Risk and revelations: on leaving OurKingdom

After two and a half years as Co-Editor of openDemocracy's British section, Niki Seth-Smith is leaving OurKingdom. Through intimate reflections, she gives an insight into the project, Britain's landscape of power, and the struggle against neoliberalism to come.

Niki Seth-Smith
29 April 2013

I’m leaving my role at OurKingdom. Why? After two and a half years of commissioning, editing, reading, absorbing, publishing (and a little writing along the way) I find I have a burning itch in my hand. So I’m going to do the writing and thinking I need to do. An insane move, in the current climate. But that’s also what everyone said when, age 24, I binned a permanent reporter’s contract to take up an offer by Anthony Barnett to “change the political culture of the UK”. There was six month’s money in the bank… then we would fend for survival. Thank god I’m crazy. 

Yesterday, as asked, I wrote a ‘goodbye note’. Today I tore it up. The worst was attempting to thank everyone – it just kept snowballing – I suppose, ultimately, this is what it means to live in a network of people who support and inspire you. So thank-yous will be personal, as they should be. But I’d like to share a few reflections from my time at OurKingdom: flashes, or illustrative moments… 

Why Don’t You Pull a Sicky? 

Do you remember the night before the Royal Wedding? Two years back, at the end of April. It was a sticky, sultry evening, and I was hunched over my laptop, frantically HTML-ing on our feature, the Royal Wedding Reality Check. It was a set of questions, including “Do you feel the date has been set for political reasons?” My friends were already in the pub, reveling in the glory of guilt-free Thursday boozing. A text came. Another. Just come to the pub, they can't make you stay! It's a bank holiday! 

I had given up trying to explain that I didn't consider OurKingdom as 'work'. I did not have a 'boss'. It was me, my tortured id and my political conscience I was fighting, not HR. You can imagine the response I’d get: f**k that!  But more than this, I couldn't describe to my friends that I was warding off something, in preparing for the celebration the next morning. Anticipating that day of 'national celebration', I felt a little like I had Meniere's disease, that disorder where the ear fills up with fluid and the patient experiences bouts of vertigo, nausea and the off-and-on sound of roaring.

The day Kate 'n' Wills became the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, with a £20 million ceremony and a party meant to shake the country out of its austerity doldrums, I was on a pavement with a beer in my hand like most of the eager-for-a-knees-up English (no one liked to look north of the border that day). I was just there for fun, right? I was not helping, surely, to rejuvenate the monarchy, revived through its sclerotic embrace of the middle classes and celebrity culture, with the country still under its peculiar paralysing spell? Wandering from street party to street party, I would surreptitiously check my phone. How many protesters had been arrested? Were there any more comments on our feature? I felt my political parameters, almost physical, re-balancing. 

(With thanks to Jamie Mackay, for saving me from Meniere's during the Olympics. Particularly for his piece "Welcome to the Great British Summer", sparked by a helicopter flying over his head above Somerset House.) 

Refusing the Logic 

Early 2011. A circle of around 15-20 people, in the airless IPPR building just off Charing Cross. Those from the Labour think-tank suited and booted, having just crossed the hall from their desktops; openDemocracy recruits rag-tag. These were Chatham House rules discussions, opportunities for 'blue skies thinking' on topics germane to the task in hand for our hosts, of rebuilding the party in opposition. I enjoyed them for their clash of cultures, some of the most astute minds in policy tolerating no sloppy idealism, talking openly with radicals, libertarians, Scottish nationalists, community workers, all with their particular interest in the future of the Labour party. 

At that meeting, I was asked about protest network UK Uncut, which at that time had reached what may perhaps remain the apex of its mainstream popularity. I was the youngest in the room. It was the hunger in their eyes that interested me. Something was going on, Labour knew it had to engage. But how?  My answer that, as an anti-cuts network for tax justice, UK Uncut recognised that power no longer resided at the national level, in parliamentary politics, and that this spoke to the younger generation, was dismissed with these words: “Then why don't you build a party?”

Cut to March 26, the day of the 500,000 strong TUC March for the Alternative. A splinter protest hostile to ‘marching from A to B’ led to incidents of violence and property damage associated with the Black Bloc. At the same time, UK Uncut staged a peaceful sit-in at the posh Fortnum & Mason’s food hall. I was there, but arrived at Fortnums too late to get inside. Its occupants were then arrested en masse and the media demanded its view of the violence.

The next evening, I was glued to Newsnight. The gut joy I felt as Lucy Anderson, brought on as a ‘spokesperson’ for UK Uncut, refused to condemn the violence on behalf of the network. I remember Emily Maitlis’ frustration as Anderson rejected "the premise of that question" - the very premise, you might say, of Maitlis' existence as a BBC presenter. I wrote this. Two thinkers I trust and admire - Stuart White, Anthony Barnett - vehemently did not agree. I could see the sense in this. UK Uncut had alienated swathes of supporters, and damaged their links with the press. How to describe the glee, the sense of comradeship unbetrayed?

(N.B. I never heard UK Uncut mentioned again at an IPPR meeting. Now Labour is seeking to turn itself into a movement for change, both community-based and digital. Could the party become a movement? Good luck to them, but they should be ready for a long, long road.) 

Letting Go 

I can't recall when Deborah Padfield first emailed me. A Citizens Advice Bureau advisor inflamed by her daily struggle to make welfare work for people in Cambridge, under a system that cared nothing for their dignity, Deborah sent torrents of words, facts, figures, anecdotes. To begin with, it was a mess. I worked with her, alongside my colleagues Clare Sambrook and Stuart Weir, to help shape her anger and experience into an effective voice. Now she is our correspondent from the poverty line. Her articles are feeding inside knowledge into the poisoned mainstream narrative, slowly slowly. (See her latest, Britain’s ‘tough choices’: a call for a new approach to welfare.) 

We could have rejected her, straight off. I could have done a better job on that first piece – or an interview. But we made a call that her voice, direct, was needed. This is citizen journalism. The majority of OurKingdom's authors aren’t media professionals, but embedded in their fields, with personal experience and expertise: they are academics, activists, policy makers, politicians, community workers, citizens. They say it, because they feel it needs to be said. If this is why the 'profession' is dying, bring on the funeral.

No-one Knows What You Stand For

I hear this, or hints at it (depending usually on beers consumed) all the time. I work for OurKingdom, so aren't I a bit soft? A bit namby-pamby-debatey-which-side-are-you-on? It is said as if producing a card, the trump that I can't beat. It comes from the bowels of the competition, 'I'm more radical than you'. 

Let me answer on behalf of OK. OurKingdom does not belong to the radical left. It has no traditional political affiliation. What it does (or attempts) is to interrogate where power resides in this country from the perspective of liberty, democracy and openness. That is to say, not from the perspective of any vested interest. It confronts our peculiar Union with its rotting, archaic constitution propping up modern facades and the deep-seated power of the City. It acknowledges that the national remains, and is reasserting itself, just as the many webs of the emerging global super-elite strengthen and multiply. To the extent that it attempts to comprehend the nature of the crisis, it is of the left. To the extent that it believes in a future beyond this, it is part of what Aaron Peters touched on in his piece, The movement that needs no name

The exposing of economic orthodoxy, new forms of democratic citizenry, the agency of the multitude and its continual emergence, the forging of identities as local and particular sites of resistance re-align with the regional, national and those without boundaries. And facilitating all this, the release brought about by the internet and the struggle against its capture by the corporatized state, the changing nature of labour and the refusal that information remain commodified. All this implies a direction of travel. It does not require an affiliation. On the contrary, its method is the network. Any attempts at ownership I believe are misguided.

I remember, in my interview for this role, Anthony pushing back his chair and fixing me with a twinkling, impish look. “But what would you do if you had super-powers?” To which I answered, “End neoliberalism.” 

The left, the right, the future

This brings me to a thought on the future of OurKingdom – or rather, the opportunities that I see are open. I am certain that OK is uniquely placed to help fight the totalizing force of neoliberal logic. Within the core meaning of openDemocracy’s slogan ‘free thinking for the world’ is a stance against all fundamentalisms, including that of the market. But we are still at a stage when even the language leads us astray: to be accurate, it is corporate power riding under the false banner of free market ideology. 

This is an important distinction. Because it points to the true breadth of the population disinherited by the status quo. A few days ago, I was at a Soundings Launch of their manifesto, After Neoliberalism. An audience member asked the panel, “When you say ‘we’ need to end this system, who do you mean?” It was a point about engagement; he compared the panel to Radio 4. Doreen Massey replied with a line about “empathizing” with Daily Mail readers. But not all right-wingers are watching the curtains of their dole-seeking neighbours, waiting to be compassionately disabused of their beliefs. 

There is a vast constituency of liberals and conservatives, Macmillan Tories, the digital elite from hackers to Silicon Valley, Horse and Hound backbenchers enraged by the attempt to sell off England’s forests – this is just the iceberg’s tip. I make no attempt to “empathise” with Damian Hockney, former Vice Chair of UKIP, who writes for us on the need for greater pluralism in Britain’s political landscape and the BBC's false neutrality. I would not try to “disabuse” David Davis MP, who with Anthony marked the sinister passage of the 'Secret Courts Act' with their piece detailing just how Britain had broken with the fundamental principles of open justice. I reject their political positions. But to engage with them is to be part of a movement away from silos, cliques, membership models and clan affiliation that I welcome in my bones.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t help bring in more voices from outside the left willing to engage seriously and openly with others. They exist, but are hard to find. I once thought about challenging all OurKingdom readers to persuade an unconvinced friend or family member, over the Christmas break, that austerity isn’t working. We’d run the reports on their experiences. Finally, I decided we didn’t want to be the site that ruined Christmas. Now, I think why not? Olly, you should do this. Go on. 

I have full confidence in Olly, Clare and Anthony as a team to develop the future of OurKingdom. I know I will click on the site in fear: “Damn they’re good”, I’ll mutter darkly. With Magnus at the helm, openDemocracy is entering a new era, and I only wish I had two lives, so I could also be a part of it.

That said, I’ve seen people try to leave openDemocracy. It never really works. It’s in my bloodstream and will continue to shape my life and attitude to the world. I have tried to give a few glimpses of this, and a brief thought for the future. I’ve lost count of the personal thank-yous and messages of deep appreciation I want to send. I’m sure I will see many of you around, in other projects, platforms and movements. Just not in this hat. 

To the future!

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