‘We have to be better than that’. Dark Times in UK politics

In this post, Dr Sophia Price, Head of Politics and Applied Global Ethics, at Leeds Beckett reacts to the politics of fear and resentment in the UK and the violent murder of the Rt Hon Jo Cox MP.

These are dark times in British Politics. The mind-numbingly horrific murder of MP Jo Cox yesterday on the streets of West Yorkshire should make us all stop and look at what we’ve become.

While the terrible and violent manner of her death is shocking and awful, that we have witnessed such violence is not wholly unexpected. There has been a deliberate stirring of racial hatred in the name of a political project, something so graphically demonstrated by UKIP’s latest poster campaign that was unveiled yesterday. It depicts a long line of refugees,  foregrounded by the statement ‘Breaking Point’.


Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 11.27.42

Nigel Farage in front of a UKIP/Leave Campaign Poster

The demonization of immigrants and refugees in the name of political gain has been a noted recent element of British politics.  This sort of trend was met in the past by resistance from those to the left of right wing xenophobia. Since Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 the playing of the ‘race card’ in British politics has been something that has been widely criticised and recognised as divisive and dangerous. In reaction to Powell’s speech Tony Benn said:

“The flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over Dachau and Belsen. If we do not speak up now against the filthy and obscene racialist propaganda … the forces of hatred will mark up their first success and mobilise their first offensive.”

The brutal murder of a left wing MP who spoke up for and defended the rights of immigrants is a marker in that offensive.  A woman described by her colleague as someone who believed that a better world is possible, one without hatred and racism.  She appeared to believe that the purpose of politics was to lead public opinion in pursuit of that better world, rather than stoke up fear and resentment of others for structural problems that they did not recreate.

That Jo Cox spoke up and stood against the forces of hatred is a mark of the woman that she was. For the rest of us the question hangs in the air.

What we have seen in UK politics recently is an extraordinary realignment of positions in the politics of race. Some elements of the notionally progressive sections of British politics have engaged in a Faustian pact, willing to have their positions allied to those of racists and xenophobes in the hope this will deliver the political result that they believe will justify that alliance.

In the interests of that pact, their opposition to the ‘filthy and obscene racialist propaganda’ has not been loud enough. Take for example Labour MP Kate Hoey, describing immigration as a ‘curse’:

“Outside London and the big cities, this abundant supply of cheap labour is not necessarily a guaranteed boon. It can be a curse – driving down wages, taking jobs from the locals, as well as putting pressure on schools and health services”.

Of course, Hoey is right that immigration is an issue that impacts on the working class and the poorest communities. Support for Powell in 1968 came from workers and trade unionist who staged strikes and marches against his sacking from the shadow cabinet after his evocation of the Tiber ‘flowing with much blood’. But care is needed in how these issues are addressed.

The answer is not a retreat into violent and hateful ‘Little Englanders’, pointing the finger at and blaming the most vulnerable and precarious in our societies.  The problems facing poor communities and many immigrants alike are structural inequalities between and within nations; immigration is the result rather than cause of these inequalities.

Put simply; we have to be better than that.  Jo Cox’s legacy has to be to remind us of the importance of this.


Dr Sophia Price teaches modules on international relations, gender and European politics at Leeds Beckett.  Her recent research focuses on EU external relations, the relationship between trade liberalisation and poverty in African, Caribbean and Pacific states and micro-finance and gender in West Africa.  Her most recent paper is published in the Journal of Modern African Studies, and available here.


Exercising Human Rights?

Last month Dr. Robin Redhead launched her new book: Exercising Human Rights: Gender, Agency and Practice at the Politics and Applied Global Ethics seminar series and at the International Studies Association annual convention in New Orleans.

Exercising Human Rights by Robin Redhead

Speaking about her book, Robin explored why human rights are not universally empowering an why this damages people attempting to exercise rights. She takes a new approach in looking at humans as the subject of human rights rather than the object and exposes the gendered and ethnocentric aspects of violence and human subjectivity in the context of human rights.

An Amnesty International Publication as part of the 2004 campaign

An Amnesty International Publication as part of the 2004 campaign

Using an innovative visual methodology, Redhead shines a new critical light on human rights campaigns and practice. She examines two case studies in-depth. First, she shows how Amnesty International depicts women negatively in their 2004 Stop Violence against Women campaign, revealing the political implications of how images deny women their agency because violence is gendered.

See more about the Oka crisis at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Archives.

See more about the Oka crisis at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Archives.

She also analyses the Oka conflict between indigenous people and the Canadian state. She explains how the Canadian state defined the Mohawk people in such a way as to deny their human subjectivity. By looking at how the Mohawk used visual media to communicate their plight beyond state boundaries, she delves into the disjuncture between state sovereignty and human rights.

Her book is published by Routledge and available at:


Saving World Market Society from Itself? The World Economic Forum and the New Global Politics of Inequality

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is meeting this week in Davos, Switzerland. The annual conference has a long history of bringing leading individuals from the worlds of business, government and academia together. Following criticism and protest in the 1990s and early 2000s, the annual meeting has also been opened up to ‘civil society’ and webcasts now enable the interested public to peek into the proceedings of the once very secretive meeting.


The WEF prides itself on being an ‘agenda setter’ and bringing the ‘international community’ together to tackle common global problems. This international community is broadly conceived and now takes in key multinationals, international NGOs, international organisations and the leaders and senior politicians of leading states, as well as senior academics from across the social and natural sciences. To illustrate this point, the Co-Chairs of this year’s meeting included Winnie Byanyima (Executive Director of Oxfam International), Jim Yong Kim (Director of the World Bank) and Eric Schmidt (Chief Exec of Google). Many hundreds of participants from these sectors will be present at the meeting and contribute to the discussions.

The conference theme this year is ‘the New Global Context’ and is underpinned by four pillars. These include the challenges associated with maintaining global cooperation in the context of geo-political shift and ‘decentred globalism’; the challenge posed by slow growth and the need to make this more sustainable and resilient; the promises and challenges of new technology; and social instability.

Davos Programme

Davos Programme

Something of a ‘pinch of salt’ is needed when decoding some of this: it suits the forum organisers to present significant systemic challenges as requiring imminent attention, because that suggests a stronger purpose for the forum. However, the agenda does highlight some significant risks facing the global system, and which it has a track record of outlining, particularly in its Global Risks Report, the tenth annual iteration of which was published last week.

Risk management has become a hot topic among international organisations in recent years. In my paper due to be presented at the International Studies Association annual convention in New Orleans in a few weeks time, I take a look at the role of international organisations in managing systemic risk in the international system, in the context of academic debates about the emergence of a world society.

Global Risks Report 2015

Global Risks Report 2015

In the paper, I argue that a world society is emergent, but this is better understood as a ‘world market society’ (WMS) in which the process of world market integration is ‘ecologically dominant’ (to borrow a phrase from Bob Jessop) over other aspects of it, such as increased social connectivity, the development of shared cosmopolitan identities and the extension of democracy and human rights.

I also argue that if a WMS is emergent,  it also has some important institutional promoters – these being supra-national institutions such as the World Economic Forum, but also inter-governmental organisations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These organisations have a long track record in promoting world market integration. But the same organisations are also now increasingly engaged in identifying risks to the continued process of world market integration and attempting to manage these.

For the many activists and critics who have traditionally viewed these organisations negatively (for e.g. the anti-globalisation movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Occupy protestors and the like), this can be superficially confusing. For one of the major themes in work put out by the WEF, the OECD and the IMF over recent years has been to lament the world wide rise in inequality and its now widely recognised negative impacts on growth, social stability and the vulnerability of the financial system.

My paper charts the various research and strategy reports put out by these organisations over the last few years which make these arguments. It also reports on interviews undertaken with senior figures at the OECD and IMF in the last few months about their work on inequality. The tenor of these interviews was that these high profile reports on inequality should be taken at face value; they represent a serious concern with the growth of inequality.

So how can the apparent serious interest of these organisations in containing and/or reducing inequality be reconciled with their commitment to the process of world market integration ? Afterall world market integration is a principal factor in the increase in inequality in the first place.

The answer lies in ‘risk management’, and by understanding risk in a dynamic way. As Paul Cammack  argues, risk management to these organisations is about seeing risk as both positive and negative. Risks are positive when they are about pro-market behaviour – rewarding investments in skills or product development. Risks are negative when they corrupt market behaviour.

WDR 2014 Risk & Opportunity.  The cover image for this report was in bad taste given it was published only days after the Lampedussa boat sinking.

WDR 2014 Risk & Opportunity. The cover image for this report was in bad taste given it was published only days after the Lampedussa boat sinking.

In this sense prominent negative risks are climate change or natural disasters because they undermine confidence in market-based risk taking and lead to market failure. As if to reinforce Cammack’s point, the World Bank’s annual World Development Report in 2014 was titled Risk and Opportunity and much of it was focused on how to incentivise positive risk and contain negative risk.

Inequality can be understood in this way too. Inequality is seen by these organisations as positive when it leads to disproportionate rewards for some, and therefore incentivises market-based risk. However, there is a level of inequality when the costs of negative risks outweigh these positive ones. This is the case where inequality leads to social and political instability or undermines trust in political institutions and the status quo of uneven wealth and power distribution.

To cite an example from a recent OECD report, it is also negative when it undermines market based risk taking: for instance when unequal societies mean that the poor do not invest in their skills development for future reward, because they cannot forgo today’s consumption, or they see the potential benefits as too uncertain. Clearly, in the judgement of those responding to the WEF’s Global Risk survey in recent years, and the OECD and IMF, inequality has risen to a level when these negative risks are now outweighing the positive ones.

The argument underpinning my paper is then that the new concern among international organisations with inequality – what might be termed a ’New Global Politics of Inequality’ – is just one example of their role in managing the risks associated with world market integration. It is a genuine concern, but it is not necessarily progressive. Rather it should be seen as a feature of these organisations attempting to save World Market Society from its own in-built crisis pressures.

None of this is to question the individual motivations of some of the committed people that I spoke to about their work on inequality inside these organisations. Many of them were genuinely committed and from a progressive desire for a more equal distribution of power and resources. They reported long-standing commitments and work in the area of inequality which stretched far beyond the recent organisational support for it. However, what seemed clear was that their work and ideas were allowed to come to the fore, and given organisational prominence, precisely because the context had changed. From an organisational standpoint, inequality had moved between the categories of positive and negative risk.

Occupy Poster, courtesy of Rayna Daine, Occupy Together.

Occupy Poster, courtesy of Rayna Daine, Occupy Together.

There are many reasons why this shift in organisational perspective occurred. On the one hand protest and activism was significant. The Occupy movement, resistance in Southern Europe to the imposition of austerity and the Arab Spring were all major triggers for shifting organisational agendas. So too is the increasing uncertainty among international organisations about their leadership and facilitation of the international community in a world of geo-political power shift from the US and ‘West’ to a multi-polar world. Dealing with inequality and social fragmentation as well as the impacts of this on consumer demand and environmental problems like resource depletion and climate change, in the context of reduced leadership capacity worries these organisations greatly. Watching the webcasts of discussions at Davos reaffirms this conclusion substantively.

A final question relates to the role of advocacy in this context. A future avenue for my research, and one currently being explored in our Global Inequalities research group by doctoral researcher Priyan Senevirantne, is what role leading NGOs are playing in this process?

Oxfam has been one of the loudest critics of increasing inequality, and no doubt has been influential in putting the issue on the agenda of the institutions of world market society. Oxfam’s critique is that WMS is skewed toward the very rich. Its analysis is far more radical than that of the IMF or OECD because it clearly suggests that there is something inherently wrong with the WMS itself.

However, by engaging with the WEF process as an insider, surely Oxfam risks becoming a part of the WMS: that is part of the very problem it is seeking to address. Priyan’s research suggests that many international NGOs – not necessarily Oxfam – are indeed becoming central elements of the very system that they were established to change. Other excellent research even suggests that protest itself is becoming a commercial proposition and stripped of its radical and system-changing objectives. A natural extension of my ISA paper would then be to explore the way in which Oxfam and other similar organisations engage with the institutions of the WMS and the effect that this has on the radicalism and progressiveness of their objectives. Watch this space.