I remember being canvased for the 1989 European election. I was a nineteen year old mother of a two year old, living in a shared house. It was the first election I’d been old enough to vote. It was also the first time I’d seen the Green Party as an electoral force. Something interesting was going on. I can’t say that Europe itself really mattered to me very much, but it opened up ways to think things through, that we couldn’t really find space for elsewhere.
So in keeping with the more recent tone of NTWICH I’m going to start this post with a confession. I avoided seeing the film Pride for nearly 16 months and only eventually watched it because I had to.
In the end I watched it because Catherine Grant very kindly invited me to speak at an event that she organised with Diarmaid Kelliher, on Pride and its Precursors and I was too honoured, and too embarrassed, to say no. When the film first came out I ducked and dived out of numerous press requests to comment on it. I had toyed with the idea of presenting at the symposium without actually having watched the film, maybe as a sort of thought experiment. I’d floated the idea over drinks with the talented historian Ben Jones from UEA but lost my confidence after he described some of the scenes I might have missed out on (the alien invasion and massive shoot out at the end).
It was fitting that the launch marked both Corbyn’s first national Labour Party conference and Brighton’s digital festival – the questions raised intersected with both. In fact issues of what should Labour do, and what digital tools should be for, match up, question for question. How do we connect publics with structures? How do we know what people want? What material limits to access are there that get in the way of ‘being heard’? What can we do about the world that might make us feel better about our place in it.
But the session I contributed to was also specifically rooted in Brighton, and what could or should be done from a local perspective. A varied group of community activists from Eastbourne and a talk from Peter Macfadyen author of Flat Pack Democracy: A DIY Guide to Creating Independent Politics, (which outlines how a group of independent candidates effectively took over the whole of their local council in Frome, Somerset), helped make sure that we didn’t get too smug about Brighton and Hove.
Before the panel discussion Luke Flegg from Change the Future talked us through a series of possible digital tools that could be used to engage online decision making processes. A lot of the discussions that followed reminded me of the sorts of conversations we have about digital pedagogy – what are the limits and possibilities of the digital in transforming our existing practices? Does digital engagement challenge or just reinforce existing dynamics etc? As a digital pedagogical practitioner I am interested in moving beyond hierarchical teaching models, pretty similar motivations to those using digital tools to encourage political engagement.
Tools like, Vocaleyes, or Loomio, aim to nuance decision making, and move closer to post-occupy consensus processes and away from ‘for or against’ voting methods. The problem with politics, it appears, is in the participatory process. This isn’t just a bureaucratic issue that PR would be ‘fairer’n for example. The assumption behind these tools is that decision making is in itself a transformative process – making your mind up involves changing your mind through interaction. To facilitate this these tools let decisions be revisited, and made relational. The value of the digital then is in building multiple facing dialogues. The balance between representation and participation in the decision making processes online is measured by much it feels like face to face, local engagement.
So how does my involvement in the People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove help me make sense of this tendency to map the analogue on the local and virtual on the national? In the rest of this blog post I want to explain why I think a small group of people pissed off but laughing might teach us something about the lines we draw between the local and the national, the digital and ‘real life’, and the public and private.
I’m going to begin by just sharing a bit of the PRBH anti-manifesto and then explore the relationship between content, message, brand as an activist tool – in both the virtual and the real world. I’m a member of the Republic’s Occasional Table (our equivalent of a cabinet) and am the official Minister for Nagging. I define the role as a feminist intervention in the Republic, although it largely involves being a Facebook admin and occasionally smoothing over hurt feelings (or cranking them up I expect). In this blog I’m going to write of and about the PRBH, but I’m not speaking for it in any way.
“The PRBH page was started spontaneously as a misery and stress relieving joke because various people were bemoaning the shock Tory win by 12 seats when we were all hoping for a coalition more to the left this time. We were basically commiserating with each other when suddenly the idea of The People’s Republic of Brighton & Hove occurred to a local comedian, broadcaster, musician and hat-maker called Jason Smart. Within minutes and through the next hours and days the spirit of defiance took flight with 1,000s of likes, so a group was formed which reached 3,000 members in about a week, [current group membership is 7,849]
yeh its fun mixed with pissed off”
At Synergy’s Social Forum Discussion the discussion was all about the relationship between digital and real world politics. The clicktivism debates are well established. The values attached to online activism stretch from Arab Spring inspired explanations of Twitter as a driver of social change, to more skeptical suggestions that the rise of social network activism is a debasement of the traditional public sphere. So Twitter either turns us all into revolutionaries, or snapchat turns us all into self obsessed selfie curating. These aren’t new questions about the relationship between media technology and social change – How does one feed into the other, or distract the other? We could equally ask the Victorians what they thought about ‘penny dreadfuls’ or Eric Hobsbawm about what he thought about the Beatles. But these questions do have a contemporary resonance. In a context where all of our traditional measures of social trends, voting, polling, media coverage of the public face of politics seem out of kilter, its pretty hard to know who actually thinks what. Who are the public, or publics, and what do they actually think or want?
At the very least, the Corbyn victory showed how little the Labour Party knew about what their own members wanted. Now, I’m not going to suggest that the People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove is the answer to any of these questions. It isn’t an attempt to operate a new system. It was an emotional and community response, accidentally founded on Facebook, with no shared process, and nor shared agenda. We are ultimately an imagined community, to borrow from Benedict Anderson. We share a badge, and we share a Facebook page. We accidentally willed ourselves into being and then we had to work out what that meant and what to do about it. In the process we’ve played with the joys, and frustrations of using the tools that are already out there for us; you can find us on Facebook, but also in local community centres, pubs and parks.
The variety of agendas and positions in the Republic might actually be a useful way into a bigger question about how civil society, or politics might actually be being experienced. People came to the Republic for a variety of reasons. In the wake of the Conservative election victory there were a whole variety of final straws. Some people’s principle opposition was to the first past the post system, or a lack of conviction politics or opposition within parliamentary politics. Others are rooted in the ‘small democracy’ model, and value the local. Some people are using the Frome model to engage with local council decision making. Some want to think about the national picture. Some want to think across the traditional party system, some want to think beyond party altogether. It is perhaps here that the digital tools designed to move participation and decision making ‘beyond binary’ coincide with the questions raised by the Republican. Rather than necessarily being a solution to the same problem is struck me that that use of consensus building tools and the Republic are different responses to the same challenge. Some of us have had years of political grassroots activism under our belts, but no longer feel that the old activist organisations matched our goals. Some have experience in occupy style consensus politics and forms of activism that focus on the processes of organisation as much (if not more) than what we want. Some of us just want to stir stuff up a bit. Although I don’t want to get stuck in binaries, there are two ways of seeing the accidental politics that grew out of a Facebook joke. Our shared laughter unites the politics of bringing together people who are already doing things and the politics of finding a space for people who feel, possibly for the first time, or the first time in years, that they would like to do something.
We hardly every agree on anything, and often can’t agree even on what we are. Its never simple or easy and often breaks my heart a little bit. But as Cindy, who is also on the Occasional Table, explained; ‘Any individual can speak about what the group and belonging to it means for them and what it’s general history and aims are, but not for what it means for others’. That’s what I’m trying to do here. What on earth do we have in common then? Perhaps it is that after years of being told we are apathetic, and that there’s no such thing as community, we woke up to a Conservative government and realised that not only did we want a community, we were already part of one. We are not a process or tool looking for an audience or an organisation working out how to ‘connect’ with a public, we are an community hoping to be the ones to rewrite the story. In many ways we are working backwards.
So I thought that I’d think about the badge and why wearing and sharing the badge matters as a way of thinking about what the roots of the republic might be. I want to think about the ways in which a small circular material object, the pin badge, might help us work through some of the bigger questions about the relationship between the local and the national, the virtual and the real life, the public and the personal. I’m a historian, I can’t help it.
Jason designed the PRBH badge inspired by the post election map of the area; ‘red and green in a sea of blue’, the shape looked a bit like a yin yang. The red and the green of the badge trace the city’s Labour and Green MP constituencies, but the badge is also beyond binary. The red and green yin yang with an outline of blue around the edge signifies that we are simultaneously both, and beyond red and green politics, acknowledging but marginalising the blue agenda surrounding us. Two further designs developed the badge into a logo incorporating the Brighton football team’s white seagull and the iconic Brighton pavilion.
It is a way of signifying we are a community. You always get a nod and smile when you see someone else wearing one. Or sometimes the badge is an invitation to start a random conversation. But we are simultaneously a walking flier, a brand, and a joke. Jason liked the design because it was ‘ A comic political idea in that it looks like labour & the greens 69ing each other!’. It is a joke political badge for an absence of a movement. It traces and makes visible networks and communities as well as building new ones. Our Minister for Badges has done incredible work using the badge to fund raise for our designated charities (Brighton Open Air Theatre, FareShare and Liberty) has also used it to create a new map of Brighton. The shops that agreed to stock the badge and support our charitable causes map a network of small independent businesses, shops and pubs that take their social responsibility seriously. In sticker form the logo pops up in surprising, but appropriate, places – on the local service train map or the posters welcoming the Labour Party to Brighton train station for example. The prank is as much part of our tool box as the Facebook page. That doesn’t mean we can’t measure things that have happened – new teams of people, new support mechanisms, new connections have been formed, money raised for charities, there’s a forthcoming oral history project, a series of open space meetings , fundraising film screenings, a choir, community picnics, fucked up school assemblies, calls out for support, lifts, lends and help and gin.
Billy Bragg famously sung ‘wearing badges is not enough in days like these’. But despite the press obsession with the idea that we are reliving 1983, wearing badges, in an increasingly digital activist world actually feels like an intervention. Because the Republic is about a sense of community identity, perhaps without a goal, it seems clear to me, why the badge matters. In the late 1960s sociologist Frank Parkin looked at the growth of CND as an organisation and recognised that he was looking at a different type of politics. He saw that being in CND wasn’t just about being opposed to nuclear war. There was more uniting its members than a shared opposition against something. He saw that people in CND shared a style, often shared tastes, often came from a similar background – and interesting later went on to be movers and shakers in the social movements around the Vietnam War and feminism that sum up the story of the radical Sixties.
The CND badge’s designer, Gerald Holtom had been a conscientious objector. He designed the badge in 1958. The first badges, made from clay to withstand and therefore bear witness to nuclear holocaust, were made by Eric Austen from Kensington CND. The design incorporated the semaphore for the letters N (nuclear) and D (disarmament) with the idea of the broken cross, circle of life and arms upstretched in despair. The story of the CND badge therefore, shows us that a badge can matter, not just because of what it says on it, but also because of how it was designed, distributed and made, and what it feels like to wear it. Its various elements match up with the various motivations for wearing it. CND was after all a very messy broad church organisation. Wearing the badge matched CND’s various attractions, from a generational identification of style, to an explicit formal allegiance. The badge had changing resonances. In her memoirs feminist socialist historian Sheila Rowbotham talks about how, as a student, wearing a CND badge was “briefly a declaration of wild extremity”. (p68) In his memoirs George Galloway used Tony Blair’s youthful wearing of a CND badge in the 80s to show how far Blair had sold out – or been prepared to pose to please his particular audience at a given time. I liked the idea of looking for CND badges in memoirs as personal accounts because that’s exactly what the badges did – make personal statements about public politics.
Now I’m not making any claims that the People’s Republic is in any way the next CND. Organising a conga on the beach doesn’t come close to the long marches from Aldermaston to London. But when Parkin saw people wearing their CND badges, he understood that they weren’t just saying something about their political positions. They were saying something important about what sort of people they were. Something that didn’t simply relate to economic or political interests, but was a way of saying this is who I am and I’ve found other people a bit like me. The PRBH, messy, contradictory, and bouncing between the beach and the Facebook page has given us a space. PRBH accidentally made a space, both virtual and local, that helped us face the depressing state of parliamentary politics and a confusion around what opposition might be. Like the badge, the Republic has helped say this is who we are and we’d like to do something about it.
You can download the anthem for the PRBH that Jason wrote. Profits go to Fareshare. Or find us on Facebook
Earlier this month I attended two conferences in a week. Not great planning on my part but it was really interesting to move across geographical locations and organisational structures to ask in essence very similar questions but with very different answers. The first symposium I attended as a discussant was Rethinking Contemporary British Political History at Queen Mary’s Mile End campus organised by Dr Helen McCarthy. (The second was the Workshop on Voluntary Action and Philanthropy at Frankfurt University which I will write about later)