Debate is raging - but the parties just seem to be drying up

People want ideas, they want to be heard, challenged and confirmed. But our political parties have little to offer them.

Last Sunday, I got up early and trooped off to do a panel on "free will" at the Battle of Ideas, the big annual shin dig of the Institute of Ideas (IoI). Yes, no one made me.  But instead of lying in like a normal person, I did it because I was interested in the issue and doing panels makes me think about what I’m going to say – even if that’s not always obvious when I say things. I was also nosey about the event, its scale and the people it attracted. And I wanted to know what had happened to the slightly strange bunch who had migrated  - or not - from the Trotskyite Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP ) of my student youth – to the IoI.

I laughed when I entered the cinema auditorium at the Barbican. The last time I'd been in the room with my wife to watch a film, she took her coat off to hang it on the seat in front, not realising a man was sitting there. He was like a budgie in a cage at bedtime. It suddenly went even darker. My wife didn’t realise her error and I giggled in nervous horror as the rather befuddled man just sat there for some time. Surely the room couldn’t be as much fun again. Sadly it wasn’t quite.

The panel had a philosopher, a psychologist/scientist, a sociologist and me. There was never going to be agreement on whether we had free will from such a wide-ranging panel. And there wasn’t. I never was much good at philosophy, too abstract and too clever for me, and how the brain works just feels too remote – it just works - and I should have been interested in the sociologist but she was from Canterbury University, the hot bed of the IoI/RCP, and so we got a freedom from regulation line they always trot (stop it) out.  It’s like the thinking person's Jeremy Clarkson. Get rid of all these silly, nannying regulations and let people be grown ups. Somehow that’s supposed to kick-off a revolution!

I decided to pick on the audience and tell them they were a bunch of turbo-consuming drones. That always goes down well with highly intellectual, confident and articulate groups who also bother to get up on a Sunday morning and certainly don’t want to pay to be offended.  It always amazes me that people who make meticulous selections about exactly what they wear – a very certain shirt and a very certain pair of glasses – then claim they are not shopping donkeys following a very particular organic carrot dangled before their nose – refuse to accept the consumerisation of society and their lives. Anyway, enough of my sub-Bauman, its all just like The Matrix, rants and back to the IoI/RCP and what it says about the political mood.

They claimed that as many as 2,000 people trooped through the Barbican over the weekend of the event. There were a huge array of panels, battles and sponsors. Surely they couldn’t all be part of the Trotskyite conspiracy (of which you can read more in the LRB)? They certainly could not. But the fact that a small and impressively well organised group could mount such a sustained intellectual endeavour – even for highly dubious and nefarious ends – holds an intriguing mirror up to the rest of us. And maybe one more useful than found in a budgie cage that only lets us talk to ourselves.

People want ideas, they want to be heard, challenged and confirmed.  They want to speak out. From ideas festivals and book festivals across the country – debate is raging. My next outing is to Frome for an Independence Day event about the threatened domination of a proud and diverse town centre by a supermarket behemoth (the rant will start again). So I go back, as I seem to again and again, to the disconnect between all this energy (even when it's obviously daft) and vitality and the political parties that just seem to be drying up (an honourable exception would seem to be Tim Montgomerie over at Conservative Home, who bursts with ideas, resources and right-wing optimism). I don’t know what the 200 or so in the room left thinking, but it certainly wasn’t that any mainstream, that is non-Trosykyite, party had any interest in debates about free will or much intellectual debate at all really.

The "cant live with them, cant live without them" ambivalence towards party politics will rumble awkwardly, infuriatingly and creatively on. How can parties lead and listen, link the desirable to the feasible, be in power and not just office? And how can groups outside become more political by joining the dots between our desire for equality and our need for democracy and sustainability?  Can anyone address the causes and not just symptoms of world in which the planet burns and the poor get poorer?  This is where we should be having the real battle of ideas.

PS I did another meeting in the week, this time in Liverpool for Compass, the organisation I chair. It was on co-operatives and what we hoped to be their second coming. It was fantastic.  The audience knew far more than me, John Goodman from Cooperatives UK was informative and humble and there was a brilliant bit when one participant admitted to being a member of both the Labour Party and the Green Party – grounds for expulsion from either, or both if they found out at the same time. But it was a logical step – they believed that both parties were necessary and alone both insufficient. It’s a pointer to the future that people create for themselves, rather than fit any last century mould.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

Speakers at the Battle of Ideas festival.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.