Notes in the Margin: Free the word

Radical publishers need to become more responsive to the pace of modern protest.

In the week before Christmas, I had the pleasure of calling the most 21st-century of publishing meetings. With Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, the New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny and other members of the "editorial kettle", I spent over an hour on Google's instant messenger service Google Chat, engaged in a frenetic, six-way, typed debate about the merits and demerits of different articles on the student occupations.

The product of two months of debates such as this was Fight Back! - a 350-page reader on the winter of student occupations, demonstrations and anti-cuts actions, published as a free, Creative Commons-licensed e-book on 1 February. It has been a success already. More than 5,000 copies were downloaded in its first five days online. Felix Cohen, our tech supremo, is repurposing the 80,000 words of writing into any software he can get his hands on and, for those who love things with spines, the physical book launches on 24 March at a non-profit, print-on-demand price.

Information wants to be free, or so the theory goes. Our role is to liberate it from the sometimes musty corners of the blogosphere. Freeness is a recurring theme. Fight Back! was produced by a talented team of writers (43 in all), editors and designers working pro bono, moving stray commas and crunching HTML into the small hours of the morning.

With events unfolding at breakneck speed on Twitter, radical publishing needs to become quicker to keep up. Others, such as Verso, whose protest book Springtime arrives in March, and Random House, which is planning its own e-book series called The Summer of Unrest, are being similarly responsive.

The power of the student movement lies in its rejection of conventional leaders and party hierarchies. The online tools for modern protest are available to anyone. We are taking the same attitude to its documentation. Perhaps it is not a wildly sustainable model to give away books for free - but let's worry about monetising it after we've brought down the government, shall we?

Dan Hancox, editor of "Fight Back!" Download the book for free here

"Notes in the Margin" is a new weekly arts diary column in the NS Critics pages

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Why Chris Grayling is Jeremy Corbyn's secret weapon

The housing crisis is Labour's best asset - and Chris Grayling is making it worse. 

It feels like the classic Conservative story: wait until the election is over, then cancel spending in areas that have the temerity to vote Labour. The electrification of rail routes from Cardiff to Swansea – scrapped. So too is the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester route – and of the Midland main line.

But Crossrail 2, which runs from north to south across London and deep into the capital's outer satellites, including that of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, will go ahead as planned.

It would be grim but effective politics if the Conservatives were pouring money into the seats they won or lost narrowly. There are 25 seats that the Conservatives can take with a swing of 1 per cent from Labour to Tory, and 30 seats that they would lose with a swing of 1 per cent from Tory to Labour.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Conservatives were making spending decisions with an eye on what you might call the frontline 55. But what they’re actually doing is taking money away from north-west marginal constituencies – and lavishing cash on increasingly Labour London. In doing that, they’re actually making their electoral headache worse.

How so? As I’ve written before, the biggest problem for the Conservatives in the long term is simply that not enough people are getting on the housing ladder. That is hurting them in two ways. The first is straightforward: economically-driven voters are not turning blue when they turn 30 because they are not either on or about to mount the first rungs of the housing ladder. More than half of 30-year-olds were mortgage-payers in 1992, when John Major won an unexpected Conservative majority, while under a third were in 2017, when Theresa May unexpectedly lost hers.

But it is also hurting them because culturally-driven voters are getting on the housing ladder, but by moving out of areas where Labour’s socially-concerned core vote congregates in great numbers, and into formerly safe or at least marginal Conservative seats. That effect has reached what might be its final, and for the Conservatives, deadly form in Brighton. All three of the Brighton constituencies – Hove, Brighton Kemptown and Brighton Pavilion – were Conservative-held in 1992. Now none of them are. In Pavilion they are third, and the smallest majority they have to overcome is 9,868, in Kemptown. The same effect helped reduce Amber Rudd’s majority in Hastings, also in East Sussex, to 346.

The bad news for the Conservatives is that the constituencies of Crawley, Reading, Swindon and in the longer-term, Bracknell, all look like Brightons in the making: although only Reading East fell to Labour this time, all saw swings bigger than the national average and all are seeing increasing migration by culturally-driven left-wing voters away from safe Labour seats. All are seeing what you might call “Hackneyfication”: commuters moving from inner city seats but taking their politics with them.

Add to that forced migration from inner London to seats like Iain Duncan Smith’s in Chingford – once a Conservative fortress, now a razor-thin marginal – and even before you add in the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s person and platform, the electoral picture for the Conservatives looks bleak.

(It should go without saying that voters are driven by both economics and culture. The binary I’ve used here is simplistic but helpful to understand the growing demographic pressures on the Conservatives.)

There is actually a solution here for the Tories. It’s both to build more housing but also to rebalance the British economy, because the housing crisis in London and the south is driven by the jobs and connectivity crisis in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Or, instead, they could have a number of measures designed to make London’s economy stride still further ahead of the rest, serviced by 5 per cent mortgages and growing numbers of commuter rail services to facilitate a growing volume of consumers from London’s satellite towns, all of which only increase the electoral pressures on their party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.