Monday, 8 September 2008

Apolitical Politics

I follow a number of Leftie political blogs, notably A Very Public Sociologist (AVPS). This is a quite well informed site maintained by a couple of Socialist Party -i.e. Militant - folk in Stoke, at least one of whom is doing a PHD in Sociology @ Keele.

Once upon a time I knew quite a lot about both Militant and academic Sociology. It would be fair to say I retain a general distaste for the one, but relatively fond memories of the other. But AVPS is an unusual and interesting place, characterised by intelligent postings, not the robotic repetition of 'the line' with which I associate the Militant Tendency of the 1980s. I still disagree with their politics though - the idea of Transitional Demands always makes me groan, and I'm even further away from workerism having any appeal than I was 20 years ago.

Anyway, all this is by way of introduction. There is a posting on AVPS about an academic seminar at Keele where the author heard about work being done to investigate micro politics in the 'neighbourhood polity': largely about how interest groups intersect in a regeneration area. The spice comes from the fact that Stoke has some BNP councillors, who take part in these exchanges, and who - at the level of the 'neighbourhood polity' seem relatively innocuous. So a national call for a focus on those of a 'Christian background' translates into a local sponsorship of Easter Egg hunts.

This is fascinating. Anyone with any experience of ‘neighbourhood’ politics (or school governing bodies, ALMO boards, Tenants Associations , community groups and the like) will be familiar with the convention that everything is done in a ‘non political way’. There are, I think, a number of reasons for this. First, it remains a truism that most people other than activists hate, absolutely hate, the practice of conflating the need to get something done with the making of wider political points. It seems like ‘grandstanding’, and it pisses people off. Second, it is genuinely true, in most of these situations, that the choices on offer are severely constrained by funding arrangements or limited powers – no matter how much a, say, school governing body might want to change the curriculum it’s actual power to do so remains minimal. So this foregrounds consensus, or ‘professional’, ‘de-politicised’ type decisions. This doesn’t mean the Left should simply ‘let it lie’ in respect of the BNP, nor that we should eschew involvement in such community groups. It means when we operate in such contexts we should seek examples of apparently ‘professional’ good practice which make the racists – and others on the Right - more likely to reveal their true colours and leave them outside the apparent ‘apolitical’ consensus of such community politics. For instance, if there is a youth club on an estate that is being regenerated we should ask for figures not merely on how well used it is, but whether there are groups of young people who aren’t using it (which might generate a discussion on how the club might better serve, say, Muslim girls). If the headteacher presents figures on SATS results we should ask for some kind of breakdown by obvious categories (ethnicity, gender, class indicator proxies like Free School Meals etc), and inquire about the school’s plans for dealing with any obvious disadvantages. (Actually, this might well mean concentrating resources on White working class boys at the moment, but that’s another story). This is not easy - it can backfire and make it seem that the Left are the ones outside the 'apolitical' consensus. But we have to try to bridge this gap between 'politics' - seen as sterile name-calling and windy generalities - and 'getting things done'. We have to make people think there is a point to Leftism.

Is this reformism? Perhaps AVPS would say so. But even someone more convinced than me of the relevance of the reform/revolution distinction might want to think a bit more deeply about why the Left are primarily seen as either posh newspaper op-ed columnists or street corner propagandists with nothing useful to offer 'on the ground'.

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