Episode #95 Towards a Progressive Future: politics and activism in the world of climate change with Jeremy Gilbert
How can we build a progressive political movement that spans the world and that will take us to where we need to be: a future we can be proud of and towards which all of us will want to work? Taking politics, activism, progressive ideals with Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London
This is one of our most nakedly political conversations – because politics is the language of power and those who rule over us do so with at least the vestige of a democratic mandate. To understand how to affect change, we need to understand how to shift the levers of power on a worldwide scale. But change always begins at home, so in this week’s episode, we’re talking about political activism in the UK and where it might go in the near term.
Our guest is someone really well placed to discuss this:
Jeremy Gilbert’s most recent publications include Twenty-First-Century Socialism (Polity 2020) the translation of Maurizio Lazzarato’s Experimental Politics and the book Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism.
His next book, Hegemony Now : How Big Tech and Wall Street Won the World , co-authored with Alex Williams, will be published in 2022.
He writes regularly for the British press (including the Guardian, the New Statesman, open Democracy and Red Pepper) and for think tanks such as IPPR and Compass, is routinely engaged in debates and discussion on Labour Party policy and strategy, and has appeared on national television as a spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
He has been involved with both mainstream party politics and extra-parliamentary activism throughout his adult life, having been an active participant in the social forum movement of the early 2000s, a member of the founding national committee of Momentum (the controversial organisation established to support Corbyn’s leadership of Labour), and being a former elected member management committee of Compass, a pluralist left-wing think tank and lobby group.
Jeremy is an an advisor to and participant in a range of ongoing projects such as The World Transformed and the New Economy Organisers Network. He has also participated in many cultural projects, particularly connected with music and sonic culture, and is a founder member of Lucky Cloud Sound System and Beauty and the Beat, two successful and respected collectives that have been organising regular dance parties in East London since the early 2000s, at many of which he still regularly DJs.
Jeremy also maintains a lifelong commitment to public education outside the academy, currently hosting Culture, Power, Politics, a regular series of free open seminars and lectures.
Manda: My guest this week is Jeremy Gilbert. He’s professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London. He writes regularly for the British press, including The Guardian, The New Statesman, Open Democracy, Red Pepper and Novara Media, which is one of the new progressive outlets. He writes for think tanks such as the Institute for Public Policy, Research and Compass. He was a founder member of Momentum. He’s a member of the Labour Party and has been in discussion in the Jeremy Corbyn years on policy and strategy and appeared on national television as a speaker for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He is one of the single most interesting political analysts of British politics that I have ever heard, and I have long wanted to talk to him. For those of you outside the UK, this is quite British focussed, this particular podcast. But I think the implications of this resonate around the world, and I hope that you are able to find applications for what we talk about in your own nations. So, people of the podcast please do welcome, Professor Jeremy Gilbert.
Manda: So, Jeremy Gilbert, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. Thank you so much for taking time out of your Wednesday morning. How is life down there? I’m guessing East London somewhere?
Jeremy: Yeah, I live in North East London, in Walthamstow. Well, we’re getting used to sort of getting back to normal. The kids are at school. That was the dominant factor over the past year has been the kids not being at school.
Manda: I saw on your website one of your blogs that you had to take time out to teach maths to your kids and stop them going insane. How are they at maths? Are they now at Professorial maths level?
Jeremy: I wouldn’t say so, but it’s pretty solid.
Manda: Yay. Well done, maths literate kids. Brilliant. Ok, so forever on Accidental Gods we start with how did you come to be the person who’s written the books that you’ve written, who’s been a member of – a founder member – of Momentum and Compass; and is currently still teaching at the University of East London? Tell us the highlights of what motivates you and gets you to the point of here.
Jeremy: Well, I grew up in a very sort of political family. I mean, my parents are sort of unsuccessful members of the public sector, professional classes. You know, my mum’s American, my dad is from London, but I ended up growing up mostly in the North West. So I was in the north west of England… I was in the industrial northwest in the early 80s; so I had a sort of front front row seat for Thatcherism and its destruction of working class culture up there. And so I was very sort of politicised by the time I was kind of going to university and I, you know, went and studied. I actually went to the University of East London as a student to study when it was one of the only cultural studies programmes. I was pretty precocious and I sort of wanted to engage in what was then the sort of cutting edge kind of radical project in the universities, which was cultural studies. And I sort of stayed there. I moved around a lot as a kid, so I very deliberately chose to move somewhere for university where I thought I would probably be able to stay for the foreseeable future without getting bored. And East London indeed turned out to be an exciting place to be for the next few decades. I mean, over that time I’ve been quite involved in – I’ve always been quite involved in – different aspects of music culture. So I run a sound system,I still sort of DJ and host dance parties. And I guess I’ve always been thinking about the sort of relationships between, you know, theory, practise, you know, politics, music, other elements of culture. That’s what has always sort of preoccupied me, and I guess that’s pretty much the story.
Manda: Okay. And you have, of course, we’ll link in the show notes; a thread on Novara Media, where you really do link music and dance culture and politics. I’m a music phobe, so I’m afraid that’s not one of the areas that I go into, but I’m sure other listeners will do. So heading for the places where I can engage my head: You were a founding member of Momentum and you were deeply involved, I think, in the Corbyn project with Labour. So for those who aren’t political geeks and particularly for those not in the UK, if we were to create a sketch of what the Labour Party was at the point when Corbyn took over and what he tried to make it into, and then I’d like to lead into a little tiny bit of what Starmer has done since, so that we can set the scene for where we are now in terms of the hopes of whatever we call a progressive left.
Jeremy: Yeah, sure, sure. So the Labour Party has always been a very complex institution. I mean, one of the big problems people have in engaging with it really, is that it is very complex and very messy. You know, we have listeners outside the UK probably not familiar with the details of the British Constitution and the electoral system. But it’s really stupid. It’s highly dysfunctional. It sort of combines some of the worst features of the American sort of constitution and none of its good features, and worse than any others of the European system. So we have a system where we elect governments on ‘first past the post’, which means seats in the Legislature are not allocated on the basis of national vote share, they are just allocated on the basis of who gets a plurality in each individual constituency. And then we give complete centralised executive power to the majority leader in the Legislature. So in effect, you need to get about just over 40 percent of the vote. If your vote is distributed efficiently as it is for the conservative parties, and then you get complete unchecked control over the legislative agenda and foreign and domestic policy with no real limits on your power for the next few years. And that’s how the British Constitution works. And so political parties in this country, a bit like the States and very different from other European countries, are not kind of well defined ideological organisations. They’re these kind of big mass organisations which contained within them a number of different tendencies.
Jeremy: That’s true of all of them, really, to be honest. And the Labour Party in particular has always been this very complicated organism because it was from the very beginning, it was set up to do a whole a number of different things, none of which are even necessarily compatible, really. It was set up to represent working class people, it was set up to give the trade union movement a political voice; but it was also set up as the sort of ideological socialist party of the country. And those are not necessarily the same thing. They’re not necessarily the same job. It’s been highly contentious, ever since the Labour Party was founded,the question of, well, what is it? Is it a mass membership organisation? Is it really basically almost just a funding body through which unions channel money directly to MP’s and everything else is just exists to support the MPs? Is it just the political voice of the trade union movement? Like, what is it? And none of that has ever really been resolved and essentially different factions, different sections of the party and different political tendencies within it have pushed and pulled to try and define it one way or another over the course of its existence. And in the 90s, the New Labour project was really predicated on one particular vision of what the party was going to be now – what New Labour would be.
Jeremy: And that was that it was very much a sort of mass membership organisation, which would also take money from trade unions, but it existed solely to service the parliamentary Labour Party and the leadership. And effectively members would be sort of like members of an NGO like, you know, like like non-active members of something like Greenpeace. You would sign up, you would be a supporter. You might be occasionally consulted about some vague aspect of policy in general direction, but you didn’t expect to really participate. As the 2000s went on, I think it became clear even to, you know, big supporters of the New Labour project, people like David Miliband, that that was a vision of politics that had severe limitations. Particularly in the age of the internet, when people expect to be more involved and expect culture generally to be more sort of participatory; it was becoming quite difficult to sustain. And so there were various attempts to sort of open it up and modernise again. And Ed Miliband, crucially, as leader between 2010 and 2015, had introduced a dramatic change to the way in which the Labour Party leader would be elected. The Labour Party leader, up until the 1970s, was only chosen by the MPs, and then there was a big, you know, there was a big fight between the left and the right over this.
Jeremy: And the eventual compromise was the introduction of the Electoral College, which gave the MP’s one third of the votes, the trade unionists one third of the votes, and the constituency parties (which basically means the ordinary members) one third of the votes. And by 2010, this was generally felt to be quite antiquated and in fact, it was really the right of the party and the Blairites who really wanted to move on from that, because they thought it still left too much power in the hands of the unions. And they assumed that if they empowered the members to choose the next leader, then they would dutifully elect a right winger, as they had been doing since the early 90s. So they all supported this quite radical change of Ed Miliband’s, even though it didn’t get a lot of public attention. And then what nobody really – I don’t think anybody really – fully registered until after the 2015 election, when Labour lost quite badly and Ed Miliband resigned and the first leadership election was to be held under these new rules….People didn’t really realise, you know, what the implications of this were. Because essentially everything had been set up to create a set of opportunities for people to join the party, to sort of flood into the party really, in support of a progressive candidate.
Jeremy: So really without anybody particularly planning it, it went from being an organisation which was still basically run on the Blairite model in which the membership was basically passive and functionally it existed just to serve the interests of the parliamentary Labour Party. It sort of overnight almost, turned into a mass political party in which the membership had a real sort of influence over the leadership. And in our highly centralised political system, power within the parties tends to mirror power in the rest of the country. So if you control the leadership of the party, you basically control everything about it. Or you at least get to control the general direction of travel.
Jeremy: The one concession to the parliamentary Labour Party that Miliband had made when introducing these reforms, was that he had still left the power to nominate the potential candidates in the hands of the parliamentary Labour Party. Corbyn only got enough nominations to be on the ballot because a number of right wing MPs were persuaded that it would be a good idea to do so. Because what had happened over the previous couple of leadership elections, especially the 2010 one, was it had become accepted practise that you should have somebody from the far left of the party on the ballot so that they could be ritually humiliated; so that the complete the complete marginality of the left to labour politics, mainstream politics, could be ritually demonstrated. And that was why they got the nomination. So absolutely nobody really, not even any of Corbyn’s closest friends and supporters was really expecting what happened. And what happened is, really through the kind of viral facilitation of Facebook groups, mainly, hundreds of thousands of people sort of quite quickly became aware that there was an opportunity to actually get Jeremy Corbyn elected leader of the Labour Party if they joined the party. And they did so, they did that. So by by the time he’s elected at the end of summer 2015, the party’s really quite a different sort of organisation in terms of its composition at the level of the membership and the leadership. Of course, it’s not a different organisation at the level of its bureaucracy and its paid staff around the country and centrally. Who are all of them absolutely committed members of the right wing of the party, people who really their formative generational experience was defeating the left in the 80s and 90s. And they proceeded to respond, as you might expect, with a sort of collective epistemological panic. And then the Labour Party became this very contentious organisation within which there’s a very marked distinction between what the mass membership wanted, what the bureaucracy wanted, but what the parliamentary party wanted, etc. And since then, it’s that set of kind of conflicts and contradictions that has really defined the politics of the party.
Manda: Thank you. There are so many questions. So a couple that arise: I was one of those – I joined as a £3 member in the summer of 2015. Because I grew up in Scotland and Scottish Labour was an extremely toxic and very unpleasant experience. So I hadn’t been part of the party. I joined as a member. I voted for Corbyn. The moment he was elected, I got onto the then crashing website to sign up as a member of the party, and I stayed in until the day he left. And you’re right, big Facebook groups and and the interesting toxicity within them. It seemed to me way back in 2016 when there was the second Corbyn election, and I was one of those who was told on the Facebook group that I would not get a chance to vote. And the day before the vote, was told that I’d been removed from the party for having written something. So it seemed to me at that point that the party machinery, which was still held by the right, brought a legal challenge. Or there was a legal challenge to hundreds of thousands of people being purged from the party. And that the legal ruling, as far as I understood it as a non-legal person, was basically: you are a private members club and you get to define what your rules are, and the law has no real say on that. Go away and stop bothering us. And so that seems basically to be what they’re running on now, which is ‘we’re a private members club and we decide who makes the rules and what the rules are. And if we decide to change the rules from what they were yesterday, who is going to be able to do anything about it?’ Am I misreading that?
Jeremy: No. They’re running on the principle that according to the Labour Party Constitution, the National Executive Committee is a completely sovereign body. That there are just no limits and no accountability. The only accountability is the election of members of the National Executive Committee.
Manda: And if they can gerrymander the membership of the NEC, which they seem to have done, then they basically get a free pass.
Jeremy: Yeah, in effect, yeah.
Manda: So I don’t know anything about the internal workings of the other political parties. Have you ever read Donnachadh McCarthy’s book ‘The Prostitute State’? It’s a fascinating book. So he was chair of the Lib Dems for seven years and his book opens with him at their equivalent to the NEC’s, and Paddy Ashdown saying “if Mr McCarthy’s motion passes, I will resign”. And Mr McCarthy’s motion was that Lord, something hyphen something should not be Paddy Ashdown’s senior political adviser while being on the board of Rio Tinto Zinc. And the motion failed and Paddy Ashdown didn’t resign, and the rest of the first third of the book is Donachie McCarthy’s attempt to assert an activist base within the Lib Dems against a wholly establishment hierarchy. And it sounded pretty much like the dysfunction of the Labour Party. But in terms of their rules and their laws, somebody once said the problem with socialism is it takes up too many evenings… and I spent too many evenings of my life sitting in Labour Party meetings, where somebody at some point would stand up and go ‘point to order Madam chairman!’, and we would be lost in process and procedure and the rules for another half hour. Which guaranteed that nobody with a functioning brain would bother to go back. And the people on the right could continue to push through what they wanted to push through. Does this happen in in the Tory party and other parties? Or are they just OK and carry on as they are?
Jeremy: Well, as far as I know, the Tories don’t really care about internal democracy. I mean, they do get to choose their leader out of the two that have been shortlisted by the parliamentary party. So the parliamentary party shortlists the two candidates and then the membership elect one.
Manda: So they’re basically guided towards the one that the parliamentary party wants because they’re only given two, one of whom is unacceptable.
Jeremy: Yeah. And the Lib Dems, as far to the best of my knowledge, is very much like that; because they love voting on things. But voting, at least within the terms of Liberal Democrat institutions, does actually matter and the membership do actually have power. You know, you get to vote for things and then they do end up determining party policy, for example. I mean, the frustrating thing about the Labour Party is, indeed, there’s this there’s this culture of proceduralism; but also it doesn’t mean anything really, because there’s no compulsion on the leadership to accept anything that the membership decide on at any level. And this has been the case sort of, forever. So that’s the thing I think that makes the Labour Party really… Does make it really sort of frustrating. And it’s also the fact that, you know, there is still lots… I mean, the Labour Party is a big organisation and as small as the membership got at one time, it still had tens of thousands of members. And there are enough people in lots of Labour Party branches who just really enjoy that kind of tedious procedure. And that’s just what they like to do. And it’s what they know how to do and it’s what they keep doing. I would always say to people, you know, you’ve got to make a judgement based on your own local circumstances, whether it’s worth doing things like going to branch meetings.
Jeremy: And in a lot of cases it won’t be. I would say that’s not really where the power of the membership lie anyway. For the most part, the power of the membership essentially lies in still being able to vote for the NEC and the leadership. And there is every chance, I think, given the kind of antics of the right and their unpopularity. Now, if people don’t keep leaving the party and people on the left are willing to just stay in long enough to vote in the next NEC elections, we could get a more left wing NEC. That’s where the real power lies for the membership. You know, it’s a great thing to participate in your local branch if it is a vehicle for a kind of effective progressive politics. But I think, you know, you have to make a judgement, can it be or not? And if it can’t be, and I would say at least half of Labour Party branches just are dysfunctional in that way, and are not going to become effective vehicles for local progressive politics or national progressive politics. In that case, well, just withdraw and do something else with your time.
Manda: So moving on, if we’re not giving our time to local parties, which I completely get is worthless. What is our route as members of the public to creating a progressive future? So I think, in order to look at that, we need to kind of look at what Johnson has managed to do with democracy in the last couple of years, which is really radically to change the public’s trust in it, I would say. My understanding from my one Tory friend, who’s quite high in the party hierarchy, is that they are fully intending to gerrymander, and he is convinced that they’re going to have 100 seat parliamentary majority at the next election. Unless, I think, we can manage to create a progressive coalition, because, as you said, 40 percent of the vote is all that’s required to get at the moment, an 80 seat majority. How do we get to a point where we’re not living under permanent Tory rule?
Jeremy: Well, I think indeed, I’ve always been an advocate for sort of decades now, of what is referred to as a progressive alliance. Whenever people hear that term, they want to have an argument about what defines progressive. People on the labour left in particular want to get very agitated about the fact they don’t regard the Lib Dems as progressive. To which my response is always ‘A’ the term is not for your benefit. The term has got to be one that people in the Lib Dems who might support a Labour government would find appealing. So it’s not about… You’re not the audience for it, really. And secondly, an alliance should be, whether an alliance is progressive or not should be defined by what it proposes to do, not by what some of its constituent members might have done 10 years ago. The Tory party has completely dominated British politics for the past eighty years. The ‘first past the post’ system delivers for them far more MPs per vote. They need far less votes to get an MP than anybody else. The only time that hasn’t been true in recent decades, during the New Labour Years, New Labour managed to get big parliamentary majorities on the basis of very low electoral turnout, by winning over Tory votes by pursuing effectively Tory programmes. So even if you’re not just talking about the Conservative Party, it’s very clear that the way the system is set up now, it gives, you know, absolutely undue levels of representation to kind of affluent voters, especially in the South. And the only logical response when you find yourself in a situation where one one entity is completely dominating the others, is to sort of band together and to try to kind of work against them.
Jeremy: And people respond to this suggestion is if it’s kind of practically impossible, as if it’s kind of really unimaginable. It’s just utter nonsense. It’s normal politics in most countries in the world that have parliamentary democracies, for parties to do deals with each other, Form alliance, go in and out of alliances, form coalitions. Secondly, the Labour Party only came into existence as a parliamentary force on the basis of a deal with the Liberals in nineteen eighty six. In the 1986 election, the Liberal Party and the then emergent Labour Party, who only had one or two MP’s at that point; did a deal where they would not stand against each other in key constituencies, where it was clear that only one of them had a chance of winning. And that is the way in which you got a bloc of Labour MPs in Parliament for the first time. So there’s no reason why Labour and Liberal Democrats and other parties, (but realistically, it’s only really the relationship between Labour and the Liberal Democrats that would matter), could stand aside for each other in constituencies where one of them is clearly the only real challenger to a Tory incumbent.
Manda: And we saw that happen. It happened in the last by-election.
Jeremy: Yeah, in effect it happened. Yeah. It wasn’t kind of an official policy of the party leadership. It’s very frustrating because this is something that people have been talking about since the late eighties. In some ways, the really interesting question is like, Well, why won’t they? And what are the kind of psychological and kind of social and political obstacles that have to be overcome to sort of make this happen. Now there’s a whole set of issues around, you know, Liberal Democrats and their voters being afraid of a Labour government; afraid of the left, afraid of socialism. I think that’s one set of issues you would have to address, I think.
Manda: Not a problem under the current leadership, though, is it?
Jeremy: No, no. And I think you would have to talk to progressive colleagues in the Liberal Democrats, of whom there are many, in my view, about the best way to address that. I wouldn’t really be the person to talk about that. I can talk more effectively about the problems in the Labour Party with getting people to accept this kind of idea. I would say firstly, the Labour Party membership is, not surprisingly, highly concentrated in labour voting areas, especially urban areas. And in those places, why do you join the Liberal Democrats? Well usually you join the Liberal Democrats because you’re basically a Tory, but the Tories have got no chance in that place. So the Liberal Democrats that those Labour members meet are usually pretty right wing, like pretty anti-Labour. And most of those Labour members, in my experience, are completely ignorant of the fact that there are huge chunks of England and indeed even some parts of Scotland which have basically never industrialised and the Labour Party has never been a political presence. And the Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Party before them, have been the anti Tory Party, the party of Reform, going back to the 19th century. And they still are.
Jeremy: And in those places, you know, the reverse is true of what I described in sort of urban areas. In those places often a lot of people who are in the Liberal Democrats would probably be in the Labour Party if they were living in urban areas. There’s no point being an active Labour Party member, they feel, in places where the Labour vote is like, you know, 10 to 15 percent. So in my experience, a lot of Labour members are just completely ignorant of the fact that there exists this whole swathe of people who are out there in the Liberal Democrat party, in kind of mostly rural and semi-rural or very suburban parts of England who do have basically progressive politics. But, you know, see the Liberal Democrats as the only effective vehicle for it where they are. And those are the people with whom I think, you know, progressives in the Labour Party really need to be making sort of common cause in some way. Because I think clearly there are people in the Liberal Democrats who I would say are quite right wing. They are sort of committed neo liberals. But so there are in the Labour Party. And I think that comment you referred to, you know I made on the ‘Politics Theory Other’ podcast a few months ago, about how the the fault-line between progressives and their enemies really runs through the Labour Party….
Jeremy: I mean, properly speaking, it runs through several different parties. It runs inside parties, I think, in this country. It runs through the SNP definitely. It runs through the Green Party in some places. I mean, there are some mad right wing people in the Green Party. And it definitely…
Manda: Yeah Boris Johnson’s Father!
Jeremy: Yeah! And it runs through the Liberal Democrats. And, you know, it’s a sort of dysfunction of our parliamentary system that that’s how it works, but that is how it works. And I think the real problem is people sort of having this very sort of two dimensional conception of politics, where they think that political parties are organised along a continuum, you know, from right to left in a kind of neat way. So, for example, all liberal Democrats are more right wing than the most right wing Labour Party people. And that’s just a complete misconception. I mean, I would honestly say,that the right wing of the Labour Party just matches up with the kind of political continuum of opinion of the Liberal Democrats, actually.
Manda: I do think there’s some people in the Labour Party who are more right wing, certainly than the last Tory party. People like Heidi Allen were way to the left of people like Wes Streeting.
Jeremy: That’s probably true. That’s probably true. Although Heidi Allen was really a Lib Dem. I mean, she didn’t know… She ended up a Tory by accident. But yeah, I think that’s definitely true. I think that getting away from that sort of tribalism and that sort of very narrow conception of what political parties are, is really important. But for me, I think one of the things that’s crucial, though, is for people not to have a sort of emotional relationship to political parties; whether it’s the ones they like or the ones that they hate. I think emotion is crucial in politics, but the Labour Party, for example, is just not an appropriate vehicle for you to have emotional attachments to.
Manda: Everyone I know – is this is the point – they’re in it because it hits their amygdalas.Every conversation I ever had within the local CLP felt to me like an amygdala level conversation.
Jeremy: I recognise that, and I think for me, that’s sort of the problem. That you sort of have to… I think, you know, we all need our organisations that we sort of emotionally invested in; but I think you have to just see an organisation like the Labour Party or even the Liberal Democrats as a territory within which whatever tendency or tradition you’re invested in will struggle with others, will fight with others, rather than being the object of emotional investment itself. If you see what I mean.
Manda: I do. But the interesting thing is that Johnson and his ilk: Trump, Bannon, that whole kind of right wing soup; have managed to create an amygdala-tapping narrative on the right, that hits straight into people’s limbic system.
Jeremy: They have, yeah,
Manda: We haven’t on the left. And yet the people involved on the left are deeply involved at a tribal level. If we’re to make this happen, it seems to me we need two things. We need the media to be on board with it. The one brilliant thing that Blair did, and I’m not a fan of Blair’s on any level, is that he got Murdoch on board. And it seems to me that what Starmer is trying to do – one of the two things Starmer is trying to do – is to get Murdoch back on board, because otherwise no hope. If we even believe that Starmer ever wants to be elected. But if we were to get even a segment of the current media soup on-board; and the leadership of, one assumes, the Labour Party, the Lib Dems and Plaid in Wales and the SNP in Scotland; then we would have a chance of this progressive alliance occurring. Can you see a route to it happening that doesn’t take in those two factors?
Jeremy: Well, not really. I mean, I think it depends how big a section of the media you think we need. I mean, I think we also need to build a kind of public culture of opposition and direct critique of the media. You know, we need and this is one of my arguments with sort of Labour colleagues, you know, arguments for the progressive alliance. Again, it’s something that labour people just don’t seem to consider at all. They think the media is anti-Labour and my position is that the media isn’t anti-Labour, it’s just anti-Lib, it’s pro Tory. Because the Lib Dems don’t get any oxygen from the media, either. Neither do the Greens. You know, the Greens don’t get anything like the coverage they should, given the level of support they have in places. So all of these institutions have a sort of an interest in critiquing the media, and I don’t think – we don’t know – what would happen if you had a situation in which say both the leader of the Labour Party and both the leader of the Lib Dems had a very clearly defined worked out line, saying to people, ‘You should not trust the press. It’s run by billionaires in their own interest’. And to say that over and over again, like in every interview. We don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t work, but we haven’t tried yet. We haven’t tried doing that
Manda: Because they’re all trying to get the billionaires on board. They’re trying to prove to them that they’re nice, fluffy, safe, harmless little marshmallow people that the billionaires can allow to be back in power.
Jeremy: You’re right, and I think this also would bring us to what another dimension I think of an effective progressive alliance would have to be. And I think one of the weaknesses of the sort of progressive alliance movement, as it’s been prosecuted by organisations like Compass in this country, is it tends to think of itself as a sort of anti-antagonistic movement. As a movement which is about taking the polarities out of politics, et cetera. My view is this is really a misconception. That it really it has to be about realigning the polarities in politics, but not pretending that they can be got rid of. And in effect, what what it should be promoting is a sort of insurgency against that servile, neo-liberal political class, which would take place across these different institutions. And the task would be to kind of build a sort of an alliance of progressives across those different organisations. But and I think you can’t do that without being willing to identify the billionaires as part of the problem; you know, as ‘the enemy’, if you like. Which of course, is something it’s always really worth remembering. This is something I’ve written about, and I sort of go on about quite a lot. You know, for example, you know, Corbyn, you know, Jeremy Corbyn never did that. And I think people just sort of assumed that he did, because they most people who supported him would take that for granted. But he never gave a speech saying, ‘Look, the problem is rich people having all the money, that’s the problem’. He didn’t do that. His speeches would always be about the kind of moral depredation that’d been wreaked upon the country by Austerity. But that’s not the same thing as saying why did they…saying that ‘these people did a bad thing’ is not the same thing as saying ‘these people did a bad thing because they wanted to do it because they’re greedy, because it served their interests’.
Manda: Yes, and he never said, of course they hate me because I want to tax them. I have heard you say that before, and of course he should have said that. But did he assume that we all knew that? Or did he just not think it?
Jeremy: I don’t know. I mean, you’d have to ask him. I mean, I just think, Jeremy- I mean, this is part of the issue, really – is that one reason he was so popular with the people who loved him and so unpopular with the people who didn’t, is because he’s basically a kind of moral agent. He’s not someone who thinks about politics.
Manda: Alright, so let’s do a thought experiment of what, how… If we were given a blank slate and were able to move the pieces on the chessboard to create the conditions where a progressive alliance might arise, what would we do and what would arise?
Manda: So I’m going to start first: I would have Lloyd Russell-Moyle as leader of the Labour Party because… Partly because… He has explicitly said he doesn’t want to do it. And I’m in my kind of Douglas Adams’ ‘the person who doesn’t want to do it is the best person to be able to do it’ and Zaphod Beedlebrocks can go off and talk to the media. So that would be my starting point, because I think he’s highly intelligent and he gets it, and he’s the only person in the Labour Party that I’ve come across who fulfils both of those. Because we need, I think, where we are at the moment: We’re on the edge of climate annihilation. We’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction. We’re facing the breakdown of the neo-liberal project. Those three alone mean we need the brightest and the best. And what seems to happen with our electoral system is that we get the most venal and the stupidest. And that needs to stop happening. How do we create our non-violent, politically acceptable revolution? Your turn?
Jeremy: Well, yeah, I think I think there’s no question that capturing the leadership of the Labour Party would have to be part of it. There’s loads of other things that have to happen, but that would be part of it. You know, Lloyd would be great. Clive Lewis would be great. There’s younger people like Nadia Whittome, I think would be great, eventually. I think in order to do what you’re talking about, you would have to have a Labour leadership which was willing to (This is something I’ve said a number of times since Ed Miliband was leader) They would have to be willing to give the speech, which Corbyn was never willing to give, which Ed was definitely never willing to give. Which so far, none of them have ever been willing to give. Which is to say, look, representative liberal democracy has been broken since the mid 70s. It’s not just the Tories, it’s not just Murdoch. You know, it arguably worked for a few decades. I mean, it delivered significant reforms after the war, basically, you know. But it’s been broken since the 70s. Since the 70s, we’ve been – governments have been – pursuing a political agenda, which all opinion polls showed wasn’t what people actually wanted or thought they were voting for. And we’ve really got to rethink this whole thing. On some level, we’ve got to rethink the concept of liberal representative democracy in the 21st century. It’s quite clear you need something much more participatory, much more involved and much more willing to challenge, you know, concentration of power in the media, in the economy, etc.
Manda: So hang on a second before you go further. What does that – if they’re saying ‘we need a new liberal agreement’, let’s say, or a new democratic agreement, what does it look like? Before we worry about who does it, what does that new democratic agreement..how does it function?
Jeremy: I don’t know. I think you would need something like, you know, what people talk about as a constitutional convention. But I think about it more as what is called in Latin America a Constituent Process. You know, it would have to be a kind of mass, you know, national deliberative process that would take several years. That would really try to put in place institutions of deliberation, representation and governance that actually seem appropriate to the 21st century. But I couldn’t say in advance what it would look like. I think it probably would have a lot more elements of, you know, participatory democracy at sort of local levels and regional levels. I think you would have a lot more… Probably have more direct democracy as well. I’m not as sort of against the whole idea as a lot of people are sort of post-Brexit. I think that’s only one part of what would be needed. I think to get to a position where you could imagine a sort of political leadership in this country saying something like that, I think various kinds of things would have to happen. I think probably pressure is going to have to be brought to bear on the sort of political class, you know, in the Labour Party or in other institutions from sort of inside and outside. I think probably you are going to have to have, you know, sort of, both sort of escalating forms of civil disobedience and also sort of electoral pressure where it can be brought to bear, on sort of elected representatives.
Jeremy: So as a loyal, Labour Party member, of course, I would only ever advocate voting labour in any given election. But in theory, in principle, I can see why, strategically, progressives might think it advantageous to vote for Green Party candidates or other candidates in situations where that might be seen as leveraging influence to push The Party and all the parties in the direction they want to go. I think obviously this is something that lots of people have commented on in the past couple of years. I don’t think you can build a movement for renewal and for democratic change without the unions being on board and without kind of trade unionism, you know, without kind of extending trade union membership of various kinds, without people being organised in the workplace. I mean, because historically, you know, historically there you there are no democratic reforms. It comes back to earlier in the conversation. You don’t get democratic reform without the threat of revolution. You don’t get it without the threat of economic disruption. And the only institutions that are ever able to really leverage that are trade unions, whether they’re the existing unions or whether they’re new kinds of union like the United Voices of the World. But I think that’s really something, that is, you know, work is still a really crucial element of people’s lives. And if people are not organised politically with others at the workplace…
Manda: The trade union membership has plummeted since the Blair years and other than their capacity, still to influence the Labour leadership, do you do you genuinely think they hold power and that they can continue to hold power?
Jeremy: It’s not about holding power. It is about exercising power. Trading membership has gone up and down over the decades. You know, the low the absolute low point for trade union membership over the past 100 years is actually the 1930s, like in the wake of the defeat of the Great General Strike. Like, it’s still never fallen as low as that. And it recovered, you know, very well in the subsequent 20 years. And unions really reached a sort of peak of power. So I think you can never say never. It isn’t only since the Blair years, and I just think, you know, I think the temptation to think we can do without trade unions as part of the sort of ecology of progressive politics is one that sort of progressives have been tempted by repeatedly since the 60s for various reasons. Partly because of periodic declines and partly because of the way in which unions, as big bureaucratic organisations can develop a great deal of institutional inertia can seem to become very conservative. But I just think the whole historical record shows, you know, it’s a delusion. It’s a delusion to think you can have a kind of successful progressive movement. And I think, for example, I really think the environmental movement right now in Britain ought to be focussing a lot more attention on shifting the position of the leadership of the more conservative unions like the GMB. You know, that’s what I think. I mean if Extinction Rebellion claim to have a theory of change based on economic disruption well, look, if you want to do economic disruption, you can go and sit in Trafalgar Square for a week, or you can organise a mass strike of transport workers. I think I know which would create more economic disruption. So I think that I think Extinction Rebellion would have been much better, it would have been strategically more effective, if they had put their energy into effectively pressuring the union leaderships to take responsibility.
Manda: But how do you effectively pressure people whose jobs depend on ignoring what you’re saying and whose membership… You know, my time sitting in Trafalgar Square, the people around me were not classic union people. They were middle class former professionals who most of whom had retired or were too young, you know, either end of the age scale. There were the under-30s and the over 50s, and the people in the middle were busy at home with the kids earning money because this was pre-COVID.
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah.
Manda: And and I think Joanna Macey’s theory of change: you need the holding patterns and you need the systemic reform and you need the shift in consciousness. So let’s assume that the shifting the trade unions is part of a systems redesign. The trade union people that I’ve met, and they are few, were not people…they didn’t even acknowledge that climate change was an issue…they were completely class focussed. No sense of a timescale of, you know, total civilizational collapse within the next five years, which is what most of my, you know, climate scientist friends seem to think. How would we as if I were the XR person you were speaking to, how would we do that?
Jeremy: Well, I think you would have to…Certainly it’s not true that all trade unionists think that way. I mean, some do, some don’t. You’re talking about a movement of tens of millions of people.
Manda: Yeah, and it’s wide and it’s a spectrum.
Jeremy: I would say that the first thing is..how you would do it, in my opinion, if you talk about that specific issue, you know, ‘how could exile leverage the unions?’ I think the union leaderships, I think, are much more… Are Conscious that they have a specific… Of the issues and of the problems in their positions. But also they’re conscious that, you know, structurally right now within British political culture, the only job they’re given is the job of representing the unions. I think we don’t know what would happen if they were very publicly called upon. You know, if people would say to them, look – instead of ignoring them or assuming that they’re just a bunch of, you know, ill educated proletarians who can’t be persuaded – If we were to say to them, ‘look’ publicly, repeatedly; ‘you,are the only organisations that can actually deal with this. You, you are the only ones who could shift it. This is your historic responsibility. Now you have historically been the leaders of progressive change in this country since the since the 19th century, and now is the time to step up and come into that role’. You know, then I think it would be quite difficult for them actually to just say, no.
Manda: I think we could make this happen, Jeremy. Actually, that, you know, that’s incredibly useful and that could well be an XR strategy for the New Year.
Jeremy: But I think when you’re dealing with unions, like if you’re – especially if you’re somebody like an XR activist – you have to understand you’re dealing with union officials, you’re dealing with people who’ve done a really hard job, you know, for years and years and years, and they’re immersed in a 200 year history of struggle. And most of them will have occasionally won something for their members. If they’re talking to someone, as you described, they’re talking to somebody from the professional classes who’s never really been in a fight, a political fight, and certainly never won anything… Then you know, you can’t expect them to take you seriously. You’ve got to be a bit deferential to be honest. You’ve got to be… You’ve got to respect and acknowledge where they’re coming from. Like, if you want them to listen to you and sort of take you seriously. And you’ve got to absolutely not come at them with a sort of sense of middle class entitlement or you know, the idea that you’re entitled to be listened to. I mean, my experience of dealing with trade union people is that is the approach you have to take. And if you do, then they will listen. It’s possible to shift. I think you can’t underestimate the extent to which the trade unions in this country have been through a big culture shift over the past 20 years. You know, the trade unions were, in terms of Labour Party politics we were talking about earlier, the trade unions, the industrial unions were the backbone of the right wing of the party for like nearly a century.
Jeremy: The party was essentially divided between the union movement, which wasn’t really interested in socialism; which was just interested in occasional reforms and saw any kind of shift towards bigger systemic changes as ultimately just compromising that; and the kind of ideological socialist wing which was mostly drawn indeed from the professional classes with more highly educated people, etc. And that was the kind of tension within the Labour Party to some extent for nearly 100 years. Since they had the experience of realising that Gordon Brown just had no intention of restoring social democracy, like after 10 years of Blair, the unions have been through a big culture shift. You know, Unite backing Corbyn. And the new Unite leadership Shaman Graeme is, if anything, you know, in some ways to the left of McCluskey in terms of her kind of political and social attitudes. The fact that organisations like Unison now are clearly dominated by women and are, you know, clearly understand that their job is defending women’s rights in a whole range of domains for that reason. They’ve been through a big, big culture shift over the past 20 years, really. I mean, they’ve been doing things which you just couldn’t…it was hard to imagine you know, 20 years ago in the early days of the Blair government. I think, you know, you have to expect that they’re going to be on quite a learning curve. But I absolutely wouldn’t give up on them, I think.
Manda: Ok. No, definitely. That’s my project for the new year. But okay, let’s leave that aside for the moment, let’s assume that we’ve got the leadership of the various parties onside. And our new democracy is more representative and consultative. And somehow we’ve also managed to enhance people’s sense-making, so that it is not the case that whatever they last saw float past on Facebook and Twitter is what they believe; because I really worry about consultative democracy where you can’t get to some kind of agreed notion of fact. You know, the whole COVID thing has shown us that it’s really, really hard to get something agreed. And I think consultative democracy has to work, but we also have to get sense making as part of it. Let’s assume we’ve got both of those. Two questions: First question is what time timescale are you working under in your conceptions? Because I have spoken to very sensible, highly educated people who think we have possibly got five years, that 2020 would see our beginning of actual starvation in this country if we haven’t really begun to shift both the political and the economic sphere to the point of understanding that we need to stop shovelling stuff to the top, but also really begun to address the climate and ecological emergency. What’s your internal timescale?
Jeremy: That’s a very good question. I would say, firstly, my attitude to those kind of predictions and my understanding of the kind of evidence and arguments that I’ve seen, is I am sceptical about the predictions of civilizational breakdown within a very short time scale in the highly developed world. And I think the people making those predictions are themselves very naive about the capacity of the developed world to shift the problems onto the developing.
Manda: So we just basically take all the food from the global south in order to continue to feed, which is why we’ve presumably got new nuclear powered submarines happen.
Jeremy: Yeah, exactly. My feeling is that the people – this is true too, of close friends of mine – who are sort of torturing themselves with visions of civilisation here in Britain or in France, like actually collapsing in the next 10 years; are in fact distracting themselves from what is the much more likely thing to happen in that timescale. Which is even more depressing. Which is, we will be sitting at home, watching on television as tens of hundreds of millions of people die in sub-Saharan Africa, and our leaders tell us there’s nothing that can be done about it. You know, that is where I think we’re actually heading. Like, it’s horrible. But I think people are so much don’t want to think about that being where we’re heading, that they’re telling themselves, ‘Oh, it’s all going to collapse here’. It just obviously isn’t frankly. We obviously have the capacity, you know, we obviously have the technological and resource capacity.
Manda: Well, we do, but we have empty shelves at the moment.
Jeremy: Yeah, we do. I don’t think we’ll have empty shelves for long. I just don’t. I don’t… To me,right now, just as a humanitarian, that is the future I want to avoid. The future I want to avoid, I’m worried about deflecting, is the one where I’m sitting at home on TV, watching hundreds of millions of people die in Africa and Asia.
Manda: Because millions are dying as we speak, so…
Jeremy: Yeah, but it’ll be hundreds, hundreds of millions.
Manda: And so how do we get to a system where we can stop that? What does that system look like?
Jeremy: Well, I think, you know, I’m very interested… I mean, it’s already kind of left cliché in the English speaking world. But I think my idea, the idea of a Green New Deal, represents I think, the sort of horizon of both… I mean, to me, it’s a very important idea, the idea of a Green New Deal… Because I think it is both the horizon of what is politically feasible within the next 10 to 15 years. We’re not going to abolish capitalism – like global capitalism – in the next 10 to 15 years. That isn’t going to happen. A Green New Deal, and something like it across Europe and the United States is conceivable, I think, in that I would say in the 10 to 15 year timescale to be honest
Manda: And tell me the essence of a Green New Deal as you see it, how would it work?
Jeremy: Green New Deal would involve government managing significant sections of the economy in order to direct/redirect production and distribution processes away from carbon emitting and carbon intensive ones towards less carbon intensive ones. And at the same time, it would have to be engaging in sort of significant programmes of redistribution and kind of reorganisation of the economy. To kind of reduce social inequality. So the term, for people who aren’t familiar, the term ‘New Deal’ is obviously derived from the American experience of the New Deal in the 1930s; the kind of big reorganisation really of the relationship between workers, employers and government. Which I think people outside the United States often don’t really understand, you know, sort of how left wing a project the New Deal was in the 30s and the extent to which it – I mean, in order to undertake that set of reforms the government had, the federal government had to engage in explicitly anti-capitalist propaganda. For example, they had to explicitly say – I mean, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen is in an Adam Curtis documentary, and it’s a public information film made by the New Deal administration in the 30s, telling people how to kind of analyse newspaper reports for ideological bias in favour of, you know, the sort of capitalist class. So that’s the kind of level you have to get to.
Jeremy: I think you have to do that. I think it does have to be I think, you know, the kind of politics I’m talking about is anti-capitalist; Not in the sense that it imagines capitalism as a total system that can be absolutely replaced in a short time, but in that it recognises that capital accumulation, specifically the practise of allowing corporations to amass kind of infinite profits is just The obstacle to, you know, to any kind of social progress. And it has to be limited. I think you can have a politics where you allow the private sector to do things. You allow people to pursue profits, but there’s got to be a ceiling on the amount of profits that people are allowed to pursue, because it’s it’s the unlimited nature of the profits which corporations are not just allowed but really forced to pursue if they want to be sort of sustainable that I think is absolutely destructive to the social, cultural and environmental fabric. So it would involve, you know, it would look a lot like the Labour Party sort of manifesto in 2019, to be honest, is what the Green New Deal in practise would look like. I think it would also, you know, we’ve seen, I mean, you know, the Biden administration is trying to get through…
Manda: That’s the thing, isn’t it? I mean, we don’t have very long, whichever version of the future you look at that you really don’t want. You know, Biden’s got Joe Manchin, whose son owns three coal mines, as far as I can tell, who seems to me to be the voice of the fossil fuel within the Democratic Party. Trudeau’s just held an election that he completely failed to really change the parliamentary electoral process. And Johnson’s got no intention whatsoever of changing anything that he’s doing except possibly shifting it all to the right. How are we going to make this happen, Jeremy?
Jeremy: Well, I think in this country, we can do the various things we’ve talked about. There’s organisations like Green New Deal Rising who were trying to make green the Green New Deal kind of key object of public discourse and then pressure, you know, MPs and candidates and organisations and indeed unions to kind of support it. And then, you know, attack them if they won’t support it. So I think that kind of mass action is going to be necessary. I think it’s important to understand, it’s always important to keep in mind there isn’t just one thing that you do. You get progressive change through a whole kind of ecology of organisations and actions and sort of thinking and theory and institutions and counter institutions, working together more or less towards a common objective. I think the Green New Deal is potentially useful because it does present a sort of demand or a sort of set of demands which lots of different people/organisations can sign up to and can say, ‘look, the reason we’re blocking this road or the reason we’re supporting this candidate or the reason we’re taking this strike or even, you know, the reason I’m publishing this, you know, 80000 word book of political philosophy, is because I want this’. You know, this is what it’s all sort of contributing towards. I think it’s important, but there is never going to be just sort of one thing that you do.
Manda: Ok, brilliant. We’re out of time, which is incredibly sad because I have at least a dozen more questions that I want to ask you, particularly about your forthcoming book. But maybe we’ll invite you back when it’s published and we can talk about that because it kind of takes us off into the obstacles to the Green New Deal. But as a closing question, if people listening, let’s assume that we’ve long ago lost anyone who wasn’t of political progressive instincts long before you came on board. So we have people listening who want a Green New Deal, progressive future, whatever their vision of what it is, we’re trying to push away. What can individuals do at this moment, wherever they are in the world, That would be the most constructive, in your view.
Jeremy: Okay. Well, I can’t answer with regard to wherever people are in the world. Because that’s going to it’s just going to vary in different places. I mean, in the states. You know, I would join I would join the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise movement. And in England, at least I would. I would still suggest joining the Labour Party and Momentum. I mean, Momentum is very, as an organisation, is very committed to the Green New Deal and I think has a much clearer strategic sense of what it would take to get it than any other organisation I can think of. But you know, if people, depending on the political conditions where you are, you know, you might find it more useful to join the Green Party or join the Liberal Democrats. I think you have to make…
Manda: Or the SNP, if you’re in Scotland.
Jeremy: The SNP, if you’re in Scotland, yeah, possibly Plaid in parts of Wales. Part of the logic of some of the things we’ve talked about here today is that there are useful things to be done from within any of those organisations. I know it’s incredibly boring for a lot of people to be told, “Well, basically you should join the Labour Party and you should support the left wing faction of the Labour Party in its positions”, because I understand why that’s boring and unsatisfactory. But I think also one has to be wary of the temptation of avoiding the things that seem boring and frustrating in the short to medium term and just going for the instant gratification. We got a National Health Service eventually because because people sat in boring meetings or got frustrated by them and kept arguing a position for decades and decades. And and that is often what it takes, sadly.
Manda: Yeah, if we thought we had decades left, but it sounds like joining Green New Deal Rising might also be a useful thing in this country
Jeremy: Yeah, I think Green New Deal Rising is pitching itself specifically as a sort of youth organisation. So what you do if you’re not, if you’re sort of over twenty five, I’m not sure. I would really stress the current leadership in Momentum, the people who won the Momentum internal elections last year, are a very intelligent group of activists. Very committed to sort of radical democratic processes internally and externally, very sort of strategic in their conceptions. And they’re completely committed to the Green New Deal as a project.
Manda: And you can only be a member of Momentum if you are a member of the Labour Party
Jeremy: You can only be a member of Momentum if you’re eligible to be a member of the Labour Party, I think
Manda: Ok, well go and do the boring stuff, people of the podcast! This is your job. Find your local way of making the most political difference. Get out there and do it. And Jeremy Gilbert, thank you so much for taking time out of your Wednesday morning. It’s been fantastic.
Jeremy: Well, thanks for having me. Thanks very much.
Manda: And there we go. That’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Jeremy for his insight; for his sharp political understanding; for his knowledge of the history of the labour movement and for his concepts of what we can do now. I think the idea of a XR talking to the unions is huge. If you listen to this and you have a way to make that happen, I think that would be an astonishingly useful thing to do. And for the rest of us in the UK, perhaps rejoining the Labour Party, joining momentum, trying to make things happen. And in other countries, join whatever is the most progressive political movement and find what you can do to support it. Because Jeremy is obviously right; the next five years are crucial and we have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen, except that it probably isn’t predictable from here on in. So we will be back next week with another conversation.
Manda: And in the meantime, huge thanks to Caro C, for as ever, stellar sound production and for the music at the head and foot. And if you haven’t listened to our podcast with Caro, it’s No. 92. Head back and find it. Huge thanks to Faith Tillery for all the tech and all of the design and for the website.
Manda: If you want to visit us there, we’re at accidentalgods.life. You’ll find the show notes there, the transcripts, links to anything that we think might be interesting from the podcast, and, of course, all of the previous podcasts. You can also join the membership if you’re interested in what Accidental Gods has to offer in terms of our ability to connect with the more than human world in order to ask the question, ‘what do you want of me?’ and respond to the answer in real time.
And finally, for now, we have the gatherings. The last gathering of the year is on Sunday, 31st October, Samhain. The time when the veils between the worlds are thinnest. And so this gathering is called ‘Dreaming Your Death Awake’, because I genuinely believe that we only really begin to live when we learn to embrace death as our ultimate teacher. And also that we only really learn how to die with grace and full awareness, when we have embraced life as our ultimate teacher. And that these two go hand in hand. So if you’re interested in that, it’s on the events section of the website. And that’s it for now. Huge thanks to you for listening. We will see you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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