MONTHLY BLOG 63, THE VALUE OF VOTING – AND WHY THE PRACTICE SHOULD NOT BE MOCKED

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Many more voters than previously realised cast their votes in local and national elections in eighteenth-century England. They were thereby creating – sometimes riotously and casually, but generally decorously and seriously – a culture of constitutionalism. It amounted to an emergent proto-democracy. It was not yet a full democracy, in which all adult men and women have a vote. Yet it was a culture which, importantly, chose to decide certain key disputes by casting equal votes and by then accepting the verdict of the majority.
2016-03-Election-placard1784

Satirical sketch of election placard in Westminster (1784), showing opposition candidate Charles James Fox as a wily fox with his slogan ‘the Rights of the Commons’.
Despite the brickbats and satire, Fox won.

This procedure was much safer and more rational than deciding by fighting; much more effective in winning wider consent than deciding by bribery; and much more involving for all participants than deciding by the casting of lots. Even if not all the eligible electorate actually chose to use their vote (and there were invariably some non-participants), they always had the option.

A proto-democratic culture of constitutionalism promoted public debate about the candidates and the issues, as well as a basic respect for other points of view, which might turn out to have majority support.

In the eighteenth century, the franchise was unfair and unequal, which made it a valid target for reformers. Nonetheless, in a few large constituencies with ‘open’ electorates, the number eligible to vote, via an urban freeman or rate-payer franchise, was very great. The key examples were the cities of London, Westminster, Norwich and Bristol. They had many voters (all men in this era), from a wide range of social backgrounds: from aristocrats to artisans, shopkeepers, and even some labourers. Votes were cast publicly – which meant that votes were open to challenge if the witnessing crowd doubted the eligibility of the voter – and the results were taken as registering public opinion, in the nearest the eighteenth-century constitution offered to a serious test of the views of political ‘outsiders’.

Historically, the fact that Georgian England already had a voting tradition helps to explain how the country later made the transition into full democracy so bloodlessly. Already in the eighteenth century the rudiments of the electoral process were evolving: candidate speeches; party manifestoes; electoral slogans and placards; party colours; door-to-door election canvassing; ward organisations; celebrity endorsements; shows of public support in rival demonstrations and mass meetings; close scrutiny of the voting process; declaration of the results with, upon occasion, a formal challenge and recount; and, finally, acceptance of the outcome. (The Georgian custom of chairing the successful candidate around town was not always implemented then and is today not considered obligatory).

Not only were parliamentary and civic elections contested in these large open constituencies, but during these years the practice of constitutional voting was becoming adopted in many other, different circumstances. It pointed away from the troubled civil wars of earlier times towards a calmer, safer society. Many different non-governmental institutions used the mechanism of voting, for example to determine their own membership.

For example, in numerous private clubs and societies, potential recruits had first to be nominated by one or more existing members. Then votes were cast secretly, for or against; and any candidate who was ‘blackballed’ (negatived) was declared to have lost. This practice continues in some private clubs to this day. It was (is) a particularly severe test, since the excluded candidate might have won a large majority of all votes cast. In that case, it could be accused of being anti-democratic, allowing a small group to negative the will of the majority. The moral, in all cases, is that the rules for voting are crucial in framing how each voting system works.

Other non-governmental organisations which used some version of balloting in the eighteenth century included bank management boards and charitable institutions like London’s Foundling Hospital, established in 1739. That body used voting by its Trustees to recruit new Trustees, when existing ones died or retired. Clearly, these were socially exclusive bodies. But they were upholding the convention that each vote from a valid voter has equal value and that the will of the majority should prevail.

Importantly, too, it’s known that some middling- and lower-class groups used the mechanism of voting to resolve disputes over appointments. For example, a number of Nonconformist churches chose their ministers by such means. The Congregationalists in particular valued this procedure. Potential candidates would appear before a congregation, preach a sermon, and then submit to a vote, no doubt after further behind-the-scenes canvassing and enquiries. In these ways, many people had the experience of participating equally in a collective decision to find out what the majority (including those who were not so vociferous) really wanted.

So what follows? Firstly, the culture of voting is one to be appreciated – and used. Secondly, the constitutional rules for each system of voting really matter. They should be clearly framed to allow each system to operate fairly within its remit – and the rules, once established, should not be tampered with for partisan advantage. And lastly, electors should not be summoned frivolously to the polls. That way, disillusion and apathy develop.

Look at the low turnout for elections to the European Parliament. And there’s a good reason for that. Electors know that the institution has no real power. It is not a supreme legislative or tax-raising body; and, unlike a national Parliament, no executive government is either constituted from its ranks or is scrutinised closely by it. The current arrangements do no good for either the European Union or participatory democracy. Sham elections are destructive of a genuinely civic process, which needs to be cultivated, valued, and made real – not mocked.

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Short Summary: Proto-Democracy’, section 1.7, in E.M. Green, P.J. Corfield and C. Harvey, Elections in Metropolitan London, 1700-1850: Vol. 1 Arguments and Evidence (Bristol, 2013), pp. 55-67; also in www.londonelectoralhistory.com, section 1.7.

2 See P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting: Standing Up to be Counted?’ BLOG no. 53 (May 2015).

3 BLOG illustration from Rowlandson’s Procession to the Hustings after a Successful Canvass (1784) in http://www.magnoliasoft.net/ms/magnoliabox/art/547698/procession-to-the-hustings-after-a-successful-canvass-no14 (detail).

4 Over time, however, the clergy’s professional qualifications tended to be emphasised over the power of congregational election: see J.W.T. Youngs, The Congregationalists: A History (New York, 1990; 1998), pp. 69-70.

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MONTHLY BLOG 58, LIVING INTENSELY IN THE EYE OF THE STORM: WHY DO PEOPLE QUIT THEIR DAILY LIVES AND GO TO JOIN CRUSADES IN DISTANT LANDS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

My previous BLOG/ 57 wrote about political leaders who might hope to ride and direct the tides of History.1 But it’s not only leaders. Historical outcomes are the sum of all the actions and inactions of everybody, combined together. We don’t all have the same power to direct. Yet everybody plays some part, even if by way of abstention. Hence we can all try, if we want, to change the roles which might seem allocated to us. It’s not a very simple thing to do, certainly. As is well known, it’s much easier to make good resolutions than to achieve them. Furthermore, good intentions can also, proverbially, achieve the reverse of the effect intended. Yet things can, upon occasion, be very different.

This BLOG is about the motivations of people who make dramatic changes, quitting their daily lives and going to join crusades in distant lands. Obviously the precise combination of reasons varies from individual to individual. There are usually strong ‘push’ factors, impelled by dissatisfaction with daily life at home. At the same time, however, there’s generally one or more strong ‘pull’ factor as well, attracting via the appeal of a distant cause that’s on the side of History.

Political commitment can have that effect. The thousands of left-wingers from across the world (and especially across Europe), who went in the 1930s to fight for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, were a case in point.2 They were attracted by the lure of action, as well as by their support for Spain’s democratic government. Many were communists. Even if not drilled in the niceties of Marxist theory, they were accustomed to thinking of their own great cause as marching inevitably through History towards a triumphant outcome.

2015-10-No1-Hammersmith&Fulham-International-Brigade

Fig. 1. Memorial to Hammersmith & Fulham volunteers, who fought for the International Brigades in Spain, 1936-9 – installed in Fulham Palace Gardens SW6 in 1997.

The fact that the great cause of anti-Fascism needed an urgent helping hand was not an obstacle. For the many communists in the International Brigades their commitment was encouraged by the Marxist analysis of History, which saw the processes of change as a constant struggle. Of course, there is always opposition and conflict. But it is precisely through complex conflicts that fundamental change will emerge.3 Thus the role of struggle, if need be in the form of real fighting, was not an impediment for those of high spirits and with an active temperament.  Religious motivations are even more common in calling people to action. What can be more powerful and exhilarating than fighting, either literally or symbolically, in God’s cause? It is not even necessary to be highly spiritual to heed that message. It is the call to action which is the lure, with the double promise of fighting in the winning cause of righteousness and, while so doing, of gaining divine goodwill. The rewards, whether spiritual or this-worldly (or both), will follow. It’s a high promise which provides sustenance through the possible times of loneliness, boredom, and confusion which often afflict people who are uprooted from their homes. Indeed, the promise of divine reward encourages those seriously dissatisfied with their current life to take drastic action to put things right.

Particularly electrifying in religious motivation is the call to action that comes when ‘the End is Nigh’. Generally, people muddle on from day to day without worrying about long-term trends. But religious teachings, particularly those which view History as a linear journey from the creation of the world to the last judgment, provide such a mental framework. There was a beginning. There will be an ending, often after a phase of apocalyptic upheaval and turmoil, when God’s final judgment will be revealed.

Believers should accordingly be prepared. They might also look, anxiously or eagerly as the case might be, for signs of the imminent unfolding of these great events. All attempts at second-guessing divine intentions have been consistently discouraged by orthodox religious leaders in all the great linear faiths. Nonetheless, predictions of the imminent End of the World recur in every generation, and especially in times of turmoil.4 The message, for believers, is intensely exciting and empowering.5 It overshadows all routine matters. And heeding the call provides a chance for changing lifestyles. It encourages some to leave home to follow a special teacher or leader. It sometimes leads to violence, when believers fight against unbelievers. And it can even result in mass suicides/murders, if embattled cultists decide to take their own lives and those of their young.

These were all dramatic ways of ‘bearing witness’, to alert an unbelieving world. One non-violent move was undertaken by an aristocratic English lady named Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839). In her youth, she had a busy social life, becoming hostess for her unmarried uncle, the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. But, with his death, she lost her role. What to do? She travelled in the Near East, causing a sensation among the Bedouins when visiting Palmyra. She dressed in an exoticised eastern costume, with a turban and Turkish slippers (see Fig.2). And, above all, in 1810 she announced that the End was nigh; that the Messiah would soon return to the Holy Lands; and that she would be waiting. Which she did. She lived for the next 29 years until her death in Sidon (on the Lebanon coast), at first in grand style, later in desperate poverty, still waiting.6

2015-10 No2 Lady Hester_Stanhope

Fig. 2 Lady Hester Stanhope, in her own version of oriental garb, who lived in Lebanon, for almost thirty years, awaiting the return of the Messiah and the Last Judgment.

Stanhope’s experience, extraordinary as it was for a woman of her social class, was nonetheless a classic example of what can happen when an apocalyptic vision is not immediately realised. Generally, dashed hopes turn into disillusionment. Ordinary life resumes. Yet not always. Sometimes, people turn to dogged waiting. In Stanhope’s case, she left no cult behind her. Indeed, she may have realised, by the end of her life, that her hopes had been in vain. Nonetheless, she probably found consolation in the sheer pertinacity of her waiting. And that’s what can happen, not just for individuals but across generations. A group of followers can take up the cause, even after the leader has died, not only waiting but also recruiting successors to hand down the message through time.

In England, the Muggletonians survived from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.7 Their views were kept in semi-secrecy, circulated only between families and close friends. Others, by contrast, wait in full public view. The Seventh-Day Adventist church was founded in the aftermath of the ‘Great Disappointment’ of October 1844, when the world was supposed to end but didn’t. An American group, initially known as Millerites after the first prophet William Miller, decided to continue waiting, Today the huge movement, renamed as Seventh-Day Adventist, has millions of adherents world-wide.8

Three comments to conclude. Firstly, the confidence that one is fighting, whether literally or symbolically, on the side of History and/or God is individually empowering, especially when worldly as well as other-worldly hopes/grievances are intertwined. Such beliefs can get people to do surprising things. For those without any previous certitudes, moreover, doing something drastic can seem the best way of gaining new faith through action.

Secondly, the force of such beliefs may be creative and affirmative, but may also unleash powers of destruction, especially when encountering opposition. Because the stakes are so high, so are the passions.

Lastly, curbing a militant commitment to fighting on the side of God or history is not easy. The main antidote is disillusionment, when the euphoria fades. Yet that can take a long time. Hence the secular authorities, generally cautious in matters of private belief, may intervene in cases of violence or potential violence. Currently, various governments are running ‘deradicalisation’ programmes, seeking to get militant Islamists to renounce armed struggle and/or to prevent others from joining them. That can’t be simply done, however, by flatly opposing the great cause. The empowering and exhilarating nature of commitment needs full acknowledgement. Only then, can it potentially be diverted into an alternative re-empowerment, in the cause of everyday, not apocalyptic, action. Different outlets for strong energies – calmer ways of navigating the tides of history.

1 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Riding the Tides of History: Why is Jeremy Corbyn like Napoleon Bonaparte?’ BLOG/57 (Sept. 2015).

2 Details in K. Bradley, International Brigades in Spain, 1936-9 (1994); A. Castells, Las brigadas internacionales de la Guerra di España (Barcelona, 1974); and M.W. Jackson, Fallen Sparrows: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (Philadelphia, 1995).

3 See G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford, 1978).

4 See listings in www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events; and discussions in E. Weber, Apocalypses (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); P.J. Corfield, ‘The End is Nigh’, History Today, 57 (March 2007), pp. 37-9.

5 P.J. Corfield, End of the World Cults (Historical Association Podcast, 2015) – available via www.history.org.uk/podcasts/#/p/504.

6 See K. Ellis, Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope (2008).

7 C. Hill, B. Reay and W. Lamont, The World of the Muggletonians (1983).

8 R.W. Schwarz and F. Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Nampa, Idaho, 2000); M. Bull and K. Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream (San Francisco, 1989).

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MONTHLY BLOG 57, RIDING THE TIDES OF HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Having BLOG-speculated about the Labour Party transforming itself by changing its name,1 I am intrigued to find instead that the Labour Party is transforming itself by broadening its membership, with a massive grass-roots surge since the general election in May 2015. It’s one step towards marshalling a broad coalition of anti-Conservative forces. But this development brings with it some obvious risks, like the dangers of chronic divisions and organisational splits. It will require great skill and team leadership, and goodwill on all sides, to weld together those in the political centre-Left with all those further Left.

Riding the turbulent tides of history is not an easy task. Without the benefits of hindsight (which helps historians but is not available to immediate political commentators), people have to do the best they can and hope that the outcome vindicates them. This BLOG is about the current upheaval within the Labour Party, now that the initially unfancied outsider Jeremy Corbyn has won the leadership.

It must be both a strange and exhilarating experience for a back-bencher aged 66, now to be riding the tides of history. Corbyn has been an assiduous MP for Islington North since 1983 but has never been a minister or previously stood for high office in the Labour Party. Instead, he has focused his efforts upon left-wing lobby groups and public campaigns.2 He is famous for the number of times that he has defied the Labour Party whips in parliament. Now, however, he is articulating a set of attitudes within the Left which have been without a senior voice on mainstream platforms for many years. The result has been a great surge of enthusiasm for his campaign, which no other candidate for the leadership showed any sign of matching.

Here are three thoughts about the Corbyn phenomenon. First, he is articulating something of importance. The fulminations of his opponents within the Labour Party hierarchy make that clear. He is the man of the moment. For Corbyn, his views are not at all new. He is not announcing a conversion. But the novelty for his growing band of supporters comes from hearing such views articulated passionately at a time, after the disastrous 2015 election defeat, when there is widespread disillusionment with Labour’s centrist trimming and when there is a novel opportunity, with a Labour leadership contest not only without a clear centrist front-runner but also conducted under a new populist franchise.

In the olden days, History scholarship candidates used to write essays debating the relative importance of the individual and the deep trends of history. The answer is always a key combination of both. People are the active agents who crystallise the trends; and key individuals, inside or outside formal organisations, are those who are able to seize and to personify the moment.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose historical philosophy firmly enshrined the importance of grand trends, was stirred by viewing in the flesh one of these significant ‘world-historical’ personages. It was at Jena, in mid-Germany, in October 1806. The French had decisively defeated the fabled might of the Prussian army. Hegel, who then resided in Jena, described in a letter how he witnessed a small hunched man ride by, seated on a grey horse. 3

2015-9 No1 Detaille Evening after Jena

Fig. 1: Captured Prussian flags being presented by French troops to the Emperor Napoleon after the Battle of Jena (1806), as depicted by Édouard Detaille in the late nineteenth century.

He was the victorious Napoleon, then aged 37. ‘It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it . . . this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire’, confessed the usually calm and reticent Hegel, an unknown scholar who was also aged 37. The small figure of Bonaparte was the incarnation of France’s post-revolutionary expansionism in both ideas and military force, which was routing traditional authority across Europe. Later, of course, Napoleon’s star waned decisively. Yet for a while he not only represented but moulded history, aided by his generals, his army, the dynamic energy unleashed by the French Revolution, and the disarray of France’s opponents.

Corbyn is no Napoleon. He seems personally too pleasant and downbeat in style; plus he rides a bicycle. In 2013 he explained to a local journalist his avoidance of seeking high office in the Labour Party on the grounds that ‘I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror’.4 Nonetheless, Corbyn is today the person of the moment on the British Left. He was the comrade who was bold enough to stand for the Labour leadership this time round. His bold, clear ideas have resonance after years of cautious compromise. And his casual unbuttoned persona makes him an attractive antidote to most of today’s overly tailored and straight-jacketed Westminster politicians. So it’s Corbyn’s time to benefit from the historical tides, and thus to have the chance also to mould events.

Jeremy-Corbyn-with-bike

Fig. 2: A casual Jeremy Corbyn, with bike and mug of tea.

Secondly, it is equally obvious that the tides can ebb as well as flow. The careers of Napoleon in exile, and of many other ‘world-historical’ figures in eclipse after their great days, stand eloquent testimony to that truth. People, who have held the levers of power, frequently find it difficult to realise when their ‘magical’ time has passed. Look at Tony Blair, now aged 62. He commanded the British political stage from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, when things began to go wrong for him. As a result, his appeal is now spent, as everyone but he appears to realise, to such an extent that his political interventions are now proving to be counterproductive. The best thing to do, if the tide has ebbed decisively, is to retire from the hotspot with dignity (ideally, finding good deeds to undertake, out of the limelight) and to wait for history to give its ultimate verdict.

But there is a third important reflection: a favourable tide gives a great opportunity if used constructively. It usually benefits best not just from a charismatic leader but also from a good set of long-term organisers on the team; enthusiastic and committed foot soldiers; an energising cause, well articulated; timely ideas; plus a tactical flexibility as well as a good strategic ability to wrong-foot all opponents. Another very helpful component is the support of an able successor, who comes from the next political generation but who is not a rival. As that list reveals, it takes a lot of favourable factors to ride the tides of history successfully, especially over the long term. Nonetheless, it can be done; and the attempt itself is exhilarating.

For any individual, to figure at the heart of history, successfully commanding the ‘Now’ of the present moment, is a great, almost dizzying, experience. It’s a sensation most commonly open to leaders or those vying for leadership positions. But it can happen excitingly for anyone ‘great or small’, in a spiritual or political sense, who believes that they have had a personal ‘call’ to action, as in a spiritual awakening or mission. A thrilling sense of being personally at the heart of history can (for example) get individuals to do amazing and abnormal things, like travelling to far off lands to fight in distant wars.

History’s grand trends often seem impersonal and remote. Yet they are simultaneously the product of countless actions and inactions by countless individuals and groups. So history is also close at hand and personal – not least for leaders who emerge to ride and maybe to redirect the tides. Stirring times.

1 See PJC BLOG/ 55 (July 2015) ‘Post-Election Meditations: Should the Labour Party Change its Name?’ and BLOG/ 56 (Aug. 2015), ‘More Post-Election Meditations: On Changing the Labour Party’s Name’.

2 For details see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Corbyn.

3 For G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) on Napoleon, see T. Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography (Cambridge, 2000), p. 228. See also J. McCarney, Hegel on History (London, 2000); and S. Houlgate, An Introduction to Hegel: Freedom, Truth and History (Oxford, 2005).

4 P. Gruner, ‘As He Reaches 30-Year Milestone, Islington North Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn Reflects on his Career in Politics’, Islington Tribune, 7 June 2013.

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MONTHLY BLOG 56, MORE POST-ELECTION MEDITATIONS: ON CHANGING THE LABOUR PARTY’S NAME

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Raising questions about the name of a proud political party with over a century of history behind it makes one appreciate all over again the force of continuity (or it can also be called inertia) in history.1  That’s because most people, when invited to consider whether Britain’s Labour Party is rightly named, just stare in surprise. That response comes particularly strongly from the cadres of committed party members, but also from individuals among the wider public as well.

After all, ‘Labour’ is a well established brand name. It can obviously be argued therefore that it’s folly to shed a known moniker in favour of the unknown. There are plenty of examples of commercial rebrandings which have flopped disastrously. Just Google on that topic. Some companies have even rebranded and then had to reverse the rebranding when faced with howls of public rejection.3

It must also be admitted that earlier suggestions of different names for the Labour Party don’t have a great track record. For example, I was interested to learn that in 1959 Douglas Jay, Battersea’s long-serving MP from 1946 to 1983, had proposed the ‘Reform Party’ as a moderate alternative. It seems to have been an isolated suggestion. And, at any rate, it was met with a resounding silence.
2015-8 No1 What's in a name
As a name, ‘Reform’ had a certain period, even Whiggish, charm. It was predicated on the assumption that Labour was the party of change and the Conservatives the party of resistance to change. But that’s too simplistic. According to circumstances, it can be the Conservatives who propose innovations (as now in the Cameron government’s expressed desire to shrink the state) while assorted groups on the Left campaign to prevent specific changes (as in campaigns to Stop this! or to Save that!).

For Labour, a truly serious crisis of identity occurred in 1981. The so-called Gang of Four and their supporters seceded to found the new Social Democratic Party. Their chosen name remains a well-known one across continental Europe for the parliamentary Left. But in Britain, after the initial flurry, their cause and their nomenclature didn’t resonate with the electorate. In 1988 the majority of the SDP merged with the Liberals. The new joint force was initially named as ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’, to be summarised as ‘Democrats’ – in a nod this time to American political nomenclature. But their own members strenuously objected. So in 1989 they adopted instead the compromise ‘Liberal Democrats’, generating a political force which has since then boomed and now (2015) fallen into disarray.

There are several morals from these case-histories. One is that changing a party’s name may bring initial success but can’t automatically be relied upon to last. (That point is obvious but worth stating). Another is that changing nomenclature is an emotional and politically freighted task, which, if ’twere done, ’twere best done by incremental adaptation, emerging from broad discussion. That’s why it’s equally obvious that, whatever individuals may or may not propose, successful innovations will emerge and survive within political movements as a whole, in the wider context of the changing political scene.

Certainly it was his policy of adaptive gradualism which gave Tony Blair an initial success with ‘New Labour’. The mantra began as a conference slogan in 1994. It was then promoted into a positive manifesto in 1996, offering New Labour: New Life for Britain. The revised name cleverly linked continuity with the fresh appeal of novelty and a modified political agenda.7  Had it not been for the unsuccessful aftermath of the Anglo-American-allied invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (without having declared war), the terminology might still be alive and kicking. Yet today it has lost clarity of meaning and thus credibility – and is hardly used, even within the Labour Party.

Why then is it worth reconsidering the question of names? Some activists within the Labour movement have reproved me. They argue that the important thing is to campaign first – and then think about political branding afterwards. But in my view the two are the same. Campaigning without a clear message is nearly as bad as renaming a party in a campaign vacuum.

Today, there’s plenty of scope for a rethink on the Left – that is, not just within the Labour Party. Lots of people are expressing interest, in conversations and in the press. Personally, I’d like to see a political alliance, if not a formal merger, between Labour plus the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and left-wingers in the Scottish and Welsh Nats. It might not be called a Popular Front but that’s what it would be.

But, whether that ever happens or not, it’s still useful for Labour to rethink its name and mission. It’s not clear today who or what it stands for. One commentator, from the cultural Left, had recently dubbed Labour’s name as ‘a great grey millstone’ around the party’s neck, with the clear implication that it is impeding a fundamental rethink.8

Not only is the term socially partial rather than inclusive – but it’s not even clear precisely which part of British society it’s supposed to embrace. And, to make things electorally even worse, whichever sections of voters are intended to be the chief beneficiaries of Labour’s policies, they generally don’t vote for Labour in sufficient numbers to make the positives of the name outweigh the negatives.

Indeed, paradoxically, some senior Conservatives are today toying with claiming themselves to be the ‘workers’ party’,9  trying to ensure that Labour gets stuck with the implication of constituting the ‘shirkers’ party’, just supporting those on benefits. Of course, such a dichotomy is wildly over-simplified. Many people receiving state benefits are actually in work; many others, who receive financial aid from the state (eg. in the form of mortgage relief or tax relief on ISAs) don’t consider their own arrangement as ‘benefits’.

Sometimes, however, some leading Labour politicians appear to talk as though they see their role chiefly as constituting last-resort helpers of all of society’s failures and losers. Such an assumption is not only rather patronising – but it is seriously misleading, as well as electorally unappealing, even to the traditional working class, let alone to the self-employed and to swathes of the middle class.

Labour needs a much better name to express its progressive commitment to creating a fairer, freer, more egalitarian, more socially cohesive, more culturally inclusive, more tolerant, healthier, happier, and more ambitious Britain – for all the people, including the young. It may be a new name or a compound of the old name with a new adjective. I have heard various thoughts – Progressives? Progressive Labour? People’s Party? – but it’s for everyone to decide.

So I predict that a new or amended name/campaign will emerge within the broad Labour movement – or else the electorate will make the decision for Labour by choosing other parties. What’s in a name? As always: Plenty!
2015-8 No2 Labour's rose by an amended name

Could it be Labour’s Rose by an amended Name?

1  See PJC, ‘Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?’ BLOG/2 (Nov. 2010).

2  See PJC, Post-Election Meditations: Should the Labour Party Change its Name?’ BLOG/55 (July 2015).

3 See e.g. Mallory Russell, Business Insider (March 2012): http://www.businessinsider.com/14-brands-that-had-to-reverse-their-horrible-attempts-at-rebranding.

4 Ex inf. Mary Jay, Douglas Jay’s widow, with thanks for this reference.

5 This historic name appears on the Labour Party’s website but is hardly ever used. For the wider history of Europe’s Social Democratic parties, many now facing electoral problems, see C. Pierson, Hard Choices: Social Democracy in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, 2001).

6 I.M. Crewe and A.S. King, SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party (Oxford, 1995).

7 See F. Faucher-King and P. Le Galès, The New Labour Experiment: Change and Reform under Blair and Brown, transl. G. Elliott (Stanford, CA., 2010).

8 John Harris, ‘Who Should Labour Speak for Now?’ The Guardian, 13 July 2015, p. 23.

9 New Conservative deputy chairman MP Rob Halfon interviewed in The Sun, 18 May 2015.

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MONTHLY BLOG 55, POST-ELECTION MEDITATIONS: SHOULD THE LABOUR PARTY CHANGE ITS NAME?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Supporting the losing party in a general election campaign is not fun.1  But it does provide space for fresh thoughts. Mine are as follows.The Labour Party needs to update its name. It is now over one hundred years old. Its name is historic but not sacrosanct. The term ‘Labour’ has some excellent qualities: it evokes good honest toil (‘the labourer is worthy of his hire’), as opposed to idle feckless sponging. But as a socio-political marker, it doesn’t match the realities of life in Britain today.

The original name for ‘Labour’ sprang from an old binary division between ‘Capital’ and ‘Labour’. It worked well in a northern industrial mill town like (say) Preston.3  There, a few big capitalist bosses employed a massive industrial workforce of manual workers. Hence it was not unreasonable for the workers to view their interests as structurally different from those of their employers (even if in certain circumstances the two sides might share a common interest in keeping the industry afloat). The same division might also apply in smaller workshops too, where wages were kept particularly low. So the following Victorian cartoon of a clothing sweat-shop (illus.1) highlighted the murderous gulf between uncaring Capital and sweated Labour.

BDFH6R VICTORIAN FACTORY - Cartoon satirising the sweat-shops where clothing was mass produced in conditions of great hardship.

BDFH6R VICTORIAN FACTORY – Cartoon satirising the sweat-shops where clothing was mass produced in conditions of great hardship.

Illustration 1: satire of a Victorian Sweat-Shop, with an unmissable message.
Copyright © Pictorial Press Ltd

But, from the start, the model of a few big exploitative bosses versus many exploited workers did not apply in all circumstances. There were areas, like the Birmingham metalware district, where small and medium-sized workshops prevailed.4 Masters and men were much closer in their working relationships; and there was much more movement up and down the industrial ladder. And in all circumstances, there were enlightened employers, as well as exploitative ones.

As a result, the stark Labour/Capital divide was a myth as a universal state of affairs. Or, rather, it was a partial reality, generalised to stand proxy for a variegated whole.

Today, a deep binary chasm is even less convincing as an expression of how the entire British economy works. Neither ‘Capital’ nor ‘Labour’ has a pristine separateness. In practice, they are muddled and overlapping, just as class divisions are comparatively fuzzy today. Capital and Labour do appear in formal models of the economy as two fundamental resources;5  but such abstractions do not automatically map onto the day-to-day economic activity of individuals.

Take Capital: lots of people today have capital assets, whether in the form of real property or investments. They include most of the professional and commercial middle class and a number of manual workers from the working class, particularly those who purchased their former Council homes.6 Indeed, the extension of home ownership was precisely viewed by the Conservative Party as a strategy to blur any notional Capital/Labour divide. In practice, the right-to-buy policy is not quite working as the Conservatives envisaged. Growing numbers of former Council houses are being purchased on the open market, in the context of today’s acute housing shortage, and being converted back into properties for rent, only this time organised by private letting empires.7

Nonetheless, the general point holds good. Owners of capital in property and investments include not just big businessmen and the ‘idle rich’ who live on investment income – but also a huge swathe of people (both working and retired), including most of the middle-class and a section from working-class backgrounds.

Or take Labour: lots of people work hard for their living but are not sociologically classified as manual workers. People from middle-class occupations, whether commercial or professional, are workers who do not define themselves across-the-board as Labour. Most don’t, chiefly because they also own Capital.

It’s true that, historically and still currently, significant numbers of middle-class professionals do broadly identify with the Labour Party, especially if they come from the liberal professions (teachers, doctors, some lawyers). The early Labour Party tried to accommodate these activists into the Labour/Capital divide by classifying the Labour membership in Clause 4 as ‘workers by hand or by brain’. But that is not a very happy distinction. ‘Workers by hand’ could be taken to imply, condescendingly, that manual workers don’t really think. And ‘workers by brain’ doesn’t really appeal as a self-definition across the large and amorphous middle class. For example, plenty of shopkeepers do think but wouldn’t define themselves as ‘brainworkers’.

Anyway, it’s not just the middle classes who don’t identify with Labour as a social category. As a literal label, it has many other blank areas. It does not cover substantial swathes of the non-working population (the retired; the out-of-work); or the intermittently employed (casual workers); or the non-gainfully employed (interns).

Remember that, in 2011, only 9% of the workforce in England and Wales was employed in the manufacturing sector (down from 36% in 1841).8  That figure included many in large factories (some harmonious, some confrontational) but also many in small intimate workshops, where cooperation is stressed.

And remember too that, in 2011, a massive majority of the workforce – 81% (up from 33% in 1841) – was engaged in the service sector. That contains a great variety of occupations and workplace situations. It also employs 92% of all women in work. Many service industry jobs are specifically organised around a principle of cooperation and conciliation. Where they provide commercial services, the mantra has it that clients are ‘always right’ (even if they aren’t). As a result, the service sector favours an ethos of caring ‘service’ rather than one of binary conflict.

Furthermore, another fast-growing group today straddles the Capital/Labour divide by definition. These are the self-employed. They are simultaneously their own boss and their own workforce. Either way, these people again are not unambiguously Labour, even though many work very hard and often struggle.

So the name of Labour is tricky for a political party seeking a democratic majority. It alienates many of the middle classes. It doesn’t talk meaningfully to the self-employed. And it is not even a clear identifier for all the working class. But Labour’s language still pretends that factory workers are the norm. The problems within this terminology probably accounts for the subliminal note of unease in the speeches of the predominantly middle-class activists among the Labour leadership. They sound as though they are not sure whom they are addressing – and on whose behalf they are speaking. In the 2015 election campaign, ‘hard-working families’ was used to give Labour a human embodiment. Yet, since the phrase appeared to exclude all single people, childless couples, unemployed people, and pensioners, it didn’t really help.

These points are not intended to deny that plenty of things are very wrong in today’s society. They are. Economic exploitation has not disappeared. And new problems have emerged. In a world where Labour and Capital are interlocked, there’s a massively good case for promoting greater equality and social cooperation.9  Everyone will benefit from that. But today’s task can only be done by using today’s language. Labour needs a name which embraces all the people.10

1 See PJC, ‘Post-Election Special: On Losing?’ Monthly BLOG/54 (June 2015).

2 Personal: I was reared in a Labour household; cut my political teeth as a Labour canvasser in my mid-teens; was a Labour Councillor in my late 20s; have held many local Labour Party posts; currently, one of organisers of Battersea Labour Party; and don’t intend to stop.

3 The urban model for Charles Dickens’s Coketown in his Hard Times (1854).

4 See e.g. D. Smith, Conflict and Compromise: Class Formation in English Society, 1830-1914 – A Comparative Study of Birmingham and Sheffield (1982).

5 Classic resources for economic production are capital; land; and labour; to which a fourth factor of entrepreneurship is sometimes added.

6 Future research will show what percentage of former tenants who purchased Council properties at a discount remained as property-owners over the long term (whether retaining the original properties or trading up) and what percentage sold their properties and exited the property market. For accusations that some poor tenants are being fraudulently ‘gifted’ with funds to purchase their properties at a discount and then to sell on immediately to private speculators, see Claire Ellicott report in Daily Mail online, 12 Jan. 2015.

7 As reported in many newspapers and trade journals – e.g. ‘Right to Buy turns Ex-Council Homes into Buy-to-Let Goldmine’, Letting Agent Today (24 July 2012); ‘Private Landlords Cash in on Right to Buy’, The Observer (12 July 2014).

8 All statistics from Britain’s Office of National Statistics, based upon 2011 census returns for England and Wales: see http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census-analysis/170-years-of-industry/170-years-of-industrial-changeponent.html

9 R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better (2009); A.B. Atkinson, Inequality: What Can be Done? (Cambridge, Mass., 2015).

10 Institutional inertia makes change difficult but I believe that a new name or a modification of Labour’s old name (not New Labour!) can emerge from debates within the movement.

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MONTHLY BLOG 54, POST-ELECTION SPECIAL: ON LOSING? 1

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Losing is not fun. That is, losing in a cause that means a lot to you, both intellectually and emotionally. In fact, it’s grim. Coping with defeat feels a bit like coping with a death. Again, there are deaths and deaths. Losing in a cause that means a lot feels very like coping with the unexpected death of someone close. So the first and unavoidable response is to grieve, rather grimly.

This BLOG arises from my personal feelings about Labour’s loss in Battersea at the General Election on 7 May 2015. It’s a short report, because grieving makes me feel distinctly brisk. For the record, we had a lively campaign. But we lost with a perceptible swing from Labour to the Conservatives, alongside a (predicted) heavy fall in Liberal Democrat votes, and a weak but not negligible showing for the Greens and UKIP.2

By the way, since the election I have attended a Wandsworth civic event where I bumped into Jane Ellison, Battersea’s Tory MP who was duly returned, and congratulated her. She was gracious (not hard when victorious but better than gloating). Jane Ellison also commented on the amount of venomous personal abuse that she had encountered via Twitter during the campaign. I was disgusted to hear that. I’d already heard of some personal abuse in the Twittersphere being directed at Will Martindale, the Labour candidate; and afterwards I learned that he too had received many unpleasant personal accusations, mostly made anonymously. That doubly depressing news made me feel even grimmer. It’s a tough baptism for all people in the public spotlight and especially tough on the electoral losers, who don’t have the consolation of victory at the polls. This half-hidden dimension to the electoral struggle made me appreciate yet again the dangers of anonymity and the civic advantages in open declarations of political allegiance, as was the norm in the pre-1872 practice of open voting.3

Anyway, after a public loss, the next task is to get on with all the business which follows. Clearing out the campaign headquarters comes high on the list. It’s a bit macabre but best done quickly. Undelivered leaflets seem especially sad, registering obsolete hopes. But it’s essential to keep an archive for our own record.

There’s also an amazing quantity of personal junk which accumulates in places where hundreds of strangers pop in to help. Lost umbrellas and bags are relatively explicable. But who leaves a vanity case with hundreds of lipsticks? Who leaves a sack of old clothing? Did some canvasser arrive fully dressed and leave starkers?

Perhaps it’s symbolic of rebirth after trauma? Certainly that would fit with the third stage, since, after grimly grieving and clearing the decks, it’s time for a major rethink. I now feel more brisk than grim. We’ve already had some meetings and more are planned, to assess what happened and where we should go next. Happily, large numbers have continued to attend. The feelings of outrage at the inequalities and unfairness of life in Battersea, which motivated many of Labour’s canvassers, have not gone away. And why would they? The extremes of wealth and poverty, side by side, remain stark. One of the Wandsworth foodbanks, run by dedicated volunteers in St Mark’s Church on Battersea Rise, helps a regular stream of desperate guests,4 while on the Thames riverfront a series of soulless ‘ghost towns’ of empty flats,5 held by absentee investors and potential money-launderers,6  mock the concept of community.

I have my own suggestion (in which I am not alone): I think that the Labour Party needs to update its language and its name. As part of that, I also favour a re-alliance of the progressive Left: Labour, plus Liberal Democrats, plus Greens. As it happens, the votes of all these parties would not have ousted the Conservative candidate from the Battersea seat. But the (re)birth of a progressive, redistributive, co-operative, green and libertarian centre-left is still the best long-term answer, for British political and cultural life as a whole. It has been much discussed over the years. But now’s the time, fellow Britons: political leaders and grass-roots alike. We should follow the pithy message from the Swedish-American Labour activist Joe Hill: ‘Don’t mourn; but organise’7 … with a new popular front.
2015-6 No1 Joe Hill

Swedish-American Labour activist Joe Hill: don’t mourn but organise (song 1930).

1 With comradely sympathy for Will Martindale (Battersea Labour candidate), Sean Lawless (BLP organiser) and the hundreds of Labour campaigners in the constituency.

2 Battersea’s votes, in a turnout of 67.1%, went to: Jane ELLISON (Conservative) 26,730 – up 5.0% from 2010; Will MARTINDALE (Labour) 18,792 – up 1.7%; Luke TAYLOR (LibDem) 2,241 – down 10.3%; Joe STUART (Green) 1,682; and Christopher HOWE (UKIP) 1,586.

3 But there were good reasons for adopting the secret ballot: see PJC, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting? Standing Up to be Counted’ BLOG no 53 (May 2015).

4 Project seeded by the Trussell Trust: see www.wandsworth.foodbank.org.uk.

5 See Vauxhall Society (July 2013), www.vauxhallcivicsociety.org.uk/2013/07/: for viewpoint of Peter Rees, City of London chief planning officer, that under current redevelopment plans Vauxhall will be getting a ‘ghost town’ which would need no more than a ‘single-decker bus once an hour’, not the projected Northern Line [tube] Extension

6 Zoe Dare Hall, ‘Prime London and the Threat of Money Laundering’, 3 June 2015, in The London Magazine: reported in www.harrodsestates.com/news/361/prime-london.

7 Joel Hagglund, known as Joe Hill (1879-1915), hymned in ‘I dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’ (lyrics Alfred Hayes c.1930; music Earl Robinson 1936), a song especially loved by my father Tony Corfield, a lifelong activist in trade-unionism and adult education.

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MONTHLY BLOG 53, ELECTION SPECIAL: WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE OLD PRACTICE OF OPEN VOTING, STANDING UP TO BE COUNTED? 1

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Vote early! Generations of democratic activists have campaigned over centuries to give the franchise to all adult citizens. (Yes, and that right should extend to all citizens who are in prison too).2  Vote early and be proud to vote!

So, if we are full of civic pride or even just wearily acquiescent, why don’t we vote openly? Stand up to be counted? That is, after all, how the voting process was first done. In most parliamentary elections in pre-democratic England (remembering that not all seats were regularly contested), the returning officer would simply call for a show of hands. If there was a clear winner, the result would be declared instantly. But in cases of doubt or disagreement a head-by-head count was ordered. It was known as a ‘poll’. Each elector in turn approached the polling booth, identified his qualifications for voting, and called his vote aloud.3
2015-5 No1 Detail from Hogarth Election 1754

William Hogarth’s Oxfordshire Election (1754) satirised the votes of the halt, the sick and the lame. Nonetheless, he shows the process of open voting in action, with officials checking the voters’ credentials, lawyers arguing, and candidates (at the back of the booth) whiling away the time, as voters declare their qualifications and call out their votes.

Open voting was the ‘manly’ thing to do, both literally and morally. Not only was the franchise, for many centuries, restricted to men;4  but polling was properly viewed as an exercise of constitutional virility. The electoral franchise was something special. It was a trust, which should be exercised accountably. Hence an Englishman should be proud to cast his vote openly, argued the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1861. He should cast his vote for the general good, rather than his personal interest. In other words, the elector was acting as a public citizen, before the eyes of the world – and, upon important occasions, his neighbours did come to hear the verdict being delivered. Furthermore, in many cases the Poll Books were published afterwards, so generating a historical record not only for contemporaries to peruse, and for canvassers to use at the following election, but also for later historians to study individual level voting (something impossible under today’s secret ballot).

Especially in the populous urban constituencies, some of the most protracted elections became carnival-like events.6  Crowds of voters and non-voters gathered at the open polling booths to cheer, heckle or boo the rival candidates. They sported election ribbons or cockades; and drank at the nearby hostelries. Since polling was sometimes extended over several days, running tallies of the state of the poll were posted daily, thus encouraging further efforts from the canvassers and the rival crowds of supporters. Sometimes, indeed, the partisanship got out of hand. There were election scuffles, affrays and even (rarely) riots. But generally, the crowds were good-humoured, peaceable and even playful. In a City of Westminster parliamentary by-election in 1819, for example, the hustings oratory from the candidate George Lamb was rendered inaudible by incessant Baaing from the onlookers. It was amusing for everyone but the candidate, though he did at least win.7

Performing one’s electoral duty openly was a practice that was widely known in constitutionalist systems around the world. Open voting continued in Britain until 1872; in some American states until 1898; in Denmark until 1900; in Prussia until 1918; and, remarkably, in Hungary until 1938.

Not only did the voter declare his stance publicly but the onlookers were simultaneously entitled to query his right to participate. Then the polling clerks, who sat at the hustings to record each vote, would check in the parish rate books (or appropriate records depending each variant local franchise) before the vote was cast.8  In the event of a subsequent challenge, moreover, the process was subject to vote-by-vote scrutiny. One elector at a parliamentary by-election in Westminster in 1734 was accused by several witnesses of being a foreigner. He was said to have a Dutch accent, a Dutch coat, and to smoke his pipe ‘like a Dutchman’. Hence ‘it is the common repute of the neighbourhood that he is a Dutchman’. In fact, the suspect, named Peter Harris, was a chandler living in Wardour Street and he outfaced his critics. The neighbours’ suspicions were not upheld and the vote remained valid. Nonetheless, public opinion had had a chance to intervene. Scrutiny of the electoral process remains crucial, now as then.
2015-5 No2 Mynheer Van Funk - Dutch Skipper 1730

Illustration/2: British satirical cartoon of Mynheer Van Funk, a Dutch Skipper (1730)
Was this what Peter Harris, of Wardour Street, Westminster, looked like?

Well then, why has open voting in parliamentary elections disappeared everywhere? There are good reasons. But there is also some loss as well as gain in the change. Now people can make a parade of their commitment (say) to some fashionable cause and yet, sneakily, vote against it in the polling booth. Talk about having one’s cake and eating it. That two-ways-facing factor explains why sometimes prior opinion polls or even immediate exit polls can give erroneous predictions of the actual result.

Overwhelmingly, however, the secret ballot was introduced to allow individual voters to withstand external pressures, which might otherwise encourage them to vote publicly against their true inner convictions. In agricultural constituencies, tenants might be unduly influenced by the great local landlord. In single-industry towns, industrial workers might be unduly influenced by the big local employer. In service and retail towns, shopkeepers and professionals might be unduly influenced by the desire not to offend rich clients and customers. And everywhere, voters might be unduly influenced by the power of majority opinion, especially if loudly expressed by crowds pressing around the polling booth.

For those reasons, the right to privacy in voting was one of the six core demands made in the 1830s by Britain’s mass democratic movement known as Chartism.10 In fact, it was the first plank of their programme to be implemented. The Ballot Act was enacted in 1872, long before all adult males – let alone all adult females – had the vote. It was passed just before the death in 1873 of John Stuart Mill, who had tried to convince his fellow reformers to retain the system of open voting. (By the way, five points of the six-point Chartist programme have today been achieved, although the Chartist demand for annual parliaments remains unmet and is not much called for these days).

Does the actual voting process really matter? Secrecy allows people to get away with things that they might not wish to acknowledge publicly. They can vote frivolously and disclaim responsibility. Would the Monster Raving Loony Party get as many votes as it does (admittedly, not many) under a system of open voting? But I suppose that such votes are really the equivalent of spoilt ballot papers.

In general, then, there are good arguments, on John Stuart Millian grounds, for favouring public accountability wherever possible. MPs in Parliament have their votes recorded publicly – and rightly so. Indeed, in that context, it was good to learn recently that a last-minute bid by the outgoing Coalition Government of 2010-15 to switch the electoral rules for choosing the next Speaker from open voting to secret ballot was defeated, by a majority of votes from Labour plus 23 Conservative rebels and 10 Liberal Democrats. One unintentionally droll moment came when the MP moving the motion for change, the departing Conservative MP William Hague, defended the innovation as something ‘which the public wanted’.11

Electoral processes, however, are rarely matters of concern to electors – indeed, not as much as they should be. Overall, there is a good case for using the secret ballot in all mass elections, to avoid external pressures upon the voters. There is also a reasonable case for secrecy when individuals are voting, in small groups, clubs, or societies, to elect named individuals to specific offices. Otherwise, it might be hard (say) not to vote for a friend who is not really up to the job. (But MPs choosing the Speaker are voting as representatives of their constituencies, to whom their votes should be accountable). In addition, the long-term secrecy of jury deliberations and votes is another example that is amply justified in order to free jurors from intimidation or subsequent retribution.

But, in all circumstances, conscientious electors should always cast their votes in a manner that they would be prepared to defend, were their decision known publicly. And, in all circumstances, the precise totals of votes cast in secret ballots should be revealed. The custom in some small societies or groups, to announce merely that X or Y is elected but to refrain from reporting the number of votes cast, is open to serious abuse. Proper scrutiny of the voting process and the outcome is the democratic essence, along with fair electoral rules.

In Britain, as elsewhere, there is still scope for further improvements to the workings of the system. The lack of thoroughness in getting entitled citizens onto the voting register is the first scandal, which should be tackled even before the related question of electoral redistricting to produce much greater equality in the size of constituencies. It’s also essential to trust the Boundaries Commission which regularly redraws constituency boundaries (one of the six demands of the Chartists) to do so without political interference and gerrymandering. There are also continuing arguments about the rights and wrongs of the first-past-the-post system as compared with various forms of Alternative Voting.

Yet we are on a democratic pathway …. Hence, even if parliamentary elections are no longer occasions for carnival crowds to attend as collective witnesses at the hustings, let’s value our roles individually. The days of open voting showed that there’s enjoyment to be found in civic participation.
2015-5 No3 Rowlandson Westminster 1808

Thomas Rowlandson’s Westminster Election (published 1808), showing the polling booths in front of St Paul’s Covent Garden – and the carnivalesque crowds, coming either to vote or to witness.

1 With warm thanks to Edmund Green for sharing his research, and to Tony Belton, Helen Berry, Arthur Burns, Amanda Goodrich, Charles Harvey, Tim Hitchcock, Joanna Innes, and all participants at research seminars at London and Newcastle Universities for good debates.

2 On this, see A. Belton, BLOG entitled ‘Prisoners and the Right to Vote’, (2012), tonybelton.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/prisoners-and-the-right-to-vote/.

3 See J. Elklit, ‘Open Voting’, in R. Rose (ed.), International Encyclopaedia of Elections (2000), pp. 191-3; and outcomes of open voting in metropolitan London, 1700-1850, in www.londonelectoralhistory.com, incl. esp. section 2.1.1.

4 In Britain, adult women aged over 30 first got the vote for parliamentary elections in 1918; but women aged between 21 and 30 (the so-called ‘flappers’) not until 1928.

5 J.S. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (1861), ed. C.V. Shields (New York, 1958), pp. 154-71.

6> See F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons and Parties: The Unreformed Electorate of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832 (Oxford, 1989).

7 British Library, Broughton Papers, Add. MS 56,540, fo. 55. Lamb then lost the seat at the next general election in 1820.

8 Before the 1832 Reform Act, there was no standardised electoral register; and many variant franchises, especially in the parliamentary boroughs.

9 Report of 1734 Westminster Scrutiny in British Library, Lansdowne MS 509a, fos. 286-7.

10 For a good overview, consult M. Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007).

11 BBC News, 26 March 2015: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32061097.

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MONTHLY BLOG 38, WHY IS THE LANGUAGE OF ‘RACE’ HOLDING ON SO LONG WHEN IT’S BASED ON A PSEUDO-SCIENCE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

Of course, most people who continue to use the language of ‘race’ believe that it has a genuine meaning – and a meaning, moreover, that resonates for them. It’s not just an abstract thing but a personal way of viewing the world. I’ve talked to lots of people about giving up ‘race’ and many respond with puzzlement. The terminology seems to reflect nothing more than the way things are.

But actually, it doesn’t. It’s based upon a pseudo-science that was once genuinely believed but has long since been shown as erroneous by geneticists. So why is this language still used by people who would not dream of insisting that the earth is flat, or the moon made of blue cheese.

Part of the reason is no doubt the power of tradition and continuity – a force of history that is often under-appreciated.1 It’s still possible to hear references to people having the ‘bump of locality’, meaning that they have a strong topographical/spatial awareness and can find their way around easily. The phrase sounds somehow plausible. Yet it’s derived from the now-abandoned study of phrenology. This approach, first advanced in 1796 by the German physician F.J. Gall, sought to analyse people’s characteristics via the contours of the cranium.2  It fitted with the ‘lookism’ of our species. We habitually scrutinise one another to detect moods, intentions, characters. So it may have seemed reasonable to measure skulls for the study of character.

Phrenologist’s view of the human skull: point no. 31 marks the bump of locality, just over the right eyebrow.Yet, despite confident Victorian publications explaining The Science of Phrenology3  and advice manuals on How to Read Heads,4  these theories turned out to be no more than a pseudo-science. The critics were right after all. Robust tracts like Anti-Phrenology: Or a Chapter on Humbug won the day. Nevertheless, some key phrenological phrases linger on.5  My own partner in life has an exceptionally strong sense of topographical orientation. So sometimes I joke about his ‘bump of locality’, even though there’s no protrusion on his right forehead. It’s a just linguistic remnant of vanished views.

That pattern may apply similarly in the language of race, which is partly based upon a simple ‘lookism’. People who look like us are assumed to be part of ‘our tribe’. Those who do not seem to be ‘a race apart’ (except that they are not). The survival of the phrasing is thus partly a matter of inertia.

Another element may also spring, paradoxically, from opponents of ‘racial’ divisions. They are properly dedicated to ‘anti-racism’. Yet they don’t oppose the core language itself. That’s no doubt because they want to confront prejudices directly. They accept that humans are divided into separate races but insist that all races should be treated equally. It seems logical therefore that the opponent of a ‘racist’ should be an ‘anti-racist’. Statistics of separate racial groups are collected in order to ensure that there is no discrimination.

Yet one sign of the difficulty in all official surveys remains the utter lack of consistency as to how many ‘races’ there are. Early estimates by would-be experts on racial classification historically ranged from a simplistic two (‘black’ and ‘white’) to a complex 63.6  Census and other listings these days usually invent a hybrid range of categories. Some are based upon ideas of race or skin colour; others of nationality; or a combination And there are often lurking elements of ‘lookism’ within such categories (‘black British’), dividing people by skin colour, even within the separate ‘races’.7

So people like me who say simply that ‘race’ doesn’t exist (i.e. that we are all one human race) can seem evasive, or outright annoying. We are charged with missing the realities of discrimination and failing to provide answers.

Nevertheless, I think that trying to combat a serious error by perpetrating the same error (even if in reverse) is not the right way forward. The answer to pseudo-racism is not ‘anti-racism’ but ‘one-racism’. It’s ok to collect statistics about nationality or world-regional origins or any combination of such descriptors, but without the heading of ‘racial’ classification and the use of phrases that invoke or imply separate races.

Public venues in societies that historically operated a ‘colour bar’  used the brown paper bag test for quick decisions,  admitting people with skins lighter than the bag and rejecting the rest.  As a means of classifying people, it’s as ‘lookist’ as phrenology  but with even fewer claims to being ‘scientific’.  Copyright © Jessica C (Nov. 2013)What’s in a word? And the answer is always: plenty. ‘Race’ is a short, flexible and easy term to use. It also lends itself to quickly comprehensible compounds like ‘racist’ or ‘anti-racist’. Phrases derived from ethnicity (national identity) sound much more foreign in English. And an invented term like ‘anti-ethnicism’ seems abstruse and lacking instant punch.

All the same, it’s time to find or to create some up-to-date phrases to allow for the fact that racism is a pseudo-science that lost its scientific rationale a long time ago. ‘One-racism’? ‘Humanism’? It’s more powerful to oppose discrimination in the name of reality, instead of perpetrating the wrong belief that we are fundamentally divided. The spectrum of human skin colours under the sun is beautiful, nothing more.

1 On this, see esp. PJC website BLOG/1 ‘Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?’ (Nov. 2010).

2 See T.M. Parssinen, ‘Popular Science and Society: The Phrenology Movement in Early Victorian Britain’, Journal of Social History, 8 (1974), pp. 1-20.

3 J.C. Lyons, The Science of Phrenology (London, 1846).

4 J. Coates, How to Read Heads: Or Practical Lessons on the Application of Phrenology to the Reading of Character (London, 1891).

5 J. Byrne, Anti-Phrenology: Or a Chapter on Humbug (Washington, 1841).

6 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (London, 2007), pp. 40-1.

7 The image comes from Jessica C’s thoughtful website, ‘Colorism: A Battle that Needs to End’ (12 Nov. 2013): www.allculturesque.com/colorism-a-battle-that-needs-to-end.

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MONTHLY BLOG 37, HOW DO PEOPLE RESPOND TO ELIMINATING THE LANGUAGE OF ‘RACE’?

 If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

 Having proposed eliminating from our thoughts and vocabulary the concept of ‘race’ (and I’m not alone in making that suggestion), how do people respond?

Indifference: we are all stardust. Many people these days shrug. They say that the word ‘race’ is disappearing anyway, and what does it matter?

Indeed, a friend with children who are conventionally described as ‘mixed race’ tells me that these young people are not worried by their origins and call themselves, semi-jokingly, ‘mixed ray’. It makes them sound like elfin creatures from the sun and stars – rather endearing really. Moreover, such a claim resonates with the fact that many astro-biologists today confirm that all humans (among all organic and inorganic matter on earth) are ultimately made from trace elements from space – or, put more romantically, from stardust. 1

So from a cosmic point of view, there’s no point in worrying over minor surface differences within one species on a minor planet, circulating within the constellation of a minor sun, which itself lies in but one quite ordinary galaxy within a myriad of galaxies.

Ethnic pride: On the other hand, we do live specifically here, on earth. And we are a ‘lookist’ species. So others give more complex responses, dropping ‘race’ for some purposes but keeping it for others. Given changing social attitudes, the general terminology seems to be disappearing imperceptibly from daily vocabulary. As I mentioned before, describing people as ‘yellow’ and ‘brown’ has gone. Probably ‘white’ will follow next, especially as lots of so-called ‘whites’ have fairly dusky skins.

‘Black’, however, will probably be the slowest to go. Here there are good as well as negative reasons. Numerous people from Africa and from the world-wide African diaspora have proudly reclaimed the terminology, not in shame but in positive affirmation.

Battersea’s first ‘black’ Mayor, John Archer (Mayor 1913/14) was a pioneer in that regard. I mentioned him in my previous BLOG (no 35). Archer was a Briton, with Irish and West Indian ancestry. He is always described as ‘black’ and he himself embraced black consciousness-raising. Yet he always stressed his debt to his Irish mother as well as to his Barbadian father.

In 1918 Archer became the first President of the African Progress Union. In that capacity, he attended meetings of the Pan-African Congress, which promoted African decolonisation and development. The political agenda of activists who set up these bodies was purposive. And they went well beyond the imagery of negritude by using a world-regional nomenclature.

Interestingly, therefore, the Pan-African Congress was attended by men and women of many skin colours. Look at the old photograph (1921) of the delegates from Britain, continental Europe, Africa and the USA (see Illus 1). Possibly the dapper man, slightly to the L of centre in the front row, holding a portfolio, is John Archer himself.

Illus 1: Pan-African Congress delegates in Brussels (1921)Today, ‘black pride’, which has had a good cultural run in both Britain and the USA, seems to be following, interestingly, in Archer’s footsteps. Not by ignoring differences but by celebrating them – in world-regional rather than skin-colourist terms. Such labels also have the merit of flexibility, since they can be combined to allow for multiple ancestries.

Just to repeat the obvious: skin colour is often deceptive. Genetic surveys reveal high levels of ancestral mixing. As American academic Henry Louis Gates has recently reminded us in The Observer, many Americans with dark skins (35% of all African American men) have European as well as African ancestry. And the same is true, on a lesser scale, in reverse. At least 5% of ‘white’ male Americans have African ancestry, according to their DNA.

Significantly, people with mixed ethnicities often complain at being forced to choose one or the other (or having choice foisted upon them), when they would prefer, like the ‘Cablinasian’ Tiger Woods, to celebrate plurality. Pride in ancestry will thus outlast and out-invent erroneous theories of separate ‘races’.

Just cognisance of genetic and historic legacies: There is a further point, however, which should not be ignored by those (like me) who generally advocate ‘children of stardust’ universalism. For some social/political reasons, as well as for other medical purposes, it is important to understand people’s backgrounds.

Thus ethnic classifications can help to check against institutionalised prejudice. And they also provide important information in terms of genetic inheritance. To take one well known example, sickle-cell anaemia (drepanocytosis) is a condition that can be inherited by humans whose ancestors lived in tropical and sub-tropical regions where malaria is or was common. It is obviously helpful, therefore, to establish people’s genetic backgrounds as accurately as possible.

All medical and social/political requirements for classification, however, call for just classification systems. One reader of my previous BLOG responded that it didn’t really matter, since if ‘race’ was dropped another system would be found instead. But that would constitute progress. The theory of different human races turned out to be erroneous. Instead, we should enquire about ethnic (national) identity and/or world-regional origins within one common species. Plus we should not use a hybrid mix of definitions, partly by ethnicities and partly by skin colour (as in ‘black Britons’).

Lastly, all serious systems of enquiry should ask about plurality: we have two parents, who may or may not share common backgrounds. That’s the point: men and women from any world-region can breed together successfully, since we are all one species.

1 S. Kwok, Stardust: The Cosmic Seeds of Life (Heidelberg, 2013).

2 For John Richard Archer (1869-1932), see biog. by P. Fryer in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: on-line; and entry on Archer in D. Dabydeen, J. Gilmore and C. Jones (eds), The Oxford Companion to Black British History (Oxford, 2007, p. 33.

3 The Observer (5 Jan. 2014): New Review, p. 20.

4 M. Tapper, In the Blood: Sickle Cell Anaemia and the Politics of Race (Philadelphia, 1999).

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MONTHLY BLOG 36, TALKING OF LANGUAGE, IT’S TIME TO UPDATE THE LANGUAGE OF RACE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

Names matter. Geneticists have long told us that all humans form part of one big human race.1  Indeed, we share biological characteristics not only with one another but also with a surprising number of other species. Nature is versatile in its ability to try many elegant variations within the common building blocks of life. As a result, the old view, that there were many separate human species, which were incapable of inter-marrying and inter-breeding, has gone. So we should not still talk or think in terms of there being different races of humans. It’s simply not true. Continuing to talk that way is like talking of the flat earth or insisting that the moon is made of blue cheese.

It therefore follows that we should not describe individuals as being of ‘mixed race’. The phrase is not only scientifically erroneous but positively misleading. It is a hangover from older ideas. Some early global explorers were impressed by our common humanity. Others, in good faith, saw different races. But the latter group proved to be wrong. Hence the logic is clear. Since there are no separate races, individuals cannot be mixtures of separate races. We are all one people. All ultimately in the human diaspora ‘out of Africa’.

Out of Africa diagram© Tom MooreNonetheless, there are different heritages and variegated group experiences within one common human history. How can we talk of those? One possible way is to refer to different ‘peoples’ within one species. But that terminology easily becomes confusing. Another old vocabulary talked of different ‘tribes’. Yet that too is unhelpful. If ‘peoples’ seem too nebulous and vague, then ‘tribes’ seem too small and sectarian. And in neither case is it easy to talk about compound heritages, whether from ‘mixed tribes’ or ‘mixed peoples’.

In fact, a number of Victorian social anthropologists spent a lot of time trying without success to classify the world’s ‘races’. But no criteria worked systematically, not only because people are intermixed today but also because we have a long history of intermixture. So there was no consensus about the number of different ‘races’. Various criteria were proposed, including skin colour, hair texture, average heights, cranial (skull) formation, nose-shapes, and testable intelligence. But these all yielded different and inconsistent answers.3

Estimates of the number of different human ‘races’ can be found from as low as two (‘black’ and ‘white’) to as high as 63. Such a range of guesstimates indicates not just that the task was hard but that it was impossible. For example, the many subtle variations in the handsome spectrum of human skin colours, from lily to ebony, make drawing up hard-and-fast divisions based upon colour a subjective and fallible exercise.

Interestingly, most of the proposed criteria for racial identification were solely external and ‘lookist’. But it’s hardly a secret that external appearance is no automatic guide to parentage. In countries where there were colour bars, plenty of people who were classified as black were able to ‘pass’ for white and vice versa.4  There are many permutations of looks and skin colour, even amongst very close family. Look around your own.

Or consider some public examples. A current member of the British cabinet, the conservative politician Iain Duncan-Smith, has a Japanese great-grandmother. But you would not guess that he is one-eighth Japanese at a quick glance. Or take a different case: the twin British girls born to Kylee Hodgson and Remi Horder in 2005 have contrasting skin and eye colours, one being dark-skinned and brown-eyed, the other having light colouring and blue eyes. Their parents view them proudly as a genetic gift. But a stranger would not know that the girls are sisters – let alone twins – simply by looking at them.

Does it matter? Not at all, for any human who accepts humanity as we are. It only matters for those who mind about such things, usually with hostile intent towards one or other of the attributed ‘racial’ categories. Indeed, some cultures do still maintain elaborate hierarchies of public status, tending to view those with light skin as ‘higher’ than those with darker hues.7  Such attitudes are, however, historic legacies of cultural classification that are not related to innate human qualities. For that reason, plenty of people reject a colourist world-view. The long history of caste fluidity and inter-caste marriage indicates that old cultural assumptions can be overcome – or shed entirely.

At the same time, we do need to acknowledge variety in ancestry and ethnicity. There are some medical conditions that are associated with particular genetic clusters. So some form of reference is needed. In my view, the ‘lookist’ language of skin colour, though still widely used, is historically on the way out as a means of classification. It is too crude and, currently, too socially sensitive. We don’t now refer to ‘yellows’, ‘browns’ or ‘coloured’. And, in my view, references to ‘white’ and ‘black’ will also go the way of history.

That prediction relates especially to how we name others. Some may want to retain the badge of colour as a proud form of self-identification, especially when it’s done to challenge old prejudices. But such labels may still be misleading. Particularly in the USA, where mobility and inter-marriage are rife, many dark-skinned people turn out to have very diverse parentage, with ancestors who don’t look like them but are still ancestors. Read Neil Henry’s account of A Black Man’s Search for his White Family: the upwardly mobile ‘black’ professional traced his socially declining ‘white trash’ cousins. But when they met, after the initial surprise on all sides, it was just normal.8

What then remains? The obvious forms of recognising difference relate to what we call ‘ethnicity’, pertaining to the many different human nations. That form of identification covers both biological and cultural affinities. So ‘ethnicity’ is not just a grand term for race. Instead, it’s an alternative way of recognising the effects of history and geography, by acknowledging the different cultures and traditions around the globe.

All human babies in their first year babble in the phonemes of all the thousands of human languages.9  Yet each child is brought up to speak predominantly in but one – or perhaps two – of those tongues.10 It’s a good example of difference within a common ability.

babies babble in the phonemes of all the world’s languages:  baby silhouette© victor-magz.com (2013)‘Ethnicity’ provides a neutral way of referring to variety within unity. It uses nationhood or world-region to provide a social label. Thus the ‘Japanese’ are those bred in Japan and who share the Japanese cultural identity – whatever their skin colour. Similarly, all the ‘Scots’ who will vote on the forthcoming referendum on the future of Scotland are those on the current Scottish electoral register, wherever they were born. Close neighbours, like my first cousin who self-identifies as ‘Scottish’ but lives in the north of England, will not.

The great advantage of using national or regional labels is that they can be doubled, to acknowledge diversity of heritage. Thus John Archer, known as London’s first ‘black’ Mayor (Battersea: 1913-14) can be more properly described as a Briton, born in Liverpool, with Barbadian Irish ancestry. That pays due respect to both his parents. The Americans, as a ‘people’ with a long history of immigration, are paving the way in this usage, helping individuals to acknowledge their adherence to America but also a different parental heritage: African American, Irish American, Hungarian American, and so forth.

But admittedly, there is one large complication when people have many ethnicities to acknowledge. John Archer, after all, was Barbadian Irish British. His wife was West Indian Canadian. But such convolutions can easily become cumbersome. What would their children be? Here the golfer Tiger Woods has found a witty answer. He’s pioneered the adjective ‘Cablinasian’ to name his Caucasian, Black, American Indian and Asian heritage. That should (even if it hasn’t yet) stop people trying to define him as ‘black’.

Lastly, what to do when recent politics still governs the language of social description? It’s only recently that South Africa shed its tripartite classification of ‘white’, ‘black’ and ‘Cape coloured’ (difficult as it was to implement at the multiple margins). Now perhaps one might distinguish between people of Dutch South African descent or English South African heritage. But it would then be logical to talk about African South Africans; or, for mixed ancestries, (say) Dutch African South African. It’s all too much. How about following the people of Brazil, with their mixed heritage from indigenous Americans, Portuguese, Africans, and Asians? Their National Research by Household Sample (2008) classifies people partly by self-assigned colour and partly by family origin by world-region.11 For all other purposes, however, they are ethnic ‘Brazilians’.

I guess that’s what Mandela would have wished to see happening among the next generations of South Africans. Down with skin-deepishness. Long live world-regional identities – plus their mixing.

1 L.L. and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution (New York, 1995): all humans should read this book.

2 See Carl Zimmer, ‘Genes are Us. And Them’, National Geographic (July 2013)

3 For an attempted scientific methodology, see R.B. Dixon, The Racial History of Man (New York, 1923), pp. 8-45, 475-523. See also, for context, E. Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars (Cambridge, 1992).

4 The difficulty of classifying individuals objectively into clearly separate and unmixed ‘races’ has vitiated various past attempts at classifying racial intelligence – quite apart from the problem of finding tests that factor out the effects of different nurture and social/biological environment.

5 M. Tempest, ‘Duncan Smith’s Secret Samurai Past’, The Guardian, 3 Sept. 2001: see
www.theguardian.com/politics/2001.

6 See report by Paul Harris and Lucy Laing, Daily Mail, 30 March 2012: www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2123050/Look-The-black-white-twins-turn-seven.

7 On pigmentary hierarchies, which are found in some but not all cultures, see D. Gabriel, Layers of Blackness: Colourism in the African Diaspora (London, 2007); E.N. Glenn (ed.), Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters (Stanford, Calif., 2009); S.B. Verma, ‘Obsession with Light Skin: Shedding Some Light upon the Use of Skin Lightening Products in India’, International Journal of Dermatology, 49 (2010), pp. 464ff.

8 N. Henry, Pearl’s Secret: A Black Man’s Search for his White Family (Berkeley, Calif., 2001).

9 D. Crystal (ed.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 236-7.

10 Most children are monolingual, but bilingualism is not uncommon, where the parents have different languages, or where the wider society operates with more than one official language. It’s much rarer to be polyglot: see e.g. Xiao-Lei Wang, Growing Up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven (Bristol, 2008).

11 Brazil’s National Research by Household Sample (2008) reported that 48.43% of the Brazilian population, when surveyed, described themselves as ‘white’; 43.80% as ‘brown’ (multi-ethnic); 6.84% as ‘black’; 0.58% as ‘Amerindian’ (officially known as ‘Indigenous’); while 0.07% (about 130,000 individuals) did not declare any additional identity. A year earlier, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation also reported the existence of at least 67 different ‘uncontacted’ tribes. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil.

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