Friday, 28 March 2014

Community, Dissent and Cupcakes

I wasn't going to post this blog, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that keeping my thoughts to myself isn't the way to do things these days. I dislike being talked about (indirectly) on social media, by people who don't know me or anything about my political philosophy, without a proper right to reply (short of getting involved in one of the very ugly pile-ins that happen on Facebook or Twitter. There appears to be a lot of misinformation out there and the loudest voices aren't always accurate or representative, so this is my take on what's going on locally.

It's odd how 'community' is defined.

When you grow up in the largely monocultural provinces, inner city suburbs can be a breath of fresh air. Ours certainly was. Constantly heralded as the next  up and coming neighborhood over the course of the twenty plus years we've lived here, it never quite did 'up-come' and as a consequence retained the slightly bohemian quality which drew us here as students in the late '80s.

The area has seen a lot of initiatives to reinvigorate it recently, but that's not to say that it's not still without its problems (the highest incidence of obesity in the under 5's in the country, for example). It's a very mixed area in terms of demographics, socio-economic groups and ethnicity. The locals, possibly understandably, are a little wary of incomers (I've been described as a Guardian-reading Southerner by someone who probably wasn't born when I moved here!), but thankfully we don't have some of the ethnic tensions experienced elsewhere. In fact, we were recently highlighted as an area that had coped pretty well with its influx of Roma families.  It's not, though, an affluent area. 

A few weeks ago I came across a typically splenetic piece in The Guardian by Ian Martin, in which he addressed the issue of gentrification. He was pretty strident, as ever (he's one of the writers for The Thick of It and Veep, neither of which are known for sparing feelings), but it did strike a chord. 'Urban Vibrancy' can sometimes be a little on the exclusive side and, yes, established communities can get supplanted. I retweeted the piece and commented (to Ian) that I recognised some of what he'd said and referred, lightheartedly I thought, to a 'Cupcake Tendency.'

(It's just me, but I don't find the whole cupcakes/Cath Kidston/GBBO scene my kind of thing, but others enjoy them so hey, I'm fine with that). 

Later that day, I noticed a tweet to our local Labour Party branch Twitter account, stating that the tweeter had always thought the party was supportive of local initiatives and was upset that our branch chair (me) and vice chair (a friend) had been posting "nasty tweets" about a local venture. I was a little perplexed, as I hadn't voiced any opinion on said venture. As it didn't specify how I was supposed to have been nasty, I was at a bit of a loss, and then I remembered that Ian Martin's original tweet. Checking back on the Guardian website and Twitter, it appears he hit a nerve, and a number of related groups in the country piled in to 'correct' him. Now it made more sense.

Now my Twitter rule is "Never Knowingly Offend", so I was concerned a) that I had offended and b) that my role within a political party was being conflated with my views as an individual. A subsequent tweet (not addressed to me) described me as a 'friendly neighbourhood troll', which now appears to mean 'anyone who holds a contrary view.' I've not sought to engage with the tweeter (pretty much the modus operandi for trolls), so the extent of my 'trolling' seems to be tweeting/retweeting something that a third party (who doesn't follow me and who I don't follow) doesn't like. (My friend had simply seen the piece and retweeted it without comment, which doesn't seem especially nasty).

For the record, the local party does support local initiatives from all sections of the community. One can support local initiatives, though, without necessarily wanting to take part in them. I fully support women's participation in sport, for example, while struggling to comprehend how anyone over the age of 16 has any desire to play netball! That's just my personal taste (borne of a school PE career which has left deep scars) and I wouldn't want to stop anyone else playing.

It's perfectly possible as a party official to admire and support the drive and determination that has converted a disused church into a thriving community venture while personally still having concerns about the lack of secular community space in the area. Equally, while we welcome all the new local initiatives, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't consider the views of those who can't or don't want to access them. There are many people in the area for whom a community market isn't a priority when they're struggling to pay their rent and utility bills. That's not to say that it shouldn't be there; it's very successful and brings welcome 'inward investment' to the area. It's simply that one person (or group)'s ideal community may not suit everybody. And as long as people recognise that, we can all rub along together quite happily.

Much as Manchester's corporate drive to become a world class city has lost us some of what made the city unique, so a little of the old Leve will undoubtedly disappear. Some of it won't be mourned, but I hope it never becomes just Hoxton on the A6. It's beginning to appear,though, that one is not allowed to express a view that contravenes the view that 'everything is lovely in Levenshulme'.  It seems very odd that people who extol the virtues of the Leve 'community' seem averse to any alternative views of how that community should develop, and see perfectly innocuous comments as criticism. 

I'm far from being the only person locally who's felt the wrath of 'the community'. Facebook groups dealing with local issues have become so poisonous that some people have abandoned them altogether; alternative groups have been set up, others have had changes of Admins (not always for the better), people have found themselves repeatedly, inexplicably blocked from groups; others have been found 'guilty' by kangaroo courts. One of Leve's strengths is also one of its weaknesses. There is a small band of 'spoilers' locally, members of minor parties who like nothing better than dividing the community, especially if they can undermine local politicians (Labour and Lib Dem) at the same time. So what should be proper grass roots community campaigns get hijacked. I've spoken to a number of people who happily marched to save the baths/library, but who dropped out of campaigns as they felt there was too much point-scoring and bog-standard (in every sense of the term!) nastiness going on.

In the interests of full disclosure, I'm going to mention here that I am one of the Admins of the Levenshulme Labour Party Facebook page [BOGEYPERSON ALERT!!]. There has been an ongoing discussion on there over the past week which has led to criticism of the local Labour Party on other groups and pages, with accusations of censorship and arrogance. For the record, there was a comment on there which, with the benefit of hindsight, we agreed wasn't entirely appropriate. It was discussed between all four Page Admins and it was agreed that it should be withdrawn. An apology, and an offer to meet and discuss in person with the recipient of the comment, was issued. 

Now, I make no apology for being a Labour Party member and activist. Should that mean I'm barred from having personal opinions on local matters? No. (I disagree with some national Labour policy, too). As I mentioned earlier, I never set out to cause offence, and am willing to apologise if I do. That goes for my personal social media accounts and when I'm representing the Labour Party. The anonymity of being a Page Admin, though, has meant that I've had to see myself smeared by people who've never met me and know nothing of my politics, without being able to respond. "Disgusting", "troll", "moron" are just some of the choice descriptions I've seen of myself online, but I've not risen to the bait because I didn't want to do anything to bring the Labour Party into disrepute.

Do I care about my community? Yes. All parts of it.

Do I dislike the 'new' Leve? No, it's just not all to my taste.

Do I wish our local councillors could do more to help local residents? Yes, but given coalition cuts, the help they can give is under severe pressure.

Is the Labour Party perfect? No, far from it, but it's still the only hope of stopping the vindictiveness of the Tories and the duplicity of the LibDems.

I like to think that the hard work I've put in to the LLP page has raised the profile of the party locally, and shared information and articles on local and national matters that will inform people. If anything I've done has genuinely brought Levenshulme Labour into disrepute, I will happily step down. Then, perhaps, I can have my opinions back.