Grassroots activism and the Leaders’ Debate

Leaders’ Debates are always going to be unbearable on some level. The petty attacks, the narrowness of the discussions, the very limited time span, the tendency of some people to think that shouting loudly constitutes debate (meaning Nigel Farage in this case).

Nonetheless, it could have been a lot worse. Compared to the equivalent debates in the 2010 election, this one included reference to some relatively progressive ideas. There was talk of scrapping zero-hour contracts, cracking down on dodgy landlords, building more houses, ending NHS privatisation and challenging energy companies. While Farage blamed everything on immigration, the panel did not generally dance to his tune and for once his nasty xenophobic agenda failed to dominate the discussion.

I’m not being naïve. Discussion of progressive policies does not necessarily mean that they will be introduced, even if those who promoted them come to power. Also, things could have been considerably more radical. It’s a shame that in the education discussion, no-one challenged the power of fee-paying schools. Capitalism was not attacked explicitly. Only one leader (Nicola Sturgeon) repeatedly mentioned nuclear weapons.

This won’t stop me being glad that progressive ideas came up more than might have been expected. They may even have shifted the election debate slightly to the left (though this partly depends on which bits the media choose to focus on, and I’m not holding my breath).

So why did these progressive ideas come up in the Leaders’ Debate?

Partly, of course, it was due to the presence of three leaders to the left of Labour (Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon). Wood did a good job of challenging xenophobia, telling Farage to be “ashamed of yourself”. One of the best quotes of the evening surely has to be Wood’s comment, “It was not Polish care workers and Estonian bar workers who caused the economic crisis. It was bankers.” All three of them rejected the notion of austerity, with Sturgeon saying we can’t “afford any more austerity” and Wood saying Miliband offered only “austerity light”.

While none of these three went as far as I would have liked, I think we have a lot to thank them for.

Yet some of the progressive ideas were emphasised by Ed Miliband: ending zero-hour contracts, cracking down on corporate tax avoidance, raising the minimum wage, tackling private sector rent levels. I don’t believe that these things came up simply because Ed Miliband feels strongly about them. Indeed, when he became leader four and a half years ago, he had barely mentioned most of them.

These issues became noticed because of the work of people at the grassroots, in their communities, high streets and workplaces, speaking up and taking action. Corporate tax-dodging was noticed by the media and mainstream politicians only after UK Uncut took nonviolent direct action in tax-dodging shops in 2010-11. Zero-hour contracts and fuel poverty have been the focus of campaigns backed by trades unions, faith groups and others around Britain. The state of private sector renting has been a disgrace for decades, but the efforts of campaigning groups have combined with criticisms of rising house-prices to make people like Ed Miliband realise that challenging it can be a vote-winner.

Whether Labour – or for that matter, the SNP or others – will stick to these policies after the election is another matter. That’s why we will need to keep up the pressure after 7th May. But the fact that they are even talking about them demonstrates the effect that grassroots activism can have.

Elections are only one small part of politics, only one event in democracy. Real democracy means using our power whether or not an election is on. That’s why we need to keep campaigning after the election – through pressuring politicians, through direct action, through protests, boycotts and strikes, through living out our values where we find ourselves.  When we vote we hand over only some of our power, temporarily, to the people we elect.

Misreading the parable of the talents

There are few passages in the Bible that I feel more strongly about than the parable of the talents. This is partly because it is so often interpreted in a way that means it can be used to justify ideas that are contrary to Jesus’ teachings and to much of the Bible. I am convinced we have been reading the parable “upside down”.

If you’re unfamiliar with the parable, or can’t remember it all, you can find it in Matthew 25,14-30 and in a slightly different form in Luke 19,11-27. The gist of the story is that a rich man goes on a journey and leaves his servants to look after his money (Matthew uses the term “talents”, which was a unit of currency). On his return, he finds that two of them have invested the money and gained interest. He rewards them.

The third servant has hidden the money, gaining no interest. He tells the rich man that he was afraid of him because “you are a harsh man, you take what you did not deposit”. He gives him back his money. The rich man throws him out and, in Luke’s version, follows this by having his enemies killed in front of him.

Christians usually suggest that the rich man represents God. Nineteenth century clergy said it showed God will reward those who invest money well. Now it’s more common to be told that it means we will be rewarded if we put our skills to good use (this is helped by the convenient double meaning in English of the word “talents”).

Try reading this story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, without commenting, and ask them with which character they most identify. When I have done this, the response has been “the third servant”. He seems to be treated appallingly harshly and yet he has the bravery to speak truth to power – “you take what you did not deposit”.

Why are we so keen to equate the rich man with God? What does it say about our theology if we assume that a rich and tyrannical figure must represent God?

Jesus constantly sided with the poor and marginalised, extending his love to all and making clear that repentance for the rich meant a change in the way they used their money. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a first century Jewish teacher such as Jesus would have promoted usury.

What if Jesus intended the third servant to be the hero of the story? He tells the rich man the truth about himself and refuses to collude with his unrighteous moneymaking.

The parable thus becomes a comment on the sins of inequality: “to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”.

It seems that this interpretation is becoming more common among biblical scholars, although I have sadly never heard it preached in church. For a more thorough examination of the parable from this perspective, I recommend Lloyd Pietersen’s book, Reading the Bible After Christendom (Paternoster, 2011).

I am not suggesting that there can be only one meaning of this (or any other) parable. If Jesus had wanted only to issue straightforward instructions, he would not have told parables. They are meant to make us think. My point here is about what attitudes and assumptions we bring to the reading of the Bible. Do we expect to see God identified with the powerful or the powerless?

The “traditional” interpretation of this parable is positively harmful. Christian investment banker Jeremy Marshall uses it to argue that “banking is a biblical principle”. We cannot know just how much financial exploitation has been defended on the basis of this misread parable, but it’s certainly played a part.

London LGBT Pride – giving publicity to human rights abusers

This week, I’ve seen two movements that I love become sullied by complicity with the arms trade. First, Church House (a leading Christian conference centre) hosted a gathering of arms dealers and generals. Now, London LGBT Pride are about to allow a section of this week’s march to be used to publicise a company that is complicit in homophobia– and other human rights abuses – around the world.

BAE Systems, a multinational arms company that sells weapons to dictatorships, has been allocated its own section at the Pride march in London on Saturday. This is a march to promote and celebrate the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. Yet BAE’s biggest customers include Saudi Arabia, one of the most viciously homophobic regimes in the world.

Thus the Pride march will include the symbols and branding of a company that actively works against the very things that the march is calling for.

BAE is not one of the “official sponsors” – though these include some very unethical multinationals, such as the tax dodgers at Starbuck’s and Barclay’s. BAE is one of the companies that have been allocated a section on the march for their workers. BAE have an LGBT employees’ group and it this group that will be on the march, in the same way as there will be other groups of workers from John Lewis and the Direct Line Group. There are also religious and cultural groups (most of them placed near the back, as usual). I will be marching with Christians Together at Pride.

I don’t want to stop BAE’s workers marching at Pride. If BAE employees support LGBT rights, I’m pleased to hear it (especially as their bosses clearly don’t). But they will undoubtedly be wearing, carrying or otherwise displaying logos and publicity from BAE. This will help the company’s bosses in their relentless drive to present themselves as being ethical and pro-human rights.

I tweeted the organisers of the march (@LondonLGBTPride). I’m grateful to them for replying very quickly. However, their reply made a very unclear argument. It said:

“Organisations apply and BAE have an LGBT group. Change can come from within. We will not abandon and disengage with LGBT groups who strive for the right and the freedom to express themselves”.

I’m pleased if the LGBT workers at BAE strive for the right and the freedom to express themselves. I’m glad they’re coming on the march. But it’s either naïve or misleading of the organisers to overlook the fact that by listing BAE Systems as one of the groups on the march, and allowing BAE branding to appear, they are actively helping the company to promote itself.

Of course, I accept that this issue is part of  a wider problem with the commercialisation of Pride. There are various other unethical companies involved. I wouldn’t rate Barclay’s or BP as much better than BAE. You could make an argument that this is just as bad. However, I suggest the nature of an arms company is different.

An arms company cannot become ethical, because of the very nature of the arms trade, which involves selling weapons to virtually anyone who will buy them (if they can get away with it, which they usually can). Further, BAE actively promotes homophobia by arming homophobic governments that oppress their own people. I don’t know what “change” the Pride organisers imagine will “come from within”, unless it’s by the active rebellion of the workers against the BAE bosses (which would be great, but seems unlikely).

Despite the commercialisation of Pride, despite the excessive alcohol, the high prices and the vacuuous celebrities, despite all the things I don’t like about it, I must admit that the Pride march in London has played an significant part in my life. Going toPride was an important moment for me as I decided to be public about abandoning my former homophobia. London Pride was one of the first places in which I told a stranger I was bisexual. In 2011, when I walked from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for my formoer homophobia, the Pride march was the last leg of my pilgrimage. The significance of the Pride march for me makes me feel even sadder and angrier about its misuse by arms dealers.

Please tweet @LondonLGBTPride, or otherwise contact them, about this issue. And remember, you can always wear a Campaign Against Arms Trade badge on Saturday.

Mainstream parties have been defeated by the monster they created

Nigel Farage’s smug grin is all over the media this morning. But the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have been defeated by a monster of their own creation.

They have failed to speak up for the benefits of migration, they have not provided decent housing, they have bailed out banks and punished the poor, they have pandered to the super-rich. It’s no surprise that people look for an alternative.

Unfortunately, the alternative is provided by Nigel Farage’s ragtag army of racists, sexists, homophobes and climate change deniers. Farage, a privately educated former stockbroker, presents himself as anti-establishment. UKIP’s policies include a tax system that would harm the poor and those in the middle while slashing taxes for the rich. UKIP politicians also advocate a big increase in military spending at the same time as greater cuts to the welfare state.

Most of these policies are barely mentioned in the media, which concentrates on UKIP’s views on migration and the European Union. The BBC must bear some responsibility for UKIP’s success. Fascinated with Farage, keen on sensational change, they have given the party vastly disproportionate attention.

Not that this is any excuse for voting for UKIP. I won’t patronise UKIP voters by suggesting they don’t know what they’re doing. Let’s not forget, however, that around two-thirds of UK voters did not even vote in this election. UKIP have received the support of about one in ten of the adult population. Even the majority of those who did vote supported parties that favour EU membership.

The Tories have already shown their willingness to cave into UKIP’s agenda, attacking migrants and the EU at the same time as they demonise the poor to justify their austerity agenda. Labour have a chance to speak up for migration and point out the real problems of spiralling poverty and inequality. Sadly, Labour politicians are already mentioning the need to talk more about immigration – a euphemism for being more anti-immigration and blaming migrants for problems they have not caused.

Thankfully, there is more to politics than choosing between four parties that marginalise the working and middle classes in the interests of the rich. There are alternative ways of voting – such as Green, Plaid Cymru and others.

More importantly, we can aim for a better world in our own lives and communities – by refusing to scapegoat migrants, Muslims or benefit claimants; by staging grassroots campaigns against austerity, prejudice and war; by supporting each other in resisting poor working conditions and dodgy landlords; by choosing kindness over consumerism. We can defy this rotten system not just on polling day, but every day.

New £2 coin glorifies war

You may easily have missed a news story that received relatively little media attention as Britain and the world celebrated the beginning of 2014.

The Royal Mint have revealed the design of a special £2 coin to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war. It is described as a “commemorative” coin, but it does not commemorate the millions of people who died. Instead, the coin’s design glorifies war and celebrates a leading warmonger.

The coin features a picture of Horatio Kitchener, a general and peer who was made Secretary for War when the war broke out. The coin includes the words “Your country needs you”, famously printed on recruiting posters next to the image of Kitchener pointing outwards at whoever happened to be passing.

I’ve nothing against a coin to mark this important anniversary. Indeed, I think it’s appropriate that we mark it. Like many others, I will be mourning the millions of lives wasted and asking what we can learn from this futile war. I appreciate that not everyone shares this view, just as not everyone shares the pro-war views of David Cameron and others. However, nearly everyone in the UK would surely agree that it is right to mourn and commemorate the dead. Why can this not be the coin’s focus?

Let’s be honest about Kitchener. His supposedly heroic war record includes his command of the troops that carried out the Omdurman massacre. In 1898, Kithchener’s troops, armed with machine guns, killed around 10,800 Sudanese people armed mostly with swords and spears. At least another 16,000 Sudanese were wounded. In contrast, 48 British troops were killed in this “battle”.

At the outbreak of world war one in 1914, the prime minister Herbert Asquith appointed Kitchener as Secretary for War despite his lack of political experience. Asquith recognised that Kitchener was a popular “hero” figure who could help the recruitment effort.

As the prime minister’s wife Margot Asquith put it, Kitchener was “more of a great poster than a great man”. Amongst his other actions, he urged the cabinet to make things very hard for conscientious objectors and suggested that they were simply trying to avoid danger (hardly the case for the objectors who spent years in prison and those who were sentenced to death, even though the sentences were commuted).

I don’t know how the Royal Mint reached this appalling decision. I hope there is still time for them to replace the coin with one that is truly commemorative. Even if there is not, they can certainly refrain from putting into a circulation something that so casually glorifies war and champions a warmonger.

Co-ops, cocaine and Christianity

As chairman of the Co-operative Bank, Paul Flowers shared responsibility for the decisions that led to a situation in which most of the bank is to be bought up by hedge funds. Last week, Paul Flowers was filmed buying cocaine.

Bafflingly, many people seem to regard the second offence as worse than the first one.

We can debate how much blame should be attached to Flowers for the effective destruction of the Co-op Bank (to be fair, many of the mistakes were made before he was appointed). But the massive changes at the Co-op will affect thousands if not millions of people – among them the employees facing job losses, the customers who will lose their ownership of the bank and potentially many more who will suffer if the bank weakens its ethical standards for investments.    

While I do not condone the use of cocaine, and I condemn the cocaine trade, Flowers’ drug purchase will hurt far fewer people (mainly himself) than the decisions he and his colleagues took about the Co-operative Bank.

The Mail on Sunday published the cocaine story two days ago. Later that day, the Methodist Church put out a press release saying that Flowers had been suspended from his role as a Methodist minister pending investigation. No such action was taken when the Co-op Bank went down the pan. Indeed, I don’t think there was even an official comment from the Methodist Church (I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong). But a drugs story in a far-right tabloid seems to mean that the denomination’s authorities can set to work in a matter of hours – on a Sunday – to suspend someone.

I have been hugely impressed recently by the work done by the Methodist Church to tackle economic injustice. At a national level, they have spoken out strongly against austerity policies and the demonisation of people in poverty. At local level, many Methodist churches are helping out people hit by the economic crisis. Their distorted priorities regarding Flowers and the Co-op Bank have undermined their own standing.

Today, Len Wardle, chairman of the entire Co-operative Group (which also owns the Co-op supermarket and Co-op Funeral Care) has resigned. He has said that he thinks this is right because he led the board that appointed Paul Flowers. His action was honourable, though I doubt it was necessary. He may be more concerned about Flowers’ leadership of the bank than about his drug taking. However, the timing gives the impression that he is responding to the cocaine story.

I have no interest in demonising Paul Flowers or in making assumptions about the circumstances that led him to buy drugs. I deplore his attitude to banking and co-operative business, but I a more concerned with addressing structural problems. The Co-op Bank workers losing their jobs deserve better than this.

It’s no surprise that much of the media will find a story about illegal drugs more interesting than one about the ethics of banking and business. It’s more alarming to see churches and co-operators dancing to the Mail on Sunday’s tune.