Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Labour may not like the market but it needs marketing

What has marketing to do with the Labour Party? Surely, it is all about selling stuff that nobody needs? Well, irony aside, the answer is that it has everything to do with Labour today, anti-capital or not. The “M”-word actually has two meanings, both of which deserve consideration here. First, it is about aligning an organisation and what it does with the needs of those it seeks to serve. Second, it is about making as sure as possible that those it wants to serve actually  access what it offers; that it promotes itself effectively.

So, first things first: whom does Labour seek to serve? This used to be easy for the party to answer – the workers of industry. Perhaps this is not so obvious today, when “industry” is not what it was and workers are less organised. Maybe one could answer “everybody” – but this would be too trite. Of  course it is true but you have to start with a core vote; a target subset of the whole, who are most likely to need a Labour Party. Is this “hard-working families”? Is it the lower-paid; or the young [the future]; or the old {who vote]? If it is any or all of these, which party would it then like to speak up for the unemployed, the poor, disabled people, who seem to have been excluded of late? [In my view, if Labour is not for these, then it has no purpose at all]. Without being clear whom it believes it represents, Labour can produce pledges and policies galore but fail to align itself to its desired voters.

Then, there is the message. Voters in today’s world buy into not a list of policies but to religions. Not the theological sort but visions or congregations to which they want to belong; whose image or Big Idea they aspire to. This is how cars, clothes, holidays and even food are chosen. Politics is no different, in having to make itself attractive, not in the detail but first in the desire to belong. Just as a consumer may want to be sure the clothes fit, the food is fresh or the holiday as advertised, so s/he will indeed want a set of policies which they like the look and cost of. But this is uninspiring and insufficient; the technicalities to be taken for granted. Decisions are about being on this side, with this group, sharing these values. And quite correctly, surely, for politics should be on a higher plane than mere pecuniary or technical calculation. Jeremy Corbyn is currently repeating Ed Miliband’s mistake of trotting out nice sounding policy ideas whilst failing to give any sort of believable vision for the future, through which to inspire attention or voting:  the religious part. Without a good Big Idea, able to be communicated and promoted in a pithy sound bite or strapline, Labour will continue to fail to inspire. So come on Labour: decide what you are for and tell us, loudly. Do your Marketing.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Was Voltaire right?

In a previous blog, I mentioned Voltaire as a major figure in Europe’s and thus our culture. Challenging the roles of religions, rulers, war, and ideas then in the ascendency; wit; Anglophile; humanist and author, he is a towering figure in the development of political and philosophical thinking. In his great satire, Candide, his innocent young hero, is faced with the follies of the great and the good of the times but can find no sense in them, despite their being presented as inevitable according with the prevailing determinist philosophy of the times. If, regardless of circumstance, the well-meaning individual had no free will and could do nothing to change things, surely s/he should content him/herself with “cultivating the garden”. The inevitable conclusion of having no agency is to do nothing.

Today, politics and events seem to be approaching a condition of near-determinism: where nothing can be done to oppose those in the ascendency. Someone decrees that something is true: it becomes fact. Someone is appointed leader of the country, with no bow to democracy: then claims a democratic mandate to put into effect actions she had previously opposed. Someone opposes the policies being advocated as bad for the country: and is dubbed a traitor. An opposition party supports the greatest constitutional change in decades which its members oppose. Millions with a desire to oppose have no means to do so.

So what is today’s Candide to do? Is it the case that things are inevitable; that we have no agency; that we must merely cultivate our garden?  Philosophical thought has moved on. We are supposed to have and exercise free will. The belief system of the Right would hold that we should be in control of our own destinies; whilst the Left supports collective action for the wider good. This being the case, we should be in a position where citizens can vote against the prevailing authority; but with the official Opposition nowhere to be seen; and with large parts of the electorate living where they have no prospect of electing even a local councillor, how meaningful is enfranchisement?

Maybe Voltaire was right. We should cultivate our garden but not literally, as an expression of disengagement, but metaphorically, starting at the grass roots; working for the values we espouse within our communities, to be and feel useful. Like charity, politics can begin at home – or in the “garden”.

Monday, 3 April 2017

We ARE European, even the Leavers

Brexiteers frequently talk of protecting “our culture”, demanding that newcomers subscribe to it, pass tests in it or generalising that “they” do not understand it. Do those who have been born and brought up here understand even what it is, ourselves? Do we have the right to talk about “us” as if there were still some race of Britons who form the core of the population, which is gradually being eroded by the pollution of immigration?

What can “our culture” be? This is a hybrid country, a federation of nations with their own cultures, mixed with a long history of new ingredients contributed by arrivals from many and varied parts of the world. The truth is that this is a nation composed of a huge variety of ethnicities, forming a culture enriched by each and all of these. Whenever there was a British tribe, it was before the histories taught even in our most reactionary institutions. Angles, Jutes, Vikings, Romans, Huguenots, Irish, Jews, West Indians, Bengalis, Somalis, etc – these are the ingredients of our happy melting pot.

What are the fixed points, then, which we build on, using these new ingredients? The weather – for this occupies minds, typically? Nothing to be proud of there. Chaucer and Shakespeare – but how many citizens are familiar with them? Our history – largely related as kings and queens, wars and battles, imperialism and theft? Our sports – which may have been invented here but at which prowess is far from unique?

The truth is that whatever we can identify as indigenous, our political and moral philosophies are rooted in ancient Athens, our science in the Arab world, our art in Italy. More recent cultural icons in this country are not home-grown. Are not Dante, Beethoven, Voltaire and Leonardo influences on or of our culture?  Our museums and galleries are packed with the works of great artists from all over the world, to be admired and even [though I am not in favour] retained as national heritage against repatriation claims. This is not to decry our home-grown national treasures, merely to declare that we are a part of a Western European culture over 2 millennia old; and that to focus on home-grown alone is to narrow our appreciation of what makes us tick or the world a better place.

The mantra “British x is the finest in the world” is mere propaganda put about by those who lack the experience or learning about the wider world. It is bandied about nonsensically in relation to our army, our football, our beef, our healthcare, and more. Put any of these to true comparison and perhaps the jingoism will prove hollow. This country is a fine place to live, with fine people and much to celebrate but it is not so very different and doubtfully superior to others. Rather, it is a part of the cultural mix of a long-evolved international society, which it is folly or tragedy to deny. To claim superiority for it is sheer hubris.

 We could [and this seems to be where Brexiteers would take us] define our heritage on ethnic purity but this has been tried before, with disastrous results. We must not go there again. Anyway, who wants a dreary diet based on what our geology, climate and “true Brit” talent might allow us?