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“Social seating”? Encouraging conversation has its place, and that place is not a bus

Making the back of a bus look like the world’s shittest hot tub.

Does anyone genuinely enjoy talking to strangers? Unless you’re a friendly ghost from 1950s suburban America, I bet you don’t. As kids, we’re strictly instructed never to do it. And maybe – in adulthood – that same rule should apply, as “stranger danger” morphs from the risk of being kidnapped into the risk of being severely irritated. Or, particularly if you’re a woman, being harassed.

Which is why the painfully well-meaning new "social seating" on buses in Wiltshire and Dorset, designed to encourage conversation, is possibly the dumbest thing since, erm, those painfully well meaning “tube chat?” badges were handed out in London last year. Granted though, the “horse-shoe” seats do a fantastic job of making the back of a bus look like the world’s shittest hot tub; providing all the awkwardness of basically being in a massive bath with other people, without all the nice heat and bubbles.

“Encouraging conversation” has its place, and that place is not a bus. When, ostensibly, the only thing you have in common with the people around you is that you’re inside the same vehicle, what is there to talk about? Oh sure, maybe I’ll get into a really deep conversation with the fundamentalist Christian sitting next to me, and I’ll convince her that being gay is fine, and she’ll convince me to open my heart to Jesus. No. In living memory, I’ve had one amicable conversation with a stranger on a bus, and it went something like this:

Bus Woman: This is a very steep hill.

Me: Yes it is.

Bus Woman: What a very steep hill indeed.

Me: Yes, my how steep.

ENDS.

Scintillating stuff. Far more bus conversations (particularly those after sunset) have gone like this:

Bus Man: [sitting next to me even though there are many, many free pairs of seats] Do you have a boyfriend?

Me: I don’t speak English.

Bus Man: Cool. Can I add you on Facebook?

[I get up, squeeze past Bus Man, pray to every god that he doesn’t grab my arse, and move downstairs where I have to stand for the rest of my probably very long journey]

ENDS

Any seat formation which enables “conversations” that are anything from a little bit creepy to downright scary should probably be saved for whenever it is in the future that a woman can get on public transport at night without being expected to entertain drunk men. When that utopia is attained, and not a single day before, roll on the horseshoe seats.

Please understand, it’s incredibly rare for anything to remind me of something from 17th century French literature (I think this might actually be a first). But these bus seats do, and you’re just going to have to bear with me.

In Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules, one character – in an attempt to sound posh – says to a servant, “Vite, voiturez-nous ici les commodités de la conversation.” Which sort of translates as, “Quick, carriage us hither the commodities of conversation”. Which is the most Baroque way ever of saying, “Bring us some chairs”. My point is, and I do actually have one, which pretentious do-gooder (and he’s out there somewhere. Yes, it’s definitely a man) looked at the interior of a bus and said, “Vite, voiturez-nous ici les commodités de la conversation.”

Bus seats shouldn’t be commodities of conversations. They should be butt rests.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.