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Metrocentric

John Nicholson, RESPECT national executive.


"National" organisations

Anyone who has worked in the voluntary sector in this country, is likely to have experienced the way that some voluntary organisations call themselves "national" and seek to "represent" the sector, when what they mean is that they are based in London.

Such behaviour used to be even more galling for people in Scotland or Wales, who did not need smart-suited "Chief Executives" of "national organisations" making the equivalent of an overland trek across their borders to tell them what they needed in their own area.

Since devolution to Cardiff and Edinburgh the focus has to some extent changed there. But in England, it is still the case that "London's calling", and the rest of the country is expected to respond. It's a "metrocentric" approach, that arguably does a disservice to all of us, in or out of the capital city.

 

The Socialist Alliance

The most obvious recent example, on the political left, is how the history of the Socialist Alliance is regarded, depending on where you come from. According to received wisdom, the Socialist Alliance "began" in 2000, around about the time that Londoners fought the Greater London Assembly elections.

In fact, the first Socialist Alliance appeared in Coventry and Warwickshire, after the expulsion of Labour MPs including Dave Nellist in 1992. Later, around 1995-6, when Labour ditched Clause IV of its constitution, and when the Socialist Labour Party was forming in an unduly UK-wide monolithic fashion, local Socialist Alliances were launched, notably in Greater Manchester, Merseyside (a few times), Kent, Walsall (initially as a Democratic Labour Party), and most significantly in Scotland.

These developed closer contact with each other, including across the border, and formed the Network of Socialist Alliances in England, eventually becoming the Socialist Alliance. (And careful to call its activities those of the "Socialist Alliance, nationally", rather than inadvertently putting the word "national" first.....)

Only in 2000 did this network of local groups make the historic move to admit people from London.

At the same time, of course, there was a political re-alignment. With much the same view of history. The Socialist Workers Party joined the Socialist Alliance, first in Greater Manchester, in September 1999, and then at various local and national levels. The echo of the geographic analysis is contained in SWP folklore, according to which it would generally appear that the Socialist Alliance only came into existence once the SWP became involved.

 

Divide and (Fail to) Rule

Depending on your point of view, it is easy for these to become very divisive issues. Pitting London against non-London, and SWP against non-SWP, continues to encourage distrust and fragmentation, rather than co-operation and unity across geographical and political boundaries.

While it remains frustrating for those of us living outside London to feel we are outside the "loop" of centralised decision-making, there is still more in common between all socialists, wherever we are and whatever variation of political theory we believe, than there is to divide us.

 

I would suggest some simple baselines might help to understand this:

1. London is the capital city. The national financial and political power, resources and media are concentrated within it. It is also a unique and distinct region in its own right. Its population is markedly different from any other region (more cosmopolitan, more mixed racially, exhibiting more extremes of rich and poor living close to each other). Its housing is very different (more private rented, both for poor and rich), its transport system is very different, its services to its residential population are very different. All in all it is worth attention, in its own right.

 

2. London does not speak for the rest of the country. Precisely because its own situation is so different, it is not possible to generalise from the living experience of Londoners as though this is the same for everyone else. Just because an organisation is based in London, whether due to the need for proximity to the other sources of power or otherwise, does not make it necessarily "national" in outlook, let alone in its ability to "represent".

 

3. London is often the easiest place to get to for meetings. This is one of the most difficult facts of political organisational life, outside of simply communicating in technologically virtual ways. Meetings in London inevitably attract more people from London. But nowhere else is as easy to get to for the whole of the rest of the country (in the sense that everywhere else is more difficult for someone). Sharing the burden around the country also leads to huge pooled fare arrangements, seeming to inflict on the regions outside London the added financial pain of providing hospitality to the metropolitan visitors.

 

 4.  London may at times justify a national political strategy, in its own right. There is a very good argument, from time to time, for concentrating national attention on a London-based strategy. For example, it could have been an effective response to the anti-war movement, given the forthcoming European and Greater London Mayor and Assembly elections, for the left to have decided to fight a unified campaign, nationally, only in London.

The Euro-elections are self-evidently the hardest to get anyone to vote in, and the natural left vote has never taken these elections seriously (even if this implies some historical euro-phobia among sections of the left for whom the "common market" is still anathema). With these conditions against us, electorally, a concentration of resources and forces upon one region could have been a strong tactic. Electorally, it was effectively this tactic that secured the Scottish Socialist Alliance (now Party) its first electoral gains; since when it has been able to build upon them across the country.

 

5. The rest of the country is also not one homogenous "province", called either "north of Watford" or "outside London". Without making massive generalisations, it is the case that there are different systems of housing, service delivery, transport, health and education, depending on where you live. Part of the Thatcher-Blair deregulation has been to ensure that there are not national services, let alone national terms and conditions of employment. The political landscape is very different between the "old labour" areas, of manufacturing industry that has now all-but disappeared, and the "liberal" belt, inhabited by "floating voters" and concerns such as "negative equity".

 

6. Regions outside London have geographical and political problems of their own. In fact, regional centres can be as guilty, in their own regions, of "metrocentricity" on a smaller scale. Comrades in Manchester often forget that the North West stretches from south Cheshire to Carlisle in the north. Comrades from Liverpool never cease reminding us that there are two cities in the region.

Trying to fix a central point (whether for political meetings or administrative government departments) often ends up with somewhere that simply is neither Manchester nor Liverpool. This may lead to alighting on Warrington (unfairly regarded as the Ikea stop on the motorway) or Preston (appropriate, as the site of the early success for the Socialist Alliance in the parliamentary by-election in 2000, and where a Socialist Alliance councillor was elected in that capacity in 2003).

Similar effects exist in most regions. In the south, the geography and distance makes life hard for any meaningful organisation, particularly when there is one region whose boundaries go almost all the way around London. Aside from the geography, the politics of different parts of different regions also depend to some extent on their own local context. Populations are much more white outside London, but even more so outside the centres of main cities and some towns. Libertarian issues are harder to raise in long-established communities with reactionary local newspapers, which would hardly be credible to Londoners but are reality for the local residents concerned.

 

7. There is no need to generalise. Politically it is necessary for everyone to understand that everyone else's own experience is valid but not universal. It can be as effective to tell a story along the lines of "I was just speaking to someone at the bus-stop and s/he said........" in its own right, without concluding from it that everyone must therefore understand the longed-for upturn is just around the corner.

Politically the changes that socialists are arguing for are all those that stem from and will enable the emancipation of the working class, wherever and whatever these changes may be. This does not mean that one transitional demand will meet all needs all over the place all at the same time.

 

8. There is no need to centralise. Politically the left is stronger when it enables debate and dissent. Democracy is not an added extra, nor a bourgeois concept of the occasional resort to the ballot box (or postal vote), but a living, long-term participatory struggle, within organisations and the population as a whole.

Organisation (of finances, membership, arrangements for activities) may benefit from centralisation (it simply makes sense). But letting a thousand protests bloom is not a contradiction to this, when there are the local or personal resources available to people to take their own particular actions. What matters is involvement in the decision-making, and a recognition that a vote at a conference is not the end of an argument.

 

 

March 2004

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