Politics is never just politics, if it really matters…

We live in polarised times. Populism has taken over politics and sold us simplified solutions to complex human problems. Brexit will either make Britain great again or destroy our economy. Trump has been and has not quite gone. On the British left, Corbyn rode a moderate wave of populism too for a while, before he fell/was pushed off.

The engine for this populism seems to have different parts; the rise of mass consciousness driven by manipulateable social media feeds; disenfranchisement and dissaffection with traditional politics; economic anxieties and austerity. We can also mix in with this the fact that much of the mainstream media is the the pocket of moguls with their own, mostly right wing agendas, despite Trump’s accusations of left wing bias. I suppose the fact is that politics in our (and America’s) first-past-the-post systems is always first about winning, and if this can be achieved via a populist illusion then so be it. Worry about the cost to integrity later…

Perhaps we are all tribal at heart. This seems to be one of the uncivilised persistant character traits of the social animal that we evolved from- the skew towards indentification with me and mine, to the detriment of you and yours. Politics at its worst feeds this instinct and left unchecked it is such a force for destruction. It is killing hundreds of refugees as we speak for instance. But even if I must acknowledge my own tribal prejudices, I re-joined the Labour party not because I wanted to ‘belong’ to anything, but because I am passionate about progressive change. I have seen close at hand what austerity and social injustice can do to both the winners and the losers and long for a politics of careful kindness in which we judge our success not on the extreme wealth of a few but the wellbeing of those most vulnerable. In this context, the purpose of a political party is to decide on a set of principles, then argue about the best way to put these into action. Oh- then how to sell these actions to the wider public who might or might not vote for them.

The other reason I re-joined the party was because of Jeremy Corbyn. I make no apologies about this, because even though he has become a polarising figure, the values that he represents are ones that I recognise. My late sister and I had many long discussions about how he represented, for us, a kind of politics that lit us up when we were young- a very British kind of democratic socialism in which the role of state is to mediate between the power of capital and the welfare of its citizens. He was regularly accused of ‘looking backwards’ and wanting to ‘return to the 1970’s’ but this misunderstands the Corbyn project entirely. The reason why Labour Party membership is more than all the other parties combined is because young people responded in droves to the idea of social change for the better.

But we are all having to examine the Corbyn era in the light of two major failings under his leadership.

The first was one of leadership itself. Initially I wondered whether he could find a way to lead in a different way; a more collegiate way. Could the party escape from Blairite neoliberalism through debate and aninflux of new ideas? It seemed possible for a while. But Corbyn, despite his fine record of being on the right side of so many issues (not least his long opposition to the dreadful Iraq war) was perhaps always more comfortable on the outside, marching with the protestors, than leading consensus. He had vast and well resourced forces against him but seemed also prone to shoot at his own feet regularly.

The second (and related to the first) is the issue of antisemitism. I wrote a long post for this blog about the Equalities and Human Rights Commission enquiry, but I never posted it because I simply did not feel that I could comment on the degree to which a minority group that I do not belong to should or should not feel aggrieved. I read it in full, trying hard to understand what had gone wrong and how a man whose whole life seemed to have been lived in opposition of racism in all it’s forms could have become forever associated with antisemitism. After reading the report, I do not necessary feel a lot wiser, but what is clear is that Corbyn was never able to reframe the story once it had been told.

Perhaps in part, he was also the victim of his own principles. Bear with me. Do you remember the raging arguments over whether the party should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism? The fact that Corbyn was seen to be dithering and seeking to clarify the definition, then to adopt some of it but not all of it played entirely into the hands of those who portrayed him as antisemitic. To anyone who had actually read the defintion however, and tried to weigh the implications of some of the ‘examples’ given (as I did) Corbyn had a point. Don’t forget that there had been a real push from some Israeli quarters to equate antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel. Corbyn had spent decades arguing (entirely correctly) for the rights of Palestinians, highlighting the on-going breaches of international law perpetrated by the State of Israel. The IHCR definition has been criticised all over the world- consider for example the debate in Canada, which can be read here.

But the fact is that even if Corbyn’s reasons for objecting to the IHCR definition arose from a decent principle, something about him, combined with the forces seeking to oppose him, meant that he was unable to communicate the complexities of his position. Worse than this, the infighting that rumbled on in the party meant that investigations into antisemitism were never free of politics and clumsy attempts to ‘manage’ them from the centre.

Why then, in the light of all this and what has happened to Corbyn since am I still a member of the party? Because I politics is not the point of politics. Politics is about an investment in hopeful change. The Labour party, in populist mode or in the rather more prosaic and lukewarm Starmer mode has always been about shaping policies of liberation and despite the many times when things have gone wrong, how else do we achieve change, if not through seeking to contrbute to the ideas that lead to that change being operationalised?

Like Corbyn, I have always been an outsider. I too have my blind spots arising from my own character flaws. I have been thrust into leadership roles for which I have been only, at best, partially equipped to manage. Like Corbyn, the principles that run through me are too important to ignore.

But also, perhaps like Corbyn, I have to be open to criticism and correction from those whose views, both within and outside the Party, diverge from my own. I have to recognise that progressive voices arise in unexpected places. I also have to acknowledge that any movement needs Starmers as well as Corbyns.

Brave…

.

Brave

.

You were never bold. As a boy you

Beheld the world from distance, as if

The cliff edge was closer. But

Behind those beautiful eyes were

Lands of your own making, where

Wild beasts roamed, unfettered.

.

Why do all those small cruelties outweigh a

Thousand kindnesses? Why do

Softest souls wound deepest?

Would that it were possible to stay

Inside those dreams you had

But only half remember.

.

But you were always brave. It requires courage

To take a good long look but then still leap.

Sure, the horizon seemed no closer after the

Small steps, but you made them anyway.

And when days are dark from the doubting,

Take shelter my son. It never rains forever.

.

The life singing in you is not just journey,

Nor located at some distant destination.

It is here. It is now. It’s what happens

When wounds half-heal but bleed not

Blood, but good. It is not in the width of things

But their depth. It’s a rediscovery of love.

The ghost…

The ghost

.

From felled tree to sawn timber

Length and breadth and width

Perpendicular faces, finished smooth with

Meeting points measured out between

Upright and horizontal

Dovetail and tenons cut

The raising up from this old ground

Of a brand-new human structure

Where people shelter

Beneath the shaped bones

Of what was here before

Hope has breath…

Hope

.

They say that hope comes

Only in the harshest times

When we need it most

.

I see it there in your eye

Feel it as our fingers touch

As our minds entwine

.

Inside this skin that bottles me

It moves like a liquid

Waiting for your cup

.

Not just the hope with feathers

But also sinew and carved stone

It is bone on bone

.

And when friends meet

Hope has breath

Hope has viral load

Psalms of privilege…

Have you read the psalms recently?

An ancient hymn book, full of messages celebrating privilege. Celebrating a relationship with God who is on OUR side. The one who will kick ass on our behalf.

Of course, there is so much more than that in this wonderful ancient poetry – lament, hope, beauty, thankfulness, stillnes – but on one level, they were written as Israel-first propganda.

The danger is that we adopt them as a personal me-first version of the same.

Consider the most famous of them all, psalm 22. We wheel it out when we need it, like some kind of holy comfort blanket. It is beautiful, full of hope and assurance, offering us the hope of God on our side. I read it over and over this week because I am preparing to lead the funeral of a dear friend of ours.

We will desperately need psalm 22.

Beyond this, I found myself wondering what else this psalm had to say to me right now, and wrote this poem.

Psalm 23

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If God is my shepherd, why worry?

Why let anxiety crack the night?

Why let fear of failure pin me

Like a blunt spear?

.

If I lie down in green pastures

Why must I mortgage?

Why chase a wage?

Why scratch upwards for success?

.

If I am led beside still waters

Why must I stare into inky depth

And wonder when my ship

Will come in?

.

If I walk through darkest valleys

And still fear evil

Must I arm myself with

My very own rod and staff?

.

If God would load a table for me

In front of hungry enemies, could I eat?

For surely I’d be sick to my stomach

If I failed to share?

.

If anointed, what am I anointed for?

What makes me so special?

Is it because I am white, male, British?

What if I fall from favour?

.

If goodness and mercy follow after me

Is that like holy magic, or must I make it?

Is it a get-out-of-jail card or an invocation

To become a conduit for love?

.

If I am to dwell in the house of the Lord

Will my room have wifi and a good view?

Or will it be a shelter for the homeless where

Even people like me are welcome?

The dance of the enslaved…

I found this recent series on the BBC very moving.

It featured Samuel L Jackson, an underwater archaelogy team, and some historians shining light on the international slave trade, both here in the UK and in the wider world.

They visited forts on the coast of Africa where slaves were gathered ready for export, and marvelled at the fact that in the centre of the courtyard was a large church.

One story stuck with me, of how the purpose-designed slave ships, carrying men women and children that had been forcibly torn from their homelands, were brought up on deck to excercise. This was not done for humanitarian reasons, but to reduce the numbers who died en route and to make sure that the price they would fetch in the markets they were heading towards was high because they would be in better condition. It was about stock management.

However, it then takes another dark turn. When they were brought on to deck, they were made to dance.

.

Merchandise

.

Once upon a time, people were bought and sold like lawnmowers,

Or second-hand Hondas. Enterprising Christian young men sought their

Fortunes in foreign fields, chasing white ivory or black bodies, both of

Which were worth the trouble because (back then) acquisition

Was a moral imperative. After all, elephants and black people were  

Dumb beasts, whose misfortune was to have economic value elsewhere.

It was dirty business, sawing tusks and chaining black children

So small wonder our heroes took carnal comfort between the unwilling

Legs of black women. They were men of science, designing fine ships that ensured

Their valuable assets were always transported efficiently

 Every inch stacked and shackled but because our men were not monsters

They knew good management of stock meant value must be preserved and wastage

Minimised so each day the enslaved were pulled out on deck and made to

Dance.

The choice to forgive…

This poem is nothing to do with Donald Trump.

Apart from the fact that Trump is us. An extreme version of us, perhaps. The Hyper-us. He makes a virtue out of anger and malevolence. In Trump world, forgiveness is weakness and weakness is for losers.

Non of us are immune from this thinking, both in relation to others and even towards ourselves. It is so much easier to feel outrage and anger when faced with opposition and percieved injustice.

Or we could choose to forgive, no matter how hard this may be, and see where this takes us.

I choose to forgive

.

To you who find me wanting

I choose to forgive

You who delight in my misfortune

I choose to forgive

Who forensically dissect my weakness

I choose to forgive

When you deliberately misunderstand

I choose to forgive

You who speak harsh words against me

I choose to forgive

.

When I fail and when I fall

I choose to forgive

When I hate the man I am

I choose to forgive

When the mirror does not lie

I choose to forgive

When my reach exceeds by grasp

I choose to forgive

Even when I fail to forgive

I choose to forgive

.

When we fail to do our best

I choose to forgive

When we polarise

I choose to forgive

When we build up higher walls

I choose to forgive

When we lie and cheat and steal

I choose to forgive

When we win at any cost

I choose to forgive

I choose to forgive

Regrets, we will all have a few…

Grappling with the news of the death of an old friend. A long life, well lived with much love. Rest in peace, and may those left behind hold some of you for ever.

Regrets

.

When death comes, it first brings regret

For all those things said or not said

For poor omissions and commissions

For generational gaps it was never

Possible to bridge

.

But let time be your kindness

Then pain might become less a pointing finger

And become instead that precious ache inside

Letting you know you were loved

And that you loved too in return

Carcass…

(A juvenile whale has washed up on the Cowal shoreline- thought to be one of a group of three that have been in the upper Clyde estuary for weeks. The animal was emaciated and out of place.)

Carcass

.

In the pre-dawn premonition

Before even half-light

A whisper of wings overhead

Felt, not seen (leaving me to wonder

Whether birds-eye views might help

Or hinder) Then a dark shape in the shallows, half

Submerged. Bulk no longer moving

With the waters, A hidden fluke flat to the sand

Like a lost cutlass

.

Incarnate no more

Just a carcass

.

In case we ever doubt that beasts feel grief

The parents swim in circles in the bay

And whilst we should avoid all anthropomorphic platitudes

I fear they are feeling guilt, as if that sonar shock which

Blew them up, too fast, from the dark depths

Was their fault

Not ours

The woman beneath the hill of the world…

The woman beneath the hill of the world

.

They say the earth is a woman

Wrapped in a gossamer layer of

Brown-green skin

Runnelled and pooled by

Salt tears

.

They say the woman is barren, for her sterile

Soils are not fed from the falling leaves

Now the trees are long gone, and

The long tresses of her long green hair

Are stored as silage

.

They say the woman mourns for her children

Whose bones now brine the ocean, and

Whose dawn songs are no longer sung

Whose savannahs have all

Been stolen

.

They say that the woman speaks to mountains

But they no longer listen. That she

Looks for signs in the distant stars but their blink

Is blurred by the smoke from

Burning forests

.

They say the woman would write her story

Except that the black ink in her wells

Has all been pumped dry, and

The tail-feather-quills from her favourite flightless bird

Have been plucked

.

The woman has not gone away, they say

For she has nowhere else to go

No place beyond these fields for her

Nor grounds she could lay down

So beneath this hill she stays