Sunday, 23 June 2013

Beyond Best and Worst*

So that's what a People's Assembly looks like.

Of course, I agreed with a lot of what was said inside the hall yesterday afternoon; I sort of thought I might - I've been broadly agreeing with left rhetoric for the best part of a decade now.

For all the talk of left unity, however, there does still seem to be a divide between those inside and those that were - both physically and metaphorically - outside of Westminster's Central Methodist Hall yesterday. But it's ok, because inside the hall there was, more or less, unity – and for some, that's enough.

For the sane and non-sectarian elements of the left, for the best of the left, this marks a new chapter in left renewal as well as a desperately needed lift for the whole anti-cuts movement. For the sectarians and naysayers, for the worst of the left, it represents a slide into even greater irrelevance.”

What if the people on the lawn outside central hall yesterday are not 'the worst of the left', but - perhaps even in equal measue to those inside - caring, dedicated and intelligent? To dismiss them and their disagreement is not only intellectually lazy, but actively self-defeating if seeking to build a truly inclusive movement. It's an old elitist trick to say: “Ignore these people, they're just trouble makers. They don't have any ideas of their own and they're trying to spoil the party for everyone else. They're merely malcontents, or mad.” Sound familiar?

Who are these ghouls that are not serious about building a stronger, bigger left, anyway? Doesn't it seem unlikely that the people who bothered to write blogs, or who came to Central Hall yesterday to put their point across with megaphones, want to remain on the sidelines - don't want a big movement capable of change? Wouldn't they just stay at home and cry into their Bakunin if that were the case? Does anyone seriously believe they're saboteurs, that they want the world to be a worse place? Or have they just got a different perspective on how to build a better one?

People are fed up with the old sectarian, divisive and insular habits of so much of the left. Disagreement and debate are necessary and healthy. That is not the issue. The point is to establish common ground, build on it, and not get distracted by ancient grudges or trivial differences. You could feel the collective willing to make this a reality and marginalise those who make it more difficult.”

The prefix phrase 'disagreement and debate are healthy' gave me pause, and brought to mind the Met's 'Protest is an important part of democracy' – you know that there's a but coming. In the Met's case it's: we will stomp you into the ground if you try it; in the author's it's: you will be marginalised and ignored if you disagree - or branded un-sane. Isn't it dangerous to say, now, at this point, you have crossed a line (of my own imagining) and I don't have to listen to you anymore. You are dismissed. You are a non-person and your ideas are non-ideas.

Apart from the fact that marginalising people only ever makes them more angry, and almost never makes them just disappear like you want, saying 'we're not the sectarians: they are!' is sorta sectarian, isn't it? Isn't it a bit ironically divisive to talk of a best and a worst of the left, of marginalising people whose views are percieved to be 'difficult'. There was lots of agreement on the day, which was really heartening, but I heard a whole plethora of disagreement as well – ranging from concerns over a lack of consensus decision making to gripes about catering. To dimiss the whole gamut as 'naysaying' or irrelevant doesn't leave much room for nuance – it's all a bit black and white, a bit George Bush Junior.

At the meeting about cuts to disability welfare, for example, I heard one activist complain that the discussion had been sidelined to the marquee – that it was not only insensitive but also unkind to leave comrades with disabilities “twitching in the cold” all afternoon. She thought it was important that once the group got inside the hall, they made this particular concern heard. Is she a naysayer? Certainly. Does she, therefore, deserve to be marginalised or branded irrelevant? Certainly not.

But when we did finally get back inside the hall, there was no opportunity to raise that concern – only to swoon at Tony Benn again and clap along to the speeches that seemed well-rehersed rather than a reaction to the day's events. One person approached the stage to pass a note to the table, but he was awkwardly ignored until Francesca Martinez ackowledged at least his presence, if not his note. Sorry fella, like those outside with megaphones, you are not part of the script – you were not in the programme.

And the jubilation wasn't even universal inside the hall: chair Vicki Barrs had to ask people to stop heckling on a couple of occasions. It's not fair to heckle, she said, it doesn't give people the chance to say what they want to say; if people are heckling, might it be that they haven't been given the chance to say what they wanted to say? If there are hecklers, isn't it because they don't agree with what's being said? And if they don't agree, you haven't got consensus – you just haven't, and no amount of applause or congratulatory sentiment can hide that.

Is there an absolute truth towards which we are all working? Is there a point at which those outside the Central Methodist Hall have crossed the line, have put their own needs and wants above those of their comrades? Maybe, but you can bet your life that those outside think exactly the same of those inside. In fact, you don't need to place such a high stakes bet: you could just go and ask them, talk with them, meet them halfway. But it's pretty difficult to meet anyone halfway when you're sitting on a stage.

Consensus is not about dismissing all of the arguments you disagree with until you're left with applause; it's about hearing the whole range of opinion and then finding a way forward that's acceptable to all. Of course, you may think that your ideas are just better, more correct, than other people's – you're perfectly entitled to that opinion. But don't then accuse others of sectarianism.

And not only because it's a self-defeating waste of energy: it just sounds so silly. Before this week I'd only heard the word sectarian used in connection with religious conflicts, or where atrocities have been committed. It is at best absurd and at worst intellectually authoritarian to describe these disagreements as sectarian – I can see neither John Rees nor Ian Bone calling for their opponents to be knee-capped, can you?

Actually, I'd like a movement that included both Ian Bone and John Rees – but I'd like to be sat at the same level as them, discussing ideas and coming to, if not agreement, then consensus. I don't want to be patronised by handsomely paid trade unionists plying well-worn phrases about workers' solidarity (seriously, if you're that solid, take a pay cut?). I'd like something that looked a bit more like an Occupy style general assembly - I'd rather be waving my jazz-hands in agreement with something I contributed to than applauding the same people I've been applauding for the past ten years. I'd like a movement that convinces rather than condemns. 

Let's not forget that 'the left' (big or small L, as you please) should be merely a transitory classification on the way towards a world without any...

*If you disagree with anything in this blog post, fear not: I'm probably just a nutter. Feel free to go ahead and marginalise me - but don't then be surprised if that makes me angry, and more likely, not less, to disagree with you in future.