The Racist Narrative

September 24, 2008

Out canvassing in Clerkenwell, in a towerblock. I knock on the door of a white woman in late middle age, who doesn’t seem particularly pleased to see me. This is nothing new, canvassers are used to being greeted with low level suspicion. I begin my spiel, and ask a few questions about issues affecting the local area.

“Well,” she began, and her eyes darted across the hallway to the door opposite, which a black woman talking loudly into a mobile phone had just entered. “You wouldn’t like it if I told you what’s wrong around here.”

“From your tone, I’m sure I can guess.”

“You know, my daughter, who’s got two little girls, can’t get anything. And Them across the way never do a stroke. That door just bangs all day long”

In Islington, whenever anyone who lives on an estate is talking to someone associated with politics and says something about ‘getting anything’ they mean social housing. It later transpired that her daughter did indeed have ‘something’, which was a one bedroom flat. But since she had two daughters of her own, she wanted more.

I did some further digging. She had voted Lib Dem all her life, up until the last election. She didn’t want to tell me who she’d gone for. But, she said, “I bet you can guess.” And I could. In Clerkenwell, and the rest of old Finsbury, the socialist vote is divided between Labour and the Independent Working Class Association. The IWCA is, in essence, a communist version of the BNP. They employ the same standard of thuggish activists and are only missing an additional ‘W’ from their acronym to sum up what they represent. They do have something else in common with the BNP, and that’s their narrative.

Right now in the campaigning world there’s a lot of people still having Obamagasms over the way in which the candidates have conducted themselves in the US presidential elections. I’ve written about this before, but what seems to have been missed in all the fuss and bother over the narratives of the main parties is that the far right has been using this approach for some time, and it’s been effective. We’ve missed this for several reasons; partly because the things they say on the doorstep don’t get back to us in the way that their campaign literature does, but also because mainstream politicians have a well justified loathing of the BNP and what they stand for. We don’t want to believe that they’re capable of using the same political tricks as lovely Obama.

But they have, and what they’ve done is very clever – in a rather sickening way. The narrative goes like this. The bourgeoisie brought foreign workers over to undercut the wages asked for by British workers. The foreigners are now taking the jobs and the resources (e.g. housing) that should be going to people from round here. When you complain to the Government, they say you’re being racist. But racism is something invented by the bourgeoisie to stop you complaining about Them coming in and taking our jobs and houses. Only the BNP/IWCA are telling the truth about what’s really happening.

It’s a classic Marxist analysis of power; the bourgeoisie are using social ethics to control the working classes. If it’s made immoral to complain about resources being given to Them, then the working classes can no longer do it.

Of course, this is ridiculous. Distributing resources on racial lines is immoral however you cast it. But it’s a narrative that can be seductive for those whose lives are directly affected by inadequate social resources. When someone mutters darkly that there would be enough housing for your daughter to have a place that’ll fit her and her kids if They weren’t here, you’re more inclined to agree if you’re a Clerkenwell grandmother than if you’re a suburban teacher. And it is true that if They left there would be enough social housing in London for the white working classes.

The fact that that social housing wouldn’t be there in the first place if not for the additional wealth brought in by importing workers is neither here nor there; macroeconomic arguments have little relevance for the grannies of Clerkenwell. And outright condemnation of those espousing the racist narrative does nothing except play into the hands of the racists; it’s what results in the response “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you? Try living down here,”on the doorstep.

I still do not think that the BNP will ever be a major party. But, at present, we are not countering the racist narrative. We need to do better.

There was something rather different about Conference this year. It was something to do with the people. There were far fewer bearded sandal-wearers (although they were about), and rather more people who, to not put too fine a point on it, looked rather like Nick Clegg.

It was odd. Omnipresent was the dark brown hair, the hint of a quiff, the slightly inelegant suit, and the conviction that the last thirty years hadn’t happened and that this was still the Liberal party. This was forceably rammed home at a debate on Re-inventing the State, the old SDP members’ response to The Orange Book. Richard Reeves, director of Demos and possessor of a quiff-in-waiting argued that the book’s authors, and by extension many of the people in the room, were social democrats who should join the Labour Party. This was because of their focus on the state as the solution to all of society’s ills, which the book’s title rather gave away.

Naturally, this rather got up the noses of the people who’d just been told they were in the wrong party, and the debate descended into a reunion of SDP members versus Reeves, who rather seemed to enjoy it. He may have been condescending, but at least he was amusing with it.

As the press has doubtless made obvious, this was merely an undercurrent of the far more significant exchanges taking place in the Conference Hall – the rebellion over which I referred to in my last post*. The debate on Clegg’s Make It Happen document took the form of a queer melange of competing alliances; on the one hand there were the out-and-out social democrats with their Old Trot fellow travellers, and on the other were the Quiffs and their born-again-Liberal allies. The most interesting factor in the debate, which the press entirely failed to pick up on, was that both sides were trying to out-Progressive the other. It was very much a case of ‘Empower the poor by giving them opportunities via the state’ versus ‘Empower the poor by giving them more control over their earnings’. The destination was the same; the distinction was in the journey.

As such the victory of the Quiff side did not represent a shift to the right, more of a shift of methodology. A leadership promoting a policy which called for the taxing of the rich to give to the poor being called right-wing is something that could only happen in the Liberal Democrats.

In keeping with that theme, I got an opportunity to address a Fringe event via a method and subject that could only succeed in the Lib Dems. The Electoral Reform Society ran a Dragons’ Den style event in which the winners of a public vote would get the chance to pitch their Big Idea for Democracy to a panel of judges.

I decided that I wanted to do this. And I had just the scheme in mind: a Federal Britain using the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as its constituent parts. I had never decided whether I actually thought it was a good idea as opposed to merely an amusing one, but the latter was enough to make the whole thing fun. But how to make sure that a ‘radical’ idea such as this one was voted top in a party containing more STV fetishists than Berlin contains people with more than a passing interest in rubber?

The answer was clear. I would run a campaign. I would select a target demographic, devise a message that would connect with them personally, and communicate it to them. Now, who would want to return to the 10th century? Who would find the idea amusing? The answer was clear. Geeks. Geeks would love that shit. So what else do geeks love, that I can somehow relate to democracy and Saxons?

Doctor Who. Specifically, the end of the third season wherein The Master is elected Prime Minister with the aid of a whole bunch of posters saying, ‘Vote Saxon’. This was an obscure reference, but hell, geeks love obscure references. So I made a collection of ‘Vote Saxon’ flyers and gave them out to geeky-looking-people around the Conference Hall.

I won. And so, I got to give my first talk at Conference. And I was honoured by one of the Dragons saying, “Only at the Lib Dem Conference could someone suggest a return to the tenth century.” I looked him in the eye, clasped my hand to my heart, and said “Sir, you make me proud.”

*And did, in the end, consist of handing out leaflets. WE’RE LIB DEMS, goddamnit.

ConfBlog#1: The Phantom Menace

September 12, 2008

“It’s a shit ‘ole”, said the taxi driver. “What?” I replied. “It’s a shit ‘ole, that hotel you’re going to,” he replied. “You’ve been conned, mate.”

This was not an auscipicious start to the Lib Dem Conference season. The taxi driver had complained about Lib Dems being tight-fisted bastards all the way from the train station, so I confirmed his prejudices by refusing to tip him. I had been dropped outside a hotel that resembled every seaside guesthouse since life first crawled from the oceans. It had awnings, and strange mannequins of fishermen in the windows. I approached the front desk, where the owners, who appeared to be husband and wife, were having a blazing row.  

“Err, hello?” I politely enquired. They stopped rowing for long enough to confirm my booking and take my card details. My card was declined, which I was rather expecting seeing as I didn’t have any money. I had been building up to my most sheepish smile just for the occasion. “Is there any way I could pay at the end?” I enquired of the wife. “This is the only card I have on me. No idea why it’s not working.” “No,” she replied. “We always take payment upfront.”

The husband then said, “It’s alright, pay at the end if you like.” “THAT’S RIGHT, JUST OVERRULE ME WHY DON’T YOU!” came the response from the wife. While the row erupted I took the key from the rack and snuck upstairs. The room was clean and didn’t appear to have anything else living in it, which is all I really want out of places to sleep. I headed off to the conference centre.

Bournmouth International Conference Centre may be a bit excessively named, unless the world has more reknown floating around than I have until now realised. It was hosting the first training sessions of Conference, and I was due to attend a session on messaging. Messaging in a campaign context is now a little behind the times; it’s all about the narrative you communicate to voters now. Indeed, the ossification of the Campaigns Department in this regard has been noticed by the Bones Commission, the internal body that recently produced a report on party reform. It recommended reducing the powers of the Chief Executive, Chris Rennard, who is at present responsible for much of our campaigning, and instead handing them over to a body much more easily controllable by the leader. This was, it said, to move the party away from merely being a leaflet delivery cult.

The Campaigns Department’s reaction to this threat to its previously unchallenged authority has been to rebrand itself. It’s got a pretty new half-bird logo, uses lots of single words as slogans (and doesn’t capitalise them, just to be modern), and still pumps out the same material into its training sessions.

But different parts of the reforms coming out of the Bones Commission and the Leader’s Office are going different ways. The Make It Happen initiative, which involves lowering the overall tax burden, has proven particularly unpopular. Indeed, during a long liquid lunch one of my contacts from another part of the party told me that there was going to be an effort at rebellion against it during conference. However, these being Lib Dems, this revolt is likely to take the form of leaflet distribution. After all, to do otherwise would be to violate the founding principles of the Cult of the Focus.