Marching - but to where? (Photo:Getty)
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The British Left is out of ideas

The picture at two recent conferences was the same: despair, anger, and a lack of ideas. 

In the space of the last six weeks London has played host to two conferences aiming to stir up debate about the future of politics.  First, on 8 February, there was Change: How?, an event organised by the thinktank Compass that brought together around 100 speakers to speak about social change 100 days before the general election.  Then, on 14–15 March, we had FutureFest, an ideas festival organised by the social innovation charity Nesta, which invited speakers and artists to address six themes of the future. 

Both events came with wristbands, colourful pamphlets, and simultaneous sessions buzzing across multiple stages.  Both were housed in quirky, repurposed venues – Islington Metal Works, formerly a horses’ stables (in the case of Change: How?), and Vinopolis in London Bridge (for FutureFest).  And both revealed something about the state of the British Left today.

Change: How? and FutureFest were in some ways very different conferences.  FutureFest was shinier, with more technology, and more spectacle.  In the “Debate” room, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were part of a studio TV audience as miked-up host (and pop star) Pat Kane paced the stage, swivelling to face his audience on all sides.  Change: How? was a good deal grungier.  Attendees crammed into small rooms, knees often touching, and listened to speakers rushing to stick to their allocated fifteen-minute time slots.  FutureFest was also more ambitious in scope: across two days, it addressed the future of machines, money, and music (amongst other topics), and showcased artwork and various other installations.  In contrast, Change: How? concentrated on politics, especially progressive politics, and the upcoming election.

What both events had in common was a particular mood amongst participants: a lack of collective confidence about the contemporary Left, in particularly the parliamentary Left (though it should be noted that the Left was not wholly represented at these conferences).  This feeling manifested most visibly in participants’ frustrated venting at the elected politicians that were present.  When Labour MP Stella Creasy refused to support nationalising banks at Change: How?, the questioner shouted over her and despaired at her political moderation.  At FutureFest, Labour policy guru Jon Cruddas was interrupted by Icelandic Pirate Party MP Birgitte Jonsdottir, who demanded: “what’s your vision?” Owen Jones simply laughed at FutureFest when asked if the Labour Party might provide a coherent radical alternative to the status quo.  And the sense of exasperation with domestic politics was also clear from the noticeable lift in enthusiasm when speakers from Syriza and Podemos took the stage.

Even more troubling for those committed to the progressive political project, both events highlighted a lack of focus and direction in the Left at large.  The speakers at Change: How? offered a collection of inspiring individual stories – such as Stella Duffy’s work on ‘Fun Palaces’, an attempt to revitalise participation in local communities – but no speaker provided a narrative that wove these stories together.  Similarly, the presenters at FutureFest introduced audiences to trends and data and innovations, but did not provide a framework to invest that information with meaning (apart from one throwaway reference to Piketty).  Tensions between those advocating for decentralisation of power, and those (like Dave Boyle) arguing for the importance of State regulation were never properly resolved.  The frenzied format of each conference didn’t help.  Overall, it is clear that what the musician Matthew Herbert said at FutureFest about the state of modern music – that there is a “crisis of ideas” – applies to progressive politics generally.

There was also a sad absence of solidarity or warmth in interaction in between sessions at both events – something that is not the fault of the conference organisers, but a reflection of the norms of our time.  On the final afternoon of FutureFest, I walked into a room to find twenty or so tired attendees scattered on beanbags or on the floor, mostly preoccupied by their cell phones – an unfortunate sight in a conference where so much had been said about the ills of individualism.  This problem of isolation and disconnection amongst attendees is not unique to these conferences.  But it is a fact of modern life that progressives, committed to the idea of community, need to confront.

Owen Jones, in a characteristically powerful talk at FutureFest, emphasised the need for an intellectual counter-narrative to neoliberalism, as well as a broad-based movement to turn that counter-narrative into action.  

Only with more work done on that counter-narrative, and the broader movement, will progressives in this country start to recover the confidence, focus, and solidarity that sometimes felt missing at these events.  And we all have these well-organised events to thank for making clear the scale and nature of the task that lies in front of us. 

Max Harris is a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He tweets as@mdnharris.

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times