Solidarity Betrayed: UKIP and Pride

CG0SBAsXEAAI90G

This is Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall, commenting on the UKIP at Pride debacle which has unfolded over the past few days. You will search in vain for an actual position on this from the UK’s foremost LGBT charity, though it’s not difficult to gauge what Hunt’s own position is:

Untitled

With a few exceptions (Peter Tatchell supports UKIP’s removal; the editor of Pink News opposes it and dug up Brian Paddick to support this view) you will similarly struggle to find many of the LGBT community’s prominent organisations, media outlets and figures taking a position on this. There seems to be a widespread terror of being seen to be political’ and offending anyone, as if ‘politics’ is some strange thing which exists over there and isn’t inherent in absolutely everything we say and do. Hunt’s tweets at the top have been typical of this approach, which presents the matter as merely a ‘disagreement’ within the LGBT community rather than a case of political choices being made over which voices and whose interests to prioritise.

It was a grim irony that the UKIP story broke only days after I wrote about Barclays again sponsoring Pride and the ubiquity of ‘pinkwashing’. There I wrote:

Truly we are a long way from the days when social justice and ‘queer rights’ were viewed as inextricably linked but there’s still a huge continuum between that and our current gloopy, undiscriminating praise at any notion of support for ‘LGBT equality’. We aren’t a separate class of people – we are as likely to be affected by Barclays screwing everyone over as the next person. We can do better than this.

This could easily be applied to the UKIP situation, where many seem to believe that LGBT people supporting the party means that it is changing, more welcoming and thus should be allowed to march at Pride. The Chair of the UKIP LGBT* group was given a platform on Pink News to argue that case. Another Pink News column argues “we must remember that one of the core principles of Pride is that of inclusion of all LGBT people”. Twitter has been awash with (overwhelmingly white male) assertions that Pride is about ‘inclusion’ and ‘tolerance’ and so ‘different opinions’ should be welcomed. It’s notable that even Pride in London’s statement retracting UKIP’s invitation to march went to pains to endorse this line of thinking, stating that “we aim to unite our community, not divide it” and making the bizarre claim that the decision “has not been made on a political basis”.

This line of thinking presents those opposing UKIP as intolerant and divisive – a perverse framing of anti-racism which was seized on by the UKIP LGBT* Chair, who presented its members as a ‘brave’ victimised minority:

Untitled

Oh the humanity! Won’t somebody think of the ‘kippers?! While many advancing this reasoning are at pains to stress that they don’t support UKIP, they commonly hold the view that UKIP are a legitimate political party, that its views are held by many people and that it deserves to be at Pride if LGBT people support it (this is usually alongside the deeply weird claim that UKIP’s LGBT* group, comprised of UKIP members and candidates and proposing to march under the UKIP name, aren’t actually UKIP).

I’m sure some brains will seize up here but this argument smacks of the (overwhelmingly white male) privilege which has dominated the LGBT movement for so long. These people think they are being coldly rational, defending a ‘right’ rather than any particular viewpoint. Yet in doing so they are choosing whose voices and interests matter to them. They are choosing to ignore the many people of colour, immigrants, HIV+ people, anti-racists and more who have spoken of their disgust, dismay and even fear at UKIP’s proposed presence on the march. “Your concerns don’t matter, we must be inclusive!” is the utterly self-defeating cry.

Yet invariably the people taking this line have been outspoken in their support for the banning of anti-gay bus adverts. They have been outraged by the refusal of a Christian baker to make a wedding gay for a gay couple. They have applauded the legal win against guesthouse owners who turned away a gay couple. They aren’t riding to battle for the ‘rights’ of the EDL and BNP to march in Pride, despite them being banned:

Untitled

Let’s remember that the Pride march is not an open, public event for organisations – you have to apply, pay a fee and Pride in London reserve the right to refuse you. It is clear, then, that the issue is less that all these people defending UKIP’s ‘rights’ are hardcore free speech absolutists but that they are comfortable with the kind of speech UKIP represents.

It is no coincidence that, by and large, it is a rhetoric which poses no threat to a white, HIV-negative gay man, despite UKIP’s repeated and continued homophobia. By dropping its opposition to same-sex marriage, UKIP were tacitly embracing the totemic human-rights issue for many in the LGBT community and thus removing the major road block to LGBT support. They’re fine with gay people getting married: the end. Any consideration of how LGBT identity interacts with immigration, with HIV, with racism, with misogyny falls by the wayside: in dropping opposition to marriage, UKIP ceases to be a problematic ‘political’ case for many and just becomes another group which deserves to be heard, even if you personally don’t support it.

This is a political choice which clearly elevates some interests above others. It’s also a prime example of ‘white fragility’ where racism is viewed as an individual moral issue rather than a systemic ideology:

Untitled

This is evident in many discussions of UKIP, where you will inevitably hear claims that ‘it’s not racist to oppose immigration’ and ‘you can’t label millions of people as racist’. ‘Racism’ is this terrible thing which you must never accuse someone of, an attitude which is endemic in the UK and beyond. To do so is to be divisive and worse, to be angry. You are ruining it for all of the lovely, rational, nice people!

Here’s the rub: UKIP is racist. It’s not racist in the sense that it has a few ‘bad apples’ or a few wacky policies, it is a fundamentally racist organisation. The founder of the party abandoned it stating (tw: racist language):

…the party ‘are racist and have been infected by the far right’, and that its leader Nigel Farage told him ‘we will never win the nigger vote.  The nig-nogs will never vote for us.’

Its policies and support-base have had significant overlap with the far-right; it has been backed by the BNP, Britain First and EDL, with Tommy Robinson stating “they are saying exactly what we say in a different way”; its has countless links with the far-right and Farage has been photographed with prominent members of the National Front/BNP who viewed UKIP as allies; they have sat with fascists in the European Parliament and fought to retain funding for parties like the BNP; its tactics and appeal are a direct continuation of the far-right in the UK; it is opposed by every anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation you could mention.

The far-right thrive on attempting to divide communities and pose as the ‘common sense’ voice – this is why communities turn out in the streets to show united opposition to far-right marches. It’s also why unity of opposition to UKIP at Pride should have been a no-brainer: not only because we stand with the non-white, non-British members of the LGBT community but because we oppose all bigotry and all opportunistic attempts to use our community. Yet rather than engaging with critical, informed voices (I asked Pride in London if they’d spoken to a single anti-racist group about inviting UKIP and received no reply) we have people attempting to assert their dominance once again, telling themselves that they are being ‘liberal’ and ‘rational’ with (ironically) zero thought as to the choices and power imbalances which have brought them to this position.

It’s utterly shameful.

It’s interesting that there has been another, smaller storm around Pride this week as its plans to have Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners lead the parade fell apart when LGSM were informed they couldn’t march with their trade union comrades. This led me to discover that the TUC had suggested ‘Solidarity’ as the parade theme this year but the Pride Community Advisory Board chose ‘Heroes’ because:

…Pride is different things to different people and that the parade theme of ‘Heroes’ would provide a broad range of interpretations to allow all groups and people to find a way to engage with it. On a vote Solidarity received 1 vote and Heroes 7 votes with 1 abstention.

The irony here really is too much: solidarity rejected because it would involve actually leading and shaping what Pride is, rather than allowing every individual, including the racists, to ‘interpret’ however they want. With such cowardice it’s easy to understand how we got to the UKIP scandal. There is a glimmer of hope, however: the debacle has led to critical scrutiny of Pride which has only existed on the margins in recent years, with a burgeoning movement to ‘Reclaim Pride’. Even those defending UKIP have taken to highlighting the problem with a group like Barclays marching, or the racist immigration policies of the other parties (they do so thinking it’s a ‘gotcha’ moment rather than…a good point).

Pride is still held on the Saturday nearest to the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Despite historically illiterate attempts to portray these riots as being about ‘demanding a voice for everyone’, they were a revolt by people of colour, trans people, queers and the working-class against a racist, homophobic power structure. Radical, liberatory politics of social justice were absolutely central to the movement, which did not exist in a vacuum removed from Black Power or radical feminism. Inspirations like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera did not fight so that racists could march with Pride – they stood firmly with the marginalised against the oppressors. This is what changes society, not racist LGBT people marching for racist organisations. We honour them by continuing that fight and opposing UKIP with every fibre of our beings.

tumblr_inline_msvwkqYVLK1qz4rgp

After the Election

dystopia

….for the 31% of the public who voted for Labour, they may not ring absolutely true. Those people may feel, as they haven’t for a generation, like aliens in their own land. Promised that social justice was a cause that would ultimately resonate with the whole country, they have instead been reminded that to vast numbers of people, their beliefs seem peculiar, their cause an unholy alliance of the snooty and the feckless. They could live with the disapproval of the newspapers they didn’t like. But now they must admit that the Mail was not a mouthpiece, but an amplifier.

I was fortunate enough to be on holiday when the dreadful election results were announced so that perhaps played a role in why this description of the aftermath, taken from here, so resonated with me. It’s really not over-stating things to say that the UK really does currently feel like an alien land. It was relatively easy to remain optimistic in the face of the cruelties and traumas of the past five years, as the Tories hadn’t been able to win a majority, no-one had actually voted for much of what the coalition did and it seemed certain that we would (at the very least) face an even wider (and thus more diluted) coalition after this election. I went off on holiday with a bounce in my step, creating a playlist called ‘All Things Seem Possible in May’ to mark May Day and my sense of optimism that better days were near. Yet it wasn’t to be: enough people voted for the horrors offered by the Tories to give them a full majority, free from even the moderately palliative influence of the Liberal Democrats.

The real kick in the teeth is that this didn’t happen, I believe, because most people are just unabashed dickheads. I could parse that and feed strength from my sense of righteousness. No, rather this result underlines the state of unreality our politics exists in, the sense that we are all wading through bullshit. As I mentioned in that piece most people, whatever their political identification (if they have one), have no idea of the reality of welfare, immigration, spending etc. It doesn’t seem to me that most people in this election chose a party because they felt they could support its policies; rather it was about emotional identification. This is, of course, always an important factor but the role of nationalism in this election has certainly been stronger than any in my adult life. The Tories pulled off their victory because they spent the last 3 weeks of their campaign not discussing their policies or articulating a vision for the country but rather invoking the spectre of a hobbled Labour government beholden to the SNP. Again, the easy and self-righteous interpretation here would be to believe that ‘England’ was terrified of the SNP dragging Labour to the left. A more honest one, I think, is to acknowledge that the SNP spent their campaign invoking the spectre of a hobbled Labour government at ‘Westmonster’ which they could exert influence on to amplify ‘Scotland’s voice’. There is, of course, no such thing as ‘Scotland’s voice’ and that rhetoric, along with digs about ‘writing the Labour manifesto’ and ‘making Labour bolder’ were aimed at appealing to Scottish nationalist ideas of ‘us vs them down there’ while equally inflaming a reactionary English nationalism which could only ever serve the Tories.

While on the left it’s been (and remains) easy to attack the Tories and Labour, casting a critical eye over the SNP remains a (very controversial) niche pursuit. The responses have been predictable: the left in Scotland largely keep telling themselves that Scotland is ‘different’, they are not nationalist and the Tory government is England’s fault; the left in England largely indulge this and keep fighting about how inadequate Labour is; the right swiftly gets on with things like removing the Human Rights Act which underline how facile the ‘they’re both the same’ or ‘Red Tories’ lines are. When I wrote about the #indyref I predicted that it would (further) divide the UK left, that the SNP would almost entirely mop up the spoils with the ‘Green Yes’ and RIC campaigns largely irrelevant and that we would disappear down the rabbit hole of nationalism. I think all these things have come to pass and, as I wrote in March, I think we’re going to be here for some time (as does Patrick Cockburn in this good piece placing nationalism in context). Certainly the fact that we now face the actual Tories means there will be no further parsing of Scottish nationalism, the myths of difference which sustain it or the fact that Scottish politics exists in a same-but-different state of unreality as the rest of the UK (a state brilliantly demolished in this blog). This is a particularly egregious example of what we can expect, portraying the SNP vote as against ‘colonial nationalism’ and explicitly mentioning Libya, clearly utterly oblivious to the fact that the SNP supported the ‘intervention’ there (as it did in Afghanistan and in the first Gulf War). I do, incidentally, think Scottish independence is far more likely – I don’t however think this will change the above situation for at least a decade. This piece shows why. Even after a surge in SNP support which literally started the week of the referendum result and has led to an almost one-party state in Scotland, prominent ‘Green Yes’ supporters are still arguing that this ‘isn’t about nationalism’, the Greens polling 1.3% in Scotland (less than UKIP) is a good thing and a ‘real left’ will emerge at some point in the future. The absolute need for these ‘progressives’ to feel dissociated from nationalism has completely blunted their critical faculties. They are forehead deep in the unreal bullshit.

The state of unreality trundled on as soon as Labour’s defeat became obvious and we’re already seeing the right of the party trying to capitalise on it. Make no mistake about it, speaking as a socialist the Labour Party manifesto was inadequate in many ways, sometimes indefensibly so. Yet there was also much to be excited about and it was in some aspects the most left-wing manifesto Labour has had in decades. This manifesto saw the Labour vote increase in England and Wales – not enough, clearly, but it’s important to remember this in the face of instant rhetoric about how this was a disaster comparable to 1983.

Nonetheless, just as the unreality of ‘Labour spent too much and wrecked the economy’ became quickly accepted as truth after the 2010 election (something Labour clearly has large responsibility for) we can already see the bullshit we will be wading through for the foreseeable future: on the right it will be cemented that Labour were too left-wing, that austerity is working, that the coalition’s legacy has to be accepted. The left will prove more fractious, as ever, but it will be cemented that Labour were too right-wing and that ‘Scotland’ voted for a more radical left-wing party and nationalism played little role. There will also be an increase in despair and the notion that electoral politics is a busted flush for the left, something which overwhelmingly manifests itself in attacks on the electorally-minded left-wing.

I feel despair too, of a kind I have rarely known politically. It does cause an existential questioning of what we’re doing here, exactly. Yet there are things I still firmly believe: that you can argue for and fight for a better government than the Tories without believing that it’s the be all and end all of politics or, indeed, abandoning opposition to much of a Labour government platform; that electoral reform is an absolutely crucial goal for the left; that the past five years have shown the power and brilliance of people joining together, whether locally or across the UK, to fight the Tories.

I also believe that it’s always easier to appeal to people’s base instincts and apportion blame to ‘others’ in politics and I believe that we (and I) on the left do this in our own ways, which we remain largely blind to. If the UK currently feels like an alien country, we need to start fighting against the bullshit unreality which dominates and get back to what kind of society we live in, what kind of one we want to live in and how we take ourselves there. It’s only with a keen understanding of now that we can begin to fight back. The fact we need to fight back now rather than indulge in hand-wringing doesn’t make this any less possible or necessary. That is the one thing I still believe which is keeping me sane: people largely do not vote any way in particular because they are intrinsically anything. They’re all just wading through the same bullshit as the rest of us and joining together to build movements is the one sure fire way to begin to change that.

Stonewall: Only 25 Years Late

stonewall-trans_arrest_corbis3058_t600

Stonewall announced today that it will add ‘trans equality’ to its mission statement, finally adding the ‘T’ to the ‘LGB’. It’s since spent the day engaging in self-congratulation by retweeting praise for this step:

Untitled

Even the most casual reader of this blog will be aware that I’m highly critical of Stonewall (as many others are and have been, not least the trans activists who have pushed them to this place.) so it won’t be too shocking to discover that I don’t think it should be patting itself on the back over this. 25 years ago it chose to name itself after the now-iconic riots which are widely viewed as having initiated the modern LGBT rights movement; it also chose to disregard that some of the most marginalised LGBT people were absolutely instrumental to those riots. It should be impossible to discuss Stonewall without discussing the role played by trans people, homeless LGBT youtheffeminate men, working-class black and Latino queers, drug dealers and/or users and ‘prostitutes’. Yet for all the credit it deserves in, for example, fighting Clause 28 or campaigning for an equal age of consent, Stonewall has by and large completely neglected ‘marginal’ voices and ‘radical’ causes in favour of the pursuit of a narrow, legalistic ‘equality’ which overwhelmingly benefits middle-class white gay people. Its fondness for bodies like the military, the police and companies with absolutely terrible social justice records has marked it out as an organisation with absolutely no conception of the social justice which was so integral to the riots and, in fact, as often being harmful to that cause. It seems absurd to me, then, that it should be applauded for finally welcoming in some of the people responsible for its existence, 25 years late.

It’s a welcome step, of course, but I think anyone who’s paid any attention to Stonewall in the past decade couldn’t help but be cynical. As late as September 2010 it still wasn’t supporting gay marriage, jumping on board well after even the Tories had made accommodating noises towards it. Despite this it has pushed hard on gay marriage as one of its achievements and a fundraising issue though, hilariously, this is the page on their website which greets you when you click ‘learn about the campaign which made it happen’:
Untitled

Post-marriage it has seemed like an aimless organisation. Rather than campaigning loudly on, say, the impact of austerity on LGBT people, cuts to HIV services, LGBT poverty or the particular issues faced by LGBT people of colour, it has instead fixated on pushing its schools and employment programmes (both of which provide income to the charity) and banal campaigns such as ‘Rainbow Laces‘. I’m sure some of this is perfectly worthy but it’s desperately weak stuff, especially when it involves Stonewall actively promoting organisations such as the Home Office and military which actively oppress LGBT people both here and abroad.

‘Trans equality’, then, could be seen to open up whole new avenues for fundraising. If (as I suspect) this commitment largely takes the form of ‘trans considerations’ being included in Stonewall’s schools and employment programmes together with some tokenistic nods to legalistic ‘equality’, that will be an opportunity squandered. I think even today’s report gives cause for concern – note this, for example, from Ruth Hunt’s foreward:

Untitled

It’s staggeringly disingenuous, arguing that trans people have been ignored by ‘gay’ campaigners because of their ‘different and complex’ issues. This is nonsense – even a rudimentary knowledge of LGBT history tells us that many activists, of all persuasions and identities, have been campaigning side by side and linking their struggle to wider social justice. Stonewall chose to do things differently, a choice which Hunt still defends in the breathtaking assertion that ditching trans rights ‘meant greater social progress was achieved for all of us.’ This doesn’t sound like recognising your ‘mistakes’; in fact in stating that Stonewall can now campaign for trans equality because ‘society has moved on’ (how did this happen, exactly?) it sounds much like the same old song where minorities within the ‘LGBT’ umbrella prove to be an afterthought for the white cis people who so dominate the movement. Indeed, at one point Stonewall even seem to acknowledge that even lesbians and bisexuals have been a side issue, mentioning only ‘gay men’:

Untitled

We see more of this attitude in a section on ‘learning from our mistakes’. The abhorrent Paddy Power, which still uses offensive advertising, receives a typical Stonewall pinkwashing:
Untitled

There was an uproar around Paddy Power’s transphobic advert at the time. Stonewall chose to ignore it, just as they now choose to ignore the company’s continuing offensive advertising. Equally, Stonewall chose to ignore the campaign around the ‘spousal veto’ with regards to gay marriage and instead nominate its defender, Baroness Stowell, for ‘Politician of the Year’ while giving thanks both to the government and to the Queen(!):

Untitled

Were trans issues still so ‘different and complex’ in late 2013 that Stonewall couldn’t grasp why this wasn’t okay? Were they really so blinded by the lack of any trans person on their board? The Scottish Parliament seemed to grasp it. Yet the spousal veto isn’t specifically named as one of Stonewall’s ‘mistakes’ in this section.

It is mentioned in a section summarising what trans people told Stonewall during its consultation with them and this is where any hope lies. It is here that we find mention of ‘supporting trans people seeking asylum’, supporting the mental health of trans people and the intersection between many trans people and sex work. This excerpt from the consultation, for example, touches on a great many practical but radical issues:

Untitled

If Stonewall were to take this seriously and begin to listen to and campaign with sex workers, victims of police violence, people of colour, victims of the immigration system etc then it would perhaps begin to be an organisation worthy of its name. Opening itself to issues of wider social justice, necessitating an understanding of ‘equality’ which recognised structural oppressions and power imbalances, would be an admirable step change. It would also, however, frighten off Barclays, PWC, the Home Office, the Met Police etc which is a large part of why I remain dubious. Nonetheless, I know that a great many vocal and inspiring trans activists (and many others) intend to hold Stonewall to account on its newfound ‘support’ and I hope against hope that they can help affect the change it so desperately needs. Stonewall predicts it will take a year for it to become ‘fully trans-inclusive’. We’ll see where we are in 2016.

Edit: A few hours after writing the above I’ve read this interview with Ruth Hunt. I think, sadly, it bears out much of what I’ve written and makes me even more cynical. Hunt states that gay marriage “signalled the end of the legislative battle” and Stonewall is now onto “changing hearts and minds”, as if there are no other issues with the system. She still refuses to oppose the spousal veto. She uses a really very straightforward example re: smear tests to try and demonstrate why LGB & T had to be separate. Most predictably, she mentions Stonewall’s work with schools and its Workplace Equality Index several times as examples of the work it can do for trans people.

Atos and anti-welfarism

I want to believe that Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics is proving to be a huge PR disaster for them. I want to believe that it has thrown the spotlight on Atos’ cruel, cynical and profit-driven treatment of those on incapacity benefit (not least due to the sterling efforts of Disabled People Against Cuts and UK Uncut). Certainly there have been sympathetic pieces in the places you might expect to see them. Looking at Twitter, it’s tempting to forget that it’s largely an echo-chamber for your own views and believe that there is widespread fury.

And yet, and yet. There are two barriers to raising awareness which campaigners against Atos face. The first is something I have written about many times this Summer – the tendency for Olympic/Paralympic support to be apolitical, placing the events as outside the boundaries of critical thought. As I argued here, this apolitical jingoism which reduces the Games to ‘get behind Team GB!’ is an inherently reactionary position. It is a defence of the whims of those in power. This is clearer than ever when looking at responses to Atos’ critics, with Seb Coe pulling them under the umbrella of sponsors whom ‘we can’t do this without’. The intention is clear – shut up, whingers, these sponsors allow us to put on these magnificent Games! Similar responses have been wheeled out in defence of Adidas’ sweatshops, or Dow’s ‘handling’ of the Bhopal disaster. Never mind the fact that even by conservative estimates, over £9 billion of the funding for the Games comes from the public while less than £2 billion comes from private companies. The sponsors (and other advertisers) have spent the whole Summer telling us that we couldn’t do it without them, that they’re behind ‘our’ boys and girls (patriotism curiously always uses juvenile terms), that positivity is the thing. Facing this barrage, it’s difficult for any political (read: human) message to get through. There are a hefty number of people out there who regard any ‘bad feeling’ encroaching on their Olympic hysteria as a personal attack.

The second barrier is a much greater, far more damaging one. This is the fact that the Atos issue concerns benefits. Last week I found myself having a discussion about benefits with a guy I’d only just met. Without wishing to be uncharitable, I think it’s fair to say that his views on benefits were lifted straight from the pages of the Daily Mail: the UK can’t afford its benefits bill and must reduce it; too many people choose an easy life on benefits; people should be forced into jobs by penury; unemployed people were being given houses beyond the reach of most families, and so on and so forth. Sadly, I think these views are common – certainly opinion polls routinely find that majorities think benefits are ‘too high’, ‘too widespread’, ‘too open to abuse’. It’s remarkable to think that, as late as 1991, a majority of people believed benefits to be ‘too low’, perhaps a combination of remnants of social democratic attitudes not yet stamped on by Thatcherism and a recession. It’s very clear, however, that over 30 years of posturing and drip-feed poison from both Labour and Conservative governments has drastically undermined public support for our welfare system. The idea of the ‘undeserving’ benefits claimant is one that has taken strong hold in our society, perpetuated and propagated by an overwhelmingly right-wing media.

The role of said media became clear in the discussion I had, as it became clear that cold hard facts played little role in the anti-welfare attitudes held. He simply did not believe that over a third of welfare spending goes on the state pension. You can see a similar graph from a different source here. If you have strongly held anti-welfare beliefs, the urge to simply ignore the fact that the biggest chunk of welfare spending goes on your gran must be enormous – it blows quite a hole in your value system. 

The next largest chunk of the welfare bill is tax credits. These divide into Child Tax Credits and Working Tax Credits. The former are for those on low-incomes who support a child, the latter are for those on low-incomes who are employed. Approx. 76% of families which receive these are in work. We are a long way from the idea of feckless scroungers watching ‘Jeremy Kyle’. Similarly, almost 60% of children in poverty come from working families and a small minority of housing benefit claimants claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. Far from supporting scroungers, our welfare system subsidises the poverty pay of employers and the extortionate rents of private landlords.

On the subject of unemployment, I asked the man if he believed that it had risen in recent years simply because benefits looked more attractive to more people. To my astonishment, he said ‘yes’. Yet unemployment was at its lowest in the UK in 1973, when ‘welfarism’ was far more entrenched and supported than it is now (and as you can see in the graph on page 12 here, unemployment benefit almost exactly matched personal consumption rates.) The value of what is now called Jobseeker’s Allowance hasn’t changed in 30 years and amounts to only 50% of the income you need to be classified as below the poverty line. That’s without going into the uniquely disheartening experience that is signing on at your local job centre. I find it difficult to believe that anyone who has experienced that could ever believe that people choose it over employment. Of course, with reports suggesting between 4 and 6 jobseekers for every vacancy in the country, most have no choice.

I’m pleased to say that I remembered a lot of this during the discussion. Yet each and every fact was dismissed – not with a counter-claim, but with personal anecdotes and tabloid stories. The government’s own figures suggest that benefit fraud costs approx. £1 billion per year, a figure which is dwarved not only by the £16 billion in benefits which go unclaimed, but by the approx. £15 billion which is lost due to tax evasion. Yet the man I was discussing this with wheeled out the usual arguments about how the wealthy have worked to get what they have and would just ‘leave the country’ if they were taxed fairly. His anger was entirely aimed at the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.

This is the massive problem which Atos campaigners face. The dripfeed of lies from government and the media mean that the public massively over-estimate disability benefit fraud, just as they over-estimate all benefit fraud. It’s this widespread hatred of those on benefits – the belief that they are at best lazy, at worst thieves – that has allowed the government to viciously attack the poorest in society without any real hit to their poll ratings. And it’s this same hatred which makes many turn a blind eye to Atos. Sadly it doesn’t look like Ed Miliband is going to change the record, which means it’s up to us. All of us. We need to challenge the lazy myths and prejudices which surround benefits every time we encounter them, in whatever way we can. This is the larger battle against Atos, against the government, against billionaire media barons who rant about benefit cheats while pumping money into their offshore accounts. I want to believe we can do this, because to believe otherwise is to believe in humanity at its worst.

Punk, Lennon and 2012

I’ve been watching the BBC’s brilliant ‘Punk Britannia‘ series for the past few weeks. I always tend to love such potted histories of genres, especially when they attempt to link the musical trends to wider socio-political issues. Of course this is particularly easy with punk, yet the eagerness to draw comparisons between the late 1970s and the present day has at times been rather clunky. A country on the verge of economic collapse, workers on strike, a ‘nation coming together’ to celebrate a royal jubilee – you get the idea. Nonetheless, it’s been striking to watch the artists of the period being interviewed. They speak of reacting against not only the politics of the period but also the culture. A picture is painted of a smothering, pervasive banality; a mass of artists with nothing to say and no interest in saying anything anyway. Glam rock, once a subversive pleasure with sinister undercurrents, had already descended into a neutered pantomime of self-parody. David Bowie had notably left glam behind with the dystopian hell of ‘Diamond Dogs’, moving swiftly onto the ‘plastic soul’ of ‘Young Americans’.  T Rex were already in terminal decline, while Roxy Music were on hiatus and would return with ‘Manifesto’, a move towards accessible stadium acceptability. Even to look at a list of the biggest hits of the period is to wade through treacle – a mass of saccharine rubbish which would soon be forgotten alongside brilliant pop so removed from any societal context that it could feasibly be released tomorrow.

In this context, then, ‘God Save the Queen’ truly was radical. It’s easily forgotten (or in the case of us who weren’t yet born, not understood in the first place) now that time and distance has led to it becoming a ‘classic’ (that worst of capitalist detournements) but the storm which surrounded the Sex Pistols and this, only their second single, was something which felt truly dangerous. Indeed, it’s widely accepted now that the charts were fixed in order to prevent the song from reaching number one and even its title was blanked out on some chart run downs.  It is no small irony that, 35 years later, the song was the only note of radicalism and dissent in a top 100 filled with songs about absolutely nothing.

Yesterday I also watched ‘The U.S. vs John Lennon’. There can be little doubt that in 1977 Lennon was one of the patriarchs of pop music which punk railed against yet, once again, his activities look unimaginable today. One of the biggest stars in the world not only associating with but also funding radical groups like the Black Panthers and campaigning for the release of the head of the White Panthers? Using his position to campaign against war and speak eloquently about capitalism and class (not least in ‘Working Class Hero’, included on his first post-Beatles album)? The documentary is hagiographic and certainly overstates its case but the fact remains that it’s simply impossible to imagine a 2012 equivalent of this. It’s certainly impossible to imagine John Lennon being so revered in 2012 if he was still around and still being outspoken – as with ‘God Save the Queen’, time and distance allows an easily-digestible version of Lennon to be adored.

We need only look at today’s politically and socially engaged artists and the reactions to them to see this. They don’t tend to be engaged in radicalism as Lennon was, yet even their involvement in mainstream politics is viewed with ridicule and contempt. We try and tear them apart, looking for evidence that they are hypocrites, that they aren’t living perfect lives – indeed, whenever anyone criticises John Lennon’s politics these days, it’s almost inevitably to make the trite observation that he couldn’t be a radical as he was wealthy (‘Imagine no possessions’!). I wrote earlier in the year about this exact response to Plan B for deigning to have an opinion. I have absolutely no doubt that if any of today’s stars became involved with radical politics, they would be absolutely crucified. In our post neo-liberal world the only ‘opinions’ we tolerate are those which enforce consensus politics. Thus artists will be praised for expressing utterly tedious support for gay marriage or supporting Children in Need; if they go beyond this, however, and start speaking about power and economic structures which lie behind these issues, they quickly run into opposition.

More than this – the anti-‘authenticity’ brigade would be out in force. Statements about the banality of mainstream culture such as those made by artists in ‘Punk Britannia’ would be pounced upon as ‘snobbish’, ‘superior’ and ‘sneering’. The funny thing is, they’re meant to be sneering, even superior. They aspired to something more. There was undoubtedly a streak of nihilism running through punk, yet as a movement it ultimately railed against apathy and detachment. They believed that people could shape their own destiny and that, together, people could change things. As one interviewee succinctly put it, “It’s not ‘negative’ to think about politics and the way our lives are run”. No, it’s actually hugely positive, borne out of a deep respect for people and their potential. We are capable of so much more than banality.

Yet in 2012 we undoubtedly live in an age where banality and mediocrity is encouraged. As I’ve noted, we jump on anyone who goes against the grain and our individualistic entitlement encourages a race to the bottom where any respect for popular music as an art form, capable of effecting real debate and even change, is discouraged. That horrendous Gary Barlow and Cheryl Cole debate was more representative of our time than anyone involved could ever have possibly imagined.