Disrupting the establishment from within

February 22, 2015

Thanks to my Clore fellowship, I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about what I should do next. To be honest I’m in a right muddle. My good friend J may have nailed it when he sat back at the end of an evening together and told me that I’m clearly having some kind of mid-life crisis. My immediate response was that I’m not that old. But then I came down to earth with a bump and realized I’m not that young either…

Anyway the one thing I feel very clear about is that I want to find roles where I can disrupt the establishment one way or another. That might be about direct action; it is also about exposing some of the damaging assumptions and power relationships that underpin the status quo, in order to give people their voices back, whether that’s in politics, in public services, or indeed the communities in which they live.

Now it’s not often you see people disrupting from within. Yet this week, we’ve had Peter Oborne (former Chief Political Commentator of the Telegraph) taking on the free press, and the Church taking on politics. How unlikely do these skirmishes sound! Yet taken together they are a wake-up call about the corrosive effect consumerism is having on our civic life, and a plea for politics to start recognizing this damage (for two brilliant thinkers on this, check out Michael Sandel’s accessible Reith lectures, and Zymund Bauman’s less accessible Consuming Life).

First of all, Peter Oborne exposed the Telegraph’s willingness to put advertising revenue ahead of good journalism in a quite incredible resignation letter that I really recommend reading in full. Here he shows how the commercialization of the free press has rendered it much less free than it should be. He shows how the suits at the top are complicit in maintaining dysfunctional power relationships. He underlines the sway big business has over public life behind closed doors.

Second, an amazing letter from the Church Bishops to ‘the people and the parishes of the Church of England’. Again, it really is worth reading all 52 pages of it. I love that this has come out of an institution which, by definition, is inextricably bound up with the establishment, and depends on that establishment for its special status, and I wish I’d been a fly on the wall at the meeting when the Bishops signed this letter off.

If you haven’t got time to read the full letter, check out David Mitchell’s excellent piece on why it matters instead. For me, the main argument is that we have let consumerism seep too far into all parts of civic life, including politics, and that it is time to challenge this state of affairs. The letter is also a plea to see ourselves as more than individuals alone – we are not a ‘society of strangers’, as the Bishops put it. ‘‘We are most human when we know ourselves to be dependent on others”. Amen to that, as someone more religious than me might say.

What is most refreshing about these letters is that they were written at all. There are precious few voices within the establishment calling for a move away from the neo-liberal consensus that currently defines both main parties. So Peter Oborne, and the Bishops of the Church of England, for the first time in my life, I salute you.**

** although really Bishops, is it really so hard to give women equal rights???


Entering the political wilderness?

February 5, 2015

blog pic

Those who know me well know I am something of a political geek. For a long time now I’ve lectured my apolitical friends about the importance of getting involved, because I truly believe we get the politics we deserve. But the fact is, while I still believe this, I feel more and more dubious about channeling my commitment to being involved in politics into supporting a mainstream party.

Having attempted (and failed, by 100 bloody votes, since you asked) to get elected locally myself last year, I can’t shake the feeling that trying and succeeding to get elected has the massive downside of shriveling people up. Just look at the twitter feed of any political hopeful. Endless ‘selfies’ (“look, we’re really down with the kids!!”) on the campaign trail, RTs of party HQ messages, not a single personal view expressed at any cost (Jamie Reed MP, @jreedmp, may be an honourable exception to this). Beyond Twitter, and more significantly, I fear those people who are really serious about getting elected are forced (or choose??) to give up their opinions, their social lives and their family commitments.

The kind of blind promise you’re expected to give to your ‘tribe’ risks making our politicians brittle, bland robots, focused on their opponents in Westminster rather than on their constituents. We, the public, are treated to repeatedly parroted lines cooked up by youthful yet frazzled special advisors, in language that’s supposed to convey ‘I get it’ (Cameron’s ‘rolling up his sleeves’; Miliband’s dropped ‘t’s). And, as happened to Ed Balls the other night, these dessicated people are inevitably and constantly on the defensive, terrified that at any moment they might trip up and say something they shouldn’t, leading to a media frenzy whipped up by bored lobby journalists who get their kicks off making our MPs look opportunistic, jumped up and ideally corrupt.

Is this really what we want from our politics? In the past I might have asserted that however bad it is, any mast is better than no mast when it comes to pinning your colours (as an aside, check out this great site if you’re trying to work out where you stand). But as time goes on I find myself becoming more idealistic. It’s not just that I’d like a more functional way of doing politics: we need one urgently, unless we want the non-voters to become the biggest ‘party’ in town (only 41% of people say they would vote if there were a general election tomorrow, the lowest number ever recorded).

We need politicians who aren’t afraid to argue for their beliefs, and can do so publicly without fearing accusations of trying to oust their leader or split their party. We need politicians who are able to raise their families alongside their work without asking their partners to do more of that hard work than is fair. And we need politicians who inspire through their authenticity rather than revile through their predictable conformity to the ways of the political elite.

Anyway I can’t let this post just be a rant. So let me share two things that give me hope today.

First, the incredible surge in support we’re seeing for the Green Party. Anything that forces the Labour party to think long and hard about their radicalism and ambition gets my support. As George Monbiot argues so well here, we cannot create a successful alternative to mainstream politics until we are able to vote for it.

Second, and this really does excite me, is the creation of the Alternative Party by Uffe Elbaek. Uffe is an amazing guy, an idealist who had a go at ‘doing politics’ in a mainstream way in Denmark. This new border-crossing party is in part his response to that experience. I can only love a political party that puts this at the heart of their manifesto:

The Alternative is curiosity. About developing our local societies, cities and nations. We want to take back ownership of the economy and of democratic decisions. At our workplaces and in the places where we live our lives. Without losing the global vision for the responsibility for finding mutual solutions with our neighbours – including those who live on the other side of the world.

Which begs the question: how do I best apply my commitment to being politically engaged in this new world? It feels like it might be time to walk away from mainstream politics. I wonder all the time whether more direct forms of participation are now our best hope for knitting democracy back into our everyday lives. But is that really the right thing to do? And where do I go from here? Answers on a postcard please.

(if you’re interested, the T-shirt in the picture came from Cassie Robinson’s brilliant Civic Shop currently residing in Somerset House. Go and visit.)


Be yourself, with skill*

January 28, 2015

It is wonderful to see Kate Gross’ moving, funny book Late Fragments hitting the bestselling lists. If you haven’t come across it, stop reading this, and go and buy it now. Be warned, you will feel impossibly sad when you start reading it. But by the end you will feel curiously uplifted, despite her untimely death and all the unexplored possibilities she was forced to leave behind.

A friend of a friend, there are two particularly memorable meetings with Kate. One was a very wine-fuelled meeting back in the mid-2000s where she told me in no uncertain terms to get out of dire relationship that everyone else was being way too polite about (the right advice, which I acted on immediately and brutally, and wish now I’d thanked her for); and one meeting, when I was heavily pregnant with my firstborn, where her calm management of twins made me think Everything Is Going To Be OK Because I Am Only Having One Baby Thank God. So Kate, I salute you. Thanks for your advice both in life and through your beautiful book.

Kate talks powerfully about the hinterland I wrote about here. But for me the biggest message of her book is about the importance of peeling back the layers we shroud ourselves in – the projected hopes of our parents, the desire to be liked by nice people, the broader social expectations about our journey through life. Underneath all of these, Kate asks, what’s there? What really mattered to you when you were 10 and didn’t worry so much about your place in the world? Her advice, as a woman who was facing death far too early, was to focus on those things and let them take centre stage in your life.

This feels simple but mind-blowing to me. It also makes me feel so incredibly lucky to be embarking on a Clore Social Fellowship this year. I spent last week with an amazing group of people, and it feels like I begun the process of peeling back those layers. It’s an incredibly disruptive process for me, making me question why I am living where I am living and why my husband and I have split the childcare in the way we have. It has also left me clear that the Westminster bubble I’ve operated in for over a decade now holds very little allure. All this is liberating and exciting but also really quite uncomfortable. I feel like a trapeze artist who has let go of one trapeze without checking where I’m landing next. And I am terrified I am going to lose my nerve and end up, pissed off but safe, in thinktank Neverland once more.

Anyway part of this whole process for me is about stitching together my personal and professional self. Am I alone in being someone who has worked quite hard to separate them for most of my adult life? I suspect I’m not. The very way we frame the debate as ‘work/life balance’ suggests the best we can do is to keep competing forces in check, rather than find a true accommodation between them. I’m not sure this model of separate identities is the route to Kate’s urge to us to uncover our true passions and build our lives from there. So my journey over the next few months is not only back into the world of work, and back into the city in which I live (I am writing this in a trendy café in Soho – how exciting); it is also a journey back into myself. I promise this blog won’t become a shrine to naval gazing, but be warned, there might just be a little bit of that sometimes.

* an unusually insightful bit of leadership bollocks from Goffee and Jones Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?


hello again hinterland

January 27, 2015

So this is the first time i’ve blogged here for nearly half a decade. Since I last wrote I’ve had five addresses, including one in America for a year. I’ve been married, moved further down the northern line than I ever thought I would, I’ve had two kids, and many, many rants about the inequalities that appear once you’ve become a mum. Without doubt, I’ve been busy.

And yet I look back at the posts here and wonder just how I managed to pack it all in. Becoming a mum has been transformative in so many ways. But it has pretty much killed off the rich hinterland I so clearly cultivated in the pre-baby years. I haven’t been to the cinema or a gig since my boy was born two years ago; nor have I made it to a seminar, working breakfast or conference. I feel a bit ashamed about this, but also defensive: it’s not that I’ve been sitting on my hands, or drinking endless cappuccinos with my new yummy mummy friends. Having two small kids is relentless, thankless work, as others have described better than I could ever hope to.

There are so many things I’ve gained and learned since becoming a parent, but the brutal severance with my hinterland is the loss I felt most keenly as I searched for my new place in the world with a baby in tow. In the early months I devoured novels during the endless night feeds. The Goldfinch, The Signature of All Things and A Hologram for the King will forever take me back to a zombie-like place caught between sleep and wakefulness. Don’t ever ask me to explain the plot lines, I won’t remember. But beyond these mammoth night-time reading/feeding sessions, my world contracted. Days became a series of 15-minute slots alternating between feeding, changing, bathing, cooing, rocking and then feeding again. As time went on patterns changed but the punctuated nature of time remained. So too did the geographical shrinkage of my world: I rarely ventured a mile beyond my house, all the more so once the second babe arrived.

Don’t get me wrong: I am (finally) deeply happy in this new world, which brings wild joy as well as visceral frustration. But I have missed my hinterland. So now my heart is beating a little bit faster at the prospect of returning to it. I have finally found a way of leaving my children for two days a week that doesn’t leave me an emotional wreck. And so suddenly here I am with time on my hands to read, to think, to talk. I am greedy with it, devouring books and articles at a rate that suggests I am probably not taking them in properly. But I want more, more, more, and I feel full of ideas and possibilities in a way that’s eluded me for a few years now.

These emotions have made me realize that for me, this re-engagement with my hinterland is about nurturing my soul. Exploring all those things that interest me beyond paid work (and indeed the unpaid work of parenting), reconnecting with stuff I like to watch or read or imagine when no one’s looking or judging – this is the stuff that makes me feel alive. It makes me feel connected to ideas and people who are different to me, who enrich my life and challenge me to look at the world through fresh eyes. Looking after my hinterland is my little stand against the relentless encroachment of paid work upon life more generally. It is also my present to myself after the two most challenging years of life so far. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.


real world economics

June 9, 2009

i knew that me and economics didn’t go well together when i tried to study it at A-level. It just seemed so confident in itself, and its view of the world was not one that i recognised: it was too rigid and linear; too eager to present an objective view of Facts. But these sorts of criticisms make me sound like a tree-hugging sandal wearer, so I’m glad that I took some time out this morning to listen to the first of Harvard Professor Michael Sandal’s BBC Reith Lectures.

His argument can, I think, be summarised by his statement that ‘markets leave their mark on social norms’. His brief introduction (looking forward to the development of the themes in later lectures) was simply that we cannot separate the study of economics from broader social, moral and political questions. To only consider what is the right thing to do from the economic perspective (e.g. efficiency) denies the consequences of introducing market mechanisms to new sites of society. They are not morally neutral.

Two good examples he gave. First, the childcare providers who began to charge parents for collecting their kids late. Economists would assume that incentives such as avoiding this fine would mean that there would be fewer late parents. What actually happened was that more parents started to be late. They no longer felt they were putting the teachers out by making them stay late, but instead that they were paying for a service. Second, on blood donation. Sandel argues that we need to consider the social consequences of turning something which had been a gift into a commodity. What does that say about society and its values? It’s not that he was saying we shouldn’t ever commoditise stuff – but rather, that we should recognise and debate the consequences of doing so.

Sandel is not alone in arguing that the dismal science becomes a whole lot less dismal when we start talking about political economics – situated in the real world, where morals and values are given parity with efficiency. Paul Ormerod’s brilliant books – The Death of Economics and Butterfly Economics – make this case powerfully too, arguing that we have allowed economists to believe that they can use their rules and theories to predict the world and to decide how to act. Ormerod believes this betrays economics’ roots, as a science that sought to understand and describe the real world as it unfolded.


wouldn’t it be better if?…

May 18, 2009

so today sees the announcement of a new Innovation Council under the auspices of Liam Byrne in the Cabinet Office. The Council will act as jury on the range of ideas that everyone is being encouraged to submit about how things could be better. You can have your say here.

I like this idea a lot – and it’s a nice site (as we’ve come to expect from the good people at mysociety). I am still really interested in how the Cabinet Office and others are going to succeed in taking the many hundreds of little ideas that hopefully this site will generate, and incubate them enough to let them grow into truly radical, system-changing innovations. I don’t think we know a great deal what this process looks like, and particularly given the current political climate, the pressure will be on to pick out the quick wins and the ones that are easy to implement without major change.

That said, good luck to the Council (see who’s on it here), and watch this space to see what emerges after their first meeting at the end of June…


in a world in which information is like air, what happens to power?

May 13, 2009

… this is the question behind Us Now, the film I participated in a little while ago. There’s been quite a flurry around it recently (check out the usnow hashtag on twitter… by the way if anyone can tell me where the hash symbol is on my macbook I will be eternally grateful!) because, excitingly, you can now watch the whole film online, and free, courtesy of joiningthedots.tv