Til debt us do part

An interview with Stewart Lee.

What do Meat Loaf, Walt Disney, Oscar Wilde and Burt Reynolds have in common? Yes, they achieved success in their chosen fields but that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Give up? They have all been declared insolvent. I should surely take some comfort in being member of a club that has such established and varied members.

I’ve recently finished putting together a radio series about debt. It is the culmination of an Arts Council England project I have been working on that was prompted by my own attempts to understand and talk on stage about my insolvency. Over the past eight months I have been speaking to economists and academics as well as writers and performers to see what their views are on economics and debt as well as how one might talk about such subjects in an artistic way.

It turns out the latter isn’t easy. Talking about the economics of my trip into negative equity and trying to be entertaining at the same time is pretty difficult. It’s why – among many reasons - you don’t see stand-up economists. The abstractness of modern day economics pulls in the opposite direction to being interesting and fun on stage. But that’s not to say it can’t be done.

To look at how to do that I talked to some of the most successful performers, academics and writers who engage with politics and some aspect of economics in their work.

In a recent attempt to do this I spoke to the comedian Stewart Lee about how he approaches political material in his act as well as what he thinks about the cuts to arts funding announced in 2011 and, amongst other things, the current trend to put an economic price on art.

You can listen to the show, originally broadcast on Resonance 104.4 FM, below:

Sean Gittins is a stand-up comedian, writer and broadcaster. You can find out more about his Arts Council England project Til Debt Do Us Part and his other work at www.seangittins.co.uk and @sean_gittins.

Stewart Lee, centre, at the 2012 British Academy Television Awards (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.