City deals: local solutions to national problems?

Enthusiasm for city deals has become the new normal in the UK. Politicians of left and right express their support for all things local. The idea is that areas can get extra funding and that this will help them to address interurban inequality. A major difficulty is that longstanding urban decline is not created within one city. Places get left behind in part because of their dysfunctional relationships with other places.

The attraction of a city deal for Whitehall is clear. It is handy if local people take responsibility for issues which they perceive as their own. If movers and shakers are kept busy, they are unlikely to resist the unequal relationships which tend to determine  policy outcomes on the ground.

In the UK, a huge amount of economic and environmental trouble is caused by the North-South divide. Initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse are insufficient when it comes to tackling the gap in resource allocation. City deals are a poor substitute for a National Spatial Strategy. If house building is to occur on a national scale, then local urban policies are likely to fail disadvantaged areas.

It is evident that Brexit could undermine the economic potential of peripheral cities. If there is disruption to trading relationships then this will impact adversely on manufacturing industry. A decline in prosperity may make the country less pleasant to visit. City deals will not make residents more welcoming to others if they do not promote genuine hope.

While capitalism is never likely to create a level playing field, state intervention may break with the irrationality of markets. Planning and urban policy need to work together if inequality is to be challenged. In this context, the feebleness of city deals becomes apparent. It is easy to be pulled into a deal by the prospect of a short-term gain. But a city deal will not balance the dynamics that perpetuate pronounced regional disparities.


SKWAWKBOX and crowd management

The overt bias against Jeremy Corbyn in much of the media triggered the creation of sites like SKWAWKBOX. Pluralism in the production of content is a healthy thing in a country which aspires to be a democracy. Democracy is not the end of a process, but something which needs to be fought for on a continuous basis. And a diverse media is part of that struggle.

However, questions may be asked about SKWAWKBOX. Like any other producer of content, the site needs regular updates. This means that it may have a tendency to chase clicks. More serious is its hostility to Jon Lansman. Obviously, Lansman was instrumental in the creation of Momentum. Since then, he has made controversial decisions. But there is no objective reason why the veteran political operator should not have stood in the contest to be the General Secretary of the Labour Party.

Any political strategy has risks. And the move by Lansman did have the potential to shake things up. But turning the Labour Party into a democratic social movement cannot be done by stealth. The resistance to change is strong within the different party structures.

SKWAWKBOX is entitled to back a candidate for any post. However, its shrillness means that the reader may lose faith in its credibility as an information source. While Jennie Formby is a candidate with many appropriate qualifications, the excessive enthusiasm of SKWAWKBOX is not doing much for her campaign. Is SKWAWKBOX engaged in the manipulation of crowds, or does it have something valuable to say to its readers?

5.99 per cent

Numbers can speak as loudly as words. The famous geographer David Harvey highlighted how local authorities were behaving like businesses in 1989. But the democratic process in the UK means that councils can hide their corporate behaviour from the people. Diversity in the performance of local government and divergent attitudes to the private sector mean that the illusion of choice can be revived from time to time. Furthermore, the downloading of blame onto the local state by central government may fool the citizen into thinking that austerity has changed the situation in a fundamental sense.

Fortunately, numbers can demystify the situation. Priceless: the Hidden Psychology of Value was made available to the public at £12.99. The author William Poundstone devoted a whole chapter to 99-cent stores. These retailers used ‘charm prices’ to persuade customers that they were getting a significant bargain.

The Corbyn surge was all about a ‘new politics.’ The problem is that many Labour councils are unwilling to abandon old strategies. The issue is that the public are seen as just another source of revenue. While the needs of citizens are not addressed because of the perceived imperative to pass on the dictates of the central state,  council tax rises way above inflation are being implemented in April.

The inflation-busting council tax rise hits poor people especially hard. This is in part because council tax is a priority debt. However, the council tax is also regressive; rich people pay a small proportion of their wealth to receive services. While local politicians may come up with a discourse about democracy, bills locally are going to increase by a hefty 5.99 per cent. People may want to vote for the Labour Party in council elections as a gesture that they support the national project, but the fact is that the typical council is a business because it sells itself as such.


Books. Apparently everybody loves them. Especially on World Book Day. What’s not to love? Nothing. Then why does the average British citizen reportedly spend about £60 a year on them? Given that many of the books we purchase are gifts, that’s not a huge amount of discretionary spending. I guess there’s the competition from television, social media, alcohol, caffeine, films, and so on. And then there are the remaining libraries which give us free reading material.

Perhaps it is contemporary bookstores which are killing our consumption of books. Before the advent of Amazon, ‘real-world’ bookshops were amazing places. It was always a pleasure to browse. But now people know that purchasing books online can be highly cost-effective. Amazon has impacted on the number and diversity of bookshops in the UK. Furthermore, the multinational corporation has taught readers to think about price more frequently than they once did. Partly as a result of the concentration of capital, some of the best independent bookstores are no more.

The squeeze on real incomes is real. But when we look at a book money is not what we should be thinking about in the first instance. Use value must get a look in. Few authentic book lovers can enjoy purchasing books via Amazon- it is a process which lacks soul.  Ordinary bookstores have been hollowed out by the power of Amazon because we are thinking about exchange value prematurely. Books are marketed at us in a bland manner.

Many of us go into a shop with a maximum price in our heads. This serves as an anchor. If the item can be obtained for less than the price then we’ll part with the cash. If not, we’ll look for another product to satisfy our want. This may be fine when buying electrical equipment, but it seems the wrong approach to take when it comes to a book. Books live. And change lives.  They will only do this if we realise there is more to life than money.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler

International bestsellers do not always do much more than entertain. However, this example has been mentioned in the same breath as The Name of the Rose. With the text being praised by John Le Carré, reading it was deemed to be a worthwhile activity. Nevertheless, the reading experience was a mixed bag.

Any book which mentions the persecution of Jewish people is likely to have traumatic elements. But if a story is structured as a mystery then the realistic aspects of the work are dimmed. This specific narrative takes the reader on a convoluted trip- there is simply an excess of plot to carry.

When plot over-determines the content of a tale then there are consequences for the plausibility of the characters. It is difficult to take things seriously when a writer gives themselves too much to do.

Richard Zimler does seem to allow some humour to creep into the mystery. This technique does work as a mechanism to keep the reader turning the pages. But the moments of illuminations are few. Interestingly, Zimler appears aware of the literary limitations of his craft:

“An absurd disappointment buries itself in my gut, is linked to the knowledge that life is not a book, does not hold margin notes explaining difficult events.”

Celebrity politics

When there was talk of Oprah Winfrey running for the American presidency, there must have been many people who were alarmed at the prospect. Whilst the authoritarianism of Donald Trump has shone a light on the dysfunctional political system, a celebrity-based challenge to his hegemony would indicate that elite Democrats no longer have any respect for the public.

The problems with celebrity politics are many. Firstly, there is entitlement. Secondly, there is political inexperience. Thirdly, there is distance from the lived experiences of the people. Fourthly, there is the disruption to the traditions of rational debate. Overall, the worry is that politics can degenerate into a ‘like’ festival.

There is much to admire about Ms Winfrey in terms of her empathy and entrepreneurship. But that does not mean that the American public deserve a marketing context when the next presidential election comes around. The Democrats should be able to offer something other than neoliberalism when confronted by the Republican onslaught. The defeat of Hillary Clinton should have taught Democrats not to be complacent. A feminist challenge to the Republican patriarchy could be astute, but it should speak to the ordinary concerns of struggling Americans.


Strikes in the Ideological State Apparatus

When staff at universities go on strike, any government should be concerned. Despite the efforts of bureaucrats, universities are places where different types of learning can occur. This does not usually matter, but it means that there is always scope for radicalisation to happen. Lecturers and students can begin to feel that they have political power. Furthermore, the experience of striking can change people for good.

Louis Althusser was clear that the education system was an Ideological State Apparatus. This means that education plays a key role in reproducing the values of the ruling class. However, a strike interrupts the standard operation of the system. Even if it is unsuccessful, strike action throws up questions about the status quo.

The current strike action affecting British universities is officially about pensions. But it would appear that discontent among staff has been growing for some time. The advent of the neoliberal university has been stressful for workers in the sector. Charging students huge sums for their education has been controversial. When education is treated as a commodity then this risks alienating educators. Even if the ostensible trigger of the strike is addressed, it may well be that industrial action breaks out over other issues like academic workload.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of a strike in advance. But if the government cares about the education of its citizens it would do well to work quickly to bring the different sides of the dispute together. The leader of the Labour Party has not distanced himself from the strikers and this has kept the ball in the Tory court. Strikes have unintended consequences and the authorities have seemingly been remiss in their treatment of employees.