The Fifth Annual Politics and Applied Global Ethics Festival
It doesn’t really matter how engaging, witty and charismatic one may be (and here at PAGE, I am sure we all are!), by mid-way through the semester, that first year introductory module can start to feel a bit tired, and tiring, for all concerned. So this year, for the fifth annual Politics and Applied Global Ethics Festival, we tried some thing different. Classes were cancelled for the week and students were asked instead to attend a variety of simulations, debates, round-tables, guest lectures and film showings. The aim was to carry on learning but at tangents from the main curriculum.
Attendance, participation and engagement with the various events suggests it was a roaring success.
A series of blog-posts over the next few weeks will look back at the festival, reflecting on things learned by both students and staff. First up, last week was Dr Sophia Price’s reflection on using the Russian Punk Protest band Pussy Riot as a way in to teach about feminism and International Relations. Those that attended and were perhaps only partly aware of the group’s protest politics will not just have learned about patriarchy and feminism but also about the incredible bravery of band members Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich.
Building Power Locally
Andrew Grinnell from Citizens UK ran a workshop on ‘Building Civil Society Power Locally’, drawing on campaigning over several years in one of Leeds’ most deprived areas, East End Park. Building civil society power means developing the capacity of a community to hold politicians and other decision makers to account, influencing decisions and improving lives. Andrew cited the ideas of Saul Alinsky as one of the principal influences on this style of community organising. In the context of anxiety about disengagement from formal politics, evidenced by low turnouts at general elections, low trust in politicians and falling party membership, this is a model of an alternative form of participation that challenges the narrative of apathy.
There were questions in the workshop about the limits of civil society power at a local level in challenging mechanisms of power that operate on a larger scale and are embedded in the basic structures of society, and whether community-based campaigns can be easily bought-off through minor concessions or even merely through commitments to better communication and consultation.
Andrew made a strong case that community organising had made a difference in East End Park through small victories in areas such as housing policy. Perhaps best-known at a national level is the growing campaign for a living wage. A Leeds Citizens group is being developed to bring this campaign to our city. In the final keynote lecture of the PAGE Festival Labour Work and Pensions Spokesperson Rachel Reeves MP argued that support for the living wage is a central element of Labour’s ‘one nation’ politics in her lecture on ‘Building a one nation economy’.
Community power requires some sense of community. From videoed interviews with East End Park residents it appeared that a sense of community had been undermined by anxieties about ethnic diversity resulting from recent immigration into what might be described as a formerly predominantly white working class area. Some of this anxiety was clearly expressed as opposition to immigration and hostility towards the newcomers, though there were also voices that welcomed the resulting diversity.
One interviewee expressed stridently racist attitudes towards the immigrants. However, Andrew Grinnell described how this person subsequently reflected on his own Irish name and learned about his ancestors who were themselves migrants to England, and this led him to rethink his hostility to the new incomers. They became people like him.
It is often remarked that Britain is, on a larger historical canvas, a nation of immigrants. However, it is doubtful whether wider understanding of this truth would have much effect on attitudes to immigration. This may be because the point is too abstract to affect people’s sense of their identity as members of the indigenous British population – it doesn’t unsettle an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. And even recent migrants or their descendants can express anxiety about or opposition to further immigration.
Alp Mehmet from Migration Watch exemplifies this fact, as a first generation immigrant for Cyprus who is vice-chairman of a leading thinktank calling for immigration to be reduced. In another Festival event Alp debated the question ‘Is immigration good for Britain?’ with Sunder Katwala, director of British Future. Britain has undoubtedly benefitted economically and culturally from immigration, and Sunder spelled out some of these benefits including students, entrepreneurs and the labour force.
Immigrants are, on average, net contributors to public finances by making a larger contribution through taxation than the claim they make on public spending. However the question needs to be unpacked. Alp Mehmet accepted that immigration had been good for Britain ‘most of the time’ and argued that migration for study should not be limited and that ‘genuine refugees’ should be accepted. However, the fact that Britain has benefited from migration in the past does not, he said, mean that more of it is good. In his view current levels of net migration need to be reduced.
But it is not clear on what basis current or projected levels of immigration are too high, what ‘balanced migration’ means in terms of numbers, or how a reduction would be achieved.
Although Alp acknowledged the benefits of migration in the past it is difficult not to conclude that immigration has always been ‘too high’ from this point of view. On the other hand, the alternative is not to argue that immigration does not bring challenges as well as benefits, and this was recognised by Sunder Katwala. Whether immigration is good for ‘Britain’ conceals its differential impacts on different groups. For example, Sunder emphasised the risk of unskilled migrant workers undercutting wage rates in some sectors and the need for effective enforcement of the minimum wage.