Juggling as revolutionary praxis: a symbol of Spain's divided left.
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Send in the clowns: Podemos' former comrades are a class act

Perhaps clowns aren't the most obvious warriors for social justice, but the canivalesque has always been part of public folk culture.

I wasn’t going to turn down the invitation to a conference in Seville called “Caring for the City: Reclaiming the Commons”. It promised to combine so many of my interests: reclaiming public space, the successful anti-eviction group “PAH” and arguments advanced by David Harvey and Anna Minton on late capitalism’s assault on civic democracy. Also, tapas.

It was only when I touched down in Andalusia that the itinerary was made clear: this would not be a conventional conference but a participatory “hack-camp” – like a corporate retreat for activists. We would be put into groups, play getting-to-know-you games, enjoy “networking time” and, over three long days, create a “guerrilla campaign” to help save a local “cultural space... with particular emphasis on the circus, performing and visual arts”. My jaw dropped. I came all this way to set up a flash mob for clowns.

But what would this mean in practice? Would we have to fit the entire Spanish trade union movement into a comically small car? The night before the camp began, reclaiming the commons by drinking beer in the streets of Seville, some friends and I tried to understand our problem with clowns. For one thing, from Pagliacci to John Wayne Gacy and Sideshow Bob, clowns do not have a great record as warriors for social justice. Yet the carnivalesque has always been part of public folk culture and so, loath as I am to admit it, an injury to Koko is indeed an injury to us all.

In Spain the image of 2011’s indignados movement crystallised around a pejorative bit of slang: in long-established anti-capitalist circles, clown-friendly anarcho-squatter types are dismissed as perroflautas – literally “dog-flutes”, after their two most recognisable accessories. As anyone who has seen the Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’s ponytail can confirm, some leading perroflautas have taken the plunge in the past 16 months and – with varying levels of optimism – swapped a spinning bow tie for a proper one.

The tension between those who have stayed put in squatted social centres and the avowedly modern electoral “project” Podemos was striking in Seville. Comrades’ eyebrows were raised when one activist darted off from our table of felt tips and scissors to take a call on her mobile. The previous day, she had been voted top of a candidate list for local elections in May. She could be the next mayor, if Participa Sevilla, a Podemos-backed project, wins. She didn’t make it back for days two and three.

The divide has created personal rifts. Telling me about a former indignados comrade, now a paid-up Podemos operative, one local anarchist said to me: “I still like him but he is in Madrid now.” This friend had been physically visiting the capital, allegedly bringing back orders to “dismantle” local indignados work. Spiritually he was deemed lost to the Podemos machine and its centralising hierarchy.

The counterargument from the electoralistas is, well, are you really going to refuse this historic opportunity? I am told one of Podemos’s top speechwriters has sharp words for his former comrades: “They will be happy just as long as they can have ‘I was pure’ written on their graves.” One 2011 indignados slogan ran “Our dreams don’t fit in your ballot boxes”. This tension looms ever larger in 2015, especially as Podemos, having led briefly, has stalled in the polls.

In the end our “guerrilla action” was terrific fun and certainly not pointless. We used helium balloons to hoist a giant banner demanding a new home for La Carpa (the circus space) in one of Seville’s abandoned public buildings. The locals loved it, we spread the word about a good cause and I even climbed down off my high horse and wore a red nose – for ten minutes, sheepishly. The commons were temporarily reclaimed by the perroflauta side of the Spanish left – and as this remarkable year wears on, we’ll see if the electoralistas can get any closer to achieving the same.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.