David Bates is a lecturer in Culture Studies and a member of the Labour Party, who lives in Stockton-on-Tees. He has previously worked as a youth and community worker, and for a Labour member or Parliament.
For further reading please see his recent article “Labourism and the Local: The Situation on Teesside.”Musa Askari: What would describe as your most formative political experiences that have brought you to where you are today in your thinking? Is there any event or series of events that awakened within you a wider consciousness about social justice? How did you fuse them together in to a critique in your mind?
David Bates: I think it was listening to music which first prompted me to take politics seriously – from about the age of 15, I started listening to bands whose lyrics and interviews addressed social issues, such as Nirvana and the Asian Dub Foundation. I can remember seeing Tony Benn on TV in the late 90s and being inspired by what he was saying. I gradually became a socialist but my understanding of what that means has changed down the years. Learning about Marxist theory at University was very important and I later worked at a refugee-supporting charity in Middlesbrough which made me think even more critically about racism, borders and capitalism. This was at the same time as Bush and Blair’s “War on Terror” which also had a very marked effect on me.
Musa Askari: In your recent article “Labourism and the Local: The Situation on Teesside” you reference a conservative culture. What is Labourism and its conservative culture? Are they one and the same?
David Bates: They’re not quite the same but they are very closely related. To use Ralph Miliband’sphrase, Labourism is essentially defined by the Labour Party’s “devotion to the parliamentary system” with all its archaic, elitist, undemocratic features. Obviously some variants of Labourism will be more conservative than others, but ultimately it is constrained by the parliamentary framework it operates in. This is based on a very limited notion of what “democracy” entails, namely that the public votes for representatives every five years and those MPs are then free to manage our public affairs however they see fit. I would argue that we need to implement a far more expansive model of democracy and that’s what socialism is about: extending collective, democratic processes to workplaces and communities. It also means democratising the Labour Party, but this is a mammoth task given the influence of Labourism on the party’s ideas and practices, particularly the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Musa Askari: Without reading your fascinating zine “Teeside A Radical History” I would have no clue that members of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) provided support “for French refugees from the Paris Commune who were made welcome in Middlesbrough in 1872.” I did not know about the migratory history of Middlesbrough from its humble beginnings in the 1820s as a farmstead to the arrival of Jewish people in the 1860s to a Black and Asian presence from the mid 19th century.What was your inspiration for composing the zine and what can be done to engage people more with place? I mean beyond celebration of diverse identities that make up a place in a particular moment. To be born somewhere to settle somewhere to migrate to and from somewhere would you agree we should know the journey that place has been on?
David Bates: Yes, I definitely agree. The biggest influence on the pamphlet was probably EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. But I was also inspired by sociologist Satnam Virdee’s historical work on migration, race and the working class. The idea is that there has never been a single, “authentic”, homogeneous working class — the working class is constantly being made and re-made, and includes people of all faiths and ethnicities, many of whom are marginalised at various points by the British state.In Britain, race and racism have traditionally been used to undermine internationalist class solidarity, hence the emergence of the category of the “white working class”. 150 years ago, working class people in England weren’t always considered to be part of the so-called “white race” and nor were Irish people: they were only “absorbed” into whiteness when it was politically expedient to do so (leading to the marginalisation of other groups, such as post-war migrants). This gradually happened as a means of popularising the British Empire and the “white man’s burden”. It’s fascinating to me that you can see these struggles playing out on Teesside, which had a huge Irish population in the 19th century, some of them political radicals.
Musa Askari: What are the essentials that every community must have in place to ensure stories of struggle on workers and human rights won are preserved? Which of those essentials does Teesside have and lack in your view?
David Bates: I suppose people need resources, awareness, confidence and leadership too. The first problem is that people aren’t really encouraged to engage with this kind of history: instead we’re all bombarded with stuff about Captain Cook and the Stockton Darlington Railway. Meanwhile, public commemoration focuses largely on war heroes and businessmen. So there needs to be greater education and awareness, but of course that means time and resources. I think the labour and trade union movement could be more proactive in this regard. I’d like to see local Labour branches doing more on this — there’s been some great work done in Billingham on ICI history, for example. On the bright side, we some brilliant local historians and film makers like David Walsh and Craig Hornby who have unearthed fascinating stories. It’s really important that these are disseminated.
Musa Askari: In an age of instant messaging, instant responses, likes and dislikes are we at risk of losing touch with the slower stories? Ones that are passed down between generations, between friendships, between family. Have we lost them already like a dying art only to be resurrected for show in some niche tourism? Is social media anti-social? By engaging with it “unconsciously” are we engaging in anti-social behaviour of sorts?
David Bates: I think this is true in some instances: social media is perhaps not conducive to prolonged, in-depth dialogue and debate. But it is very useful for sharing ideas and linking people together in other ways. There’s a really interesting debate about this in academic literature on media and politics. The social theorist Manuel Castells has written about the liberatory potential of online social networks; others like Jodi Dean and Christian Fuchs are far more sceptical.As for me, I have mixed feelings on it! Facebook I find intrusive in terms of the personal information which is collected and shared, but I do acknowledge that it’s good for keeping in touch with people, and for sharing memories and experiences. I find Twitter extremely useful for finding links to interesting stories and articles, but it is not a good platform for arguing with people. I suppose, given that this is a relatively new invention, we’re still learning about what its implications are.
WATCH DAVID BATES SHORT FILM ON “THF LOST HISTORY OF THE TEES