Category Archives: UK Domestic Politics

Interview with Karen Ingala Smith about the Femicide Census

Interview with Karen Ingala Smith about the Femicide Census
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 March 2017

In early January 2012 Karen Ingala Smith, Chief Executive of the London-based domestic violence charity NIA, noticed an upsurge in the number of news stories about women killed by men. She started to make a list of the names, and then read a police statement that referred to the killing of one woman as “an isolated incident”.

This, she tells me when I visit her in her east London office, made her cross – and also motivated her to continue counting: “So many women in so few days. How can this be not seen as part of a trend? How can this be seen as ‘an isolated incident’?”

Gaining support from the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and another generous donor, Ingala Smith’s Counting Dead Women blog became the basis for the ‘Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed By Men’. Published by Women’s Aid and NIA at the end of last year, the landmark report shows how, far from being “isolated incidents”, 936 women and girls over 14 years of age were killed by men in England and Wales between 2009 and 2015. Most women who were killed were found to be killed by a man known to them, with 64 percent killed by men identified as current of former partners.

Though she has years of professional experience of Intimate Partner Violence, 49-year old Ingala Smith says several findings surprised her, such as the number of older women killed in burglaries and robberies. “I would also say the number of women being killed by sons was also something I hadn’t expected to see”, she notes. “And the ages that women continue to be killed by intimate partners. That, again, is sad to see. You think of the years and years of abuse that a woman has lived with before she is finally killed in her 70s or 80s by a man who she has been with for years.”

Most shockingly, Ingala Smith explains how the report highlights what is called “overkill”, which she describes as “when men submit women to a level of violence that killed them several times over. So not only has he killed her once, he continues to injure her with an injury that would have been fatal had she not already been killed.”

Does recording these horrendous crimes take an emotional toll? “Yes, in a word”, she replies. “I’ve sort of developed a pattern now where at the end of every month I review the month and total women for that month, and update my blog on a monthly basis. And when I used to do that at first I literally did have a cry after every time I did it, sit in a darkened room and want to be on my own for a little while. Now I just get on with it.” However, she is concerned she doesn’t always get as upset as she used to. “I don’t ever want to be unshockable”, she says.

Though the media often represents violence against women and girls as perpetrated by a stranger down a dark alley or a predatory taxi driver, Ingala Smith says the most dangerous place for a woman is her own home.

Surely we are talking about an epidemic of violence against women, I ask, thinking about the 2013 Crime Survey of England and Wales’s estimate that 28 percent of women have experienced domestic abuse? “We are talking about a massive scale problem”, she confirms, though she prefers not to use the word ‘epidemic’ because that “implies a medicalisation” of the issue. She argues this violence “affects all women even if we are not directly affected. I think all women are controlled by male violence and all men benefit from male violence even if they themselves never perpetrate it.”

There is, it seems, a deep-seated problem with the dominant type of masculinity men are expected to embody today. Ingala Smith agrees: “It’s about the social construction of masculinity and the social construction of femininity. So it’s about gender rather than about biology.”

“I think you have to look at the relationship between women and men and everything that creates the inequality between women and men”, she continues. “So entitlement, patriarchal laws, sexism, the objectification of women – all these create a context where women are seen as less than, and men expect control and dominance. I think that reproduces itself in some intimate relationships.”

Turning to solutions, Ingala Smith says reforming the criminal justice system and policing is important, though she believes they won’t solve the problem on their own. “If we look at the things that make men men and make women women, if we tackle those, so gender inequality, objectification of women, sexism etc. – that is where the big work has to go.” The Femicide Census itself argues for “statutory sex and relationship education covering healthy relationships, domestic abuse, consent and challenging sex role stereotypes as part of the national curriculum” because “better education about healthy relationships will help to prevent domestic abuse, and ensure that victims and perpetrators know where to go for help.”

She notes the Tory’s austerity agenda has led to more women being endangered, with local authorities passing on the cuts imposed on them to the services they fund, such as refuges for vulnerable women. For example, women’s services in the UK suffered a huge blow in 2015 when Eaves, a specialist service for women victims of violence, was forced to close. Frustratingly, the specialist services that survive are often at the mercy of grant funding based on contracts and competitive tendering, which means the services can end up being run by the lowest bidder and organisations which are not led by feminist women.

Is she hopeful about the recent feminist resurgence associated with women such as Laura Bates and Kat Banyard? “I really hope that women continue to find feminism”, she says. “I hope they don’t find liberal man-pleasing feminism. It does give me hope but not hope enough. I’ve found that as often as feminism reinvents itself there comes a backlash against that feminism.”

“I want to be hopeful but I’m not really”, she laughs ruefully, though later apologises for her negativity in an email.

Talking about her own feminist politics, Ingala Smith says her brand of feminism “tends towards” radical feminism. “I think inequality is structural, I think patriarchy exists”, she explains. “The things that identify radical feminism is that you talk about patriarchy and the male dominated society, you see that men’s violence against women is part of creating that patriarchy and maintaining it.” Another common tenant of radical feminism is the importance of women-only organising and women-only spaces. Ingala Smith doesn’t think men can be feminists, though believes men can make a difference and can be part of the solution. “I am saying that when we have feminist spaces they can butt out and make the rest of society a more feminist space.”

What concrete actions does she think men who support women should take? “Shut up and listen to women”, she laughs. “Fundraise for your local refuge.”

“I believe in decent men”, she says, “but I think men are a big problem as well. Masculinity is a big problem.” Again she is keen to highlight that she doesn’t think biology is destiny. ”There is a question, isn’t there? Why are men more violent than women? Men do most of the killing. Mostly they are killing other men more than women but you don’t see the reverse of that. Why is that?”, she asks. “It’s either nature or nurture or a combination of both. For the good of all of us as a species I’m hoping that it’s more nurture the nature.”

The ‘Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed By Men’ report can be downloaded from https://www.womensaid.org.uk/what-we-do/campaigning-and-influencing/femicide-census/. See also http://www.niaendingviolence.org.uk/.

 

Book review: ‘The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power’ by Alex Nunns

Book review: ‘The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power’ by Alex Nunns
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
February-March 2017

Though there have now been a number of books published about Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the leader of the Labour Party in 2015, including Richard Seymour’s impressive Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (PN 2596-2597), The Candidate is arguably the definitive account of those exciting days.

As the Political Correspondent of Red Pepper magazine, Alex Nunns is perfectly placed to chart Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign, writing a detailed, journalistic and engrossing account. He ends with a short afterword about the 2016 coup attempt and second leadership election – in which, amazingly, Corbyn increased his vote share to 62 percent.

All this feels a long way from Labour’s defeat in the May 2015 General Election. With the Labour left believing itself to be in an extremely weak position – journalist Owen Jones didn’t think the left should run a candidate because they would likely be “crushed” – Corbyn’s candidacy was initially given 200-1 odds by Ladbrokes. However, Nunns explains three large political forces came together to create the mass movement Corbyn rode to victory – the shift to the left of Labour Party members, the trade unions rejection of New Labour and grassroots campaigners like the anti-war movement and Occupy.

The section on the media’s hostility to Corbyn’s rise is particularly impressive. With the press going into “full blown panic mode”, Nunns’s focus on the Guardian’s opposition to Corbyn will be a wake-up call to those who see the newspaper as a friend of radical change. Nunns also includes lots of fascinating tidbits, from revealing the big unions didn’t want Corbyn’s closest ally John McDonnell to be Shadow Chancellor to how Labour HQ staff wore black on the day of Corbyn’s election to mourn the party they had lost.

Highlighting the important role of social media and describing how the campaign organised itself to create one of the most successful social movements the left has ever seen, the book is a hugely important resource for progressive activists. Frustratingly there is no index, though the extensive footnotes provide plenty of sources for those wishing to delve deeper.

With Corbyn’s leadership currently in something of a lull, with low poll ratings and a general election fast approaching, the crucial question is: what now? How can the left revitialise the establishment-beating movement of 2015-16? The answer will shape British politics in the years ahead because far from being the end of a campaign, in reality Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was just the beginning of a much longer struggle to overturn the dominance of neoliberalism and the UK’s aggressive foreign policy.

 

The BBC and the financial crisis: interview with Dr Mike Berry

The BBC and the financial crisis: interview with Dr Mike Berry
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
3 February 2017

Dr Mike Berry, a Lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, co-wrote Bad News From Israel (2004) and More Bad News From Israel (2011) with Professor Greg Philo.

In recent years Dr Berry has turned his attention to the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis. I asked him about his findings and why they are important for British democracy.

Ian Sinclair: In the last few years you have published two journal articles studying the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis – one analysing BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s output on the banking crisis in September and October 2008 and the other looking at the coverage by BBC News at Ten of the debate around the need to reduce the public deficit in the first seven months of 2009. What were the main findings of these two studies?

Mike Berry: Before answering that question directly I’d like to backtrack a little and provide some context to these events and explain why they are intimately linked. After 1979 the Conservatives introduced policies which fundamentally changed the nature and composition of the British economy. The withdrawal of the state from intervention in industry, the lifting of exchange controls and the deregulation of finance strengthened the power of capital at the expense of labour. The effects of what the Oxford historian Andrew Glyn described as, ‘Capitalism Unleashed’, was a shift towards an economy dominated by the service sector, a dramatic polarization in regional economic activity and sharp rise in income and wealth inequality. However this rise in inequality had a deflationary impact on the economy which was only compensated for by a steep rise in household debt. When New Labour came to power they largely accepted the Thatcherite settlement – the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) sector would continue to be the principal private motor of the economy whilst manufacturing was allowed to continue its long decline. However Labour did introduce record increases in social spending in areas such as health and education which in large part were paid for by tax receipts drawn from the City and the property boom. This meant that public spending increasingly took on the role of an ‘undisclosed regional policy’ by boosting state and para-state employment in areas outside the South-East where private sector job creation was ‘weak or failing’. However this unbalanced growth model, based on asset price inflation and ever expanding household debt financed by an outsized, reckless financial services sector was unsustainable and exploded spectacularly in 2008.

This is the point at which my research picked up the story and I was interested primarily in how the crisis was explained, how the bank rescue plans were discussed and the range of debate on how the finance sector could be reformed. Would the key role of the banks in creating such an unbalanced economic model be unpacked and would there be any voices featured who called for more democratic control of finance and restrictions on the free market? When I looked at the coverage on the Today programme it was clear that the people who had caused the crisis – the bankers and the politicians – were overwhelmingly the voices charged with defining the problem and putting forward solutions. This meant that that on the question of what to do with the banks there was strong support for the government bailouts and the idea that the banks should be re-privatised as soon as possible. It also meant that arguments in favour of long term public stake in banking which could be used to support long term productive investment – rather than real estate speculation – never appeared in coverage. In a similar vein, major reforms such as heavier regulation of the shadow banking sector, the introduction of a financial transaction tax, the regulation or even banning of certain derivative classes, a clampdown on tax havens or restrictions on the revolving door between politicians, regulators and major banks, were also invisible. It was remarkable that in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, which was precipitated by extraordinarily irresponsible behaviour by the banks, the Today programme featured a variety of City sources warning about the dangers of too much regulation.

The banking crisis led to a major recession which shrunk the tax base and sharply increased the public deficit (the gap between the tax take and public spending). It also precipitated a major debate about how to respond to the increase in public debt. At the heart of these debates were three interlinked questions: How serious a problems was the deficit? How quickly should it be eliminated?, and how should it be reduced? Some leading economists were sceptical that the deficit represented an economy emergency and believed that deficit reduction needed to wait until the recovery was well established. There were also many voices calling for the burden of deficit reduction to be primarily borne by those who had most benefitted from the sharp increases in asset wealth seen over the previous thirty years. However these voices didn’t appear in coverage. Instead the dominant perspectives in BBC News at Ten reporting were that the deficit was highly dangerous and needed to be dealt with quickly by sharp cuts to public spending and increases in regressive forms of taxation. These perspectives were mostly expressed by politicians, think tanks and City sources but on occasion they were directly endorsed by leading journalists. So for instance on 10 June 2009 a reporter commented that ‘What will be cut, by how much and when? As the Government’s coffers grow ever more empty, those are questions that can no longer be avoided.’

IS: Is this coverage a step change in the BBC’s coverage of finance and economics news, or is it a continuation of previous output?

MB: In many ways this is a continuation of previous output. There is a long history of research stretching back to the mid 1970s which has found that BBC economic news tends to reproduce free market perspectives on the economy whilst marginalising left wing views.

For instance research on BBC reporting of Britain’s industrial malaise in the 1970s tended to blame  industrial action by trade unions whilst sidelining the culpability of management and very low levels of investment in plant and capital, which meant that the average Japanese car production worker was using equipment worth ten times that of  their British counterpart. In the 1980s, research noted that BBC reporting of the Conservatives’ privatisation of state assets was heavily influenced by the governments’ PR campaigns with the consequence that most coverage focused on the potential profits to shareholders while excluding those who argued that 80% of the population would no longer have a stake in the newly private industries.

However, there are two key trends since the 1980s that have narrowed the range of opinion even further. The first was the decision by the Labour Party to abandon contestation of economic policy following a series of election defeats in the 1980s. By the time New Labour was elected in 1997 the party had wholeheartedly embraced neoliberalism and the primacy of finance sector in the economy. Since the BBC tends to reproduce the spectrum of opinion at Westminster it meant that the major voice which had traditionally argued for an interventionist state and controls on the free market disappeared from coverage. The second factor was changes in the sociology of journalism. The 1980s saw the disappearance of the industrial news beat which had provided a platform for the views of the trade unions and a space where left-wing collectivist opinion could be articulated. At the same time financial and City news became a much more prominent feature of BBC reporting which provided much greater space for City experts and their apparently neutral opinions on the latest financial and economic news stories.

IS: How does the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis compare to that of other British news organisations?

MB: The BBC, due to its statutory duty to maintain impartiality, doesn’t employ the kind of aggressive editorialising that you see in parts of the national press. Nevertheless the range of opinion is similar.

So during the banking crisis both the Today programme and most national newspapers overwhelmingly viewed the part-nationalisation as the only option and featured commentators who argued against full nationalisation and public ownership of banks. In a similar vein both Today and the national press – with the notable exception of the Guardian – featured little information about serious structural reforms to the finance sector. If anything Today coverage, due to its exceptionally heavy reliance on City sources, tended to feature less criticism of the finance sector and more arguments against further regulation than any national newspaper.

In a similar vein, when I looked at the coverage of the debates around the public deficit what was remarkable was the degree of similarity in broadcast and press coverage with the key differences being in tone and tenor. So both the press and the BBC tended to treat the deficit as an economic crisis which threatened serious consequences such as currency depreciation, interest rate rises, bond strikes and even national bankruptcy whilst sidelining voices who questioned these claims. Similarly both the BBC and the right-wing press overwhelming presented sharp cuts to public spending and increases in regressive taxation as the only possible solutions to the ‘crisis’. The argument made by some on the left that some of the burden should be borne by the most wealthy just doesn’t appear in BBC coverage and even in the left of centre press it is largely absent except for the Guardian.

IS: The BBC prides itself on the principle of impartiality, and is even seen as left-wing by many commentators. Why, then, were the parameters of the coverage of the financial crisis on two of the BBC’s flagship programmes so narrow and City-friendly, and so dominated by elite, often City-based sources?

MB: If you ask journalists this question they will tell you that in comparison to academic economists City sources are invariably ‘available’ and ‘up to date’ on the latest events. Journalists also argue that you can rely on such sources to give clear concise arguments within the constraints of a brief news item and that they are the sources with the expertise needed to understand the intricacies and complexities of the financial crisis. All those are valid explanations but I think these sourcing patterns also reflect the fact that journalists internalise strong assumptions about who is qualified to speak on the economy or finance sector and this usually means a front bench politician, specific think tanks or a City source. These voices are then routinely over accessed and serve to sharply delineate the boundaries of what is said about how the economy can be managed. But of course there are always alternative sources who could be accessed to broaden the parameters of debate.

IS: Why are your findings about the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis important?

MB: Broadcast news remains a key information source for most citizens and so what appears has significant implications for the construction of public belief and attitudes. In my research in addition to analysing the content of media broadcasts I also run focus groups with members of the public in order to examine how news accounts impact on what people think and believe. What was clear from the focus groups was that most people were quite confused about key aspects of the financial crisis – for instance what a derivative was or the difference between the public debt and deficit. However what they had picked up tended to be very heavily influenced by what they had seen in the press or broadcasting. So most people knew about the ‘fat cats’ and the bonuses but nobody I spoke to had heard of the financial transactions tax or knew about the ‘revolving door’. When I asked people about how the public deficit could be reduced they overwhelmingly pointed to solutions they had picked up from press and television accounts such as reductions in quangos, public sector pension provision, benefit payments or immigrants. Nobody mentioned clamping down on tax avoidance or introducing progressive wealth or income taxes. However when I brought these up as potential solutions in focus groups they were received very well, reflecting the findings of large scale surveys in this area.

The press and television thus plays a key role in framing how we understand the economy and the range of possibilities as to how it can be managed. If the great bulk of the press argue that the public deficit represents a national emergency which can only be solved by cuts to a ‘bloated’ and ‘inefficient’ public sector – and crucially if such views are reinforced (in rather more temperate language) in public broadcasting then it is hardly surprising that such views become widely accepted amongst the public.

IS: What changes do you think the BBC should make to provide a wider selection of voices and a broader debate when it comes to financial and economic news?

MB: I think that the first thing that needs to happen is for the BBC to recognise that its economic reporting should be more balanced. On the day that the bank bailouts were finalised (13 October 2008) the discussion during one news segment was conducted between Sir George Cox, described by a BBC journalist as ‘someone with a liberal, free-market economic background, Institute of Directors and from perhaps the more right end of British politics’, and Patrick Minford who was introduced as ‘one of Mrs Thatcher’s chief economist supporters’. Such a narrow range of reporting was not uncommon and appears to reflect a belief within BBC economic reporting that, as Mrs Thatcher famously put it, ‘there is no alternative’ to the free market.

However, when even economists at the IMF, the organisation mostly closely associated with the promotion of neoliberalism, are now publishing papers explicitly linking the decline in labour bargaining power with debt increases, financialisation and economic crises then surely it is time for BBC reporting to widen the spectrum of opinion it features in its new programmes.

There are many alternative sources that the BBC could turn to to provide an alternative to free market perspectives. Individual sources such as Ha Joon Chang, Geoff Tily, Simon Wren-Lewis, James Meadway, Ann Pettifor, Mariana Mazzucato, Mark Blyth or Graham Turner could offer fresh perspectives. Institutionally the BBC could source from thinktanks like the New Economics Foundation, the Tax Justice Network, PRIME or from academics connected to the Manchester Business School or SPERI. Occasionally such sources do appear, but to provide true balance they need to be featured routinely as a counterpoint to the views of City economists who tend to dominate reporting.

 

The BBC is neither independent or impartial: interview with Tom Mills

The BBC is neither independent or impartial: interview with Tom Mills
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
25 January 2017

Tom Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University and former Co-Editor of New Left Project, has just published his first book, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service. Using archival research, original interviews, autobiographies and secondary sources Mills examines the politics of the BBC, arguably the most influential and trusted news organisation in the UK.

I asked Mills about the popular image of the BBC as independent and impartial, its Iraq War coverage and what changes he would like to see made at the Corporation.

Ian Sinclair: In an interview with the Press Gazette after she was recently named Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards, Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor, said ‘Among the many jewels and gifts that the BBC has is our editorial independence’. She went on to argue ‘I would die in a ditch for the impartiality of the BBC. That’s what we do.’ Is the BBC independent and impartial?

Tom Mills: The simple answer is ‘no’. But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds.  First it is important to state from the outset what is rarely acknowledged in discussions about the BBC: that it isn’t independent from governments, let alone from the broader Establishment. The BBC has always been formally accountable to ministers for its operations. Governments set the terms under which it operates, they appoint its most senior figures, who in future will be directly involved in day-to-day managerial decision making, and they set the level of the licence fee, which is the BBC’s major source of income. So that’s the context within which the BBC operates, and it hardly amounts to independence in any substantive sense.

But though politicians have never ceded overall control, they have generally granted the BBC editorial autonomy, at least for the most part. In the interwar period, the system of broadcasting pioneered by the BBC was referred to as ‘remote state control’. It emerged from a situation where politicians did not want a chaotic system of broadcasting to develop, especially given the presumed political power of the new medium. But equally, officials did not want to assume responsibility for producing broadcasting content, which is what the radio companies wanted – they basically had radios to sell but no broadcasting service for potential customers to listen to! So what emerged from this was the BBC, a broadcaster with an ambiguous kind of independence that in some cases has enjoyed substantive freedom, but which has always been kept under some degree of political control, and often enormous political pressure.

Does this mean it’s independent? Well really the BBC’s not so different to various state institutions that are afforded operational autonomy but ultimately answerable to ministers or to Parliament through various mechanisms, such as the police or the Bank of England.

Getting back to Laura Kuenssberg, she spoke specifically about ‘editorial independence’, so I presume what she has in mind here is government interference in editorial decision making. Well that’s not exactly how this works. What happens is the editorial policy is defined at the top of the BBC – which is the most politicised section of the Corporation given that senior executives have to periodically negotiate with governments over its funding, its Charter and so on, and senior editorial figures have to respond to constant complaints over its reporting – and that policy then cascades down the hierarchy, in rather complex and uneven ways. You occasionally see glimpses of this at work, such as in 2010 when the then Director General Mark Thompson attended Downing Street to discuss the BBC’s reporting of the Coalition Government’s austerity agenda, and you get a much fuller picture of how this works in practice from archival sources and autobiographies, which I draw in the book.

None of the actual evidence is suggestive of the kind of independence and impartiality that Kuenssberg praises to the skies. But her remarks reflect the fact that, rightly or wrongly, she has personally come to symbolise the BBC’s very conspicuous failures in exactly this regard. So naturally it’s in her interests to make these kinds of statements. But strongly asserting something doesn’t make it true, and it’s not.

IS: A key issue seems to be the BBC’s working definition of impartiality. How would you define this?

TM: I think the most straightforward way of putting this is that the BBC will aim to fairly and accurately reflect the balance of opinion amongst elites. In that respect it’s not so different to other reputable media organisations. But a number of studies suggest the range of opinion on the BBC is narrower than some of its rivals. Channel 4 News tends, I think, to have a broader range of perspectives, and the recent Media Reform Coalition’s report on the coverage of Corbyn found that the BBC gave much more airtime to Corbyn’s opponents than ITV.

IS: As you note in your book, ‘The Gilligan Affair’ – when a critical April 2003 radio report by BBC Today Programme journalist Andrew Gilligan about the government’s claims about Iraqi WMDs kicked off a high-level conflict between the Labour Government and the BBC – is often cited as evidence of the BBC’s independence. For example, the BBC’s official historian Professor Jean Seaton views it as an instance of the ‘determination of broadcasters not to be controlled.’ What do you think ‘The Gilligan Affair’ tells us about the relationship between the BBC and government?

TM: The Iraq War was another area where scholarly research found that the BBC was more favourable to the government and its supporters, compared with other broadcasters, and that’s one of the very important factors that tends to get lost in the conventional take on this affair, which is actually very misleading. On the one hand, the report itself is evidence of independent reporting vis-à-vis the government, and that’s a good thing. But on the other hand, the reason the Today Programme felt confident broadcasting the report was that it was being briefed by MI6 and other sources, and so knew that sections of the British state were anxious about the case for war and what the possible fallout might be if and when no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found. So the ‘determination’ of the BBC in this case is based on the support of some of the most powerful and authoritative sources in the British state, and of course there was an enormous public mobilisation around this time as well.

When the Blair Government then attacks the BBC, it’s true that the BBC leadership stands firm, and that’s certainly commendable. But what then ultimately happens is that the Chair and Director General are both forced to resign, and the BBC publicly apologises to the government – a government that let’s not forget had launched an illegal war on a plainly false pretext. The former BBC Governor, Kenneth Bloomfield, argues that ironically part of the reason the BBC leadership stood firm after the Gilligan report is precisely because it was personally so close to the Blair Government. The then BBC Chair, Gavyn Davies, a former Goldman Sachs partner, was not only close friends with Blair and [then Chancellor Gordon] Brown, his wife worked for Brown and his children were reportedly bridesmaid and pageboy at his wedding. So I think the ‘The Gilligan Affair’ is best understood as a rather bitter conflict within the British elite during a period of considerable crisis, and the lessons in terms of how we understand the BBC are much more complex than is generally recognised.

IS: The arrival of John Birt as Deputy Director-General in 1987 seems to have heralded a significant change at the BBC?

TM: Yes, that was the year when the then Director General Alasdair Milne, father of Guardian journalist and Corbyn advisor Seumas Milne, was forced to resign by the Thatcher appointed chair Marmaduke Hussey. Milne wasn’t a leftist by any means, but he had represented the more independent spirit of BBC programme making at that time. He was replaced by a BBC accountant called Michael Checkland and John Birt was meanwhile brought in from an ITV company to head the BBC’s journalism, later succeeding Checkland as Director General.

Birt wasn’t really understood by his critics at the time, who seem to have been rather puzzled by his authoritarianism and his belligerent managerialism. They seem to have regarded him as a Stalinist, or something like that. But in fact he was an out-and-out neoliberal who wanted not only to introduce stronger editorial controls over BBC journalism, but also to radically shift its institutional structure and culture away from its ‘statist’ character and in a more neoliberal, business-friendly direction. This was resented by BBC staff and the Corporation went through a quite unhappy period, with a brief respite under Greg Dyke. As I describe in some detail in the book, Birt’s ‘reforms’ were part of a broader process of neoliberal restructuring, and in some ways Dyke was also part of that, especially in terms of the extent to which business reporting was pushed up the agenda during his time as Director General.

IS: Why are the politics and quality of the BBC’s news output important?

TM: The BBC is the most popular single source of news for the British public, and is much more trusted than the press, for example. How it reports particular issues has a material effect on the political process, which in turn has consequences for everyone. In many cases – such as reporting on foreign policy, health or welfare issues – this is literally a matter of life or death.

IS: What changes would you like the BBC to institute moving forward?

TM: There’s not really space to do this question justice here, but very briefly I think first of all that all the various mechanisms of political control need to be eliminated altogether and replaced with forms of independent, or better still democratic, processes. That would be a big step in the right direction.

But really I think we need to be thinking much more ambitiously about institutional design in the same way as Birt and the other neoliberals did in the 1980s and ‘90s. What kind of BBC do we want for the 21st century?, that’s the real question we should be asking. It’s very clear that the BBC leadership are unable or unwilling to advance anything like an ambitious vision for public media. If they have a vision it is for the BBC to be retained as a source of public funding, quasi-official news, and a leading British brand that can give UK media companies an edge in the international market.  They simply have no notion of the severity of the social crisis we are currently in and the political importance of public media and the values it should embody. If we want public media to survive, we are going to have to come up with a vision for the future. The BBC, or at least the people at the top of the BBC, will not do that for us.

How we can win the Nordic model for the UK: an interview with George Lakey

How we can win the Nordic model for the UK: an interview with George Lakey
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
19 December 2016

Active in social movements since the 1960s, in 1971 American George Lakey co-founded the radical group Movement for a New Society, and in 1973 he wrote the influential book Strategy for a Living Revolution, a guide for achieving nonviolent revolution. More recently he was Visiting Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College in the United States and has been involved in the Earth Quaker Action Team campaign opposing mountain-top removal coal mining.

Now 79-years old, Lakey has just published Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right – And How We Can, Too. Having married a Norwegian, lived in Norway for a year in 1959 and visited the region many times since, he argues the superior Nordic model is within reach of the neoliberal US and UK, although it will take large-scale struggle with the economic elite to achieve it.

I interviewed him about ‘the Nordics’, their history and how their social and economic policies could be won in the US and UK.

Ian Sinclair: What have the Nordic countries “got right”?

George Lakey: What economists call the Nordic economic model generates an extraordinary amount of both equality and individual freedom. We can see the synergy on both small and large levels in those countries.

All new parents, for example, are offered many months of paid family leave when they give birth or adopt. In a mixed-gender couple, part of the leave is reserved for the male. If he refuses to take his part of the leave, the couple loses his part of it. With parental paid leave each member of a couple experiences fuller opportunity to parent in the first year of a child’s life – or not, as that person chooses. In other societies that opportunity would be reserved for the better off. At the same time, the policy nudges the couple toward equality in roles and responsibilities.

This is one of a thousand features supporting both equality and freedom made possible by the Nordic design. A macro example is a typical large Norwegian corporation being owned largely by government but individuals invited to own shares as well up to a certain amount. Widespread public ownership, alongside the large cooperative sector, reduces the inequality that otherwise accompanies an economic market. Substantial individual wealth and inheritance taxes further reduce inequality.  Nevertheless, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, and there are more start-ups in Norway per capita than in the US. Entrepreneurship can be seen as the application of creativity, and it gets public support just as does the thriving sector of performing arts.

While the countries I studied – Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden –may share an economic design with a half century track record of remarkable outcomes, they are not utopias. Norwegians admit to me, “We are a nation of complainers.” I’ve met many Nordics who see more problems that need to be solved.

IS: In your book you note that at the turn of the twentieth century the Nordic countries had very high levels of inequality and poverty, with many people emigrating to the United States and elsewhere. However, as you say, today the Nordic countries consistently top international measures for human development and well-being. How did this transformation occur?

GL: People organized themselves into mass direct action movements to force the economic elite out of dominance.  Of course the privileged defended themselves, suppressing the press, jailing organizers, hiring strikebreakers. The historic details vary for each country. In each case it required cross-class alliances.

In Norway the elite organized the Patriotic League in 1926 to wade into strikes and violently defend replacement workers. In the ‘30s [the government minister Vidkun] Quisling organized a Norwegian Nazi paramilitary force to march in the streets to provoke violent clashes with working class activists. Nonetheless, the nonviolent militancy in the workplace and rural areas made the country ungovernable, and the economic elite was forced to allow the workers’ and farmers’ movements to take leadership of the country.

For Sweden the turning point came in 1931 when, in Ådalen Valley, workers struck three lumber mills at once and four thousand workers picketed the owners and government officials. Troops fired into the workers’ march, killing five and injuring five more. The workers called a national general strike, forcing the conservative government out of power and replacing it with the Social Democrats who ruled almost without a break until 1976.

IS: You also discuss the key role played by trade unions in this transformation.

GL: To make a nonviolent power shift a mass of people whose cooperation is necessary to operate the system must be willing to force change by withholding that cooperation. A century ago, when nonviolent struggle appeared to have only a few tactics in its arsenal, the obvious means of noncooperation was the strike. Industrialization was generating the “nonviolent soldiers” who could do strikes: the workers. These days we know far more nonviolent tactics that can make a country ungovernable. Mass noncooperation can be precipitated in more ways than the Nordics did, so today’s revolutionary strategy is not so dependent on the workers and their unions.

Union organizations, of course, vary widely on their willingness to wage class struggle.  The Nordics give us a recent example.

The influence of Thatcherism in the 1980s became threatening to Scandinavians and the unions there lost confidence. The governments of Norway and Sweden relaxed some bank regulations, with nearly disastrous results. Observing this trend among their Viking cousins and knowing Thatcherism was also growing in Denmark, the Danish workers defied their own unions and launched a general strike in 1986, including barricading parliament in its building in Copenhagen. The workers frustrated the neo-liberals’ plans and prevented Danish bankers from running wild. Remembering the distinction between the union leadership and the members can matter for strategy.

IS: What is the current political situation in Scandinavia today? Are the gains made by the social movements in the twentieth century holding firm or being degraded?

GL: Forcing a power shift in the last century doesn’t mean the class struggle disappeared. Small countries are vulnerable not only to internal tensions but also to manipulation by global market forces. Knowing this, Norway refused to join the EU, even before it gained the security of its oil find. Norwegians could see that the EU was led by neo-liberals, and they wanted the freedom to continue on their left course. Sweden and Denmark did join the EU but stayed out of the Eurozone, maintaining maneuvering room for themselves.

In my book I present a mixed picture of today’s Nordic class struggles: both losses and wins.  Here are a few of the many on both sides. Inequality has risen, although they remain at the top of the heap for equality. Belts are tightening on services, although they are still far more generous than other countries. Sweden struggles with maintaining the Nordic full employment policy. The mighty cooperatives are not matched by achievements in worker democracy in the other workplaces.

On the other hand, Sweden took in per capita the most Middle Eastern refugees of any European nation. Norwegian citizens can challenge Norwegian corporations’ behavior in the Global South and force changes. Iceland only a few years ago jailed bankers and brought down their government in the “Pots and Pans Revolution.” All the Nordics are speeding ahead in addressing climate change.

The Nordics remain largely faithful to their trademark approach to benefits: not means-tested (“welfare”), but applied to all (universal). I don’t call those countries by the misleading term “welfare states.” They are actually “universal services states,” and that is key to their success in virtually abolishing absolute poverty.

IS: What strategies and tactics do you think activists in the US and UK should employ to move from our current neo-liberal, high inequality economies to something approximating the Nordic Model?

GL: First, we should learn from the example of the Danish 1986 general strike: “go on the offensive.” The Danish workers didn’t just try to defend previous gains – they fought for further gains for working people.

Gandhi and military generals agree on at least one point: nobody wins anything on the defensive!  The activist history of the UK and US since the Thatcher/Reagan counter-revolution sadly forgot this strategic necessity of staying on the offensive – and paid the price. In fact, the biggest UK/US activist win since 1980 has arguably been rights for lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans people. The LGBT struggle stayed vigorously on the offensive!

Remaining on the offensive requires a vision of what we truly want.  Vision is where our demands should come from rather than from our fear of what we might lose. The Scandinavians a century ago took the time to get out of their little activist groups to gain wide agreement on a positive vision.

This can put radicals in a dilemma. Many Nordic radicals who wanted to win understood that the movement’s vision couldn’t express the full extent of their personal yearnings and still gain broad agreement. The vision had to be seen as practical and achievable within the middle term, a horizon that could inspire all-out struggle.

A sufficient number of middle class intellectual radicals overcame their class training (to be superior, differentiating egos) so they could join the growing mass movement that could unseat the one per cent, thereby opening the space for all kinds of possibilities – even some radical ones.

We are in a fundamentally new political moment from that of the 1920s/30s. At that time, no one knew for sure if there was a variant of socialism that would actually work to achieve a high degree of equality, freedom and shared prosperity. Now, we know. There is a track record, an economy that consistently out-performs the Anglo-American economic model, despite the disadvantages of small countries in a fierce and globalized world. My book shows that the practical argument is now entirely on our side.

What remains strategically is to sharpen the art of nonviolent direct action campaigning that meets people where they are and deepens their skills and knowledge while building ever more powerful movements. It may be time to drop the one-off protest and routine march and rally!  Campaigns with (a) specific grievances and (b) winnable demands and (c) a target that can be forced to grant the demand are the campaigns that empower. Empowered campaigners can then merge into mass movements that – when history opens the opportunity – become a “movement of movements” that can force a power shift.

The Nordic examples are included in an online, searchable database of over a thousand campaigns from nearly 200 countries: the Global Nonviolent Action Database. Campaigns range from those that have overthrown military dictatorships to those that forced local resolution of environmental dangers.

Campaigns are not sufficient to make a revolution, but their vitality, creativity, and escalating confrontation are central in making the power shift that gives us a chance to build the new society, as different from our present order as contemporary Scandinavia is different from that of a century ago.

IS: A common critique of your argument pushing for the US and UK to adopt Nordic-style economic and social policies is that it is unlikely to work as Nordic countries are very different to the US and UK – they are smaller, more homogenous and have very different political cultures. How do you respond to these challenges?

GL: The Nordic countries represent to me small laboratories in which experiments have been tried and conclusions reached. Through theory, trial and error they have achieved “best practices” in many areas, according to third party global measures.

Two attitudes are commonly held toward these practices. The first attitude was voiced by Hillary Clinton in an election debate with Bernie Sanders when he referenced a feature of Denmark’s political economy. “That’s Denmark,” Clinton said dismissively, certain it could have no relevance to the exceptionalist USA.

The second attitude was voiced by a delegation of Chinese economists and policy-makers who were sent by Beijing to investigate Norway.  I interviewed researchers in Oslo who had previously received the Chinese. They told me they were surprised by the Chinese government’s interest. I was as well, knowing that China makes the U.S. seem a small and homogeneous country compared with its own size and cultural complexity.

When asked, the Chinese said some economic questions are affected by scale and cultural diversity, and some are not. The Chinese were curious to learn what had been working “in the lab,” eager to identify the features that could scale up to provincial or even national size within China.

As a curious sociologist, who is strongly dissatisfied with the US economy, it is easy for me to be interested in the best practices of others.

IS: Doesn’t the election of Donald Trump as president suggest, if anything, the American population is moving further away from supporting the things that make up the Nordic Model? 

GL: The situation on the ground is the opposite from what you imagine. When we compare the votes for Trump and Clinton, we find that more supported Clinton than Trump, but the voters for the major candidates were far exceeded by those who didn’t vote for either Clinton or Trump – almost half the total electorate, most of whom didn’t bother to go to the polls at all.

The election reveals a deepening crisis of legitimacy for the American political class. In November the polls attracted the lowest percentage of eligible voters in 20 years – only 58%. Because of this, our next President was elected by roughly one in four of the eligible voters. And in exit polls, about one fifth of Trump’s voters said they don’t actually consider him to be competent to be President. To me, this does not sound like a mandate from the American people!

The story of voter participation is accompanied by the trend away from registering as Democrats or Republicans; more people are choosing “Independent.” Deep anger and alienation is felt by voters who feel abandoned by both of the major parties. Recent opinion polls asking about issues find majorities backing policies characteristic of the Nordic model, including aggressive anti-poverty measures, decreased rewards to the rich, the equality profile of Sweden rather than that of the US, and actively addressing the climate crisis.

For the history-minded, the combination of declining legitimacy of the established order with preference for an alternative is the recipe for system change.

The 1,000-year ago Viking spirit of expedition emerged in the twentieth century and inspired people to, economically-speaking, go where no one had gone before. We need not be so brave as the twentieth century Nordics were; we do not need to expedition. We can, more cautiously, learn from best practices already established, then take on the struggle with some confidence.

Book review: Viking Economics by George Lakey

Book review: Viking Economics by George Lakey
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2016-January 2017

Though it is written for a US audience, George Lakey’s new book Viking Economics: how the Scandinavians got it right – and how we can, too has much to offer progressive activists in the UK concerned about the ongoing imposition of austerity measures and the political settlement that will come out of Brexit.

According to Lakey, the economies of the descendants of the Vikings ‘have a sixty-year track record of delivering increased freedom and equality’ – a political reality he believes is within reaching distance for the US. A visiting professor for Issues of Social Change at Swarthmore College in the United States and Peace News regular, Lakey bases his thesis on a wealth of academic studies, interviews with experts and personal experience – he married a Norwegian, lived in Norway for a year in 1959 and has returned many times since.

At the turn of the twentieth century the Nordic countries had very high levels of inequality and poverty, with many people emigrating to the US and elsewhere. However, as Lakey notes above, today the Nordic countries have been transformed, consistently topping international measures for human development and well-being. Focusing on Norway but also covering Denmark, Sweden and Iceland, Lakey highlights how the relatively high-tax ‘Nordics’ have achieved close to full, largely well-paid employment, universal healthcare, free higher education, a healthy work/life balance, and generous welfare states, while significantly reducing poverty and building modern and efficient infrastructure.

Lakey does a good job of highlighting how this differs from the neoliberal, business-friendly US and UK, citing Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s seminal work The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better to explain how high inequality has a detrimental effect on a range of social factors, from trust among the population to levels of crime.

How the Norwegians and other Nordics achieved all this comprises the heart of the book, with Lakey telling a fascinating history of struggle that is largely unknown to progressive activists in the UK.

Following the fight to gain union recognition in the 1880s, the infant union movement set up its own party, the Norwegian Labour Party, and national trade union. Influenced by the advanced labour movements in the US, a vibrant leftist political culture emerged, with supportive middle-class intellectuals setting up Mot Dag in 1921, arguably the most influential periodical in Scandinavia at the time. After the Great Crash of 1929, strike activity – including a general strike – significantly increased despite harsh repression from the government and employers, with the defence minister Vidkun Quisling sending in the army to quell a strike in the town of Skien. During this period, labour increased its representation in parliament until it eventually became the dominant party. ‘Norwegians created a small, visionary social movement that grew, engaged in struggle, attracted allies, and won’, Lakey summarises. Victory led to a fundamental power shift in the country, forcing a political settlement that led to the ‘Nordic Model’ being established in the 1930s.

More recently, noting how the defeat of organised labour during the Miners’ Strike in 1980s Britain allowed Thatcherism to run rampant, Lakey compares it to the industrial struggle that occurred at the same time in Denmark. With a centre-right government seeking to impose austerity measures, the Danish unions went on the offensive, pushing for a pay increase, shorter working week and more taxes on corporations. When the government tried to impose its will and ban strike action, workers gathered outside parliament and wildcat strikes erupted around the country. The government was forced to compromise, and their neoliberal agenda was largely shelved.

In short, it was union-led, nonviolent struggle that led to the transformation of Norway and the other Nordics. And, importantly, with electoral channels often blocked, it was extra-parliamentary direct action that was the initial engine of change. Furthermore, Lakey is keen to highlight the fact that the social democratic consensus that has largely held firm in Nordic politics for decades is itself the product of ‘harsh polarisation and open struggle’ in the first half of the twentieth century. Only later, he notes, ‘did most Norwegians who resisted change realise that the change actually was a big improvement on the bad old days’.

Using an accessible Q&A format, in the final section Lakey addresses questions and criticisms about applying the Nordic Model to the US. It’s directed at people in the US but, like his thesis on what lies behind Norway’s political transformation, his answers and strategising generalise to the UK and our contemporary political strife.

He believes activists need to remember their own nation’s long history of people-powered change – from the civil rights movement to social security, LGBT rights and beyond. Moreover, he maintains it is important for movements to remember the well-known adage ‘The best defence is a good offence’.

For example, he criticises the post-financial-crash campaigns in the US for trying to protect previous gains instead of going on the offensive as people in the US did after the 1929 crash. With the US oligarchic electoral system rigged against progressive change, Lakey argues that people taking to the streets in large numbers could create the political space for real change, pointing to how people-power brought Iceland back from the brink after its 2008 crash. Finally he argues for the importance of a strong vision for a new society, ‘to project the contours of what a political economy could look like’ – of which his book is the perfect example.

Accessible and hopeful, Viking Economics is essential reading, providing ideas and inspiration for how the UK Left can maximise its power, moving forward to kick out the emboldened Tory government, boost Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral chances and win a progressive ‘People’s Brexit’. ‘Change requires hard work’, Lakey notes at the end. Or as the freed slave Frederick Douglass once said ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’

Viking Economics: how the Scandinavians got it right – and how we can, too is published by Melville House, priced £19.99.

 

Do you have to gain power to make change?

Do you have to gain power to make change?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 November 2016 

“The greatest lesson that we can take from our history is that we can only implement our vision and apply our values when we win power and form a government”, Labour MP Owen Smith repeated ad nauseam during the recent Labour leadership contest. Owen Jones, generally considered to be on the left of the Labour Party, seemed to echo Smith on the issue of power and influence on his Youtube channel in August 2016. “Instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘lalalala it’s all fine’ there just needs to be strategy to improve those ratings”, the Guardian columnist argued about Labour’s poor poll ratings. “Otherwise we are finished, and the Conservatives will run the country for years. I’ll just keep doing my videos whinging about things, coming up with ideas. Waste of time. Just words, isn’t it? Just words.”

However, despite what the two Owens assert about the futility of opposition, the historical record suggests a far more hopeful conclusion.

“Power is not the only factor instrumental in creating change”, Salim Lone, a former Communications Director at the United Nations, noted in a letter to The Guardian in May 2016. “In fact it’s what one does in ‘opposition’ that has historically paved the way for real change. Humanity’s progress has resulted primarily from the struggles of those who fought for change against entrenched power.” US author Rebecca Solnit agrees, noting just before the US presidential election that “election seasons erase the memory of movements that worked for years or decades, outside and around, below and above electoral politics.” She describes these as “the histories that matter.”

Producing change while not in power can broadly be separated into two camps: transformation that is forced on an unwilling ruling elite, and government policies that are stopped or modified by strong opposition. And let’s not forget that any change from below almost always involves an extra-parliamentary direct action struggle, from the setting up of trade unions and women winning the vote to the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – all forced on an initially resistant ruling class. In the 1990s direct action played a key role in stopping the “biggest road building programme since the Romans” planned by the then Tory government and the attempt to introduce GM food to the UK.

Indeed, a close reading of the news demonstrates that successfully making change while not in power happens all the time. Last month The Guardian headline was “Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests”. Back in the UK, Corbyn’s Labour Party has inflicted a number of defeats on the government – on planned cuts to tax credits and housing benefit, and the proposed prison contract with Saudi Arabia. It was a Tory-led Government, let’s not forget, that introduced gay marriage – 25 years after they introduced the anti-gay Section 28. And responding to the Chancellor’s recent announcement about investing in the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quipped “It’s clear Philip Hammond is now borrowing from Labour to invest in his own speech”.

Unsurprisingly governments will try to take the credit for any popular changes – former Prime Minister David Cameron making it known he had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, for example. But rather than taking the powerful at their (retrospective and self-justifying) word, a more accurate explanation of the process of positive change is highlighted by Tony Benn’s famous dictum: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Of course, being in power is preferable to not being in power. Far more change is obviously possible when one is in control, when it can be planned, coordinated and sustained. Those attempting to force change from the outside do not have control of the process, the timing or the details. However, it is important not to underestimate the power of social movements and activism – the power of ‘ordinary’ people to create real, long-lasting change.

Indeed, with Donald Trump likely to be in the White House for the next four years it is essential this hopeful understanding of political change is widely understood and acted upon. The signs are promising: with Trump reviled and distrusted by a large section of the American public, it is likely there will be a much needed resurgence of progressive activism following the unjustified lull during the Obama Administration. Trump is dangerously unpredictable, so making predictions about his foreign policy is difficult, US dissident Noam Chomsky noted in a recent interview. However, he ended on a note of optimism: “What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly organized and conducted, can make a large difference.”