misusing) the petition of concern to prevent its passing.

For me, it is deeply sad, perverse and even ironic that the main force behind this resistance consists of those who identify as fellow Christians.  While there are a few groups, lay people and members of the clergy who have spoken bravely and generously in favour of marriage equality, the majority of churches and their members have been either vociferously opposed or awkwardly silent.  Most of the latter are not bigoted puritans, but well-meaning people torn between their own best instincts and a shaky but strident conservative social teaching.

This is no longer a matter of internal debate, open to believers only.  The anti-gay religious tradition, homophobic in effect if not in intention, and shared across many denominations, is the sole justification for the DUP’s stubborn stance.  If they use theology to stand in the way of democratically mandated progress, I believe that all of us have the right to interrogate it, whatever our beliefs or background.

The ‘Christian’ denial of equal marriage rights takes three principal forms:

1. The Bible condemns same-gender sexual relationships.

It is, of course, quite odd to speak of ‘the Bible’ taking a single view on any subject, consisting as it does of a range of different types of literature, exploring often contradictory conceptions of God and society.  There are no true fundamentalists, for each of us choose which books and passages to privilege, which to disregard and how to attribute incompatible statements.  But even if every reference to same-sex attraction throughout the Old and New Testaments (and there are not nearly as many as you might think) is interpreted in an evangelical mode as the ‘Word of God’, the result is still not a remotely anti-gay Creator.  We know, because a brilliant young American called Matthew Vines has done just that, and his video here bridges the perceived gap between progressives and evangelicals on this issue as nothing else I’ve ever seen.

2. The Catholic church teaches that such relationships are wrong.

It does, yes, even under everyone’s favourite eco-pope.  But, as the referendum in the Republic of Ireland showed, the most devout Catholics are quite capable of making up their own minds in a different direction to their bishops’.  Conscience is paramount, as generations of priests have reassured their contraception-using parishioners in the confessional.  What is more, the condemnation doesn’t go quite so far back as we tend to believe. As the historian John Boswell meticulously uncovered in The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, over twenty years ago, liturgical ceremonies almost indistinguishable from heterosexual weddings were presided over by priests across Europe for many centuries.   The beautifully worded, and directly translated offices in Boswell’s appendix would need little or no amendment to be used by same-sex couples today, ‘not bound by nature but by faith’ in ‘unashamed fidelity’ and ‘true love’.

3. It would be a ‘redefinition of marriage’.

This is the favourite version at the moment.  It sounds so reasonable, so non-judgemental, so regretful.  But when you look at it properly, it only means the same as the others.  There is an interesting question as to when the expansion of a category becomes a ‘redefinition’, but I don’t think it has much to do with whether or not my gay friends should be able to get married.  And even if it is sufficient to be a ‘redefinition’, then those making this argument have to explain why it matters.  Words are constantly being redefined, to the relief of lexicographers, and civilisation doesn’t necessarily collapse. Five years ago the ‘Christian Institute’ produced a document entitled Redefining Marriage.  I don’t recommend that you read it, unless you are particularly in need of an urgent emetic. It is full of circular arguments, non-sequiturs, random historical and sociological assertions and extremely offensive allegations, of the kind that even DUP ministers have since learned not to make.  But at the core of all this unpleasant tangle is the claim that sex between people of the same gender is ‘morally wrong’.  For all the pseudo-psychology, the faux-linguistic analysis, that’s all it comes down to in the end.

Those are the negatives, the asserted ‘Christian’ justifications for a repressive stance.  But there are positive reasons why, as  Christians, we would fully support not only equal marriage, but the other vital reforms needed to make life fair and joyful for LGBTQ people.  Reading the Gospels, with their interpolations and interpretations, is not straightforward, but there are characteristics of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and teaching which are clear and challenging.  He sought out and supported the marginalised, especially women and those perceived as impure.  He rejected the privileging of conventional family structures and responsibilities over the quest for social justice. His own closest emotional bond appears to have been with another man (‘the disciple whom he loved’) and in healing the centurion’s ‘servant’ he probably recognised and implicitly affirmed a same-sex relationship.  The actions which made him angry were those of injustice and exploitation, never of sexual difference. And he asserted and celebrated the infinite worth of each person, without moral or theological precondition.

So where does that leave us? I’d like to see all of us, whether atheist, agnostic or of any faith asking a lot more questions of those who claim a religious basis for their opposition to marriage equality.  I’d like to see more people of faith, and Christians in particular, standing up for the rights of their LGBTQ sisters and brothers, on this and other issues. And I’d like this to be an opportunity to build bridges, to find common ground, instead of watching new fissures grow.

Tanya Jones

14 July 2017

 

What’s the problem with the Tory-DUP Agreement?

Following our previous post on the Tory-DUP ‘Confidence and Supply’ trick, Jenny Muir looks in greater detail at what the deal means for Northern Ireland.

What does the deal mean for Stormont?

Anyone who was taken by surprise at the negotiating skills of the DUP probably doesn’t live in Northern Ireland or take a great deal of interest in recent history here – which includes the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement, the St Andrews Agreement, the Hillsborough Agreement, the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements…. you get the picture.

It’s worth reading the short Confidence and Supply Agreement in full, including the annex which sets out the financial support in more detail. The DUP has looked after their key constituents absolutely brilliantly: pensioners through retention of the ‘triple lock’ and the Winter Fuel Payment; the armed forces; support for the Reserve Forces in Northern Ireland; and retention of funds for farm support for the lifetime of this Parliament. All except the Reserve Forces commitment apply across the UK.

But the details of the agreed financial support reveal a far wider remit. £400m for infrastructure development; £150m for ultra-fast broadband; £100m for severely deprived areas; £100m for ‘immediate pressures’ in health and education; £200m for health service restructuring; £50m for mental health. A cool £1bn, mainly in the next two years although two of the smaller amounts (regeneration and mental health) are to be drawn down over five years. Money previously allocated to spend on shared education and housing is also to be used within this period. The non-financial commitments include activation of the previous commitment to devolution of Corporation Tax and Air Passenger Duty (APD); the introduction of City Deals and more Enterprise Zones.

So the DUP have shaken the magic money tree, I suspect without caring what the rest of the UK thinks. And that, as Maurice and Stephen have said, could cause issues in the longer term. But what’s the immediate problem for progressives?

We can’t and shouldn’t oppose the extra resources, although we might oppose the pro-corporate, anti-environment and anti-integration approach demonstrated by the emphasis on attracting investment, the military spending, potentially lower corporation tax and less APD. We may think other items should have been included, such as further mitigation of welfare ‘reform’, and we may very possibly think the reversal of austerity requires a great deal more than a £1bn bribe. But I suspect none of these arguments will have much traction with the wider public.

However, the ideology of the Agreement does not bode well for the future of Northern Ireland. Much has been made over the water of the DUP’s social conservatism, which of course is shared by other parties here. There is nothing in the Agreement seeking to restrict abortion rights or equal marriage in GB, and it would have been ridiculous to expect this. The more important question about the Agreement is whether it ditches the ability of the ruling party in Westminster to play their part in restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland through maintaining the impartiality pledged in the Good Friday Agreement.

Most obviously, we can contrast the Agreement’s statement on devolved government with the Downing Street Declaration that kick started the peace process in 1993 when John Major was Prime Minister. Para 4 begins (my emphasis):

The Prime Minister, on behalf of the British Government, reaffirms that they will uphold the democratic wish of the greater number of the people of Northern Ireland on the issue of whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland. On this basis, he reiterates, on the behalf of the British Government, that they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. Their primary interest is to see peace, stability and reconciliation established by agreement among all the people who inhabit the island, and they will work together with the Irish Government to achieve such an agreement, which will embrace the totality of relationships.

The Tory-DUP Agreement (p.2) includes (also my emphasis):

As set out in its General Election manifesto the Conservative Party will never be neutral in expressing its support for the Union. As the UK government we believe that Northern Ireland’s future is best served within a stronger United Kingdom. We will always uphold the consent principle and the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party will never countenance any constitutional arrangements that are incompatible with the consent principle…. The UK government will continue to support close co-operation with the Irish government, and work with them in accordance with the Belfast Agreement and subsequent agreements, while recognising that ultimate responsibility for political stability in Northern Ireland rests with the UK government.

It’s not surprising that John Major (now Sir John) expressed his concern about a DUP deal. Although the Agreement does include a continuing commitment to the consent principle, it makes clear that a Conservative government (as distinct from the Conservative Party) would not take a neutral position should that principle be exercised through a border poll.

But there are also smaller triggers running through the documents. Reference exclusively to the ‘Belfast Agreement’ without the counterbalancing ‘Good Friday Agreement’ is one. Also, the DUP’s commitment to support the Tories on matters of national security and to maintain defence expenditure, along with support of NI’s reserve forces, is not compatible with the essential demilitarisation of NI society. And, on the final page of the annex, the legacy bodies are to be established so as to operate in ways that are fair, balanced and proportionate and which do not unfairly focus on former members of the armed forces or police.

I have mixed feelings about the ‘honest broker’ neutrality argument, not least because it’s been used by the Labour Party for years as the reason why they don’t stand for election in NI. It ought to be possible for a British political party to stand in NI – as, indeed, the Tories do – and to take a position on the union. However, once a party goes into government the situation changes, especially when negotiations are taking place to re-establish a broken regional administration.

It’s not enough to remove the Secretary of State for NI’s involvement in the implementation of the Tory-DUP Agreement, in order to preserve a semblance of neutrality, if unionist language permeates the Agreement itself. In Northern Ireland politics, perception is all. It gives Sinn Féin another excuse to reject a settlement, at a time when the word on the street is that they don’t want one anyway. And the extra £1bn isn’t even dependent on the restoration of the Assembly, a fairly obvious carrot and stick approach which would have put Sinn Féin in a very difficult position.

The Tory-DUP Agreement is economically welcome but ideologically poisonous. It looks as if the Northern Ireland Assembly will be collateral damage in this shabby attempt to keep Theresa May in power. At the same time, the Tories are addressing some concerns of British MPs about working with the DUP. Northern Ireland women will no longer have to pay for abortions in England (followed by Scotland and Wales). And there is also a new commitment to legislation for declaration of political donations in NI, although only from 1 July 2017, so sweeping the DUP’s Brexit ‘dark money’ under the carpet for ever. We can only speculate about how the new relationship will play out, but it’s possible the DUP may find that never again will they have as much influence as they do now. In the longer run they may pay very dearly for that £1bn.

Jenny Muir

10 July 2017

Confidence and Supply Trick

Since the election, and the proposed deal to shore up the Conservative Government, there has been a barrage of criticism levelled at the DUP, some fair enough, some inaccurate and over the top.

The deal is signed (image: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)

Think of Mac’s cartoon in the Daily Mail, showing caricatures of Irish people all drunk on the floor – wrong on so many levels.

Some of this is because of the shock of the majority of British people seeing a small provincial party with deeply conservative social views out in the open – and in a position of power too – for the first time. Some comes from NI people opposed to the DUP who understandably want to warn the rest of the country about their ‘dinosaur’ tendencies.

But there has perhaps been a second shock: it turns out these dinosaurs are actually quite tough, well-prepared, clever negotiators. And they’ve brought home the bacon, in the form of £1bn of extra public funding.

From a UK wide perspective, it isn’t the dinosaur dimension that is most striking here – the UK Government is not going to rush out and reverse position on equal marriage, for instance. It is rather the contradictory nature of the package the Conservatives have given them.

The DUP asked for a low-tax, high public spending package. And the Tories, whose virtual trade mark since 2010 has been low tax, low spending, live-within-your-means austerity, have given it to them.

The Conservatives, whose leader told a nurse live on TV she couldn’t have a pay rise because ‘there is no magic money tree’ have given that tree a shake, and produced a plum for their NI partners.

The rest of the UK is going to want to know where they have been hiding this tree for all this time. Answer: the Cayman Islands, as Artist Taxi Driver has pointed out (in, be warned, the earthiest possible language).

To make matters worse, the DUP, having pocketed the money, went on to back the Tories in ensuring nurses and fire officers – remember those heroes of Manchester, London Bridge, Grenfell? – won’t get a decent pay rise, not on their watch.

Back in Northern Ireland, the rest of us now have to deal with a DUP whose sense of self-importance was already, shall we say, robust, fresh from the doorway of Number Ten.

The extra funding, to be sure, is welcome, and much needed.  But perhaps DUP celebrations should be tempered by the damage that they have done to their own and Northern Ireland’s reputation with others across the UK. The Scots, Welsh and English regions will be furious. Even the Scots Tories must be looking at this deal with distaste. And it’s unlikely that the deal will have done anything to endear the DUP to the English Tory Government they’ve struck it with.

The DUP’s obvious delight at scoring all this money is typical of a party that can’t tell the difference between the weather and the climate. They return to Northern Ireland claiming to have brought the sunshine; but at what cost to the general political climate?

Are we entering a period of the deeper entrenchment of traditional divisions, and a contradictory fiscal position that cannot be sustained? What are the implications for the constitutional question in Northern Ireland, and for the Institutions set up in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement?

Jenny Muir will address those and related issues in the next post!

Maurice Macartney

Stephen Baker

30 June 2017

After Grenfell

When we organised our Election Breakdown event for tomorrow night we had no way of knowing that the issues we intended to discuss – the change in public mood shown by the swing away from the Conservatives in the election – would be infinitely sharpened by the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower (and perhaps also by the attack on Finsbury Park Mosque, news of which is just breaking).

Shock at the fire has been turning to anger, as details emerge of repeated warnings issued by residents groups fire specialists, and the housing trade journal Inside Housing. It appears that these concerns were repeatedly fobbed off: both in the specific case, by Grenfell Tower’s Tenant Management Organisation, and at a higher level, following an inquiry after a smaller but still fatal fire in 2009, by the Government who have not delivered promised changes to fire regulations.

One Grenfell Tower resident is quoted as saying: “They don’t think this community is valuable, so they aren’t doing anything.” Whether this is the case or not, it is a telling comment, and all too many of the residents are expressing similar views.

It is looking very likely that the promised inquiry will show people died due to poor governance, cost-cutting in the improvement works and lack of meaningful regulation –  in one of the wealthiest regions in the country. There could be no starker illustration of the effects of a political economy designed to crank power and wealth to a tiny sliver at the top of society while forcing cuts on those at the base of the socio-economic pyramid.

But the national mood has changed. We saw it at the election; but the fire has left an acrid smell hanging over not just Kensington, but the whole country. The tragedy is becoming symbolic of a wider anger amongst those who feel they are not listened to or treated with respect by a state that does not act in their interests.

There is no doubt that these matters will come up in our discussion tomorrow. For those of us at the Combination, our thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones. Yet as The Combination’s Tanya Jones says elsewhere, real support “requires real solidarity and real change“. If there is anything at all positive in this situation, it is that no one can any longer be unaware of what is at stake in our collective debate.

Let us strive, then, to ensure that this disaster comes as a catastrophe in the ancient Greek sense – a turning point. Polly Toynbee describes Grenfell Tower as ‘austerity in ruins’. It is too soon to tell, but it may just be the moment at which the dominant politico-economic paradigm of our time lost its hegemony.

Join us tomorrow to discuss these and related matters.

Election Breakdown, Crescent Arts Centre, 2-4 University Road Belfast, 7.30pm Tue 20 June

The Combination

19 June 2017

Election breakdown – where now for progressive politics?

It can be argued that last week’s General Election marks a turning point: a shift away from neoliberalism and towards – or rather back to – social democracy. There is talk that the age of austerity is over. The initial focus on Brexit was replaced by a genuine policy debate, based around the Labour and Conservative manifestos and revealing voters’ anxieties about the state of public services. Young people were energised into voting in greater numbers, which could lead to changing political priorities as parties take them more seriously in future.

The power of the mainstream media has been dented, as the public took little notice of their sneers and voted Labour anyway. The scale of Labour gains prompted discussion about the mechanics of campaigning, including the use of social media, the impact of positive messages versus smearing your opponents, and the importance of the ‘ground campaign’ through canvassing and rallies.

On the other hand let’s not lose the run of ourselves. Despite unexpected Labour gains, the Conservatives are still likely to be in government, kept in power by the DUP: arguably a regressive partnership, rather than the progressive alliance we at The Combination had hoped for. And a partnership that regards the Good Friday Agreement as collateral damage.

So are we in for more austerity, or will there be a sudden interest in putting extra funds into Northern Ireland? Are we to be faced with reinvigorated opposition to progress on women’s rights and LGBTQ equality, or will the additional scrutiny on the DUP’s positions force them to soften their stance? What are the implications for issues such as climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy? Can the UK Government continue as an ‘honest broker’ in Stormont talks when that Government depends on the confidence and supply of one of the parties to the talks? For the same reason, should the talks fail, how can direct rule from London be perceived as impartial? How are voters in the border counties to be represented when they have no active representatives above local Council level?

And speaking of the border, there’s also the small matter of imminent Brexit negotiations…

What are we to make of it all?

Well, the Combination has organised a public meeting to address these and related issues, and to consider the implications of the General Election for progressive politics in Northern Ireland and farther afield. We’ve invited five speakers from a range of perspectives: Brian Campfield (NIPSA), Geraint Ellis (QUB), Ellen Murray (GenderJam NI and Green Party NI), Liz Nelson (Belfast Feminist Network and Belfast Trades Council) and Robin Wilson (independent researcher and journalist).

Join us on Tuesday 20 June, 7.30pm at the Crescent Arts Centre, Workshop Room 4.

And follow us at: https://www.facebook.com/combinationNI/ and @CombinationNI

The Combination

14 June 2017