ILL-EQUIPPED FOR THE 21ST CENTURY, WESTMINSTER NEEDS A REBOOT

No two issues have sparked public interest in politics in recent times more than Scotland and Jeremy Corbyn. The Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 produced lively debate locally and across the UK, achieved an 85% turnout, and contributed to an overwhelming SNP victory last May. After that same election, the Labour leadership election piqued public interest in left-wing politics and 300,000 Labour members and 100,000 registered supporters voted overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn’s radical platform. This passion doesn’t extend to Westminster. Unlike Scotland or ideological debate, the bellicosity, spin and over-rehearsed talking points of modern politics are not only unappealing but reinforce a political dynamic where many feel incapable of making a difference. Governments can’t address deep social and economic problems without public input, which begs the question whether Westminster is currently ill-equipped to meet 21st century needs and could use a reboot.

This crisis is parliamentary and civic. Decades of high election turnout and mass-participation in unions, organised religion, and political parties have ended due to changing employment and economic conditions, evolving social outlooks and numerous revelations of corruption and ineptitude. These traditional interests have less money and members to mobilise and influence public and political opinion, as well as counter economic interests and their ideological allies within government. In this vacuum, wealthy individual donors and lobbyists provide much-needed donations to the smaller, more professionalised Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats in exchange for access. Conservative Leaders Group members, who donate £50,000 per year, can dine with David Cameron and key cabinet members at Downing Street while the best the public can expect is that Cameron will pretend to be a fan of their football team – whichever that is. This concentration of political power pursues mutual ideological agendas – currently welfare paternalism and austerity – ahead of housing prices, poverty and discrimination that define peoples’ real daily experience of politics.

Despite disillusionment and greater social isolation, we are in no less desire of collective action. Political outlooks have become more fluid and less suited to traditional top-down civic approaches, with many preferring to donate to and join NGOs and single-issue campaigns. Technology has become the new means of political engagement, whether through posting articles in Facebook social circles or debating them more widely on Reddit or Twitter. Rather than physically attending select committee meetings or Guardian Live events, we can livestream or follow Twitter updates to keep informed. Accepting the notion of a technologically-driven, atomised society denies the potential of technology driven by social needs as the infrastructure of 21st century political pluralism.

Despite the role of access, the ultimate power of Westminster lies in the electoral mandate as expression of the public will – an idea more suited to the 19th century age of empire and industrialisation from which modern Westminster arose. A majority government in the House of Commons can use this to justify unpopular election pledges such as junior doctors’ hours or break them like proposed cuts to family tax credits. The ‘winner takes all’ approach is an FA cup final mentality, where winning parties are undisputed champions until the next political championship. A digital approach could undermine the Westminster monopoly on democracy and enable a more perpetual idea of democracy.

Applying digital democracy to Westminster would essentially crowdsource policy, legislation, and constitutional proposals to ensure a public voice in decision-making. The House of Commons already holds binding debates on e-petitions that reach 100,000, having recently debated banning Donald Trump from the UK. This could easily extend to binding debates on legislative and policies proposed by the public. House Speaker John Bercow’s Digital Democracy Commission has recommended forums and channels for online public submissions for drafting bills and questions for PMQs – already adopted by Corbyn. Online policy development mechanisms could exist on a national scale independent of Westminster, a potential blueprint of this being the design process for a new Icelandic constitution in 2012-13. One group of citizens randomly selected by Government ballot respectively decided core principles to be included and another appointed group elected a 25-member panel to write it. The draft was opened to online public feedback that was incorporated into a final version approved by public referendum in 2012. Although rejected by the newly-elected parliament in 2013, a national approach to crowdsourced policy proved feasible.

Political parties provide another forum digital experimentation. Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has advocated online technology to connect leadership and members and touted digital party branches. Newly-created parties go further using open-source software. Podemos used feedback via Loomio to design their manifesto for the Spanish general elections in December, while the German Pirate Party discusses ideas on Liquid Feedback. The Net Party, founded by activist organisation Democracia En Red, ran in the Buenos Aires legislative elections in 2013 advocating representatives be bound to vote by online member decisions on DemocracyOS. Although the Net Party only achieved 1% of the vote, their campaign convinced the Buenos Aires legislature to adopt DemocracyOS to debate publicly-crowdsourced bills, through which it passed a bill for better conditions for nurses.

In a world increasingly reliant on online technology for public engagement, incorporating digital mechanisms into electoral democracy would update Westminster democracy for the 21st century. This would both embrace how people think and engage and enable a new political pluralism where public passion for Scotland and Jeremy Corbyn would hardly be the exceptions.

Originally published in Disclaimer Magazine

Advertisements

RED PEAK WAS ALWAYS A MIDDLE CLASS GANG-PATCH

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 17.59.53

My greatest fear about Red Peak was that it was less a popular movement and more of a brand logo for the Grey Lynn Farmers Market. A middle class gang-patch for expats residing in London flats and New York lofts. Despite a media-savvy social media campaign to get it on the referendum ballot, it only achieved 8.7% in the first round. Red Peak appealed to people like myself, my friend group, and social media connections. Inner-city suburbanites living in restored villas or bungalows who tend towards organic and/ or vegetarian diets, cycle to work, and profess cosmopolitan social values and centre-left to radical and green politics. The downside of this is a bubble mentality. Too often, we naturally assume the superiority of our lifestyle choices and superior thinking and tastes as opposed to the poor choices and tastes of others. We frequently mock ‘their’ cul-de-sac outer suburban, ‘meat and two-vege’ eating, Holden-V8 driving, Dan Brown-reading, privilege unchecking, Lockwood flag-voting lifestyles. Though our interaction with them only truly extends to family, snark, or appropriation of ironic cultural or fashion trends, we demand that, in order for things to improve, that they change their tastes, beliefs, and flag aesthetics.It’s the equivalent of gentrification but applied to whole swathes of the population.

Surely, our greatest delusion was the failure of the Red Peak social media campaign to translate into a popular movement. We overestimated the contribution that Facebook, Twitter, and the online petition made to the public discourse. We Facebook posted the latest Guardian, John Oliver clip, or Pencilsword piece on the flag debate to great applause from our social bubble but not beyond it. Likewise, Twitter merely served the debate equivalent of sniper showdowns between Twitter personalities that the public by and large weren’t following. Most people don’t generally use Facebook or Twitter to debate politics but to reinforce their online identity – something we ‘politically engaged’ do with left-wing Red Peakism. This is not new, as last year’s Green voter ‘ballot selfies’ was part of a long line of examples of reinforcement rather than outreach. If we seek to change hearts and minds, talking about ourselves isn’t the place to start.

Red Peak has come to represent a symbolic divide between an upper-middle class social bubble and the public at large. Though our passion for Red Peak is genuine, we misread the situation because we can be insular and sometimes condescending about towards those who don’t share our tastes. Red Peak is probably not going to become the NZ flag in the future if the next referendum fails. Any new designs that are truly agreeable must not only be shortlisted by a more open panel of qualified designers and historians, we must also confront the reality of where New Zealanders’ aesthetic sensibilities lie. If we are genuine about our social media promotion of Red Peak for the greater good, we cannot assume that our ideas are superior. If we merely engage with those inside our bubble, ideas like Red Peak are merely middle class gang patches for our own social media brands rather than visual symbols that represent everyone.

TOP TRUMPS

vQbsM1L

Worldwide rage at Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering America has culminated in a 400,000-plus petition to ban him from entry into the UK reaching the House of Commons for binding debate. Owen Jones labelled him a menace and warned us not to see him as a clown. In this case, our popular rage appears misplaced. Consider the makeup of the Home Office list of banned individuals. This ranges from figures who have said controversial things to serious financial fraudsters, alleged terrorists, convicted war criminals, and human rights-abusing politicians. Strangely, there was no similarly popular petition to ban Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – previously informally banned over complicity in Muslim pogroms as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 – from visiting the UK in October. Our well-meaning efforts ignore not only the context of the Home Office list but also the reality of what Trump actually represents.

Trump’s presidential campaign resembles a billionaire vanity project meets a My Fair Lady/ Around the World in 80 Days ‘gentlemen’s wager’ in which American political dysfunction has allowed to succeed. Republicans candidates are trapped by an alliance of monied lobbyists, donors, and grassroots primary voter groups they fund who can fight politicians who have strayed from absolute devotion to their conservatism. Presidential candidates are being forced further to the right of the American public and can no longer simultaneously serve red meat in the primaries and convincingly return to the middle during the general election. Case in point: Mitt Romney.

The antipathy towards these disingenuous, professionally-trained career politicians has many among the Republican base more willing to support novices. In 2012, Herman Cain – the former pizza mogul whose bizarre campaign ads, naivety, multiple claims of sexual harassment, and a speech quoting Pokemon: the Movie – temporarily led the polls. In 2016 – amid a sprawling 17 mostly conventional candidates – Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump have each stood out and held the limelight. Similar to Cain, Carson has fallen due to misleading biographical claims and Fiorina was hurt by aborted foetal organ harvesting claims and her record as CEO of HP.

Trump has succeeded against other novices and establishment candidates because he runs not as a politician but as entertainer. A candidate for the reality TV age in the mould of Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay – blunt and mean and whose controversies are treated as mere aggrandisement. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, in his article ‘Inside the GOP Clown Car‘, argued this was a shift from professional politics in favour of celebrity. ‘He’s taken the Beltway thinkfluencers out of the game and turned the presidency into a pure high-school-style popularity contest conducted entirely in the media. Everything we do is a consumer choice now, from picking our shoes to an online streaming platform to a presidential nominee.’ A typical Trump campaign rally or debate isn’t a political event but a self-aware brand: bouffant hair, spray tan, wiseguy New Yorker attitude playing a reality TV president for the crowd. Even his mocking of the disabled, women, and now Muslims feels less like bigotry and more of a calculated, shameless appeal to bigots within the Republican base. He’s not beholden to politician rules so hasn’t suffered the consequences. If he did, the Sinn Fein fundraiser attendee, Democrat and Bill Clinton supporter, now Republican businessman with dealings with Chinese businesspeople and Gulf State Muslim princes would be at single-digits. Luckily, this hurts his chances in the general election.

Amidst our outrage, we ignore real demagogues like Narendra Modi the politician and elevate Trump to the position of political menace. We’ve confused entertainment for politics. Trump is a clown, but more symbolically he’s a court jester playing a satirical presidential candidate and consequently mocking a corrupt process. Close the petition page, pour a drink, and enjoy this meta-spectacle.

OFF-KEY

john-key-getting-angry-in-parliament.jpg.hashed.816a9547.desktop.story.wideA sweeping change is occurring in NZ politics and John Key and his staff have failed to see it coming. Normally, the timeline would go: Key accuses Labour’s advocacy for New Zealanders resident in Australia imprisoned on Christmas Island as siding of rapists, murders, and paedophiles, the left and media challenges his figures and ethics, our political lizard brains choose a side, then it disappears from the news. The public don’t like criminals and, like with the working poor and welfare recipients, ‘criminals’ tend to lack the money, organisation, well-financed think tanks, and media influence to fight back. This time, Key and his staff indirectly picked a fight with women, resulting in a parliamentary protest by female MPs who took issue with this claim, some of whom had experienced sexual assault, some of whom were removed followed by a walkout from the chamber by female and male MPs. Key and his staff misread the situation and were blindsided by the changing role of women in politics and society.

Women’s political and economic clout is becoming much stronger. Now comprising 31% of Parliament, women have a greater voice from a powerful platform. This is especially focused on advocacy for legislative, judicial, and societal action against gender violence. Studies estimate up to 1 in 3 women and girls have experienced sexual violence. Yet, the link between violence and gender is still taken far less seriously by politicians, judicial system, and the media. The lack of action over Roastbusters, closure of a Christchurch’s only rape crisis centre, and the continued popularity of Tony Veitch can attest to this. However, where mainstream politics are failing, new media and social media are are transcending traditional power structures, with the power to make normally unseen videos and quotes go viral. Most notably, satirical coverage by Last Week Tonight is transforming Key from a lesser known world leader to a gaff-prone buffoon not merely on copyright infringement and embarrassing flags, but also sexism. Expect to see John Oliver tearing apart Key again next week as well as more astute political tactics like last night. 



While it’s easy to sneer at the stereotype of the hypersensitive, privilege-scorning feminist, opponents are on the wrong side of history. Politically-speaking, Key and National have no choice but to adapt conservatism to incorporate modern feminism. Minister for Women’s Affairs Louise Upston’s notion of meritocracy and hard work are no longer acceptable to a growing number of women who have experienced and realised a great undercurrent of discrimination and are rightly offended when the Prime Minister indirectly accuses victims of sexual assault of supporting rapists and paedophiles. National has proven willing to similarly discard Don Brash’s ideas on racial equality to work with the Maori Party out of sheer necessity, so can and must inevitably make overtures to feminism.

Part of this transformation begins with the tone of parliamentary debate. The withering put-downs that we political obsessives love are ultimately ‘boy politics.’ The spectacle of parliamentary debates that we prize – the shouting, grunting, cat-calls, and insults – have all the civility of a single-sex grammar school. A culture descended from traditionally male-dominated politics may be growing increasingly out of touch with public attitudes. The Crosby-Textor-style of conservative political communication – an approach whose strength of black and white logic ultimately appeals to public fear – has failed to comprehend human acknowledgement of harrowing experiences. The emotionally-charged scene of MPs standing up to the Speaker, revealing their own experiences of sexual violence, and then being denied a voice is a sign of things to come and Key would be wise to acknowledge this – even at the expense of pleasure and praise for well-crafted, parliamentary pantomime.

VENI, VIDI, VEITCHY

VENIVIDIVEITCHY2

What always baffled me about Tony Veitch’s return to the airwaves is why Radio Sport considered it worth the effort. Surely, there must have been an equally talented ‘larakin’ with good commentary, banter, and man cave prizes who hasn’t committed multiple acts of domestic violence over a five year period. Consider how much effort Radio Sport must invest on caller screening, online comment monitoring, and security at public appearances. One wrong comment could easily remind us of his past crimes and elicit the rattled response from Veitch that eventually occurred.

Radio Sport clearly thinks Veitch is worth the effort because a large segment of the public both loves him and/ or doesn’t care enough about his past. His expert sporting commentary and banter brings in ratings. John Key’s multiple appearances on his show indicates the public – even those who dislike Veitch’s actions – generally abides by his return. 

His continued popularity symbolises a broader dilemma of the separation of consumer choice and personal ethics. To some degree, all of us appreciate the work of someone whose personal life contradicts our sense of right and wrong. We watch the films of Woody Allen but put aside both his marriage to his adopted daughter and gruesome allegations concerning another daughter, Dylan. Same with the photography of Terry Richardson and the music of Chris Brown, James Brown, and now Lou Reed. We readily justify our consumption through arguments such as being able to love the artist’s work and hate their personal life, citing their personal upbringing as a reason to be more understanding, or dismissing allegations entirely. With Veitch, the narrative tends to be ‘He apologised, gave her $100,000, spoke out against domestic violence, and lost his career; forgive and let him move on.’

Absolute separation of a person from their work is extremely difficult if there’s doubt. It’s difficult to listen to Lou Reed and not think ‘you allegedly beat up ex-girlfriends and called Bob Dylan a ‘pretentious kike’.’ Washing away the foul taste requires the ethical equivalent of downing a 1.5 litre Coke in 30 seconds. We pain ourselves into quickly ignoring and supressing our concerns for our fulfilment. Instead, we often reserve our righteous anger for the trivial. In Veitch’s case, consider many sports fans still fume over decades-long feuds: Australian underarm bowling, All Blacks food poisoning in South Africa, or Russell Coutts’ defection from Team New Zealand to Oracle. An ethical consumer approach isn’t the solution as it cannot end physical, sexual, or mental violence. The aforementioned celebrities are ultimately dependent on their loyal fan-bases. Besides, we’re not merely the sum of our bad deeds and if we express remorse for wrongs, take punishment, and change our ways we are capable of at least some forgiveness – unless you’re Jimmy Savile. The only satisfaction that both sides of this debate can have is that, as celebrities, they will always be both publically loved but also reviled. They’ve chosen to continue in the public limelight so must accept the good and the bad. Veitch could have chosen any number of career paths after his fall but he had to go and choose THAT one, the price being continued pot shots for the remainder of his broadcasting career. 

Greater understanding could be gained if we acknowledge these hypocrisies. If we could admit that we all sometimes prioritise some form of cultural attainment over ethics for self-interest, we’d more easily understand that media outlets’ more baffling choices tend to mirror our own.   

RICHES TO RAGS

Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 23.11.41

Fashion retailer American Apparel filed for bankruptcy yesterday. The flagship of mainstream hipster fashion, this was less the end of an era and more of a maturing of Indie culture. The main reasons for this downfall were numerous. The marked price increase in products, bad financial management, and the sexual allegations against founder and deposed CEO Dov Charney. Symbolically though, the exposure of what lay underneath the brand exposed us to hard truths about the values of Indie culture.

American Apparel resonated with my generation, with most friends my age and myself still having a t-shirt or socks somewhere in our wardrobes. The brand symbolised an aesthetic and an ethical call to arms. Indie branding owed in many regards to the backlash against corporate greed. After increased publicity of corporate greed and greater awareness of sweatshop clothing scandals of the 1990s, we wanted more. Fashion-wise, this often meant a rejection of labels in favour of plain, functional tops balanced with bright colours and good quality. Their production was American-based and paid their workforce double the national minimum wage. They were sex-positive and defied moral criticism by prominently displaying the gay magazine Butt in-store. It was a new kind of brand that promised cheap, aesthetically-pleasing, ethical clothing in which we could have capitalism and ethics.

Rather than achieving liberation, we ended up worshipping an aesthetic while ignoring an exploitative undercurrent. Indie culture has been as notably bad as everyone else in terms of misogyny, classism, and ethnic homogeneity. Perhaps we never initially noticed because of our reliance on nostalgic irony as central to our aesthetic values. American Apparel has certainly captured the public imagination through their homage to 1970’s porn imagery in advertisements. This appeal to nostalgia promoted an ideal of sexually-driven human beings free from moral Puritanism. Yet like with the hippie movement, the ideal of sexual liberation has been often used by misogynists to use their power to their own benefit. Quite fittingly, there have been multiple allegations of sexual inappropriateness against Dov Charney as well as his self-promoted sexual objectification. Numerous claims of sexual harassment, sex for employment, keeping an assistant as a ‘sex slave,’ and attending meetings and walking around the office near-nude. Similarly, the continued popularity of photographer Terry Richardson within Indie culture, mainstream fashion, and establishment figures confirms that brand image matters more than ethics.

In this case though, the weakness of irony as a fig leaf is the gradual rejection of irony applied to sexuality or gender. The downfall of American Apparel and Terry Richardson is that they depend on such a narrow brand image and, like Nike or McDonalds before them, are vulnerable to changing social attitudes. Third wave feminism has provided an antidote to corporate branding for a generation of men and women fluent in social media and new journalism. Protests against brands and their maestros have exposed Indie lifestyle brands to be as hollow as those corporates we originally derided decades ago.

With the legal and ethical bankruptcy of American Apparel, there is an opportunity for the broader Indie culture to move away from lifestyle brands and in favour of individual reasoning both through challenging hierarchy and through individual interpretation of ironic value. Nostalgic irony is fine as long as you can easily separate the fashion from the out of date values of the time it’s associated with. For me, that’s Carry On Films without holding many of the gender attitudes of the 1960s and Nancy Sinatra without Frank Sinatra. For the American Apparel ideal, you can easily both appropriate 1970’s porn chic fashion and enjoy a freer sexuality and not treat people solely as extensions of your sexual desires and power. Imbuing pieces of apparel with imagined qualities provides neither solace nor substitute for ethical reasonings we must negotiate ourselves daily.

CEREAL OFFENDERS

cereal_killer_by_veronikernes

On the rarer occasions I visit the Shoreditch end of Brick Lane, I find myself in state of heightened irritability with many things I dislike being together in one place. Crowds of twenty-somethings who value expressing themselves solely through vintage fashion and overpriced food stalls serving ethnic variations on sliders. Last weekend, broad dislike of Shoreditch and what it has come to symbolise spilled over during anti-gentrification protests that culminated in the vandalisation of the famed and ridiculed Cereal Killer Café: a place where you can buy mainly American cereal for £3.50 a bowl and is synonymous with the high camp end of ‘hipsterism.’ Some protesters argued the publicity earned and symbolic stand against the dispossession of the poor as a result of gentrification were more important than the damage. Yet channelling the anger of symbols is detrimental to this cause.

This isn’t Cereal Killer’s fault. It’s success is a far greater reflection of our own shortcomings and priorities. Shoreditch relies on young professionals with disposable income who like living inner city and prize expensive irony. Cereal Killers’ gimmick skilfully appeals to our fetishisation of childhood memories through children’s cereal and yearning for exotic products we saw watching American movies. Shoreditch – like my own neighbourhood Hackney – has become romanticised as a place of an ‘edgy creativity’ that has captured hearts and minds in Britain and worldwide like Camden and Notting Hill before it. In that sense Shoreditch is a tourist district; London’s hipster version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Delhi’s Paharganj. There’s little difference between Cereal Killer or a Notting Hill film location tour capitalising on this. Rather than targeting what has already been transformed, protesters would be better served occupying an old pub closed for renovation to be transformed into a Weatherspoons chain pub in Walthamstow.

Protester concerns are more valid in gentrification being funded by monied new arrivals who reap all the benefits at the expense of the original inhabitants. This is best symbolised by the parallel but separate existences of newcomers and the born and bred; of council flats coexisting beside expensive, renovated former council flats. When rents become more expensive due to the improved desirability of the neighbourhood, many poorer original inhabitants are forced to move elsewhere. Ultimately though, dispossession from gentrification cannot be solved through trying to change our own consumer habits. Instead, collective political will must address the causes of skyrocketing housing prices synonymous with gentrification. The lack of affordable housing construction. No rent controls unlike in Europe. Unregulated investment property purchases financed by overseas speculators. The decline in social housing stock and the ‘help to buy’ scheme of tenants buying council flats at heavy discount with incentive to sell later at a huge profit. Currently there is a lack of will and, again, it reflects badly upon us. Though we support more affordable housing in principle, perhaps we’re reluctant to see any changes that might cause our own housing prices to fall or increase less in value after the money we have spent. While there is now a disincentive for political parties to promote real housing reform, this requires political bravely to do what is fair. Without such reforms, consumer choice ultimately favours those with more money. Inconsequential consumer choice only really applies to indulgences like vintage cereal.