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Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist. Laura Beers. Harvard University Press. 2016.

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Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist, authored by Laura Beers, gives readers a vivid insight into the life of one of the most important figures in the history of the British radical left.

Ellen Wilkinson’s accomplishments speak for themselves: she helped to found the British Communist party; was the tenth woman to earn a seat in parliament; advocated for the poor both in the UK and abroad; was one of the first female delegates to the United Nations; helped lead the Jarrow Crusade; and played a central role in the post-World War Two Labour government. As part of her political career, Wilkinson met Lenin and Trotsky in Moscow and not only befriended the leaders of the Indian Congress Party, but also German anti-fascist groups and the Spanish Republican government.

Wilkinson was a self-made woman, and her exceptionalism highlights the scope of opportunity afforded to women active in politics within the interwar period. The boundaries between the private and public spheres were beginning to blur, and women were no longer forced to conform to the oppressive Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’: the notion that young women were duty-bound to devote themselves to household chores and raising a family. Ellen’s success, however, was not without controversy: her affairs with colleagues garnered accusations of favouritism, and many of her personal papers were burnt by her brother after her death to avoid further scrutiny. Whilst Red Ellen provides an in-depth insight into Wilkinson’s remarkable life and career, it also raises questions about both the history and the future of the radical left in the UK: where has it been, and perhaps more importantly, where it is going.

This relatively short review cannot possibly give the reader a truly in-depth insight into the life and times of Ellen Wilkinson – that is what the book is for. Instead, I have attempted to give the reader a brief glance into Ellen’s early development as an intellectually curious and vivacious child and teenager before turning to the midst of her political career, a period that saw her travel the world in pursuit of social justice. The looming spectre of fascism over Europe in the interwar years triggered something of a crisis in Ellen’s understanding of impending political events: the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in particular, did not see the left coming together to overthrow fascism as she had anticipated, despite men and women from across Europe travelling to Spain to fight in the resistance. Europe did not unite, and was subsequently plunged into darkness.

Image Credit: ‘The Jarrow March’, Jarrow Metro Station (Andrew Curtis CC BY SA 2.0)

In order to gain an understanding of Ellen’s life, we must start with a look at its foundations. In Chapter One, ‘The Only Girl Who Talks in School Debates’, Beers gives the reader crucial insight into both Ellen’s early life and the Wilkinson family dynamic. Ellen Cicely Wilkinson was born in October 1891 to Methodist parents, Richard and Ellen. The family lived in a house south of the river Medlock, downriver from an area described as ‘Little Ireland’ by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), his exposé of the dire living conditions facing working-class families in Manchester and Salford. Regardless of the area’s less-than-favourable associations, the Wilkinson family were considered ‘lower-middle class respectable’ and lived in a community that was relatively socially diverse, getting on well with their neighbours. Despite his lack of formal education, Richard Wilkinson took a strong interest in religious and world affairs, a quality that his daughter shared. Both parents encouraged the passions of their children, but Ellen had more in common with her father, who facilitated her learning.

Ellen was not intellectually stimulated in school, but found ample opportunity to learn about the world through attending Methodist Sunday school classes and by reading voraciously at home. At the age of fourteen, Ellen was reading Ernst Haeckel, Aldous Huxley and Charles Darwin. Her Sunday school classes also afforded Ellen a chance to hone her oratory skills, which would become invaluable to her political pursuits in later life.

Ellen’s formative years saw her develop into a passionate, intellectually curious and politically aware young woman. Instead of going into teaching, as was the norm for young lower-middle-class women at the time, Ellen won a scholarship to study History at the University of Manchester in 1910 with the full support of her family. Yet, Ellen’s political awakening had begun as early as 1908 when she attended meetings of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and the Church Socialist League (CSL). By 1909, Ellen had not yet ‘found’ feminism, but came into contact with women through the ILP; she would later work alongside them in the women’s movement. Whilst Ellen enjoyed university, she became increasingly distracted by her political activism, but still graduated with a 2:1 in 1913: the highest honour given to a woman that year. Afterwards, Ellen was hired by the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage (MSWS) as a paid organiser. Subsequently, Ellen’s lifelong commitment to the women’s movement began; and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Jarrow Crusade of 1936 is seen today as the pinnacle of Wilkinson’s political career. Following the 1935 General Election, Ellen was returned as MP for Jarrow. Ellen was the only woman to participate in the campaign – though she didn’t complete the whole route due to previous commitments – which saw protestors march from their home in north-east England to London to protest the closure of local shipyards and the poverty caused by their subsequent unemployment. However, as Beers notes in Chapter Twelve, ‘Pursuing Social Justice in Britain and Beyond’, it was but a small part in Wilkinson’s transnational quest for justice.

Throughout her career, Ellen’s detractors had argued that her commitment to transnational affairs distracted her from domestic issues. However, there had been less call for her attention at home towards the end of 1934. Despite being the Women’s Organiser for the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW), there were few strikes to organise. Ellen had argued that the MP salary of £400 was not nearly enough to live on; writing and lecturing therefore became the dominant source of her income. Ellen set sail to the US on the penultimate day of 1934 to investigate Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’: a series of post-Depression-era programmes that focused on the so-called Three R’s of ‘relief, recovery, and reform’.

Ellen’s own prescription for Britain’s economic woes had been to increase consumer purchase power, in theory similar to Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’. However, as Ellen observed during her time in the US, industrial control remained the exclusive domain of capitalists. She argued that such moves only increased corporate powers over the state: corporations would be content to give higher wages to workers instead of reorganising inherent structural inequalities. (One can arguably see a parallel in global politics today, particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s cabinet choices.)

Despite her trip to the US, the growing threat of Nazi Germany, the volatile political situation in Spain and Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, Ellen was nonetheless forced to rethink how best to achieve reform at home and abroad and redefine her political priorities, which ultimately centred on the alleviation of national poverty. Government debates over its stance on the seemingly unwinnable Abyssinian crisis, Ellen argued, detracted from important issues at home, fostering accusations of insincerity and careerism. Beers is careful to point out that whilst Ellen was variously labelled throughout her career, ultimately she was adaptable, and her priorities as a politician shifted with the peaks and troughs of the domestic and international landscapes and reflected the ‘real world’ concerns of her constituents.

On 27 January 1947, Ellen attended her final cabinet meeting as Minister of Education. Unusually, she did not participate in the debate. Her health had become increasingly poor at this point, due to a mix of overwork, addiction to caffeine, asthma and the reputed abuse of both asthma and over-the-counter medication. She died on 6 February 1947 from heart failure resulting from an attack of bronchitis. There was no evidence of foul play, but an autopsy pointed to an overdose of barbituric acid, a key ingredient in sleeping pills.

Today, left-wing activists struggle to find parity in an ever-globalising world. And although Ellen herself could not claim to provide all the answers needed to get by in life, politics and beyond, her career is testament to the importance of questioning the status quo and dismantling the structural inequalities that prevent others from living a life free from the threat of war and socio-economic dissimilitude. Ultimately, if we can learn one thing from Ellen’s example, it is that we must strive to work together for a fairer future for all.


Note: this review was published on the LSE Review of Books.


Katherine Williams graduated from Swansea University in 2011 with a BA in German and Politics. She received a distinction for her MA dissertation on the motivations of women involved in ethno-national liberation movements. Her academic interests include feminist methodologies and political theory, memory and reconciliation politics, and gender in IR. You can follow her on Twitter: @polygluttony. Read more reviews by Katherine Williams.


What is new and what is nationalist about Europe’s ‘new nationalism’?

The success of several new parties with a broadly nationalist agenda has prompted some authors to speak of the rise of a ‘new nationalism’ in European politics. But what what does that mean? Daphne Halikiopoulou argues that while the rhetoric of these parties is indeed centred on nationalism, the drivers of support are neither new nor necessarily nationalism-related. What is new is the ability of far-right parties to seize the opportunities created by economic and political insecurities using ideological rather than biological justifications of national belonging, thus successfully appealing to mainstream voters.Far right parties are on the rise across Europe. While these parties differ in many ways, it is their shared emphasis on sovereignty and policies that promote a ‘national preference’ that has facilitated the term ‘the new nationalism’. In other words, the shared ability of these parties to mobilise support by advocating strict immigration policies, Euroscepticism and policies that place the ‘native’ inhabitants first in a range of areas including welfare and social services, points to the importance of nationalism in understanding this phenomenon.

But while the rhetoric of these parties is indeed centred on nationalism, the drivers of support are neither new nor necessarily nationalist-related. There is a much more complex mechanism at play involving three factors in particular. First, there is an economic argument about insecurity and the risks and costs of economic hardship facing both labour market insiders and outsiders; second, there is a political argument about the loss of trust in institutions, state capacity and the ability of the state to deliver on its social contract obligations; and third, there is an instrumentalist argument about nationalism as a ‘supply-side’ factor, a strategy used by parties in an attempt to broaden their appeal by presenting themselves as legitimate to large sections of the population.

Nationalism-related explanations of far right party support are twofold. One set focuses on ethnic competition, arguing that the fear of loss of cultural identity, a perceived incompatibility between cultures and the inability of certain groups to assimilate drives people to vote for the far right. The second set is broader. It understands the rise of the far right as a value conflict, a reaction to value change. Neither explanation is without its limitations. First, there isn’t always a correlation between immigration levels and far right party support. Second, it is not clear that ‘cultural’ indicators including anti-immigrant attitudes, distrust of global governance, mistrust of national governance, authoritarian values and left-right ideological placement are necessarily cultural.

For instance, perceptions of immigration are closely linked to labour market outcomes including jobs and wages; welfare provision including health, pension and benefits; as well as pressures on infrastructure and the ability of the state to deliver on social services. Distrust of global and national governance need not necessarily be value-based. They may be directly related to crisis management and could be the product of particular policies. There is, therefore, a false dichotomy here. The distinction between socio-economic and cultural explanations is not clear-cut.

An important question to ask is where attitudes and values come from. And the answer is, to a great extent, structural socio-economic factors and policies. This explains why certain socio-economic characteristics, such as low levels of education, for example, are common to the profile of the far right voter. This brings me to my first argument about economic insecurity. There is indeed very little correlation between unemployment and far right party support.

Figure 1: Unemployment rate and far right support in both western and eastern Europe in the last three EP elections


Source: Vlandas, T. and Halikiopoulou, D. (2016)

This does not mean, however, that the economy does not matter. The relationship between economic distress and far right party support is in fact a complex one and conditional on labour market institutions. A more nuanced picture shows that the extent to which economic insecurity may be mediated by labour market institutions does matter. In previous collaborative work with Tim Vlandas we have shown that it is specific labour market policies rather than the economic crisis itself that are more likely to facilitate the rise of the far right.

What matters is the extent to which these policies mediate the risks and costs of unemployment and economic malaise more broadly. Where labour market institutions offer greater protection from the risks and costs of unemployment, the far right is less likely to fare well electorally. Where, on the other hand, these institutions are less generous, the risks and costs of unemployment are greater and the far right is more likely to increase its support.

Figure 2: Plotting how the interaction between the change in unemployment and unemployment benefits correlates with far right party support in the last three EP elections


Source: Vlandas, T. and Halikiopoulou, D. (2016)

Figure 3: Effect of unemployment on far right party support conditional on unemployment benefits in national elections of western and eastern European countries since 1991


Source: Halikiopoulou, D. and Vlandas, T. (2017)

It is worth noting here that economic insecurity is not only an argument about the haves and the have-nots, the unemployed, or the working class. It is an argument about the extent to which deteriorating economic conditions may have a negative impact on the expectations and/or the socio-economic status of both labour market outsiders and insiders, i.e. a broad range of social groups, including the middle classes.

Unemployment may increase insecurity and hence lead to higher levels of far right support through two conceptually distinct channels: because it imposes costs on the unemployed and because it increases the risks for those that are employed. For example, in Greece those who have suffered from austerity are not only the marginalised sections of the population – i.e. the outsiders – but also the large middle classes – i.e. those insiders who found themselves much worse off.

This brings me to my political argument. The inability to mediate economic insecurity raises issues of governability, which result in the disenfranchisement of the middle classes. The perceived inability of the state to limit the socioeconomic impact of the crisis on individual citizens results in a loss of trust in governance and democratic institutions. In turn, this perceived breach of the social contract opens space for smaller, often extreme, parties that offer an alternative vision of representation.

In our work with Sofia Vasilopoulou we have shown this through a comparison of Greece, that has a successful far right party, and Spain and Portugal, which despite also having experienced the severity of the European economic crisis, do not. Our comparison indicates that one of the major differences between the three countries is the extent to which the crisis triggered the breakdown of the political system itself because of the perceived limited ability of the state to address the crisis. We measured this through the use of a number of indicators that measure trust, good governance and the perceived efficacy of the state. Our findings suggest that far right parties are more likely to experience an increase in their support when issues of governability impact upon the perceived ability of the state to fulfil its social contract obligations.

Table 1: Good Governance Indicators, Greece Portugal and Spain


Source: Halikiopoulou, D. and Vasilopoulou , S. (2016)

Figure 4: Average trust in institutions and satisfaction with democracy


Source: Halikiopoulou, D. and Vasilopoulou , S. (2016)

To recap, economic insecurity on the one hand and perceptions of state capacity and the ability of the state to deliver on its social contract obligations on the other both need to be taken into account in our explanations of what drives support for the far right.

But what is then the role of nationalism? This brings me to my third argument. What nationalism does help explain is supply: it provides a rhetorical tool, a strategy for attracting voters and justifying policies. Our work with Sofia Vasilopoulou and Steven Mock has shown that the European far right parties that are most successful are those who are able to tailor their discourse to the liberal and civic characteristics of national identity so as to present themselves and their ideologies as the true authentic defenders of the nation’s unique reputation for democracy, diversity and tolerance.

Far right parties offer ‘nationalist solutions’ to a range of socio-economic problems that are driving voters. Although they are exclusionary by nature, this exclusion is no longer justified solely in ethnic terms, but rather is targeted at those who do not share ‘our’ liberal values such as democracy, multiculturalism and the rule of law. These parties present ‘our’ nation as one of tolerance, liberalism and diversity threatened by an influx of intolerant, reactionary and narrow-minded ‘others’. ‘We’, they argue, do not exclude on the basis of race but on the basis of toleration, i.e. those who reject ‘our’ liberal democratic values. Instead of, therefore, justifying their positions on ascriptive, exclusionary, immutable criteria of national membership such as race and common descent, which is what fascist parties did, the ‘new’ far right increasingly uses ideological justifications thus increasingly occupying mainstream ground.

To conclude, behind attitudes and values are political and socio-economic factors that drive demand for far right parties. In this sense the ‘new’ nationalism has much in common with the ‘old’, arising at a time of heightened insecurity and lack of trust in the ability of the state to deliver on its social contract obligations. The role of nationalism is in the supply: the attempt and ability to seize the opportunities created by economic and political insecurities through an appealing rhetoric that is careful to distance itself from ‘race’ and focus instead on values and voluntaristic criteria of national membership.

What is new is that the adoption of ideological rather than biological justifications of national belonging blurs the boundaries between what is ‘far’ and what is mainstream. In utilising this rhetoric, these parties are increasingly able to permeate the mainstream ground and drive party competition. And this is precisely what makes them more dangerous. The ‘new’ nationalism is no longer simply the privilege of the far right.



Note: This article was originally published on EUROPP – European Politics and Policy.

About the Author

Daphne Halikiopoulou 80x108Daphne Halikiopoulou is Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Reading. She is author of The Golden Dawn’s ‘Nationalist Solution’: explaining the rise of the far right in Greece (with Sofia Vasilopoulou) and numerous articles on far right parties in Europe. She has received an award from the American Political Science Association for her work on labour market institutions and far right party support. She is an editor of the journal Nations and Nationalism.

Government has quietly published reports on the impact of child maintenance reforms. Here’s what you need to know


Posted:Mon, 27 Feb 2017 00:01:22 +0000

With the public focus on Brexit, developments in other policy areas are going under the radar. But there might be another reason why enough publicity has not been given to DWP research on child maintenance reforms – the unfavourable evidence it reveals. Janet Allbeson explains the findings of two quantitative surveys.

Almost exactly five years ago, in the face of a Lords revolt, the government committed itself to reviewing the impact of child maintenance charges 30 months after their introduction. That deadline expired in December 2016. Bang on cue, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) published two 300-page surveys looking at key aspects of current child maintenance reforms – but so quietly, you can be forgiven for missing them.

These surveys matter. They provide the first robust, large-scale evidence on the effect of charges on child maintenance arrangements.

In each survey, the impact of charges is seen through the prism of other key reforms introduced alongside.

(i) Case closure reforms:

A three-year programme to close down all current Child Support Agency (CSA) cases, beginning in June 2014. The case closure survey tracked ‘receiving’ parents to examine their child maintenance situation after their CSA case ended – at three months, and (for the first two groups of cases closed) at 12 months.

(ii)Direct Pay’ reforms:

A new ‘Direct Pay’ system whereby, once a parent pays £20 and gets a maintenance calculation, the CMS provides a payment schedule and parents are left to organise payment between themselves. In theory, either parent can still request that the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) collect maintenance – but the catch lies in the name: ‘Collect and Pay.’ (See collection fees in box). And, as another barrier, even if a receiving parent requests Collect and Pay, the CMS must agree it’s necessary due to non-payment. The direct pay survey looks at the child maintenance outcomes of such parents at three and 13 months.

Charges to change behaviour – is it working?

The primary aim of charges, argued the government, was about “driving behavioural change rather than generating revenue”. Under the government’s plans, the £20 application fee “is designed to act as an incentive for both parents to collaborate and remain outside the statutory service”, by making their own ‘family-based arrangements’ for maintenance instead. Collection fees are seen as “necessary to provide both parents with an ongoing financial incentive to collaborate or make payments direct.”

So are charges working as intended? The case closure survey suggests fees are indeed influencing some parents to remain outside the new CMS. Three months after their CSA case ended, one in five (19%) of former CSA parents had applied to the CMS – far fewer than expected by DWP at this stage of the closure process.  Had they made their own arrangements instead? Only a small proportion (again 19%) had done so; and even then, over a quarter of such arrangements were non-effective.

The worrying news is that, three months after closure, the majority of former CSA parents (56 per cent) had no child maintenance arrangement in place. Moreover, the £20 application fee was cited as a reason by almost three in ten without an arrangement (29 per cent), with a fifth (21 per cent) saying it had influenced their decision “a lot”. A quarter of such parents said the prospect of collection fees had been a factor in doing without.

Looking at the direct pay survey, at first sight, charges do appear to be working.  After a year, the majority of parents who had paid £20 and received a calculation (62 per cent) were still on Direct Pay – more than the 40 per cent expected by DWP. But, dig a little deeper, and the child maintenance consequences are pretty grim. Almost half of all parents on Direct Pay either had no arrangement or one that was not working.

The threat of collection charges appears insufficient to motivate a significant proportion of paying parents to actually pay maintenance due in full and on time.  As for receiving parents, the researchers found that charges seemed to be deterring those not getting the maintenance due from choosing to transfer from ‘Direct Pay’ to ‘Collect and Pay’.

Affordability of charges

In an effort to placate Peers concerned about the impact of charges, Lord Freud, reassured them in 2012 that, in evaluating charges after 30 months, “we will make clear our intentions, including a specific view on the position of the poorest parents.”

The two reports confirm that the statutory service is particularly used by parents with low incomes. Two-fifths (39 per cent) of receiving parents in the case closure survey and around half (46 per cent) of those in Direct Pay were on very low incomes (less than £15,600 per year).

Unsurprisingly, as Gingerbread itself has reported, some poorer parents are struggling to pay the £20 application fee. The case closure study found that three months after their CSA cases ended, parents on very low incomes were less likely to have any sort of maintenance arrangement than those with higher incomes. And among the minority who had had a ‘family-based arrangement’, 16 per cent cited being unable to afford CMS charges as a factor in their decision.

Of course, paying the £20 fee doesn’t mean that it’s affordable. The direct pay study found that, among receiving parents who paid it, two out of five had found it quite or very difficult to afford. And among those with very low incomes, half found it difficult. The case closure study found that, among receiving parents who had paid the fee, around a third said it had been difficult to afford.

What about collection fees? A third of receiving parents opting for Direct Pay said they did it to avoid collection charges. And where parents were paying collection fees, the case closure study found that over a quarter of receiving parents said the losing 4 per cent of their maintenance was difficult to afford.

What conclusions about charges can be drawn at this stage?

The government is required to publish and lay before Parliament a report setting out the conclusions of the 30-month review, together with a statement on future policy. This is expected in spring.

No doubt, caution will be expressed at drawing firm conclusions from the surveys’ findings. Both cover parents already in touch with the statutory maintenance system, and are hence less likely to feature those able to reach a family-based arrangement. And with a year still to run in closing down CSA cases, later cases – which include more parents who were previously paying and receiving ongoing maintenance – are likely to produce more positive outcomes in terms of new arrangements.

The two surveys do show that – as intended – child maintenance charges are keeping more parents outside the CMS, and more people on Direct Pay, outside the CMS ‘Collect and Pay’ system. This is undoubtedly saving government money. Taking into account revenue from charges and savings from a smaller CMS, the DWP estimate operational expenditure on statutory maintenance will have fallen by £59m over the four years ending in March 2017, with further savings to come as closure of the CSA accelerates.

But the surveys also indicate that charges appears to be contributing to a significant proportion of receiving parents and children having no maintenance at all, or living with ineffective maintenance arrangements on Direct Pay.

Affordability is clearly a problem for some. For others, in the face of charges, the issue appears to be that they don’t think it’s worth it. By far the biggest reason given by receiving parents for not applying to the CMS, or not transferring to ‘Collect and Pay’ when ‘Direct Pay’ was not working, was that the paying parent would not pay. A lack of knowledge of what the CMS can do, or confidence in its effectiveness, appears to be driving too many receiving parents to conclude: why pay good money if it’s unlikely to get maintenance in return?

At Gingerbread, we think the CMS has an important job to do in ensuring unwilling parents do step up and pay for their children. We want to see more active efforts to reach out to parents without effective maintenance arrangements to promote what the CMS can offer. The charging deterrents to accessing CMS services should be scrapped so that children do not lose out.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that the two studies came out so quietly. Hopefully, in reporting to Parliament, the Minister will face searching questions on the worrying evidence revealed.


About the Author

Janet Allbeson is Senior Policy Adviser at Gingerbread. Formerly she was Committee Specialist to the Work and Pensions Select Committee and a lawyer specialising in social welfare law.

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via Weak Theresa May sticks with her bullying friend Donald Trump, despite mass protests — Vox Political

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