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May 04, 2012

Voting in Coventry

Yesterday, I made the most of my status of European Union citizen by voting in the local elections in Coventry. Voting in local elections is something two thirds of the British population do not care about, so my act may be seen as paradoxically one of distinction from, rather than of integration in the local polity. Those who do not vote in local elections over here might have some reason: the country is strongly centralised, there are no regional elections and local councils do not have much competence, despite running substantial budgets and being responsible for something most British people complain about all the time: the council tax (a rather regressive thing, heritage of the even worse Thatcher's poll tax). But still, local elections have some relevance for national politics, although not nearly as much as they have in most of western Europe, and especially so in Germany, Italy and Spain. And they matter locally too: when Coventry fell shortly into conservative hands afew years ago, the damage was there for all to see, for instance in the cuts to libraries, including those just built.

So I did go to vote, and while in the past I occasionally voted Greens or Socialist, especially when sick of wars abroad and of traffic locally, I opted for the ‘useful vote’ that a first-past-the-post system calls for, and gone for Labour. With good satisfaction: my ward, which is a mix of two parts, old working-class Tile Hilland new middle-class Westwood, swung from Conservative to Labour and Coventry’s Labour majority was strengthened. Despite low turn-out, Labour's excellent result across the country sent a clear message to the ruling coalition and especially to the Lib-Dems, who were duly massacred in the polls.

Liberals have been an important tradition in the European polity, with serious merits, but both largest liberal parties, in Germany and in the UK, may disappear from the next Parliaments and I find it difficult to miss them. The German FDP discovered neoliberalism after its sell-by-date, and it is now reduced to something like 1%. In the UK, the Lib-Dems' affair with the Tories will go to history as one of the most stupid political decisions ever. The long history of Italian coalitions taught me that as a rule, ina government the senior patner always takes the merits, and the smaller parties take the blame: this is why the Christian Democrats could rule with smaller allied for as long as 45 years (the rule is confirmed, grosso modo, by the other proportional-voting countries). So junior partners need to demarcate very clearly something they will benefit from, which is usually simpler for regional parties (i.e. the Catalans of CiU). But in a foolish bet, Clegg gave the Tories everything, even what they had not asked for (the reform of the NHS!), in exchange of only one, terribly insecure thing: the referendum on the election system. Which he predictably lost, and now, for a further three years, he has to keep being the spare wheel of the Tories for no benefit whatsoever, playing the shameful role of the scapegoat for Cameron, without any negotiation power given that in a snap election he would disappear. No, his strategic vision will not be missed.

Yesterday we also voted on another election reform: a referendum on the direct election of mayors. Initially, I was quite in favour of the idea. In Italy, it was introduced 19 years ago and, although I had opposed it in the Italian referendum of 1993, I concede that it had a positive effect in revitalising local democracy, and all across the country there have been lively campaigns and independent, innovative mayors. And during these two years, I have seen charismatic mayors having positive influence in all corners of Europe, from Kraków to Berlin to Milan. But on reflection, this is not so much associated with direct election: in Germany and Spain, the elections are indirect. And direct election works well in Italy, because anyway the large majority of the population takes part in the vote. But in the UK, with participation at around 30%, the risk of maverick populist mayors with large marketing budgets is too high: Boris Johnson in London is only a taste of worse things that could come. Rather than revitalising democracy, direct election could undermine the associational pillar of democracy itself (so openly despised in these same days, across the Channel, by Sarkozy). So I voted no, and in this case, I have been in line with the innate conservatism of the majority of local voters.


August 10, 2011

Riots, politicians, sociologists

I am in Scotland, immersed in peace and nature, light-miles away from burning England. But it is impossible to ignore what’s happening there, in particular when former neighbourhoods in Birmingham are affected.

Boris Johnson, London’s Mayor, interrupted his holiday and yesterday was on the streets of London, armed with a groom as if helping to clear up the mess. He didn’t really need a groom though as he could have used his hair, but politicians are there to speak and not to clean up. He said some sensible stuff on the ‘true spirit of London’, and I would add that there is a ‘true spirit of Birmingham’ too, where it appears that three men died tonight while standing to defend their neighbourhood. But then he moved on saying that ‘it is time that people who are engaged in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and sociological justifications’.

What confusion. It is true that academic experts in the heat of events should rather not speak too much – we had a terrible example a few weeks ago with armies of ‘security’ and ‘terrorism experts’ explaining to us that the Oslo bombing was Al Queda’s work. But Johnson caught the occasion for a cheap attack on social sciences and progressive thinking, adding only to confusion.

It is not the job of social scientists to explain individual events – for that there are journalists, police investigators, judges, local authorities, and eventually historians. Even more so for contemporary events. Despite the recent stress on ‘impact’ from research authorities, the best social research actually proves its usefulness only years, sometimes decades after it is carried out: take Becker’s research on youth subcultures in the 1950s, that became topical ten years later. Sociologists, in particular, are interested in patterns, regularities of behaviour, and should never try to explain ‘everything’: human behaviour is just too unpredictable. By the way, even natural sciences can predict very little, and mostly talk of probability only. So, as sociologists we are not so much interested in the Tottenham riots, but in riots as such – in the way Simmel said they were interested in king John and not in King John. Sociologists cannot solve the ongoing riots, but can try to explain why they tend to happen in certain places and at certain time. Explaining has nothing to do with justifying, but it is necessary if we don’t want repetitions, and therefore Johnson should in the future pay more attention.

These riots remind me strongly not so much of those in the Paris banlieus in 2005, which were much more political, but, rather, those of Los Angeles in 1992: which also had as immediate cause a police killing, were aimed at shopping malls, and took place during an economic crisis. In this sense riots are an example of 'succesful' adoption of the American social model - indeed in Southern Europe they are virtually unknown. The racial element was probably stronger in Los Angeles, though: in England now there may be a significant black component, but overall looters from all ethnic groups are uniting, and thank’s God no ethnic group is being targeted by the violence (in Los Angeles it was the Koreans, and in Birmingham in 2005 there was a minor Asian-Black Caribbean riot). And without falling into justification, cuts to community social services did matter in both cases: in Tottenham, the majority of youth centres has been recently closed because of the cuts, and I can see in my Tile Hill neighbourhood in Coventry what difference a youth centre can make.

But sociologists can also tell something to some kind of leftists. I remember people so excited the Los Angeles riots footage (probably the first riot so heavily televised) that they watched them with rap soundtracks. Now, as Merton famously said, there are various kinds of ‘social deviance’, depending on whether it is on the goals or on the means. Gangs of looters are not deviants in terms of goals or values: they just want to consume more in a consumerist society. They are just deviant in terms of the means they use to achieve their socially-shared goals. In this sense, they are not unknowing allied of the Left, but actually it is its exact opposite: the radical Left should be deviant in terms of goals, but, if it is democratic, not in terms of means. And historically, let’s remember that the 1992 riots in Los Angeles finished with the intervention of the army, more repression, and a wave of ‘zero tolerance’ policing across the whole United States.


March 15, 2011

George Shaw's Tile Hill paintings: my neighbourhood or the universal English working class estate?

A 4-hour train journey across England to go from an anonymous post-war working class estate in Coventry to Newcastle... to see paintings of the same anonymous post-war working class estate. That sounds like a great week-end plan.

BalticGeorge Shaw’s ‘The Sly and Unseen Day’ exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is worth it. And Tile Hill is worth it too.

Shaw made his paintings over the 1996-2010 period, on the basis of an archive of thousands of photographs he took around the Tile Hill estate, where he grew up. He took many of the photos with his late father, who had come to Tile Hill from Ireland, like many others. Painting from pictures, rather than from real life, reduces the light’s dynamic range (much detail is lost in shadows) and flattens the perspective, but also allows painting at strange times and under bad weather conditions – especially rain – while keeping an indirect individual link to the place. Shaw uses an unfashionable, humble, almost weird material: Humbrol enamel paint. This reminds of simple craftwork in the shed, and gives a very simplified and artificial colouring: more industrial than natural. The perspective and composition are also very simple – as from a child’s eye.

Subject of the paintings (owned by various collections including Tate, Deutsche Bank - some are of Warwick's Mead Gallery) are Tile Hill corners that mean something to the painter: a phone box no longer used; the school entrance; his house; old garages; what remains of a demolished pub; a path in the woods; a subway. There is no human figure in any painting, nothing happens. You have to think to interpret what sort of life could have been there, why a certain path, a certain boarded window may be important. No easy symbolism, but a very strong statement of what art is about, and where it comes from.

To see the exhibition coming from Tile Hill makes a double impression. The first instinct is to locate the apparently anonymous locations: where exactly is that garage, that corner, that tree? Then, there is the reaction that it is quite unfair, the paintings focussing on the abandoned, decadent parts in an apparently depressing manner. But after these neighbourhood-provincial reactions, a further look discovers all the depth of artistic creation. The neo-Romantic references, especially with the suburban landscapes echoing, maybe mocking the Pre-Raphaelites. The poetic references to Larkin on Coventry, where 'my childhood was unspent' - and 'it is not the place's fault - nothing, like something happens anywhere'. The historical references, from old trees that were there before the estate, to peeping holes in a fence, reminders of Coventry’s legendary Peeping Tom from the medieval Lady Godiva story – in Shaw’s words ‘a classic British story – sex, class and realism'. Indeed, Shaw is a ‘classist’ artist, despising the ideological, un-experiential ‘higher-class’ art and affirming his working class roots strongly, even though avoiding political language, also in the way he talks about his work. The paintings are intimate – but in their artistic content they are also universal.

Tile Hill is a good place to reflect over time, memory, decadence. It is right in the middle of England and could be seen as representative of all working class estates in the country, but that's not factually precise: the place has its individual history. It was built for the ‘new’ working class, largely from Ireland, for the factories nearby - 'everyone either worked at Standard or at Massey-Ferguson', remembers Shaw. (According to the Acorn classification my street’s typical demographic definition is ‘large families with low level of education’: my house is an outlier, with a popolation of 2 and 100% PhD-level education). It was a 'new town', after the old Coventry had been destroyed by the 1940 bombing. Some of it was intended as progressive, innovative urbanism; especially the Jardine Crescent estate, a circle of brutalist housing blocks encircling a common and community services: you can still tell the utopia of such planning. Shaw paints the burnt or razed pubs, the abandoned playgrounds or football pitches, the boarded houses. Indeed, since the 1980s Tile Hill has suffered serious decline, like most of Coventry (1980s Coventry, and Warwick University, are portrayed in a sweet-sour sauce in the fine short novel by Jonathan Coe, A Touch of Love). The factories have gone and Tile Hill is the seventh poorest of 230 parishes in Coventry. In some regards the decline goes on: the Irish club where I used to go to watch football, attached to the Catholic Church and Catholic school where Shaw grew up, has just closed down, killed by the smoking ban and by cheap supermarket booze. However, something also develops on the ashes. On Jardine Crescent, on the place of desolate prefabs painted by Shaw, there are now an impressive Youth Centre, a nice library, a new health centre. The old craftsmanship of Shaw’s enamel paint has not disappeared, and on the same Jardine Crescent survives a fantastic family bike shop. The woods are being managed and kept well - one point on which Tile Hill differs from the average estate is the amount of parks and woodland. It is a continuous fight against destruction: the library is at risk thanks to the vandalic cuts of the Tories. Some regeneration is replacing services (Tile Hill college) and social housing with more anonymous middle-class housing, although there is still no systematic speculation-driven effort at ‘gentrification’, as for instance at London’s Heygate.

OuseburnNewcastle, vibrant and friendly northern city with its bars, its arty scene in regenerated industrial Ouseburn, its spectacular river and its labour movement traditions (the Jarrow Crusade) is an appropriate setting for this arty celebration of the quintessential, but actually unique, English working class estate.

Postscript. The train journey back was disrupted, as usual given the state of British railways. Trains were not running to Tile Hill, because no London Midland’s train drivers volunteered for Sunday work. The union is in dispute after the company dropped the special Sunday pay rate. Even if Sunday work is voluntary, the company says that the refusal to work amounts to a strike and refused to provide replacement services or to refund my ticket. But it is not an official strike and after losing the patience of its employees London Midland is on the path to lose the patience of passengers.


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