As Labour Conference gathers in Brighton, Mark Perryman from Philosophy Football picks ten books that seek to bridge the labourism vs. cultural politics divide
The cultural front will scarcely be acknowledged in either Labour Party Conference proceedings or much of the fringe, whereas at The World Transformed it is as close to centre stage (sic) as cultural politics gets in the arena of the party political. This is as much of a division in Labour, some would argue an even more significant division, as left vs. right. For conference reading I’ve chosen ten new books that in their different ways seek to bridge that divide.
Paul Sng – This Separated Isle
This Separated Isle is a fantastic starting point in this respect, in the way it combines incredible photos with short punchy essays to portray this island of modern Britain as a contested space of despair versus hope. A brilliant mix quite untypical of most ‘political’ books, but photography books too.
Owen Hatherley – Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances
Owen Hatherley’s essay collection, Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances, is an exploration of how architecture shapes lives and communities from Walthamstow to Edinburgh, via ever-decreasing public toilets and the closure of public libraries. Enchanting and imaginative, with excursions to other nations, a truly great read on the much-neglected subject of the built environment.
Marcus Gilroy-Ware – After the Fact? The Truth About Fake News
Marcus Gilroy-Ware’s After the Fact? The Truth About Fake News details how the media is both a product of politics and produces an entire culture, not simply headlines and bulletins. It is these means of production that generate fake news – and worse, eg the anti-mask, anti-vaxx fake news we've witnessed during the pandemic. What kind of left is equipped to acknowledge this, let alone challenge it? As Marcus shows, it's one that contests the cultural front.
Michael Lavalette – Palestinian Cultures of Resistance
National liberation movements, often out of necessity, have understood the role of what writer Michael Lavalette calls ‘cultures of resistance’, specifically in Michael’s new book Palestinian Cultures of Resistance where his focus is on Palestine’s ‘national resistance literature’ of an earlier period, the 1960s to early 1990s. With the huge, yet reactive, spurts of Palestine solidarity protests whenever Israel launches its attacks on Gaza and the West Bank it is surely time to provide a platform for the modern-day versions of such cultural resistance for a broad, popular, proactive movement of Palestine solidarity to take shape.
William Morris – Pilgrims of Hope
Quintissentially English, yet avowedly internationalist, William Morris’ poetic tribute to the 1871 Paris Commune, The Pilgrims of Hope, in a new edition with an introduction provided by Michael Rosen, couldn’t be more effective as a response to the fiction that Morris did a nice line in floral wallpaper and that’s about it. Rather he was, and remains, a true English revolutionary.
Rick Blackman – Babylon’s Burning: Music, Subcultures and Anti-Fascism in Britain 1958-20
For those of us of a certain age, Rock against Racism (RAR) 1978-81 remains the pre-eminent practical example of the fusion of politics and culture. It may be generational but to my mind there’s been nothing like it since – more’s the pity. In Babylon’s Burning: Music, Subcultures and Anti-Fascism in Britain 1958-20 Rick Blackman provides not only a spirited account of RAR but both a prehistory and postscript of movements of ‘pop ’n politics’ which both inspired and were inspired by it.
Chris Brookmyre – The Cut
To escape from Labour’s conference floor, or all that hard thinking at The World Transformed, a little crime fiction might not go amiss with almost as much intrigue, conspiring and backstabbing as factional warfare manages to conjure up. Chris Brookmyre’s latest, The Cut, uses one of his favourite devices revisiting an old crime to find not all was what it seemed, not even remotely. Pure escapism, or a means to view Labour politics with a new eye?
Janine Booth – Unprecedented Rhymes: Verses versus the Virus
Janine Booth is a poetic ranter with a socialist-feminist tendency, labour historian, RMT activist, member of Lewes CLP, one of her CLP’s conference delegates, and pioneer of the Spoaken Word night in the town. Her latest poetry collection Unprecedented Rhymes: Verses versus the Virus is bang up to date with poignant Covid poems, notwithstanding the apparent absence of iambic pentameters.
Ed Balls – A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food
Why not serve up a supper after a hard day at conference with an Ed Balls recipe book? Not a sentence I’ll admit I had ever previously imagined myself writing! Appetite: A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food is warm and endearing, and with enough culinary insight and originality to be taken seriously. This left me wondering why so few of these qualities shone through when Ed was a major figure in the Labour party. Because the food that we eat and cook isn’t considered a suitable topic for a frontline politician to be concerned with. That division – labourism vs. cultural politics – has a lot to answer for. My only quibble is that there’s not much for us vegetarians. Volume two, eco-warrior Ed Balls saves the planet one recipe at a time? Reinvention complete!
Stuart Hall – The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left
Which brings me to my number one book to provide a cultural politics reading of the 2021 Labour Conference and guide our ideological way through the culture debates at The World Transformed. First published in 1988 following Labour’s third successive defeat, Labour in 2021 has managed to chalk up four more since 2005, and Stuart Hall’s The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left consists of his hugely original essays from these years.
Stuart effortlessly combined the cultural and the political because for him it is through ideas are contested and changed. The analysis is still relevant and highly readable, with uncanny connections to labourism’s enduring failure to contest the cultural front. Readers who make these connections will be prepared for a road that may be hard but is full of possibility. What better road home from Brighton ’21 could there possible be?
Note: No links in this review are to Amazon. If you can avoid giving money to billionaire tax-dodgers who profit from their employees low wages and poor working conditions, please do. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football and his latest book is Corbynism from Below.
Mark Perryman is co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.