Posts Tagged ‘Race’

On the Selection of a Female Dr. Who

August 6, 2017

The week before last, the BBC finally broke the tension and speculation surrounding the identity of the actor, who is going to play the next Doctor. They announced that the 13th Dr would be played by Jodie Whitaker, an actress, who has appeared in a number of crime dramas. Like many people, I was shocked by this radical departure from tradition, but not actually surprised. The Doctor has been male for the past fifty years, but thirty years ago the Beeb announced that it was considering making the next Doctor a woman as Tom Baker was leaving the role and preparing to hand it on to the next actor. In fact, the announcement was joke dreamed up by the Baker and one of the producers and writing team, and the role went to Peter Davison. The announcement of a possible female Doctor resulted in a few jokes, such as ‘the most painful regeneration of them all’. One of the British SF media magazines – I can’t remember whether it was Starburst or Dr. Who Magazine, then went on to make a serious point, that nothing was known about the Time Lord family, and so it was quite plausible that this alien race could change their genders during regeneration.

I can also remember Mike telling me at the time that there was also a feminist group in the European parliament, who wanted a female Doctor, who would have a male assistant, which she would patronise, in a reverse of the usual situation. The role of women in Dr. Who has been somewhat contentious down the years. Critics, like the Times journalist Caitlin Moran, the author of How To Be A Woman, have criticised the show’s portrayal of women in the Doctor’s companions. She claimed a few years ago on a TV segment about the show that they usually were there to say, ‘But Doctor, I don’t understand’. Others have also made the point that their role tended to be stereotypically passive and traditional. They were to scream when threatened by the monster, and be rescued by the Doctor. It’s quite a controversial statement, though I do remember seeing one of the team behind the Classic Dr. Who saying that there was some truth in it. They had tried to make the Doctor’s female companions less stereotypical, and stronger. So you had Zoe, one of Patrick Troughton’s companions, who was a computer scientist from the future. Romana was a Time Lady, who had majored in psychology at the Academy. In her first appearance in the Tom Baker serial, ‘The Ribos Operation’, it was made clear that she was actually more intelligent than the Doctor, who had scraped through his degree after he retook his exam. Sarah Jane Smith was a feisty female journalist, who was fully prepared to talk back to the Doctor, representing the new generation of independent young women that came in with ‘Women’s Lib’ in the ’70s. And the strongest female companion of them all has to be Leela, a female warrior of the Sevateem, a primitive tribe descended from a group of astronauts sent to investigate a jungle world. Leela mostly wore only a leather bikini, but she was skilled with the knife and the deadly Janus Thorn, a poisonous plant, whose venom killed within minutes. Leela was quite capable of defending herself and protecting the Doctor. In the serial ‘The Invisible Enemy’, for much of the story she is the active member of the team, after she proves immune to the sentient virus that infects and paralyses the Doctor. There were also attempts to introduce strong female villains, such as the Rani, a renegade Time Lady of the same stripe as the Master, but who specialised in genetic engineering and biological transformation rather than mechanical engineering. But the producer or writer conceded that as time went on, these strong female characters tended to become weaker and more stereotypical, so that they ended up screaming and waiting to be rescued by the Doctor.

The stereotypical role of the female companions has become more outdated as traditional gender roles in society have changed, and Science Fiction as a genre began exploring and challenging issues of gender and sexuality. There’s a tradition of feminist SF, which has been present from the emergence of the genre in the late 19th century, but which became more prominent with the rise of the modern feminist movement in the 1960s. A few years an anthology of female utopias, created by late 19th and early 20th century female writers, Herland, was published. It took its title from that of a female utopia described by an early American feminist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. Feminist SF writers include Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, best known for her ‘Earthsea’ fantasy novels, and Sheri S. Tepper. Russ is an American academic, and the author of The Female Man. She considers that the rise of the women’s movement is a far more revolutionary and profound social change than space travel and the other technological conventions of Science Fiction. And many of these SF authors, both female and male, have created worlds and species, in which the genders are fluid.

In Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest, conditions on the planet on which the book is set are so harsh, that little time is available for procreation. The people there are neuter for most of the time. However, they have a breeding season, during which they may become male or female. However, the adoption of a particular gender doesn’t necessarily recur, so that a person, who is female one season may be the male in the following season, and vice versa. Michael Moorcock also experimented with gender identity in some of his books. The Eternal Champion may be male or female, depending on incarnation. And at the end of the Jerry Cornelius book, The Final Programme, Cornelius is transformed into a beautiful hermaphrodite, which leads humanity to its destruction.

Other SF writers have envisoned futures, where humans are able to transform the bodies in a variety of ways, according to taste, including switching genders. In Gregory Benford’s ‘Galactic Centre’ novel, Across the Sea of Suns, the crew of an Earth ship sent to investigate the centre of the Galaxy following the attack of the Mechs, a hostile galaxy-spanning machine civilisation, devise special pods, which can remake and refresh the crew. This includes changing gender. And Ian M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels are also set in a future, where humans are able to use technology to switch genders easily. In Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City, the bored, immortal rich of the titular city on a world orbiting Epsilon Eridani, are able to use nanotechnology and genetic manipulation to change their appearance, often into outlandish forms. One character, a woman, is called ‘Zebra’, because she has covered her self in black and white stripes, and sculpted her hair into a mane that runs down her back. She tells the hero, Tanner Mirabel, that this is only her latest appearance, and that she will probably change it and move on to another in the future. She also states that she hasn’t always been female either.

In the 1990s there was a particularly strong demand for Science Fiction to challenge gender stereotypes. This was a reaction to the traditional image of the genre as dominated by White males, and focused on issues of surrounding technology and hard science. Thus one of the American SF societies launched the Arthur C. Clarke award for Science Fiction that challenged traditional stereotypes. There has also been a demand for a better representation of women amongst the genre’s writers. The anthology of ‘Dieselpunk’ stories therefore has roughly as many women writers as men.

The exploration of gender roles has also included explorations of sexuality, including same sex attraction. Gay fans of Star Trek in the 1980s hoped that the new series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, would include a gay character, a wish echoed by David Gerrold, one of the writers of the Classic Trek series. They were disappointed when the series did feature a story, where Riker becomes romantically involved with a member of the Jnai, an alien race, who have evolved beyond gender, but where it re-emerges occasionally amongst a persecuted culture of throwbacks. Riker becomes attracted to one of these throwbacks, a female, and attempts to rescue her after she is arrested. However, he arrives too late. The corrective treatment meted out to such people has worked, and she is now as sexless as the rest of them.

Gay fans of the series felt that they had been cheated. Instead of a forthright endorsement of homosexuality, they’d been given a kind of half-hearted nod. The issue of gay rights was there, but so heavily disguised that it may as well not have been there at all. They also objected to it on the grounds thta it seemed to reinforce the prejudiced view of opponents of gay rights, who declare that it is about removing gender altogether. This prejudiced was clearly expressed by the conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, a couple of years ago on his show, Infowars. Jones ranted that gay rights was a ‘transhumanist space cult’ intent on creating a race of genderless, cyborg people.

Er, not quite.

Gay characters and the exploration of alternative sexuality have been part of Science Fiction since William S. Burroughs’ books The Naked Lunch, and Samuel R. Delaney, a Black American writer, who also uses his novels to explore racial issues. Gay characters and issues of gender and sexuality have also been a strong element in the modern Dr. Who series. Captain Jack Harkness, a time traveller from the future, who became the lead character in the spinoff series Torchwood, is bisexual, and Ianto in the second series of that show was gay. This is probably mainly due to the series having a strong gay following, and that the writer behind its revival, Russell T. Davis, is also gay. For those, who can remember that far back, he was the creator of the gay series, Queer As Folk on Channel 4 in the 1990s.

There’s a sort of inevitability to the news that the next Doctor would be female, as the new Dr. Who series has also experimented with issues of gender roles. In the episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, Matt Smith’s Doctor revealed that the Time Lords changed their gender, when explaining that another Time Lord he knew always retained the tattoo of a serpent on their arm throughout their regenerations, even when they were female. In the series before last, a Time Lord general shot by Peter Capaldi’s Doctor regenerates as female. And then, of course, there’s Missy, who is the female incarnation of the Master. My guess is that these changes were partly used to gauge how the audience would respond to a new Doctor. Once it was shown that most accepted the idea that Time Lords could regenerate as the opposite sex, then the way was clear for a female Doctor.

The show has also several times had strong female leads, while the Doctor has been more passive. Thus, in the last episode of the First Series, ‘Bad Wolf’, Rose Tiler becomes virtually a goddess, mistress of space and time, after peering into the heart of the TARDIS, saving Earth and Christopher Ecclestone’s Doctor from the Daleks. Catherine Tate’s character similarly rescued David Tennant’s Doctor from Davros and his Daleks after she gained all his knowledge as a Time Lord. And in one of the stories featuring the revived Zygons, it seemed to me that apart from the Doctor, all the characters in positions of authority – the heads of UNIT, scientists and so on, were all female.

The programme has also experimented with male gender roles. In one story about a year or so ago, one of the characters is a man, who has an alternative identity as a superhero following his childhood encounter with an alien device that can grant people’s deepest wishes. In his normal life, he’s a childminder.

It’s been said that there’s a division between TV and film SF, and literary Science Fiction, with the audience for TV and film uninterested in science fiction literature. I don’t believe that’s entirely the case, and the audiences for the various media clearly overlap. And literary SF has had an influence on Doctor Who. In the 1980s the BBC tried to recruit SF writers to give the series a great connection with SF literature. And several of the stories in recent Dr. Who series have shown the influence of literary SF. For example, in the last series, Earth suddenly became a forest planet, as the trees grew and spread everywhere. This, it was revealed, was to save humanity from some cosmic disaster. This looks quite similar to a book by Sheri S. Tepper, in which trees come to life to save people from danger and disaster. And to me, the name of space station in the last series’ story, ‘Breath’, Chasm Forge, sounds a bit too close to ‘Chasm City’ to be entirely coincidental, although the two stories are very different.

I also think that there have been social and political considerations that may have influenced the decision to make the next Doctor female. As well as the general demand within SF fandom for more women writers and female-centred stories, I got the impression that the audience for SF on TV may have slightly more women than men. This is not to say that the numbers of men watching SF is small – it isn’t – but that the fan organisations may have a very large female membership. I certainly got that impression from Star Trek. If that’s also the case with Dr. Who, then the series’ writers and producers would also want to cater for that audience.

I also think that there’s probably pressure too to create a female character, who would act as a role model and encourage more girls to enter science, particularly male-dominated subjects like Maths, physics and engineering. There have been initiatives to do this before, but they’ve had limited effect. You may remember the video one governmental organisation made a few years ago. Entitled Science: It’s a Girl Thing, this featured attractive young women in lab coats tapping away to a pop tune. Many women, including female scientists, felt it was patronising and demeaning. As the Doctor is very much the hero as scientist, who solves problems through his superior Time Lord scientific knowledge, I think those concerned to see greater representation of women in the sciences would welcome the Doctor’s transformation into a woman.

I have to say that, provided the transition is done well, I don’t think a female Doctor will harm the series. As I said, the rumour that there might be a female Doctor along the way has been around since the last Tom Baker series back in 1980s or thereabouts. If done badly, it could easily reduce the series to farce or pantomime by being just that little bit too incredible, or just plain weird. But the idea of gender-swapping Time Lords/Ladies hasn’t been so far, and from previous experience I think it will be done properly. The series might lose some viewers, but I think many of the real, hard-core Whovians, like Mike, won’t be bothered at all. I hope so in any case, will watch the new series with interest.

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H.G. Wells’ Visionary Political SF Back in Print

January 7, 2017

Looking along the Science Fiction shelves in Waterstones in Bristol last week, I found a large selection of H.G. Wells’ books are now being republished. These include not only well-known favourites like The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, First Men in the Moon and The Island of Dr Moreau, but also two of his explicitly political SF novels, When the Sleeper Wakes and A Modern Utopia. When the Sleeper Wakes is about a merchant banker or stockbroker, who falls asleep and wakes up centuries in the future to find that his activities have created a nightmare capitalist dystopia. A Modern Utopia is about a group of travellers from our world, who enter an alternative reality in which the Earth is ruled by a single world government, everyone speaks the same language and there is complete racial and sexual equality. On the negative side, it also shows Wells’ disdain for democracy, as political power is held by four ‘samurai’, unelected guardians with absolute power.

I haven’t bought them, and so don’t know what they’re like. However, it’s clear that they are vehicles for Wells’ socialist views, like his The Shape of Things to Come.

The Books Published by Ian Duncan Smith to Support his Culling of the Disabled and Unemployed

February 13, 2016

IDS Bird Crap

An avian critic giving IDS the benefit of its informed reading of his Foundation’s books.

A few weeks ago I found some of the little books published by aIDS think-tank in one of the second hand bookshops in Cheltenham. They were paperbacks, with a plain white cover edged in red. One of them was on welfare reform. The other was on race and race relations. Neither of the books looked as though they were published by the Tory party or one of its ideological satellites. Indeed, the red edging if anything could suggest that it was actually a left-wing publication. The blurb on the back, however, showed its right-wing provenance clearly enough.

The book declared that the welfare system had to be reformed – in other words, made tougher – because the real problem with poverty in this country were multigenerational communities in sink estates across Britain, where nobody worked, and people simply didn’t want a job. The book argued that Britain should import the American welfare system, which in some cases had reduced welfare spending, or the people on it, by 40 per cent!

The booklet wasn’t by aIDS. It claimed, however, to be published by the Social Justice Foundation or some such organisation with a similar name. The Social Justice Foundation or whatever it’s called is the Spurious Major’s pet little think tank. He set it up in order to justify his welfare reforms. It was part of the Tories’ attempts to make them appear left-wing, by dressing up right-wing policies and attitudes in the language of Socialism, in order to appeal to the working class. There are a number of other organisations within the Tory part that have adopted the same tactic. It’s all part of Philip Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’, which was simply Blue Toryism under a guise of left-libertarian references to Kropotkin and 19th century Tory paternalism. It became a dead letter as soon as it served its purpose and Cameron got in. Then it was back to the same old Neoliberalism, mass privatisation and the destruction of the welfare state. It was a tactic the Nazis adopted in order to appeal to the radical German working class, right down to using the colour red as the background colour for the Swastika. Just as aIDS’ think tank edged their publications with red to make them look socialist. And the Nazis also forced the people they considered ‘workshy’ into the concentration camps.

The central argument supporting the book and aIDS policies have been disproved again and again, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. The multigenerational families where nobody has worked by and large don’t exist. Not in America, and not over here. You can find the arguments against their existence in Owen Jones’ Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. They’ve been reblogged by Mike over at Vox Political, and the Angry Yorkshireman. And many, many others. It’s the great lie that supports the Republican and British Conservative assault on the working class. ‘Look, there’s nothing wrong with the economy. It’s just that you’re all too lazy to get a job!’

I didn’t bother looking at the book on race. There’s only so much ignorance, hate and mendacity you can reasonably be expected to take from these people, and especially on a really emotive subject like race and race relations. I thought I’d mention the books here, just in case anyone else runs into them, and to point out where this rubbish is coming from: it’s basically IDS’ pet scriveners, taking their cue from across the Atlantic.

Avoid. Unless you have a strong constitution.

Explaining the Rise of UKIP

May 12, 2014

UKIP Book pic

Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support For The Radical Right in Britain, by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin (Abingdon: Routledge 2014) traces the history and changing fortune of UKIP from its foundation in 1991 as the Ant-Federalist League to today, when the party appears to have overtaken the Lib Dems to take its place as one of Britain’s leading the parties. It’s part of a series of texts published by Routledge on the theme of ‘extremism and democracy’. Most of these books are devoted to the Fascist and racist Right, though it also includes a book on Left-wing terrorism, general political extremism, and studies of terrorism in America, from the KKK to al-Qaeda. A fair bit of the book is statistics taken from sociological and political surveys, dealing with political, social and economic attitudes and electoral performance. Most of these are straightforward, but not exactly easy or riveting reading. Much more interesting is the history of the party itself. It also includes sample quotations from UKIP supporters explaining their reasons for supporting the party, and rejection of the three others.

Leadership Challenges and the Referendum Party

It covers the various leadership struggles, including perma-tanned talk show host Robert Kilroy-Silk joining the party, only to leave after failing to take control. It also suffered in its early days from competition from James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, a true single-issue party that solely existed to campaign for a referendum on Europe. With the advantage of Goldsmith’s considerable fortune behind it, UKIP was very much the poor relative, lagging behind the Referendum Party in both funding and publicity.

UKIP, the BNP and the Conservatives

It also looks at the way UKIP has changed its name and identity as it has tried to differentiate itself both from the BNP and, rather more gradually, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party. It’s founder, Dr Alan Sked, was a Liberal and historian at the London School of Economics. He became a Eurosceptic during the 1980s when running the European Studies course at the LSE. Sked stated that ‘I just kept meeting all these bureaucrats and other Euro-fanatical academics who came to give papers, politicians from different parts of Europe, and reading endless MA theses on the EU. I just came to the conclusion that the whole thing was mad.’ (p. 21). Sked was influenced by Thatcher’s ‘Bruges speech’, in which she attacked the dangers of Euro federalism, and joined the Bruges group. The authors describe this as ‘a right-wing think tank that received financial backing from Sir James Goldsmith’. Sked called the new group the Anti-Federalist League as he intended it to follow in the footsteps of Cobden and Bright’s anti-Corn Law league in the 19th century. Sked states ‘I thought it would be the equivalent of the anti-Corn Law League. Just as the anti-Corn Law League converted [Robert] Peel to free trade, the anti-Federalist league would convert the Tory Party to Euroscepticism and British independence.’

As an anti-EU, anti-immigrant, but ostensibly not a Fascist party, UKIP’s progress has been overshadowed by the BNP. After the League’s failure in the 1992 elections, it was re-launched with its present name. The ‘UK’ was chosen instead of ‘British’ in order to differentiate it from the British National Party, who had just captured council seats in London’s East End. Since then the party has suffered a series of controversies over the activities of racial extremists in its ranks, one of whom was a mole for the BNP. Sked himself left the party he founded because he believed it had been heavily infiltrated by the Nazi Far Right. In the 2009 European elections Farage himself admits he was under pressure from a faction in the party, including members of the National Executive Committee, led by the tennis player, Buster Mottram, and by some Conservative MEPs to do a deal with the BNP. UKIP had suffered badly from competition with the BNP. The deal would preserve the party from competition and defeat by the BNP by dividing the country between them. UKIP would have free reign in the south, while the BNP would concentrate on the north of England. In fact part of UKIP’s success since 2010 has come from their active competition for votes from the BNP. In Oldham Paul Nuttall targeted the members of the White working class, who were not racist, but voted for the BNP because no-one else was representing them. Farage said of this strategy:

We [said] on the doorstep: ‘If you’re a BNP voter cause you’re a skilled/ semi-skilled worker who thinks his job has been seriously impinged upon, his income’s gone down, his local community’s changed and he’s not happy with the make-up of the local primary school, whatever it may be. If you are a BNP voter for those reasons but you don’t support the BNP’s racist manifesto and you are effectively holding your nose at voting BNP, don’t vote for them, vote for us. We are a non-racist, non-sectarian alternative to the British National Party.’ It was the first time that we ever said to BNP voters: ‘Come and vote for us.’

It could be said of this approach that the BNP was approaching the White voters, whose attitude is ‘I’m not racist, but …’

Lord Pearson and Anti-Islam

Pearson of Rannoch, the party’s leader in 2010, was also known for his vitriolic views against Islam, which he sees as fundamentally incompatible with the British tradition of gender equality and democracy. He invited Geert Wilders to Britain to present his film, Fitna, to parliament. The book discusses these views, and the impact they had on the party.

UKIP’s Neoliberal and Anti-Socialist Domestic Policies

The party has also had to struggle to forge its own identity rather than act as an off-shoot of the Tories. Sked founded it to act as a pressure group on the Conservatives, and at various times the party’s election strategy has been strongly geared towards influencing them. Under Pearson, the party deliberately did not contest seats where there was a Eurosceptic Conservative candidate, and a full-fledged alliance with the Tories was mooted. The book’s authors consider that it was finally in their election manifesto of 2010, where the party outlined their domestic policies, that UKIP became a radical right party in its own right. The authors write

For the first time they went into a general election with relatively detailed proposals on domestic and foreign policy and a costed economic programme, all of which were organised around four central principles: personal freedom; democracy at the national and local level; small government; and tax reduction. UKIP were pushing ahead with a clear attempt to rally a coalition of socially conservative and financially insecure working-class voters, offering them tough opposition to the EU and immigration, but threatening also a range of measures designed to appeal to their economic needs and right-wing ideological preferences: a flat-tax to help the lowest paid workers, investment in the manufacturing sector, new jobs for manual workers, more police on the streets, stronger prison sentences for criminals, grammar schools, an end to political correctness, Swiss-style referenda, a more proportional election system and the restoration of British values. UKIP were no longer the single-issue, anti-EU pressure group: they had become a fully-fledged radical right party. (pp. 84-5).

Although these policies were designed to appeal to a working class electorate, UKIP is a party of the Libertarian Right. This emerged in the years from 2005-10 under the leadership of their chairman, David Campbell-Bannerman. The book states that he was

tasked with leading a policy review, designed to rebrand UKIP as campaigning for independence from the established political class, whether in Brussels or Westminster. Activists talked of presenting the disgruntled electorate with a ‘radical libertarian alternative’ to the ‘social democratic consensus’. (p. 71).

UKIP are populist Neoliberals, like the rest of the contemporary political parties. They are not moderates, and as the rejection of the ‘social democratic consensus’ indicates, are anti-socialist. It was also in this period that UKIP’s electoral base shifted. UKIP began receiving increased support in areas with a higher proportion of working class voters than average, with poor education and health. They lost support in in areas with larger than average proportion of middle class professionals and university graduates.

Blue-Collar Support for Radical Right and Growing Middle Class Influence in Left-Wing Parties in Europe

In fact the changes in the composition of UKIP’s supporters and constituency mirrors that of the other radical right parties across Europe, from Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France to Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, the Northern League in Italy, and the People’s Party in Denmark. These expanded into the working class voters, who were left behind as the manufacturing sector of the European economy shrank, and the Social Democratic parties that were originally founded to defend them shifted instead to appealing to the middle class. These were far more liberal and cosmopolitan in outlook than their fellows in the lower classes. The book describes this situation thus

As the financially more secure and socially more liberal middle classes in Europe continued to grow, so their influence on electoral competition and centre-left politics became ever stronger. These new groups brought a distinct set of values and priorities to the left-wing parties they joined. Their ‘post-material’ agenda prioritised issues like the environment, civil liberties, global social justice and human rights, prompting centre-left parties to overhaul their strategy to win them over. Socialist economic ideas of a planned economy and strong state intervention were downplayed, and replaced by an acceptance of a strong role for free markets and a globally integrated economy. Redistribution and workers’ rights were also given less emphasis, with a greater focus on improving public services, a cause which united both ‘new’ and ‘old’ left, and on efforts to boost opportunities rather than equalise access to resources. Across Europe, the centre-left also shifted more firmly in favour of European integration. Whereas previously some social democrats had been openly hostile towards the Europe project, viewing it as a capitalist club that opposed socialism, from the 1980s they became more supportive, viewing the EU instead as a valuable mechanism through which they could tame capitalism and entrench social democratic principles at the supranational level.

But as Przeworski predicted, these changes came with a cost: the new middle-class agenda marginalised the left’s traditional voters. Their old working-class electorates became dissatisfied with a political system where their traditional voice appeared to have been lost and showed a growing willingness to back more radical parties that articulate their sense of abandonment from the mainstream and responded to their concerns about issues that aroused little interest among new left elites: immigration; national identity; the perceived threat from the EU; and rapid social change more generally.

Alienation of Working Class British Voters from Labour Party

In Britain many White working class voters became increasingly alienated from Labour because of its attempts to retain the loyalty of the ethnic minorities. These had become a significant part of the electorate by the turn of the millennium, and their support for Labour was no longer guaranteed. Many Muslims, for example, had expressed their opposition to the invasion of Iraq by joining the Lib Dems or Respect. Labour attempted to win their support through a liberalisation of the immigration system, tougher legislation against racial discrimination and the promotion of more Black and Asian candidates for parliament. The result of this was that many of the disadvantaged White voters felt that Labour cared more about immigrants than them. Furthermore, the party’s promotion of laissez-faire economic liberalisation also alienated many of the same voters, who now believed that the party was only concerned for the rich. Previously the voters alienated by Labour’s anti-racism would have voted Conservative, but they were also alienated from Cameron’s party by his adoption of the same attitudes to race and multiculturalism as Blair. The result has been that these voters turned to UKIP.

UKIP and the Contrasting Fortunes of the SDP

The book notes that UKIP’s apparent breakthrough into mainstream electoral politics is very recent. Even in the middle of the last decade the party was gaining only 1-2 per cent of the vote on average. For most of the party’s history, very few of their candidates ever even gained enough votes to retain their deposit. They also compare the party’s rise with that of the SDP. When this split from the Labour party, it had a fair size of the vote and was expected to break the mould of the two-party system. Instead it eventually collapsed and was merged with the Liberals. The authors see its failure, compared with the apparent success of UKIP, as due to the origins of the SDP in a split at the top of politics, rather than arising from the electorate itself.

UKIP and Future Labour Electoral Strategy

The book also has a section considering what UKIP’s success means for the other parties, including Labour. They say about this

The dilemma Labour face is between short-term and long-term strategy. In the short term, the strong temptation for Labour will be to sit back and let UKIP divide the Conservative vote at the next general election, thereby lowering the bar for their own victory and a return to power. Some Labour commentators have taken pleasure in the irony of an electoral split undoing the right in the same way as the left has been undone many times in the past. Yet such as ‘laisser faire’ approach to UKIP comes with serious longer-term risks. As we saw in chapters 3 and 4, the UKIP vote comes primarily from ‘left behind’ social groups who were once solidly Labour. UKIP have driven a wedge between the struggling, blue-collar ‘Old Left’, who once supported Labour on economic grounds, and the educated, white-collar ‘new Left’ who often back them on the basis of social values. If they allow UKIP to become established as part of the mainstream political conversation, either with MPs at Westminster or a strong presence in labour heartlands, the centre-left risks making that divide permanent. It will be much harder for Ed Miliband and his party to win back working-class voters with Ukippers running continuous and high profile campaigns on Europe, immigration and traditional British values. Labour also need to remember that UKIP’s rise has been driven as much by populist hostility to the political establishment as by ideology or policy. This does not hurt them much at present, as they are in opposition and therefore not the main focus of anti-system feeling. If they were to win the next elect, they would find UKIP’s populist barbs directed at them. A failure to combat UKIP before 2015 will result in a stronger populist opponent to future Labour governments.

UKIP: Neoliberal Party Exploiting Working Class Support

The book describes UKIP as a paradox. This is absolutely correct. They are a working class party, whose leadership has adopted all the Neoliberal policies of the Conservative Right. Despite their demands for more democracy, they are very strongly anti-working class. if you want examples, go over and look at the Angry Yorkshireman’s discussion of their domestic policies over at Another Angry Voice. And their deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, has stated that he wishes to privatise the NHS. The right-wing, Eurosceptic, anti-NHS Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan has also suggested that the Tories should form an alliance with UKIP. If UKIP did gain power, either by itself or in coalition with the Tories, it would be the working class that would suffer immensely. UKIP have raised and brought to prominence a number of pressing and vital issues – like the continuing role of race and ethnicity in politics, the need to protect an increasingly alienated working class, but they themselves are no solution to these problems.

Italian Chambers of Labour – Needed in 21st Century Britain

May 11, 2014

One of the peculiar institutions of the Italian working class movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the Camera Del Lavoro, or ‘Chamber of Labour’. They were based on the French Borse du Travaille (Labour Exchange) set up in France in the late 1880s. They were introduced into Italy by Osvaldo Gnocchi-Viani, a Socialist Milanese lawyer, in his 1889 book, Le Borse del lavoro. This led the leaders of the Milanese printers’ union and the Partito Operaio Italiano – the Italian Worker’s Party to establish the first Chamber of Labour in the city two years later in 1891. By 1904 ninety Chambers of labour, representing the nearly 300,000 workers had been set up throughout Italy.

The Chambers varied in structure, but most consisted of an assembly of representatives from the labour organisations participating in it. These in turn elected a governing body, such as an executive committee or commission, which organised its practical management. The Chambers were theoretically bureaux for employment and labour information. In practice they often had a wide variety of functions. They provided a meeting place for workers, conference and reading rooms, recreational facilities and also education. They organised strikes, boycotts and demonstrations, as well as mediating in industrial disputes. As well as representing the workers in dispute with private industry, they also did so with the local authorities, although many were in fact funded by these. While the trade unions were federated at the national level, the Chambers were autonomous organisations that included and brought together the various workers’ organisations in their local areas, and defended the interests of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers not represented in the skilled labour unions.

The Chambers were intended as purely economic in purpose, but in practice most followed the various working class political parties and organisations – the Socialists, Republicans, Syndicalists and Anarchists. The majority were Socialist. They frequently took the lead in organising demonstrations, strikes and protests against the government at the local level. The Chambers of Labour joined the federated trade unions to form the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro – General Confederation of Labour in 1906. They received their greatest increase in membership after the First World War, but went into rapid decline afterwards due to attacks from the Fascists. They were finally suppressed by Mussolini’s dictatorship in 1926 along with other, autonomous labour organisations.

The Chambers of Labour attracted Fascist hatred and violence because of their role in creating a powerful, autonomous working class. Changes in society since then has made many of their functions obsolete. The massive expansion of state education, for example, has removed some of the necessity for providing specific education courses aimed at workers, and entertainment is far more freely available today than it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the development of cinema, radio and television and the gramophone. Furthermore, many towns in Britain do have employment agencies, thus lessening the need for another of the Chambers’ functions.

However, I think something like the French and Italian Chambers of Labour/ Borses du Travaille/ Camere del Lavoro are still needed. Owen Jones in Chavs describes the destruction of working class culture and its colonisation by the middle classes. Football, which was for a long time the sport of the working classes, has become increasingly middle class. A proportion of the tickets for matches are reserved for parties from corporations as part of corporate hospitality. Ticket prices have become so expensive that many fans feel – and are – priced out of attendance at matches. Despite the government’s urging after the Olympics that more people should become involved in sport, actual sports facilities have been cut, so that the few which survive are oversubscribed.

Similarly, that hub of traditional working class culture, the pub is also under attack. Many are being closed down and redeveloped as flats. This has an effect far beyond simply where people go to drink their beer or alcoholic poison of choice. As well as the place where people traditionally met and relaxed, pubs were also the venues where local bands got their first gigs. Furthermore, a variety of local clubs and groups also meet in pubs and bars. Pub closures also effect the continued existence of these groups by denying them a venue.

As for general cultural activities, Quentin Letts in his book, Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain, contrasts the loutishness and slovenly ignorance of much of today’s popular culture with the attitude of the miners portrayed in the film, The Pitman Painters. These were a real group of mineworkers, who taught themselves to paint over a century ago. They were not unique. One of the functions of the Mechanics’ Institutes, founded in the 19th century across Britain was to spread education and culture amongst the working class as part of the general Victorian attitude of improvement. The intentions behind them were paternalistic. The complaint was made at the time that they were founded by the middle classes, and patronised predominantly by the more skilled, affluent and presumably aspirational workers, while those less fortunate stayed away. They were also intended partly to bring employer and employees together and so create class peace. Nevertheless, they did contribute to improving the conditions and the educational and cultural opportunities available to the workers.

Owen Jones also points out in Chavs that some of the rise in racism and anti-immigrant feeling is a reaction to the way White working class culture has been attacked and discarded as worthless by the middle classes and the major political parties. Their celebration – rightly – of the cultures of Britain’s ethnic minorities and immigrant communities, in the absence of a corresponding celebration of traditional British working class culture has resulted in working class Whites feeling marginalised and resentful in their own country. The result is a rise in support for the BNP – now peaked – and UKIP. He suggests that one way of combatting this racism and xenophobia is simply to stress a common, working class identity stretching across ethnic groups.

Finally, trade unions were attacked and devastated by Thatcher’s onslaught, and the continued attacks by her successors, including those in the Labour party. Tony Blair remembers in the 1990s threatened to cut union ties, and Ed Milliband has also demanded further cuts to union power and states he wishes to reach out to the middle classes. We need new forms of industrial organisation to represent and protect the poorly paid workers in unskilled or semi-skilled work, like the hundreds of thousands now staffing call centres, a point Guy Standing makes in A Precariat Charter. And I believe that an employment bureau, controlled by the workers themselves, might just help to empower the workers and employees themselves against the employers in the jobs market.

The Chambers of Labour were peculiar features of the French and Italian working class movements, but something like them is still desperately needed in 21st century Britain as the Tories try to drag us back to the 19th century.

The Tory Architectural Future: 19th Century Pittville in Cheltenham

April 7, 2014

Pitiville Gates Pic

Pittville Gates in Cheltenham, c. 1845

A number of left-wing bloggers, particularly Johnny Void, have attacked the Coalition’s welfare reforms for the social cleansing they effecting in London and other cities around the country. The massive rises in rents and property prices in London, coupled with the cap on Housing Benefit is forcing poorer residents out of the expensive, middle and upper class districts, leading to ever greater social segregation. The Void’s most recent post, The Rich Will Destroy London, Just Like Everything Else, at http://johnnyvoid.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/the-rich-will-destroy-london/, which I’ve reblogged, describes this process. The obscene result of this is that luxury houses now lie empty in Chelsea, waiting for wealthy purchasers, while a few miles down the road are homeless people forced to live on the streets. The so-called ‘affordable homes’ are in reality no such thing. They are classed as affordable only because their cost is pegged at 80 per cent of the market value. This effectively puts them beyond the reach of many at London prices.

Social Segregation in Boris Johnson’s London

Even when housing is built for those on more modest incomes, they are expected to keep out of sight of their social superiors. One block of flats, which was aimed at attracting wealthy purchasers from the Far East, had different entrances for the rich and the lower orders respectively, so that the upper class residents would not have to suffer the indignity of mixing with their social inferiors. If you want to know where this kind of social attitude leads, go to the Pittville suburb of Cheltenham.

Pittville and the Architecture of Social Hierarchy

This was started in 1825 by Joseph Pitt, the local lay rector and MP. At its centre was the Pump Room, modelled on the Temple of Ilussis in Athens in the middle of a park laid out with impressive vistas and stone bridges. Below this was the residential area. Pitt originally intended the new suburb to have 600 houses, but the building work was delayed for several years. This was laid out with a garden area running down its centre. Either side of this were a complex of beautifully designed Georgian terraces, crescents and individual villas, along with squares named after the Dukes of Wellington and Clarence.

It was designed to be an upmarket residential area for the genteel elite, who came to Cheltenham and the other spa towns to take the waters. Not only does the architecture reflect the tastes and demands of the respectable Georgian middle and upper classes, but so does the very layout of the streets. The main streets are broad, designed so that the wealthy could move about freely, and see and be seen by their peers, just like other wealthy citizens of towns across Britain and Europe.

And these main streets were strictly for the White rich. Tradesmen and the lower orders, including Blacks and Asians, were required by law to keep to the narrow lanes running behind the houses, so that they could continue to serve their masters and mistresses, without actually being seen on the street with them. The law banning non-Whites from Cheltenham’s streets continued for over a century until the 1950s.

Tory London Taking on Social Segregation of 19th Century Suburbs like Pittville

Cheltenham is a beautiful town with a multi-racial population, and Pittville is a particularly pleasant area. I don’t believe it’s any more racist than anywhere else in the UK, and probably much less than some. When I was at College there in the 1980s, the Student Union passed a motion making the Union a ‘no platform’ for ‘racists and Fascists’, though there was a faction in the Tory party back then which wanted to make ‘racial nationalism’ – the ideology of the National Front their official stance as well. With so much of the elite, upper class developments in Britain’s cities like London aimed at the international market, there probably won’t be a revival of that type of official racist segregation. What is emerging is a return to the class hierarchies of residential areas, where the poor are expected to remain distant, invisible servants of their social superiors. Boris Johnson’s London, with its poor increasingly priced out and pushed to the margins in this respect increasingly resembles Cheltenham’s 19th century Pittville.

Resources for Constitutional History: Kenneth Mackenzie’s The English Parliament

March 9, 2014

Parliament Book Cover

Mike over at Vox Political has several times mentioned that there’s a need for books on parliament because of the way the Coalition has repeatedly interfered with it, or ignored it, when MPs have had the audacity to do something it didn’t like. Like demand a cumulative assessment on the impact of the government’s welfare reforms on the poor and disabled. Mike blogged on this live, as the debate was broadcast from parliament. What emerged from that debate was the government’s absolute and complete contempt for those who didn’t agree with it. They sent about three members of the Tory party to defend the government’s policies during the debate, which shows you precisely how far they feel they have to justify themselves to the nation’s elected representatives at Westminster.

I strongly agree with Mike about this issue. The past two decades have seen profound changes to the British constitution. The most obvious of this was Blair’s reform of the House of Lords, which has resulted in a partly appointed upper house. Other changes have been in the way consecutive prime ministers since Blair have begun side-lining or ignoring parliament. Blair’s administration was strongly criticised for the way he reduced Prime Minister’s Question Time to once a week, and appeared to attempt to stage manage his appearances before parliament as carefully as his other, public appearances were choreographed. The most notorious example of the offhand way Blair treated parliament was in his refusal to hold a proper debate in Westminster prior to the invasion of Iraq. Blair’s regime has been described, with more than a little justification, as ‘presidential’, which causes problems as this is a parliamentary democracy. The Coalition have continued this transformation of the office of Prime Minister into a quasi-presidency. This needs to be stopped, and more power restored to parliament as the expression of the people’s political will, and a check to the growing, arbitrary powers of the prime Minister.

Unfortunately, there appear to be very, very few books actually on the shelves of bookshops on parliament. Looking around the ‘Politics’ section of Waterstones, I can’t remember seeing a single book on it. There are any number of books on other, important political issues, such as the situation in the Middle East, Islamic radicalism in the UK, analyses of the structure of British politics, the European Union, the global policies towards the Developing World, analyses of race relations and tensions in Britain, and questions of poverty, entrepreneurship and so on, as well as books on various political philosophies and tendencies, like Neo-Liberalism. But no book could I see on parliament, what is and does.

One book on the subject I did manage to find was Kenneth Mackenzie’s The English Parliament (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1951). Subtitled ‘A survey of the historical development of parliament describing how and why it has come to work in the way that it does today’, it does indeed trace the rise and development of the English parliament from its emergence from the feudal grand conseil of the king’s feudal lords during the Middle Ages and its foundation by Simon de Montfort.

It has the following chapters:

1. A Court Becomes a Parliament, with sections on the feudal nature of parliament and the arrival of the House of Commons;

2. The Commons Become Legislators, with sections on the position of the commons, and petition and bill;

3. Liberty from Tyranny, with sections on freedom of speech, freedom from arrest, and the power to commit;

4. Rules, Clerks, Records, with sections on the early history of procedure, clerks and journals, and the publication of proceedings and debates;

5. Consent to Taxation, with sections on the final establishment of the consent of parliament to taxation, and the Commons’ gain of sole control over taxation;

6. The Ministry Becomes Responsible to the Commons, with sections on early attempts to control policy, and ministerial responsibility.

7. The Commons Represent the People, with sections on the early history of representation, the reform of the electoral system, and the party system;

8. The Modernisation of Procedure, with sections on procedural reform, 1800-72, obstruction and disorderly conduct, 1877-88, the pressure of business, and the government takes the time of the House.

10. The Commons Control Expenditure, with sections on the history of the attempt, and the modern system;

11. Parliament Delegates Power to Make Law;

12. The Second Chamber, on the House of Lords, which has sections on its composition, its financial and legislative powers, and its jurisdiction.

There is also a concluding chapter 13, The Secret Garden of the Crown, which assesses it history and considering some of the problems facing the future of parliament.

Each chapter is prefaced with a suitable quotation from that age’s leading politicians and constitutional theorists. The two quotes for the first chapter on the origins of parliament give a very good summary of its feudal origins and the role they have played in keeping Britain free from tyranny. The first is by the great 19th century Liberal constitutional historian, Lord Acton. Acton said

The one thing that saved England from the fate of other countries was not her insular position, nor the independent spirit nor the magnanimity of her people – for we have been proud of the despotism we obeyed under the Tudors, and not ashamed of the tyranny we exercised in our dependencies – but only the consistent, uninventive, stupid fidelity to that political system which originally belonged to all the nations that traverse the ordeal of feudalism.

Acton was an ardent advocate of constitutional liberty and an enemy of absolute tyranny. It was Lord Acton who coined the phrase, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

The second quote comes from the Anglo-Norman legal writer, Bracton. Bracton was one of the magistrates responsible for founding the British common law tradition, in which law is influenced not just by abstract legislation, but also by custom and precedent. This quote runs

Moreover, the King has over him a court, that is to say the earls and barons; for the earls, as their name (comites) implies, are the companions of the king, and he who has a colleague has a master.

The word ‘comites’, which is translated as ‘earls’ in the above passages, is the origin of the modern English word ‘count’. it comes from the Latin word comes, companion. This became a technical term for a very senior Roman governor, as it stood for someone, who was the companion of the emperor.

That passage shows how, even during the Middle Ages when kings had massive powers and could rule for years without calling parliament, there was nevertheless a feeling that there were constitutional checks to the power of the monarch. Indeed, after John’s defeat by the barons at Runnymede and the issuing of the Magna Carta, there appeared a saying in Norman French. Translated into modern English, this read ‘This is the Commune of England, in which everyone has his own opinion’. ‘Commune’ was the term used in the Middle Ages for a town, which had acquired the freedom to govern itself. It’s a classic summary of English political liberty as it has descended from the Middle Ages. The monarchy has gradually been the subject of even further checks, so that they liberty of people under parliament has grown since the time that was uttered. Unfortunately, the Coalition are doing their level best to undermine it.

The book is very dated, but nevertheless it gives a good introduction to parliament in England. We need more books like this as parliamentary procedure is increasingly attacked under the guise of reform.