Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland decides

And it’s a no.

As the campaign entered its final weeks, particularly after YouGov gave the yes campaign their single percentage point lead, it all got a bit unpleasant at times. I removed my “yes” Twibbon from my Twitter profile after a while as I was so shocked by some of what I saw. On the eve of the poll I almost wrote a Ewen Morrison-style “why I’m now a no voter” post. There were three things that I found particularly problematic.

Firstly, was the endless accusations of BBC bias and the demonstrations outside Pacific Quay. These got to me for a number of reasons. Most importantly was the basic issue of the BBC is biased. It doesn’t take a genius to work this out. Just try watching any of their coverage of industrial disputes as a trade union member; or consider their coverage of the Middle-East from any perspective beyond that of Israel or the US. I also could not understand why it was an issue for Yes – if their campaign was so powerful, so grassroots and honest, if the BBC were not fully reporting how overwhelming it was, why did it matter? Surely Yes was beyond the BBC? I was also fairly impressed with the BBC coverage overall. It was atrocious before the start of 2014, but it is the British Broadcasting Corporation – the vast majority of its viewers were not interested in IndyRef before then. This is also why the endless questions that had already been debated in Scotland, kept being re-aired; the rest of the UK had not heard them. The rest of the UK only woke up when that YouGov poll was published. And in those final two weeks there was some very impressive coverage – Robert Peston in particular was very good; the Big Big Debate got massive plaudits across the political spectrum. Even Nick Robinson moved away from being his usual right-wing ignoramus to doing some good reporting. On the eve of the vote, he could have, quite rightly, reported how he was booed out of Perth Concert Hall, but he didn’t. That wasn’t the news story.

The second thing that made me absolutely livid and frankly ashamed to be associated with the whole process was that video of someone on a rickshaw following some Labour MPs, including Ed Milliband through the streets of Glasgow playing the Imperial War March from Star Wars and saying things like “welcome imperial masters”. This was followed by people in Darth Vader and stormtrooper outfits waving Yes flags. This disgusted me. It was utterly ignorant of Scotland’s major role in the making of the British Empire. Scots were disproportionately active in the slavery and cold-blooded ruthlessness that made the British Empire for two centuries. The empire made the wealth of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. To pretend Scotland is somehow an oppressed country overpowered by imperial overlords is an insult to this history of suffering. We have had this debate; we have had this vote; we are not oppressed.

The final thing that got to me was something I mentioned briefly in my post about being a swithering Yes voter – the na├»ve, blind optimism of those on the political left who supported Yes, with their unflinching idea that somehow an independent Scotland would become a socialist utopia. This became only more ludicrous once the English left started to chip-in. It utterly ignored the facts of the social attitudes of the Scottish population – a point made all the more apparent to me when I was preparing some slides for later today. In the 2013 results of the Scottish Social AttitudesSurvey, 75% of compassionate, left-leaning Scots who believe in social justice agree or strongly agree that the majority of people who claim benefits claim them fraudulently (a staggering 48% strongly agree); 52% of the same Scots either think taxes and spending should be lowered (4%) or stay the same as they are at the moment (48%). Oh, and those free university places that Scotland is so proud of boasting about because they demonstrate how socially just we are? 72% of Scots disagree with them.  

Now, there are two responses to this I can expect. One is quite ridiculous, but I actually have some time for – all these people are Daily Mail readers who have had their views polluted by a right-wing press. To be fair, if you compare the news agenda in countries with more tolerant views on such things, like our Scandinavian chums, their press reports them less negatively. But we’ve never been voting whether we’d get a radically different press ownership with different editorial views. We’ve been voting for constitutional change.

The other response is, ahh, but Scotland successively elects left-of-centre representatives in elections. Firstly, you have to agree that the Labour party is currently left-of-centre, which I doubt many on the Yes left would do. Secondly, and a much further stretch, you have to count to SNP as avowedly left-of-centre. They are not. They are a nationalist umbrella of the right-of-centre and the left-of-centre that find their locus around the hollow signifier of “Scotland”. Promises to reduce corporation tax and policies currently that aim to do nothing but deliver “sustainable economic growth” reflect a party as pro-business and wedded to the neoliberal conventional wisdom as the Tories. Free university places, free personal care to the elderly, the council tax freeze etc. have all been at the cost of services to marginalised people throughout Scotland (just ask all those whose projects closed down from 2008 onwards). These are regressive policies that win votes that you can easily dust with some social democratic icing.

This is where I end up agreeing with the Guardian and CarolCraig, who both argued beautifully for a no vote. To claim Scotland is more left wing is nationalist. You are saying these people who live in this nation are different to those people who live in that nation. This is a nationalist argument; you cannot deny that. The only way out of that logical trap is to point out Scotland is more like the rest of northern Europe (and thus, actually, quite right-wing) and it’s England that’s odd because its politics are more aligned with those of north America. However, this begs the question, why independence? Couldn’t we become another bit of the Netherlands instead? No. because Scotland is different. It's nationalism is different, it's not nationalist. And this morning I’m witnessing an ugly side of this – tweets appearing on my timeline from Yes campaigners blaming proud No voters for damning Scotland and the Scottish to more years of Trident; more years of poverty. Because this was a nationalist campaign, somehow no voters are not “Scotland” or “Scottish”. May I remind you again, the majority of Scots would not wish to see taxes rise to pay for more generous welfare benefits.

As the debate raged and got more heated in the final days this was a view I came to agree with more and more. I expressed it on Facebook as I know a lot of my followers were proud No voters. There was absolutely no way I was going to openly express these views on Twitter. The vilification of the Guardian piece – a very well-reasoned, social-democratic, liberal argument for No – on Twitter was a sight to behold. Being “nationalist” was too difficult a brush to be tarred with. I tentatively mooted some points of criticism of some of these arguments on Twitter and did elicit some of the wall of positivity of the Yes campaign, but I basically censored myself.

For this reason I did agree with Ewen Morrison when he “cameout” as a Yes voter who had switched to “No” because of this relentless positivity, because there was no argument behind the Yes other than incessant optimism and a suggestion that you were wrong to even suggest that life in an independent Scotland might be tough; or it might even be quite right wing? This wasn’t across the board, and there were a lot of very good discussions, but there was a palpable sense that debate had been closed down by many in Yes.

And this brings me to my final worry – that Yes was essentially just an empty signifier. With its relentless optimism – the big white Yes on a blue background was a design masterstroke – anyone could write their hopes for the future onto it. I thought of this whenever I stood on a “Keep the Tories out forever” Yes leaflets on the pavement in Leith, or when I heard the fallacious “save the NHS vote Yes” argument. In many respects this was the great strength of the Yes campaign – like Obama’s message of “Hope” (in what?) it got the grassroots out, and very impressive they were too. I walk across the Foot-of-the-Walk in Leith every Saturday morning and at the start of the campaign back in 2012 Yes and Better Together took it in turns each weekend. Then Better Together stopped around the end of 2013. Then it was Yes every weekend. The most recent time I saw No Thanks was with ten days to go, the weekend after that poll. As one No campaigner suggested to me, they felt like they’d been given up on. Whereas the hollow signifier of Yes could bring everyone to its cause – an independent Scotland will be a truly wonderful place because I say so. The wounds of dented pride are going to be difficult to heal over the next few years and I hope the UK’s politicians have the skill to do so.

And yet, oddly, the one argument that was never made much was the one I made in my blog postthe constitutional point. Yes, some on the left suggested that independence would revive democracy, but with very few concrete plans of what that new democracy would look like. The draft constitution impressed me, but there were no firm plans of how a continuing constitutional convention would operate. There was a real opportunity to invest resources in a radical participatory democratic programme and cement this in the ongoing running of the country.

We now have the much bigger, more challenging and arguably more exciting job of reforming the UK. I found myself agreeing with that despicable man Nigel Farage this morning as he argued that the whole constitution of the UK needs looking at again. However, in this process I am scared of two things. Firstly, that the timetable set out is just too fast. It will not allow the issues to be properly debated across the UK and it will leave more tensions within the UK settlement than we have at the moment. Secondly, I fear the path dependency of the UK. I don’t have much time for path dependency – as someone with a background in history, I often read it as social scientists playing bad history. But two areas in this constitutional debate have all the hallmarks of path dependency – the Barnett Formula and reform of the Palace of Westminster.

The Barnett formula because it’s about money and any change to it effects those bits of the UK who have done worst from the current constitutional settlement. But it needs to go. It enables the centralisation of power in the hands of the UK treasury. We need a new financial settlement across the UK where local government in England cannot have its budget cut by 30% at the whim of a Whitehall minister; and where the nations and regions can shape their futures. The Yes campaigners have to accept this as well. If we had gone independent the Barnett formula would have been gone once and for all – we would no longer have benefited from the ways in which it allows money to flow across the nation counteracting spatial economic differences.

On reform of the broader institutions of Westminster – we need, and I hope we will get – a coalition of all those enthusiastic Yes and No voters with those disenchanted in the rest of the UK; with those in the north of England who feel even more left behind by political events; with those in the South East who feel aggrieved about the way transfer payments across the nation operate; with the Welsh and Northern Irish who would have been left high-and-dry by Scottish independence.

We also have so much to do in Scotland itself. The process of government has rumbled on here while this debate has been happening and it demonstrates we need change. The Yes votes in Dundee, Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire show how we need to reengage with the poorest in Scottish society and make their lives better. We need to remove all local authorities from the straitjacket of the council tax freeze and give them the power to deliver what their people clearly want. We need to implement the recommendations of the Commission of Local Democracy. We need to stop living in a Scotland where Edinburgh Council can no longer afford routine maintenance of its school estate; where Police Scotland seem immune to democratic scrutiny. These are big, and small, policy issues we need to get on with debating.

The hope of the empty signifier of Yes was a reaction to trends we’re seeing across the industrialised democracies of the world: the rise of global capitalism, where Apple is bigger than some countries' GDP and nation-states cannot pin down companies to pay their taxes; growing income and wealth inequality across the globe; the very terrifying threat of climate change about which we seem unwilling to act; and poverty and social exclusion. This is manifesting itself in our political institutions: in the growing power of small elites of career politicians and media moguls in countries (Scotland very much included); in the declining voter turnout and membership of political parties; and in the growth of protest parties, from the Tea Party, UKIP, the far-rightin Sweden and the Yes campaign. All of these are empty signifiers, offering to disenchanted voters “down with this sort of thing” (what?) and “we can change things” (how?). Constitutional change in Scotland would have given a very small kick against these global challenges – we might have seen a boost in political participation that would have lasted beyond the first election. Now we have to deliver a much bigger kick across the UK and across the international left-wing movement.

This morning, another sad theme in tweets from Yes campaigners is, that after all those weeks of saying how great this process of democratic debate was, they’re now dismissing it out-of-hand since they have lost the argument, for now. The view is now that is was a victory of “fear” and “global capitalism”. This saddens me greatly. Democracy has happened; it has been witnessed in greater numbers in Scotland than for 50 years. People who have never voted before headed off to the polls. Can we not be vindictive about the result and just get on and deliver a new UK for everyone?

And if you are a Yes supporter and you’re reading this spitting tacks, thinking “I’m not a nationalist”, “how dare he tar me with this brush” don’t bother commenting. I won’t respond as you’re just proving my argument. Firstly, go to bed, then step back, and then set to work making the UK better. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

This post is not about #IndyRef

Well, the above tweet has got 36 RTs at the time I write this, so it gives an impression of what the ferment of the #IndyRef debate on social media is like at the moment. Therefore, I'm not optimistic that a blog post about my recent paper will have much success. But here goes...

Most of my research and writing outputs to date have been on urban policy and urban regeneration with a distinct interpretive policy analysis approach (here, here and here) with some dabbling in discourse analysis (here and here) and most recently in my work on middle class community activism with Prof Annette Hastings (herehere and here). My most recent paper is dabbling into the world of urban sociology a bit more, published in Housing Studies.

In this post I want to shamelessly promote my writing by producing a synopsis of the paper, but also reflect a bit more on the process of peer review, as I am wont to do. The paper comes out of the AHRC Connected Communities project, led by Prof Chris Speed at Edinburgh Uni that was involved in called Ladders to the Cloud, along with RCAHMS and community partner organisations in Wester Hailes. You’ll have probably heard about this project before because of the totem pole that was partly a result of it.

The paper essentially takes further the analysis and argument made in blog posts for the social history blog From There to Here, here and here. If you look at the comments on the photos on the From There to Here Facebook page, I argue, you see residents and former residents of Wester Hailes collaboratively writing stories. There’s two main formats: “Do you remember this?”, “Yes, it was X in Y”; or “Is that you and X”, “Yes and that’s X we were doing Y”. These stories add a little more evidence as to how working class people understand their sense of home and place.

In the first version of the paper I focused on two aspects of sense of place in particular – firstly, coming out of the coproduced fieldwork and my research background, was how these stories resisted widespread stigma to Wester Hailes and reframed the neighbourhood in a positive light. Secondly, I drew on the concepts of selective and elective belonging to explore how committed these commenters were to their neighbourhood, or former neighbourhood.

The very positive, useful and extremely in-depth comments from the peer reviewers also allowed me to bring in a broader literature on working class sense of home from Chris Allen among others. This massively improved the paper, though due to work commitments at the time, it did delay the process of producing the revisions.

The process of peer review was very good indeed (although a little bit lengthy, but hey-ho). The original paper focused much more on the aspects of stigma, but also tried to bring in the broad literature on social capital, social class and community activism. I sort of knew it wasn’t working, but thought the paper was ready for peer review. The reviewers comments made me realise this part of the argument really wasn’t working and I just dropped it and focused on a much slimmer argument.  And luckily, mashing together the chopped stuff with some stuff from this paper that was rejected by a journal with some quite staggeringly bad comments, has left me with another paper ready(ish) to go to a community development journal.

However, what was most surprising was the paper went from “Reject and resubmit” to “accepted” following one set of revisions. I was absolutely gob-smacked. The last time this happened was with my first ever paper from my MSc dissertation. Anyway, I can’t complain as reading through the paper to correct my proofs, it isn’t half bad, if I say so myself. Also, unlike some reviewers (me not included) my reviewers focused on improving the broad sweep of the argument being made, rather than providing corrections line-by-line. As a result when I submitted corrections I’d almost run out of my 50 spaces manuscript central would allow me.

Anyway, I hope you do read the paper and enjoy it. To summarise the argument, it is:
  • If we look at historic, naturally shared narratives of working class belonging then they are complex and nuanced with various degrees of selectiveness to their belonging; 
  • Facebook sites can be a really good source for “natural” talk about neighbourhoods and belonging;
  • Facebook is media and the content of it shapes responses - beware the algorithms.

Tada! As ever, copies available if you drop me an email.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Poverty and social networks

I don't usually put images on this blog (I know I should) but for once I have one to hand that is very appropriate:

Regularly readers of this blog might recall back earlier this year I was writing about doing my review on the evidence around social networks and poverty for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (including this handy guide to key concepts). Well, it’s finally had the sign-off, so as requested by the JRF I’ve published it myself here, with all the “findings” of the reviews collated into one document here (big PDF).

I’m very glad I got the opportunity to do the review. It really expanded my knowledge and understanding of what poverty is, particularly the difficult dividing line between economic inequality and poverty. The position I now find myself in intellectually is understanding that economic inequality drives poverty, but the two are distinct concepts.

As I was applying for the review I had a few discussions about doing research for the JRF with other researchers. One thing that was emphasised was that the JRF want two things that scholars often find very difficult to deliver – unequivocal findings and practical recommendations on what could be done now to make things better. And this is very much the case, I found out, particularly with these reviews that were designed to feed into a strategy to tackle poverty in the UK.

One aspect of this was an invite down to the JRF office in London earlier this year to present my headline findings I five minutes. To brag about myself shamelessly, I think I did rather well here, managing to get through them in three minutes. I presented them in “slide-pack” format: a slide packed with information that you can use as a sort of precis, available here. I managed to summarise my findings so briefly because there was so little to talk about, essentially the main finding was, in the short term, if you want to tackle poverty don’t bother focusing on social networks.

What was extremely reassuring at the JRF event was one of the panel members wholeheartedly agreed with me and summarised the point better than I could. Intrinsically you want to think social networks must matter for tackling poverty – it’s not what you know, but who you know, right? If you know richer people, they’ll give you money at the most basic, right?

Not really; or there’s no evidence to show that’s the case. Poverty is most likely to exclude you from social networks due to shame and financial exclusion. The idea of strong working class communities of poorer people rallying around to support one-another just doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence.

However, one frustration with our review was because it was one of the smaller reviews and was very tightly circumscribed we had to miss out lots of evidence we could see was there. For example, the evidence around social networks, health and wellbeing, and poverty are extremely strong indeed, but these could not be included within the scope of the review.

It wasn‘t all negative though – one thing that did come through clear from the evidence was the importance of passive interaction. This article in Discover Society about my favourite public space in the world, City Park in my home city of Bradford, exemplifies this excellently. Freely provided, open and accessible spaces such as schools, parks and libraries provide areas for us to rub-up against difference, including poverty. This is more likely to make us understand poverty a lot more and be more sympathetic to policies to tackle poverty and integrate people into society. So, alas my main finding was actually the usual one provided by lefty academics – don’t cut expenditure on public services.