Friday, 4 November 2011

An open letter to Ed Miliband

Dear Ed,

I was there on 27th September when you addressed the Labour Party conference and the nation. And, believe it or not, I take the unfashionable view that you did a good job. There were parts I fundamentally disagreed with, but the vision you began to set out instilled within me a feeling which I haven't associated with Labour for a depressingly long time: hope.

Of course, words and deeds are two entirely different things. Especially in politics.

In your leader's speech this year, you said, "In every generation, there comes a moment when we need to change the way we do things". You are right. Now, perhaps more than ever in recent history, the old system has shown itself to be catastrophically unworkable and deeply unjust. If ever there was a need for new ideas, new approaches, new ways of doing things, it is now. In your speech, you painted yourself and our mutual party as being the vehicles of this desperately needed change. But are they? To be true to your promise, you must do as well as say. Will you?

Will you join the hundreds of thousands of people the world over and fully support the implementation of a Robin Hood Tax, a tiny charge on financial transactions that could raise £20 billion in the UK alone? It goes some way to making the bankers pay for the crisis they caused, but for which blameless citizens are now being made to suffer. The money raised from this tax could not just save countless hospitals, schools and libraries, it could build more of them. David Cameron, despite a growing number of G20 nations getting behind the idea, still opposes it. Will you set yourself apart from this out-of-touch Tory?

Will you support the protesters camping outside St Paul's (and elsewhere in the country) as they fight for a world without poverty and inequality? I don't expect you to get out a tent and go and join them, carrying with you a placard decrying the evils of capitalism (though, by all means, be my guest to do so). But at least say, "The Labour Party supports the right to protest. And we also support the movement for fairness, equality and peace". Will you be on the side of the many, not the few? The 99% vs the 1?

Will you criticise the shameful way in which the BBC has systematically targeted "benefit cheats"? Will you point out, as @suey2y did on her blog (which I implore you to read), that we already have one of the toughest welfare systems in the economically developed world? Will you bring up the fact that tax evasion costs the Treasury 15 times more than benefit fraud? The right-wing press and the BBC may wish to smear innocent people, lie and distort the facts, but do you? Instead of bowing down to the tabloids, why not do the dignified thing and be true to your principles? It is better, is it not, to make public opinion rather than follow it?

Will you read this excellent piece by Deborah Orr and accept that Britain is facing a crisis in education? Rightly, you have already apologised for a lot of Labour's mistakes. But will you accept that we also got this wrong? And will you vehemently oppose Michael Gove's toxic agenda?

Will you join the plethora of economists (not to mention the New York Times) in rejecting George Osborne's disastrous plan for the economy? Ed Balls is right to say that the UK economy is flat-lining, with just 0.5% of growth in the last quarter. But will your party provide the alternative? Will you state fact and say: cutting and austerity do not work? Will you instead call for growth stimuli, investment in infrastructure and a radical re-haul of the financial system as a whole?

Will you say the criminalisation of squatting is wrong? Your shadow justice minister, Andy Slaughter, condemned the government's targeting of those with "severe mental health or addiction problems". But with so many people homeless in the UK and so many houses abandoned or not in use, will you go further? And will you take a leaf out of your predecessor's book, Clement Attlee, whose post-war government built over 4,000,000 new council houses at a time when the country's deficit and economic situation were both far more precarious than they are now?

Will you say it was wrong of the United States to cut its crucial funding to UNESCO simply because they gave Palestine full membership? I applaud the fact that your shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, said Labour were willing to support Palestine's bid for statehood. But will you remain loyal to this promise? Will you and the Labour Party stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with your Palestinian counterparts?

Will you say that increasing military aggressiveness towards Iran is a wrong move on the political stage? I was elated when you said Iraq was a mistake, but you will learn from it? You and other politicians wear your poppies, but will you be true to what they represent - the futility and horror of warfare, which we should always, always avoid?

Will you support the millions of teachers, health professionals and public servants as they exercise their fundamental right to withdraw their labour in protest at the Tory-led government's unfair pension reforms? You have constantly said that strikes should be a last resort, and I totally agree. But when the government still insists on imposing these changes, with only a few concessions, will you at last accept that public sector workers have no other options? Will you be true to the Labour Party's founding values and support ordinary working people as they stand up to the rich and powerful elite?

I clapped your speech on 27th September. In fact, I even joined in with the rest of the hall and gave you a standing ovation. You took the first integral steps to lay out the foundations of a vision - a vision for change, a vision for equality. It was far, far from perfect, but it was a start. For it to mean anything though, you have to stick to it. The opportunities to make the Labour Party a force for good, and to change the society we live in, are staring you in the face. Now is the time to be bold, and grab them. But the question I am asking is - will you?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Topman, misogyny and feminism

When I saw this, I can honestly say I was not shocked:

Disgusted? Yes. But did seeing such a casual display of misogyny in 21st Century Britain surprise me? Not in the slightest. If you've been living under a rock for the past few days, allow me to explain. The above image is a new T-shirt recently released by the high street giant, Topman, which, until the backlash against it, was on sale in shops and online. As you can see, it breezily compares women to animals which men have a right to own and, presumably, use and abuse at their will. Lovely stuff, eh?

I am proud that so many people recognised the vileness of this item of clothing and took a stand against it. Topman was forced to withdraw the monstrosity, such was the anger it sparked. So can we conclude that this crude chauvinism is merely an aberration on the behalf of one company from the gender-equal norm? The answer, sadly, is no. 

Misogyny of the sort displayed above is everywhere; in schools, offices and, indeed, homes up and down the country. I have lost count of the number of disgustingly offensive groups and pages I have seen on Facebook. These include: Never hit a woman. No matter how bad the sandwich is, A girls [sic] period should be referred to as "Blow job week" and a fan page for Women who know their place to name but an infinitesimal number (and those, would you believe, are relatively mild). And not just this. Quite literally, a day does not go by where I don't encounter a misogynistic comment, be it a scrap of a conversation I hear when in school or on the bus, or some raucous laughter, the catalyst of which, I soon ascertain, is an hilarious rape joke. What's more, women are forced to put up with sexual harassment from perfect strangers day-in, day-out. On adverts, women are told that lathering themselves with expensive creams, eating nothing but two bowls of cereal for a week and investing in the latest fashion will keep them young and beautiful, safe from the judgement and ostracisation of a society which deems them "useless" when they are no longer pretty and fruitful. Still we live in a world which rigidly adheres to gender stereotypes. Go into any supermarket and you'll find a pink section for "girls' magazines" and a blue one for "boys' magazines". The former of these will deal with make-up, celebrity gossip and fashion. The latter with football, cars and gadgets. This segregation continues into teenage- and adulthood, with "girlie nights in" and "lads' nights out". We may pride ourselves on women no longer being forced to stay at home and rear children. But look at the reality of things. Make no mistake, the 50s attitude still lingers in the minds of many. And even now this government has launched an assault on women and, in particular, those messengers of Satan, single mothers, with their programme of brutal cuts to essential services. Speaking of politics, the recent Nadine Dorries debacle illustrates quite starkly that there are still those who believe the state should be in control of a woman's body. We know we're in a sorry situation when a white, middle-aged, male Tory comes on Newsnight and pontificates about the evils of abortion. 

The point is this: equality before the law and gender balance in the world of work are not enough. Attitudes still remain. The patriarchy is alive and kicking and mere Acts of Parliament ain't gonna get rid of it. Misogyny is commonplace in the present day, and people are not horrified by it as they would be by, say, racism. In fact, let's remodel that T-shirt. Let's imagine it saying: Nice New Black Slave. What breed is she?. Now even the morally bankrupt knobs at Topman wouldn't dream of putting that on one of their products. And yet, it's perfectly fine, funny even, to imply that women are nothing more than the slaves and pets of their male overlords. Sexism and racism are as bad as each other. The sooner this is realised, the better. 

And if anyone calls me "humourless" and protests that those Facebook groups and that top are "just a joke", I say this. It is it "just a joke" when women are abused and raped every day, often by men they know and trust? Is it "just a joke" when women are too afraid to walk the streets alone at night? It is"just a joke" when a 10-year-old girl is kept up at night with worries about her appearance and weight? You say that top is merely a joke. I say it is merely the manifestation of the deeply-rooted, poisonous misogyny which is present in every aspect of our lives.  

So I'd encourage you to boycott the sexist, tax-dodging Topman, and to combat misogyny wherever you find it. Feminism has a lot of work left to do yet if it wishes to establish real gender equality, but I believe such a world is attainable. Every revolution begins with the words "No more". It's up to you to use those words. The patriarchy is waiting to be smashed. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A symptom of our society

We all know what's been happening for the past week, so I won't give a preamble. Instead, let's cut to the chase: attempting to understand and talking about the reasons behind the actions is not the same as condoning them. The events we have seen taking place in cities across the country, the looting, the destruction and the violence, are unacceptable. I, and pretty much everybody else, condemn them.

The media has been abuzz with cries of "opportunistic criminality" and "mindless thuggery". Pundits have lined up to denounce the rioting one by one as totally dissimilar to what happened in the 80s - when the people on the streets were protesting, when they had a political point to make. Now we've just got "scumbags" and "feral rats" seizing a lack of order to get themselves a free new pair of trainers and a plasma screen TV. 

But that is just too simple. 

Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the Western world. We may tell ourselves it is not so and endlessly repeat that (in?)famous line of Tony Blair's: "we're all middle-class now". Nonetheless, it just isn't the case. With the rise of Margaret Thatcher came the domination of neo-liberal dogma. The 80s saw a counter-revolution in British society. Suddenly, material wealth was the only source of happiness, money was king and greed was good. Thatcherism set out to transform us all into property-owning worshippers of the almighty free market. But not everyone can become middle-class. Some people are left behind. 

The legacy of the political experiment of the 80s is the British underclass. Thatcherism, through the destruction of industry and the shackling of the unions, ensured the "respectable working class" became antiquity. Left over from this assault was a whole swathe of British society who hadn't crawled their way up the social ladder and we're told it was their fault as they were lazy, feckless and unambitious. The underclass has not only been abandoned by the mainstream, they have been stigmatised and derided by it. They have been told they live the way they live out of choice, not because of a deeply unjust system of privilege. They have been dismissed,  labelled as "benefit scroungers", "work-shy scum" and "chavs".  All the time, the middle-classes have taken over the worlds of politics and the media. And thus the underclass does not have a voice in Parliament and is criticised in newspapers by journalists who haven't the foggiest idea what life for them is actually like. Members of the underclass live their lives in poor, run-down areas and come from usually dysfunctional families. Many end up criminals. Some turn to alcohol and drugs because, after all, they must pass the time somehow and substance abuse has the happy effect of allowing you to forget the hell you must endure day-in, day-out. We seem to have gone backwards. Britain has never seemed so socially segregated. 

And so, when a riot breaks out in Tottenham, people elsewhere see it happening and think to themselves, "Why the fuck don't we do the same?" So they do. And it happens again. It is a domino effect. The people rioting have nothing to lose, they have no hope for the future, they do not feel part of a country, let alone a community. Smashing things up is a venting of years of anger and disaffection and despair. Stealing and vandalising gives them a thrill, and it gets them noticed by a world that has constantly shot them down. They steal clothes and electronic items because we live in a society obsessed with rampant consumerism, where having the latest this and newest that is the gateway to eternal bliss. And then people are surprised when these young kids on the streets, who haven't had anything like the education enjoyed by the middle-classes, can't articulate a political theory. What do you expect them to say, that they're mobilising against the bourgeoisie and overthrowing capitalism? There is no grand political ideal uniting this rioting. This rioting is just a desperate expression of hopelessness.   

The populist, right-wing reaction to these riots has been truly sickening. Scores of people have called for the use of plastic bullets and water canons, both of which can cause severe injury and even death. In addition, more police brutality has been proffered as a possible solution. It is beyond me how anyone can possibly think that fighting violence with even more drastic violence would work. It should register in any logical mind that deploying the army to "crush the bastards" will only lead to a fierce backlash from the rioters, resulting in more burnt cars and destroyed high streets. And calling those on the streets "scumbags" and "rats" will also only perpetuate the problem. It is language and treatment like that that has got us where we are now. 

The rioting is horrific and awful and I want it to stop. We all want it stop. It is wrecking lives and causing so much pain. But we cannot ignore the fact that the events of this week are indicative of a much wider malaise. The rioting is a symptom of our society, our broken society. A symptom of a breathtakingly unequal society, a society segregated between us and them; the middle-classes and what is regarded as the feckless, feral and even sub-human underclass. Will the terror of the past few days jolt the political establishment awake? I highly doubt it. Already we are witnessing an assault on the working-class by the coalition - through the swingeing cuts to public services, tuition fees, the scrapping of EMA, the closure of libraies and so much more. All the while, bankers pocket multi-million bonuses, businesses are allowed to dodge their taxes and the elite try desperately to preserve the free market capitalist system which appears increasingly to be collapsing in on itself. What's really needed is change and a re-assessment of our present culture. If we fail to address once and for all the profound problems at the heart of our society, then I fear we will see repeats of this week's events in the very near future. 

Some must-read pieces on the UK riots: 

Saturday, 23 July 2011

A loss of life is a loss of life

Yesterday, a bomb went off in Norway close to the offices of the country's prime minister in central Oslo, killing at least seven people and leaving many more injured. Soon thereafter, a far-right Christian fundamentalist called Anders Behring Breivik opened fire on the island of Utoya where a conference was being held for the youth wing of the ruling Labour Party. At least 91 young people are thought to have been killed. As I type this, thousands of people in East Africa are suffering from extreme starvation as the region undergoes it's first famine in thirty years. And today, at approximately 4 o'clock, the singer Amy Winehouse died of a suspected drug overdose, aged 27.

All of these events are tragedies in their own right.

This afternoon when news of Amy Winehouse's death broke, some people had already started saying such things as "she deserved it" and was nothing more than "drug-pushing scum". Some made jokes about her untimely death. Some said our attention should really be directed to events in Norway, which, in their opinion, were obviously far more terrible.

I noticed this happening more on Facebook than on Twitter. In my Twitter timeline at least, people mourned Winehouse's passing and celebrated her immense talent. They also chastised others for doing the things I mentioned above. In fact, the majority of my timeline was filled with people telling others to stop being idiots, rather than actual idiots themselves. There were exceptions of course.

To those who believe that Amy Winehouse's death is not as worthy of our sorrow as what has happened in Norway or what is happening Somalia, I say this - tragedy is tragedy. You can't put death into neat, hierarchical lines of importance. You can't say, "Well, we shall spend ten minutes being sad about this, but a whole hour being sad about that".  Every human life is just as valuable as the next. And no-one on this earth has the authority to say - this person's life is worth more than this one's.

To those who say Amy Winehouse deserved to die the way she did and that she brought it on herself, I say this - please show some humanity. We live in a society of never-ending contradictions. We glamourise the "rock star" lifestyle, and then berate those rock stars who die from overdoses as being guilty of stupidity. We invent stereotypes about "tortured artists" and "depressed geniuses" to dismiss the problems at hand, for doing so is much easier than confronting them. We worship and revere those members of the hallowed "27 club", while at the same time preaching about the evils of drug and alcohol abuse.

Our attitudes when it comes to drug-taking are still startlingly Victorian. We criminalise drugs, thus driving the industry deep underground, where it is free to exploit to its heart content without any worries of regulation. We imprison those who are driven to drugs. And what exactly does that achieve? Spending months upon months locked up in a cell does not a healed and reformed individual make. In what socio-economic group is drug taking most prevalent? Answer: the working class. Crushed by decades of policies which hoped to destroy their very way of life, many working class young people are driven to a life of drug abuse. There are, after all, no jobs; nothing better to do with one's time. And snorting a line of cocaine has the happy effect of making you forget how dreadful your circumstances are, and how you have very little chance of ever having anything better.

And then we have people like Amy Winehouse. An incredibly talented human being, plunged into a world where taking copious amounts of drugs is simply the norm. Can we blame her for the path she took? Who are we to say that, suddenly finding ourselves rich, famous and so desperately young, and in an environment where we are encouraged and indeed pressured to use drugs, we wouldn't do the same? It has sadly been the fate of many. And yet, these fast-living superstars are at one and the same time rebuked and idolised by a society unsure of its morals and a tabloid press without a conscience.  People like Amy Winehouse are so often victims of the system. But it is so much easier to blame the person than it is to try and change the system.

It has been an horrendous week. The news has truly been awful, and people the world over have suffered unimaginable loss and pain. None of these tragedies are more sensational than the other, because tragedy is not a competition. And so the people of Norway and especially the families devastated by these events are in our thoughts, the people suffering in East Africa are in our thoughts, and Amy Winehouse and her loved ones are in our thoughts. This week ascertains a fact that it is always worth remembering - human life is precious, it is extraordinary, but above all, it is fleeting.

Rest in peace, Amy Winehouse

If you would like to donate to the DEC East Africa appeal, you can do so by clicking here

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Blue Labour is not the way forward

Former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, once said, "The Labour Party is like a stage-coach. If you rattle along at great speed everybody is too exhilerated or too seasick to cause any trouble. But if you stop everybody gets out and argues about where to go next." How right he was.

With Labour's savage defeat at the 2010 general election and subsequent return to the Opposition benches, many have been scratching their heads about what to do now no longer in power; where does the party go after 13 years of Blair, Brown and New Labour? It is, undoubtedly, an important question, and one all members should be asking themselves. It is also a difficult question. With recent Labour history having been so dominated by such a forceful and assured ideology (with a few forceful and assured figures to boot), it is obviously going to be hard to work out the party's purpose in the present day.

However, in this post, I would like to cover just one (very influential) idea which has come about as a result of this process - Blue Labour.

The man at the heart of this new tendency is Maurice Glasman, a political theorist and Labour peer. But it also has support from prominent backbench MP, Jon Cruddas, not to mention Ed Miliband himself, who wrote the preface to the group's main publication The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox.

I believe that Blue Labour, though it has some worthwhile ideas, is not the school of thought the Labour Party should adopt. And here's why.

I commend Maurice Glasman et al for identifying the fact that the Labour Party has lost the support of its core base - namely the working class. People who once considered Labour their natural choice are now voting otherwise, if at all. What's more, there has also been a rise in support for the far-right and racist British National Party. Does this mean that working class voters are all racist? In a word, no. During the New Labour years, the Labour Party grew further and further away from the working class voters it was supposed to represent. Under Tony Blair's leadership, the party cosied up to the bankers and the wealthy businessmen of the City. Labour grew increasingly friendly towards the market, freeing it even more from the shackles of regulation, allowing bonuses to soar to heights of monstrous stupidity. To put it bluntly, New Labour embraced, encouraged and espoused  neo-liberal economic policies. All the while, the Blair government adopted the rhetoric of "aspiration", "social mobility" and "meritocracy". Under New Labour, success in life was judged on the accumulation of wealth, and those who didn't climb the social ladder and leap longingly into the arms of middle classes only had themselves to blame. The party abandoned its working class voters, refusing to acknowledge that there was nothing wrong or shameful about not being middle class.

And did these neo-liberal policies improve the lives of the working class? Of course not. Like all capitalist dogma, neo-liberalism is grossly unfair. The working class had already suffered an assault on their very way of life by Margaret Thatcher - through the destruction of unions and industry. With Labour's victory in 1997, you would've been forgiven for thinking the party would set about ameliorating the problems inflicted by The Iron Lady's government. In some cases, they did. But for the most part, New Labour was nothing but a continuation of Thatcherism - working class jobs remained insecure, low-paid and non-unionised. It is no wonder that so many working class people felt alienated from and actively hostile towards what was once "their" party.

In times of recession and economic hardship, the extreme right always prospers. This is because these political parties offer easy and understandable solutions to people's problems; they provide them with a group to which direct all their hatred and anger. Ravaged by decades of policies which have a deleterious effects on their lives, many working class people inevitably began to support the BNP - because the BNP says, "Everything bad in your life is the fault of immigrants". It turns immigrants and foreigners into the convenient scapegoat. It is a myth, of course. And whole theses have been written on the overall benefits of immigration. But it is a myth with a lot of power. It is a myth, sadly, which Blue Labour buy into.

A key aspect of Blue Labour is social conservatism, and Maurice Glasman has said that he believes there should be a temporary ban on all immigration. By proposing these ideas, Blue Labour says: yes, immigrants are to blame for working class problems. This just simply isn't the case - the real blame for working class problems lies at the door of capitalism. It is capitalism and the relentless force of globalisation which has made working class life harder and harder. Blue Labour recognise this to an extent, urging a return to strong communities, co-operative businesses and a less enthusiastic embrace of consumerism. But at its core, Blue Labour is unacceptably welcoming of the immigrant-myth.

That is not to say the issue of immigration should not be debated. Indeed, I recognise integration is difficult and there will always be genuine racial friction among different groups. This has always been the case, and the way to overcome it is simple - education. Educate people about other cultures, about different ways of living, and soon prejudices slip away.

But immigration isn't the only aspect of Blue Labour policy which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The philosophy is, as afore mentioned, socially conservative. Their stance on crime is too right-wing. What's more, many have raised the issue that Blue Labour does not look very favourably of feminism. And then there is the phrase with which historian Dominic Sandbrook sums up Blue Labour - "family, faith and flag". I don't like that phrase, not one bit. Too often, "family values" means stay-at-home mum and go-to-work dad. "Faith", I believe, should not be a dictator in Labour policy (we do live, after all, in an increasingly non-religious society). And "flag" - well, it sounds a bit jingoistic. We can be proud of our country, of course, but that pride mustn't spill over into nationalism. Overall, this one phrase seems to be achingly nostalgic - looking back on a time where England consisted of happy little nuclear families, who all went to church on Sundays and rose immediately, hands on hearts, whenever the national anthem started playing. Like all nostalgia, it relies on an idealised view of the past.

Ultimately, Blue Labour does not go far enough in its critique of capitalism. It accepts the unwelcome effects of attachment to the free-market and the adoption of neo-liberal policies. But then it falls down in its position on immigration, which it side-steps, not truly confronting the root cause of working class racial tension. Its social policies are too conservative, and I will never embrace them.

So if not Blue Labour, what?

Personally, I would like to be a member of a Labour Party which admitted New Labour was wrong; though it did some good things, it didn't address the inequalities of British society. I would like to be a member of a Labour Party which said neo-liberal dogma and trickle-down economics are a recipe for disaster; they led to the global banking crisis, they made working class life in Britain harder. I believe the Labour Party must be radical in its approach. The Labour Party can offer a new way of looking at things. It can say, we put people before profit. It can say, we oppose the Tories' cuts and privatisation of public services. It can say, we are on the side of the workers. Ultimately, I want the Labour Party to offer the British people an alternative. I want the Labour Party to offer the British people socialism, to say - we could live our lives in a different way, in a free and open egalitarian society. We have lived for too long in a country bitterly acceptant of the fact that things are the way they are and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Now is the time for the Labour Party to make a stand and prove that that isn't the case. It can do it. And, with the Tories in power rapidly tearing to shreds the Attlee Settlement, it must. 

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The week that changed everything

Well, what a week it has been.

A media frenzy, a whole host of disgusting and shocking revelations, the Murdoch empire shook like never before, all culminating in the closure of the News of the World, one of Britain's oldest and most popular Sunday papers.

It all kicked off with the horrifying revelation by the Guardian newspaper that journalists at NotW had hacked into the voicemail of murdered young girl Milly Dowler in an attempt to harvest exclusive stories. They had also deleted messages to make room for more, giving Milly's family false hope that she might still have been alive. The whole country reeled in outrage and abhorrence at the fact that even this most gutter-dwelling of tabloids could sink so low. But yet, sink so low it did.

Then the stories started following one after the other at a breakneck pace, like a line of dominoes. Not only Milly Dowler, but, allegedly, families of 7/7 victims and fallen soldiers. Beforehand, the hacking scandal had involved only politicians and celebrities. Now, however, ordinary people, and, moreover, ordinary people who had suffered unimaginable pain, were drawn into the sorry situation.

What have been the results of this scandal? Well, on the 7th July, James Murdoch announced that this Sunday's edition of News of the World would be the last. And just like that, a 168-year-old stalwart of Fleet Street was no more, dismissed as "toxic", killed by the empire of the man who had bought it back in 1969.

I lament the fact the 200 innocent journalists, not to mention the cleaning staff, engineers and many more, will now lose their jobs. And they lose their jobs in vain. They lose their jobs because Rupert Murdoch wants to save his son's human shield - Rebekah Brooks, editor of NotW when Milly Dowler's phone was hacked (although she, of course, was on holiday at the time). However, I do not lament the passing of NotW as a newspaper. It is, or was, a disgusting, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, backward-thinking excuse of a rag, which had a malign influence on British journalism and the country in general. And as for its crusading moral agenda and fierce campaigns for justice?  Give me a break. Nothing but money-spinners. These points were all excellently made by actor Steve Coogan on last night's explosive Newsnight, where he tore former NotW features editor, Paul McMullen, to shreds. I, for one, am happy this "newspaper" will no longer be with us (in its present form, at least. As we know, the "Sun on Sunday" will so be upon us).

I am also happy that, after arguably the most disastrous week of his leadership, Ed Miliband has taken a principled stand on the issue. Bravely, he renounced News International and called for the resignation of Rebekah Brooks long before any other party leader. He took a new step in the right direction. His party members (myself among them) and the general public applauded him for his strong stance throughout the week. But News International will not forget this, and they will make Ed pay. So far as I'm concerned, it's a price worth paying.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher sold her soul (well, that's assuming she had a soul to sell) to Murdoch back in the 80s, the octogenarian Australian has been far too dominant a force in British politics. Foolishly, politicians believed they could only win general elections if his papers supported them. As a consequence, a mass exercise in arse-kissing swept Westminster, with MPs lining up to tell Good Ol' Rupe what a swell guy he was, in the hope of an invitation to one of his swanky dinners. In short, the press and the politicians became too close, a fact admitted by David Cameron at a press conference earlier in the week (important to note: he himself is good friends with Murdoch and Brooks). Now, however, things look to be changing. For the first time in decades, politicians actually want to distance themselves from the Murdoch brand. The Dark Overlord's power is waning.

But it's not just MPs at fault. The tenacious and laudable work of the Guardian has also laid bare the breathtakingly widespread and high-profile corruption of the Metropolitan Police. We have learnt that officers accepted bribes from people working for NotW in return for confidential information. This, of course, is unacceptable, and it raises the old question: quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

What we now need and what we thankfully are getting, is a judge-led, public inquiry into the NotW scandal, alongside one into the practices and ethics of Fleet Street. One into the Met is also essential. It seems, moreover, that the useless Press Complaints Commission is to be shut down - but to be replaced with what? We have seen that self-regulation of the press has failed miserably. I do not want to live in a country with statutory regulation of newspapers, but something must be done. What that something is is not yet clear.

The biggest thing to come from all of this, is, I feel, the great shift in public mood to Rupert Murdoch. This week's events have made him the most vulnerable he has ever been in his long professional career. He was forced to close the newspaper he first bought when he came to Britain in 1969. Many people working for him have been arrested, not to mention former No. 10 director of communications, Andy Coulson. His close friend Rebekah Brooks is also to be questioned by the police. His own son and heir apparent could face criminal charges on both sides of the Atlantic. His treasured and long-desired takeover of BSkyB is in dangerous shape, with the bid looking like it may be referred to Ofcom, who will decide if News International is a "fit and proper person" to own the broadcasting company (it manifestly is not). For the first time in a quite a while, politicians are not acting like his puppets. And, perhaps most importantly, the public have turned against him (as far as NotW is concerned anyway - the withdrawal of advertising due to the public backlash was what lead to its demise).

Will this anti-NotW sentiment transfer to the rest of his company? I hope so, but only time will tell. Rupert Murdoch is an immensely powerful and wealthy figure, seemingly lacking any sort of moral compass. I do not, as some do, think he has made a good contribution to British journalism. Yes, he can generate money and has a knack for making papers commercially viable. I'm sure he'd do well on The Apprentice. But I believe between them, him and Thatcher are the two worse things to happen to this country for a long, long time. I would urge everyone who wants to live in a pluralistic and truly democratic nation, where MPs are not ruled by filthily rich media barons and where police officers are not bribed by spineless hacks, to boycott everything that man owns. This week has shown that, when the public mood is strong enough, even the rich and powerful are defeatable. Together, we can stop Rupert Murdoch.

And I leave with you this marvellous Fry & Laurie sketch...

Monday, 30 May 2011

James Delingpole - where to begin...

Recently on Radio 4's Today programme, Owen Jones, author of the soon to be published "Chavs", and James Delingpole, a columnist for the Telegraph, had a debate about some comments made by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey and, quite appropriately, a newly-made peer of the realm.

Lord Fellowes believes that "'poshism' is the last acceptable form of discrimination" in modern society, an unsurprising comment given that he himself is a lifelong Tory and is, in his own words, "fat, bald, posh and male".  

However, what I would like to cover in this post is an article subsequently written by Delingpole on the matter, which I find to be both offensive and ignorant. 

Firstly he says, 
"Jones threw in his tuppeny happeny’s worth about the continued dominance of the “Ruling Classes” and about how many MPs had been to public school and Oxbridge and so on, as if somehow this were a major national scandal which needed to be addressed."
I'm afraid that this is a national scandal, Mr Delingpole, it doesn't just appear to be one. According to the Sunday Times, "18 of the 23 full-time cabinet members have seven-figure fortunes, collectively worth about £50m." What is more, the Mirror reports that 16 cabinet ministers went to private school, three of whom are old Etonians (David Cameron, Oliver Letwin and Sir George Young).  This, probably, does not anger James Delingpole. But it angers me, and it should anger anyone who believes in equality. The upper echelons of government are currently overwhelmingly populated by eye-bogglingly rich individuals whose parents paid for their exclusive and top-rate education, thus giving them opportunities most people could only dream of. It is an outrage that these millionaires, who cannot even begin to understand the lives of working people, are now spearheading a programme of austerity cuts to public services. In doing so, they will perpetuate a culture of privilege.

He goes on,
"I wonder how parliament would look if Jones got his way. It would be imbued with a lot more earthy, horny-handed, echt, coal-ingrained, sweat-smelling, demotic, multi-ethnic, gender-balanced authenticity". 
Oh heavens! God forbid we should have any working-class people in government! Or women! Or people who aren't white! Oh they smell, don't they? And can they even read? This appears to be Mr Delingpole's offensive train of thought. I can't speak for Owen, but if I were to get my way, we'd have a properly representative parliament, where the needs and wishes of the people are actually put forward and addressed. Or is this just far too liberal for Mr Delingpole? I suspect he much prefers a parliament of starched collars.

Moving on ,
"The problem with government these days is not that it’s full of rich toffs but that it’s full of career politicos who instinctively want to extend the power of the state and have no understanding of what it is like to be an ordinary taxpayer who just wants to be left alone."
The present government do not want to extend the power of the state, I'm afraid that's a fundamental misunderstanding. The cabinet is cutting the public sector with a blind, ideological savagery, all under the guise of  "giving power to the people". And yes, Mr Delingpole, they have no understanding of ordinary life, I agree. But they do know what it's like to be a "taxpayer who just wants to be left alone". The Tory party is the political manifestation of that group of greedy business owners who do not want state interference as it gets in the way of astronomical profit. Nor do these people want to be taxed, as it's their money and everyone else can go screw themselves. Also, Delingpole does seem to shoot himself in the foot rather by using the word "toffs" without inverted commas. I thought that term was horribly offensive, no?

And sadly he hasn't finished yet,
"Humphrys asked me for evidence that toffs face discrimination, and I suppose the best evidence there is is David Cameron. Here is a man who benefited from the best possible education in the world – Eton and Oxford – and who instead of feeling proud of the fact has been compelled by our prevailing social mores to behave as if it’s a toxic liability."
Being so stupendously privately educated is a "liability" for a man who is trying to detoxify the Conservative brand and stop it being viewed as the nasty party of hereditary privilege. David Cameron should not be proud of the fact that his parents bought his education, nor should anyone for that matter. The majority of the British public find the idea of  success based solely on the accident of birth to be abhorrent; it is in direct contradiction with ideas of meritocracy and fairness. When Cameron first decided not to attend the Royal Wedding in coat and tails (though he did wear them in the end), it was not because posh people are routinely discriminated against and beaten up on the streets (as happens to racial minorities, women and many more). It was because we live in a society where people do not like aristocrats who live better lives than them simply because they happened to be born into a rich family; it was because people do not like those who feel they are entitled to rule. And David Cameron wants to be liked, it's in his political instincts.

But wait, there's more,
"He [Cameron] daren’t reduce the 50p tax rate (though it makes economic sense) lest he be seen to be favouring his rich friends in the City; he daren’t create more free schools by allowing entrepreneurs to run them for profit for fear that this might come across as elitist; he daren’t address the issue of Europe because this is just the sort of thing blimpish, blue-blooded, Tory reactionaries do in the shires, and we can’t have that now, can we?"
No, he daren't do any of these things, Mr Delingpole. Because reducing the 50p tax rate does not make economic sense and it would be advantageous for the City fat cats; free schools are elitist as they turn schools into business and make education a privilege rather than a right and he won't address Europe because, as @scurvekano recently said, "If the government listened to the Tory back-benchers, we'd still be burning witches and fighting for the throne of France." Contrary to some people, I do not believe this to be an inherently Conservative (capital "c") country, because the public majority know the above things and are opposed to them. I think Cameron knows this too, and he has enough political nouse to realise that if he really wants to satisfy his Tory instincts, he's going to have to do so discreetly (see: big society).

And finally, 
"And, of course, the main reason we’ve got the wretched Coalition in the first place is because Cameron was scared of advancing proper Tory principles, lest he be mistaken for the kind of terrible, evil person who went to a school where they dress you in a smart uniform and teach you all sorts of poncy stuff like Latin and Greek and you come away with ghastly behavioural tics like good manners and a strong desire to succeed."
The main reason we have this coalition is because no party won an overall majority as no party was strong or convincing enough.  Cameron is scared of advancing full-bodied Tory policies as the memory of Thatcher is still very much alive in the minds of the people. And you know, James, I love Latin and I love Greek. I don't think they're "poncy", I think they're invaluable. But I go to a state school. However, I'm lucky enough to be able to learn these languages because my Classics teacher refuses to teach in private schools (the usual homes of these disciplines) as he is morally and politically against them. I think everyone should be allowed to learn Latin and Greek, not just those who can afford it.

And, Mr Delingpole, your last sentence is perhaps the most revealing. You believe that those poor people who can't afford public school are obviously beastly creatures who like nothing more than to laze about all their teenage lives and then sponge off the state. I have news for you, Mr Delingpole, but just because you have parents who can't afford private education, it doesn't mean you're an inferior human being.

And to conclude, a bit of advice. James Delingpole, I strongly suggest you stop writing this putrid bile in the Telegraph. Why not find somebody brave enough to give you a hug? You never know, a bit of human contact might just warm up that cold, shrivelled heart of yours.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Today, I'm ashamed of my country

It's been a horrid few days. The Conservatives have barely been touched in the local elections and now a catastrophic defeat for the Yes to AV campaign is pretty certain. Yes, Labour has gained many councils, which is obviously something to celebrate. But these have been taken off Liberal Democrats, and though I'm no fan of them, it is the Tories from whom we should really be taking councillors.

We had a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the way we vote, to reform the old and unfit system and usher in a new, fairer politics. England, stubborn old England, has overwhelmingly snubbed that opportunity. Why? Well, the Guardian's Tom Clark has compiled an excellent list of 10 reasons why the AV referendum was lost, which pretty much sums it up.  

AV isn't the best system, but it was, or could have been, the start of something wonderful. Had the country voted yes to AV, we would have taken our first small step on the path towards more extensive electoral and parliamentary reform. As it is, Blue England, who is scared of anything new or different, who cowers in the face of change and progress, has said quite categorically that it's happy with living in a country with a fundamentally unfair and broken voting system. We can now kiss goodbye to any electoral change for a long time. PR? Forget it. We must fight for it and for fairer, more pluralistic politics, but the chance of victory is small. 

So, this is England and this is the English people. In his Guardian piece today, John Harris suggests that this week's results have "punctured the 'progressive majority' myth". I fear he may be right. Perhaps we are a small "c" conservative country. After all, the Tories have come through these local elections unscathed and the public have blocked any chance of electoral reform. How depressing. 

What will be the results of this week's events? It's anybody's guess. Local Lib Dems, now totally disconnected from the Westminster body, must be feeling more and more angry with the Conservatives and their own party leader. They've propped up David Cameron, allowing him to pursue a right-wing agenda and drag their party's name through the mud in the process. The relationship is dangerously parasitic; the Lib Dems are seemingly getting nothing good in return for entering into the coalition. Council losses, AV failure. What's in it for them? All this spells revolt, but whether or not they actually will do is another matter. If a General Election is called, they face annihilation. But should they get out quick before they truly descend into the depths of political history? I wonder. As for Clegg, I doubt he'll resign, even though he has become a universal figure of hate and a total liability. 

And Labour? They've taken a lot of councils from the Lib Dems, but it's the Tory swing they should really be after. I don't think they're ready for a General Election (should one be called), especially based on their performance in the local elections. I'm waiting for the day when they come into their own. It hasn't happened yet, but I'm hopeful. Labour must establish itself as the progressive alternative, it must come up with real policies rather than just opportunistically criticising the coalition's every move. These results can only spur on the party and mobilise its activists. As is true for the whole left-wing of British politics. If I was head of, say, the TUC at the moment, I'd be planning another rally in London. We cannot stand by and allow a repeat of Thatcherism to drag this country back to the 80s. 

So that's that. No AV. We were so close, and now we're further away than ever. Today, I lost my faith in politics and the English people. It'll come back, I'm sure; I still have an insatiable enthusiasm for change and reform. But for now, I'm saddened and profoundly disappointed. I still dream of PR, of a fully-elected second chamber, of pluralistic, co-operative politics, of a left-wing government leading this country towards true Northern European progressiveness and of a better society. It is, indeed, a dream. And one can't help but feel that today's events have made it even less likely to come true.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

You're still no to AV? You have got to be kidding...

Yes, dear reader, I have already published my obligatory blog post on electoral reform and whether or not I believe England should adopt the Alternative Vote. And yes, I have made it quite clear that I am very much for AV. And yet, I find myself here once again, writing another piece on exactly the same topic, even though my views on the matter haven't changed one bit.

Why? Because it is plainly evident that some people just aren't getting the message, and, with just two days to go, I am through with politeness. 

People have often said this is a boring issue that does not rouse much passionate debate. Forget that sentiment. In the last week, I've become more and more angry about AV as I've listened to people from the No camp on the radio and television, watched a few No broadcasts and even read some of their literature. I've often found myself incensed to the point of screaming by the sheer bollocks sprouting from the likes of Tom Harris MP, Blunkett, David Cameron et al.

I shan't reel of the list of plausible and convincing reasons why we should adopt AV; I and many, many others have already done that. However, if you are still voting No to AV simply to piss off Nick Clegg and spite the Lib Dems, you are either severely stupid or incredibly petty, or perhaps both. 

If you are a progressive and No to AV, can't you see that voting yes would end Tory hegemony? In the last century, the Conservatives dominated parliament, allowing the likes of Thatcher to do her worst, even though the majority of the electorate voted against them. FPTP favours the right - whose vote, unlike that of the left, is not disseminated amongst various groups, but instead focused on one, namely the Tories, thus allowing them to win majorities through the back door. The Alternative Vote would mean this consistently left-of-centre country would actually have left-of-centre governments. It would mean people's voices are heard, people's votes valued. 

If you are a fellow Labour member who's voting No simply because Labour is capable of winning majorities under FPTP, grow up and stop being so bloody tribal. Believe it or not, the Lib Dems and the Greens are not the spawn of the devil and it really wouldn't be such a terrible thing if we learned to work with them for a common cause - a progressive, fairer and more environmentally sustainable society. The left is traditionally a fractious and bickering lot, and this needs to stop or at least decrease in intensity if we want to fight the Tories. Of course, parties are separate in their own right and are bound to disagree, but we are all untied by shared fundamental values. 

Now for the even stupider argument of voting No to AV simply because it isn't full PR. I guarantee you, if the No to AV camp triumphs on Thursday, you can wave goodbye to any sort of electoral reform for a long time. AV is a crucial first step on the path to more wide-ranging change. A yes vote would usher in a new politics in this country, and would also begin the process of reform we so desperately need. 

Those saying AV would lead to instability and coalition governments, think again. In Australia, under AV, there have been only two coalition governments. In England, under FPTP, there have been five. Personally, I don't see a problem with coalitions - they are a way in which different parties can work together, offering a government that represents the majority of the population.  I also believe representation and proportion are far more important than clear cut majorities. But heigh-ho, some people are scared of co-operative politics, that's their problem. As for instability, AV is a small change; it isn't going to result in anarchy and political disorder. And after all, they operate under PR in Germany, a system that consistently creates coalitions, and they have been one of the most politically and economically secure countries for years. 

So, the referendum on Thursday is really asking quite a simple question: do you believe in progressive, fairer, more accountable politics that would end Tory rule and actually engage people in politics? Or do you like things the way they are, with a severely outdated, unrepresentative system? If you have an iota of sense, your answer to the former will be yes, and to the latter will be no. And guess what, you can say all that much more easily by simply putting an X in the box marked "Yes" on your voting sheet on Thursday. 

And if, after this post and all the multitudinous pieces out there far better than mine, you are a left-leaning progressive who is still voting no to AV, the only option left for you is professional help. 

Monday, 25 April 2011

Left-wingers and progressives should vote yes to AV

On 23d April, Vince Cable called for a "progressive majority", made up of Labourites, Lib Dems and Greens, to vote yes to AV and stop the Conservatives from dominating this new century. Cable argued that left-leaning people make up at least 50% of the electorate, but their votes are often cut up amongst the various progressive parties in the UK, thus allowing the Tories to win majorities through the back door, as right-wing voters don't really face the same problem.

This struck a chord with me; it was the most acute point in defence of AV I had come across. I was already Yes to AV before I read Mr Cable's comments, but nevertheless, I hope they had an effect on ambivalent Labour people.

The campaign thus far has, broadly speaking, been rather dull and quite disappointing. There has been mud-slinging from both sides, some truly awful political broadcasts and blatant lying. What is more, I think I'm right in saying that most people are not very engaged with the debate, and one can't blame them. But it is crucial that we are able to rise above the politicians' spats and truly see the Alternative Vote for what it is.

The No to AV camp have consistently criticised AV for being "complicated". It isn't. At the moment, we use First-Pass-the-Post (FPTP), where voters put an "X" next to their preferred candidate. With AV, you rank candidates in order of preference. When the votes are counted, if one candidate does not get at least 50% of people's first preferences, then nobody has won. Thus, the candidate with lowest share of the vote is knocked out and their votes are redistributed amongst the remaining candidates.This process continues until one candidate has at least 50%. This video explains AV brilliantly if you require further clarification.

As you can see, under the Alternative Vote, MPs have to work much harder as they must earn at least 50% of the vote. In the current FPTP system, an MP can get into parliament with a shockingly low proportion of the vote, and he/she is thus not truly representative of their constituencies. That is, quite obviously, undemocratic. Therefore, by introducing AV, we would put and end to safe-seat constituencies where people are angry that, no matter how they vote at present, their voice is not heard. AV would also dispel the need for tactical voting, so people can actually vote for the candidate they truly believe to be the best.

FPTP is an old and unfair system. It was, perhaps, somewhat defensible when politics was a two-horse race between Labour and the Tories. But politics has changed, and voting needs to change too. We are in desperate need of a new and more proportional system. Of course, AV isn't the best voting method around, it has its faults, but it is a start. That is what is important about the upcoming referendum. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity of taking the first step on the path to wide-ranging electoral and political reform. And we simply cannot afford to miss it, for if we do, we won't get another chance like this for a long, long time. AV is a small but important change, that will hopefully be the beginning of something much bigger. Who knows, voting yes to AV on 5th May could eventually lead us to full PR. Let's hope so.

If it's the financial aspect of AV that is stopping you from saying yes, then it's important to note that, contrary to George Osborne's fallacious assertions otherwise, introducing the Alternative Vote would not require us to use costly electronic voting machines. They use AV in Australia and they seem to be doing just fine without them. What's more, this figure of £250 million is how much the referendum costs anyway, irrespective of whether or not you vote yes or no. This point was excellently made by Johann Hari on his article on the topic, which is well worth a read.

According to recent polls, the result of the referendum is still anybody's to win. After a drop in support for AV, the two sides are now pretty much equal. The people who will decide the result of this referendum are my fellow members of the Labour Party. Lib Dems are mainly for it, Conservatives are mainly against, no surprise there. But it is Labourites who will tip the balance. I am very annoyed by fellow Labour people who say they're voting no to AV in order to "punish Nick Clegg". As Ed Miliband said, this is not a referendum on the leader of the Lib Dems, but a referendum on whether or not we want to live in a fairer and more democratic society. I dislike Clegg as much as anyone, but I value AV much more. If the result is no, he will suffer a little embarrassment, but it isn't going to end his career. If the result is yes, it means more people's voices being heard and acted upon. Surely that is something we all desire? Labour people, I implore you to heed Vince Cable's words. People of the left need to unite, stop fighting and vote yes to AV, thus ensuring the Tories are kept out of government for good. It is essential for this country's future.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Why I am a convert to republicanism

On this blog, I once published a transcript of a speech I delivered at a debating competition. I was told to write for the motion, "There is still a place for an unelected head of state in 21st Century Britain", and I did so, obligingly. I was later asked if I actually agreed with what I was writing (which is, of course, unimportant in debating) and I replied "Well, yes...kind of".

For most of my life, when I was asked if we should abolish the monarchy, I have said "No, we should retain it." More recently, I've started to feel unsure about that position, having read around the subject and given it a great deal of thought. This was evidenced by my uncertainty when it came to my debate. Now, I can say and be quite confident in saying that if asked again if we should abolish the monarchy, I would reply, "Yes, we should do away with the royals." In short, I am a covert to republicanism.

There are only a few of us. In a 2007 poll, 78% of respondents said Britain should keep its monarchy. So why have I decided to join this rather small portion of the population who believe quite strongly that there's no place for hereditary heads of state in modern Britain? Well...

Firstly, I believe that democracy and monarchy are fundamentally incompatible. The two do not work together; they are diametric opposites and can therefore only result in discord. Johann Hari puts this perfectly in his brilliant article on the topic, saying, "The US head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps. The British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps. Is that a contrast that fills you with pride?" 
Well in answer to Hari's question, no, it isn't. Of course, the monarchy has no actual power and we are beyond the days of our majestic rulers being unquestioned, Pope-like tyrants. However, growing up and living in a country where the person above and beyond all else, the person whom all must respect and bow down to, the person who is the nation's ultimate representative, has serious effects. It maintains and strengthens a rigid and medieval class system and undermines meritocratic principles, suggesting that there is also someone better than you, at a height impossible for you to achieve. I, personally, do not want to be represented by someone completely distant from the real world, who is in their place solely and purely due to the accident of birth.

What is more, it is impossible for me to support an overtly sexist and discriminatory institution. It astounds me that even today, in the modern, liberal, Western world, the UK still maintains barbaric laws when it comes to the monarchy. These come in two forms. Firstly the law that favours male heirs over female ones and secondly, the one that forbids anyone of a faith other than the Church of England becoming king or queen (or Prime Minister for that matter). To have these rules still in place and still active is, quite frankly, stupid.

Since I became politically engaged, I have always called for a secular and socialist society. The royal family can play no part in such a place. Secularism calls for a total separation of church and state, where people have religious freedom but where religion plays no part in politics or the law.  This is in straight opposition with the monarchy, who is also the head of the CofE and Defender of the Faith. I have come to the conclusion that it's just as easy to be both pro-secularism and pro-monarchy as it is to be pro-intelligence and pro-Daily-Mail.

What is more, I am also a firm believer in fundamental constitutional and electoral change - including a proportional representation voting system, a fully elected, bishop-free second chamber, a UK bill of rights and proper constitution (at present we don't have one) and, as afore said, the establishment of secularism. To have such views, one must also accept the royals have got to go - they can play no part in any of the above.

Moreover, the monarchy costs Britain £37 million every year, money that could be so better spent on hospitals, education and the arts, to name but three. Yes, I concede, we do indeed make lots of sterling through tourism and such, but I feel the scrapping of the monarchy wouldn't necessarily end this. Tourists would still flock to these isles to see the uninhabited palaces and gardens, to admire the jewels no longer in use, to marvel at the traditions of yesterday.

Many argue that the monarchy is a hallmark of essential British-ness and a tradition too sacred to do away with. I don't accept that viewpoint. When I see all the ceremony and ritual etc I just think it looks a bit, well...silly. We're meant to be a progressive, modern county, and yet we remain a semi-theocracy and every now and then all our officials dress up and play games like school-children in over-the-top, outdated, vulgar affairs we call "traditions". Traditions evolve and they also die out. The monarchy is one worthy of the latter; it has been with us a for a long time, but I feel it's starting to outstay its welcome. A natural end is in sight.

This issue isn't the biggest one facing us. However, it is one worth discussing. Especially now, when the Royal Wedding is constantly in the media glare, making me for one feel a little sick. Everywhere I turn it's there, and every day I come across some other putrid result of it - Royal Wedding mugs, Royal Wedding T-shirts, Kate and Wills' inside story in various glossy magazines, more vacuous nonsense about a toff and his "commoner" bride-to-be. I'm sick of it, and I'm sick of the royals. I guess in the past I defended monarchy as I liked Queen Elizabeth II, who has reigned with dignity and courage. She is a woman to be admired. However, I find the rest of them loathsome, and I think after Lizzie passes away, it will be time to have them abolished. What we definitely need to do is start a proper debate around the issue, allowing MPs to discuss it without fearing charges of treason. I would much rather be a citizen than a "subject". That is why I feel the disestablishment of the royal family would be good for 21st Century Britain and should be our next step. And so I wish William and Katherine all the best and hope they have a happy, loving marriage together, but on the 29th April, I'll be wearing this:

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Clybourne Park - Review

In my 16 years on this planet, I have been lucky enough to see some truly fine theatre; from Jonathan Pryce in Pinter's masterpiece The Caretaker to Sir Derek Jacobi in Shakespeare's King Lear, and many more. But Clybourne Park, currently running at Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End, is, without doubt, one of the best plays it has ever been my pleasure to watch.

That may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, and, I concede, not everyone will adore this piece quite as much as I do. But I am describing my personal response, which can be summed it thus - Clybourne Park is fan-flipping-tastic in every way.

I am in awe of the playwright, the Texas-born Mr Bruce Norris. The script is one of the quickest, sharpest and most powerful I've ever come across. Every line brims with acerbic excellence. The play is a response to Lorraine Hansberry's classic piece A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered in New York in 1959. Hansberry's play (which I have also seen) tells the tale of a black family living in Chicago who intend to move to a white neighbourhood, and the inevitable racial  friction this causes. It is an unsurpassed dramatisation of a society in the grip of racism, but I earnestly believe Clybourne Park is every bit as wonderful as the piece to which it nods.

The first act of Clybourne Park is set in 1959, and tells the tale of the white family who are selling their house to the black family from Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and the tension this causes among their neighbours. I shan't reveal all the plot to you, needless to say there's more to this family and this "community" than meets the eye. The second act is set in 2009, with the same actors adopting different roles. The play is beautifully structured, and one of the joys of watching it for the first time is seeing this and then being able to look at the piece as a whole. To truly understand and experience it, you must go and see it for yourself.

What I can say is this - I have never laughed in a theatre as much as I did watching this play. It is hilarious. The whole audience roars with laughter and cringes at the same time; some of the lines are just overwhelmingly stupendous and unbelievably offensive to the liberal sensibilities of the modern Western world. Sophie Thompson, who plays Bev and then Kathy (and is also the star of the show) comes out with some of the best one-liners I have ever heard. But believe you me, there is not one performance in Clybourne Park that is any weak or lacking. Every actor gives a stellar portrayal of their intricate and beautifully layered characters.

Clybourne Park is also incredibly poignant and powerful. In seconds, the audience switch from crying (yes, actually crying) with laughter to staring silently and intently at the stage, transfixed and moved by the wonder of it. Some of the scenes are breathtaking and the ending is magnificent.

I have truly exhausted the superlatives in this review, but I don't think I can stress enough just how outstanding this play is. Catch it while you still can, I implore you. It is a beautifully written, wonderfully acted, perfectly directed, masterly portrayal of a country, a society and a people gripped, if not defined, by the issue of race. If you go and see only one play this year, make sure it is Clybourne Park.

Star rating out of five for Clybourne Park:

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The axe falls on the arts

On Saturday 26th March, I, along with half a million other people from all walks of life, marched in London in protest against the Tory-led government's stringent programme of public sector cuts. We marched for the alternative to this government's detrimental agenda.

Everyone will have had their different and numerous reasons for taking part in the protest, but one issue very much at the forefront of my mind on Saturday was the subject of this blog post - the arts.

Today, the Arts Council England has announced its series of cuts to the arts budget, encompassing theatre, opera, dance, cinematography, art galleries and many more cultural organisations - big and small, local and national. The ACE cannot and should not be blamed for these Draconian "efficiency savings" (as the ConDems would put it). They have been faced with an impossible task and forced to impose these cutbacks by the government. The Arts Council is the messenger of a cruel and determined master.

There have been winners and losers in today's announcement. Charnwood Arts in Loughborough, for instance, has been successful in getting a funding rise from £131, 000 to £137,500. Bristol Old Vic has been given standstill funding. This is essentially a cut, as inflation is currently running at over 4%. But it's better than a large and straightforward slash in the budget, as has been the fate of many other organisations. But the general picture from today is, as expected, gloomy. As a result of these cuts, the arts up and down the land will suffer. Organisations will receive fewer government subsidies, meaning they will have to raise the price of tickets (where applicable) in order to control costs. We all know what this means, it's stingingly simple - the arts will be even more expensive, and therefore they will be the preserve of the well-off.  What is more, less funding means less original and innovative work, and thus we risk becoming a cultural wasteland.

Before the collapse of Northern Rock and the ensuing financial crisis, the United Kingdom had the second lowest deficit in the G7. This means that the international banking catastrophe, caused solely by the selfish greed and reckless short-sightedness of those in the City and the wider financial world, as well as a severe lack of regulation, was the main cause of the "black-hole" deficit the coalition is currently trying to reduce, through destroying our public services. Not Labour. Not me. Not you. We didn't cause this and yet we are paying for it. That is not just unfair, it is insane.

The Tories believe in a small state and big business. They will stop at nothing to slash the public sector and that includes the arts.

In his wonderful speech at the rally on March 26th, the actor Samuel West said, "Conservatives don't like art being cheap because it educates and enlightens working people". I really can't put it any better. These overly severe cuts to the arts and the wider public sector are driven by ideology, not necessity.

It is my passionate and unequivocal belief that the arts should be everyone. Why should only the rich be allowed to experience the beauty of Shakespeare or Verdi? The arts are a right, not a privilege. Art, in all its many, many forms, is an essential aspect of our lives. Art is the greatest of all our endeavours, for it explores what it means to be human. Art is not some flowery nonsense, it is not a frivolous past-time in which only the wealthy have time to indulge. Through art, we express who we are, as individuals and as a race. So it angers me when Quentin Letts, writing in the Daily Mail (where else, I ask you?) says, "There will be keening and caterwauling on an epic scale. "Woe is us!" the corduroyed luvvies will chorus". Those are the remarks of a silly and ignorant man. The arts aren't just for "luvvies". They are the most powerful exploration of the human condition, and they are for all people, irrespective of whether or not they wear polo necks and end every sentence with the word "darling" (guilty as charged). At this time especially, we should be encouraging more people from all backgrounds to experience art, but instead this government, interested only in its own ends, wants to close off access to those who can't afford it. We must fight them. We must fight for the arts. We must fight for our fundamental rights as human beings.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Richard III - Review

You know you're in safe pair of hands when it comes to Propeller. The all-male, Shakespeare cast are adept at making the Bard's lofty plays accessible, enjoyable and relevant, and their production of  Richard III at the Lowry, Salford, is no different.

Richard Clothier's hunchbacked, murderous and conniving Richard, Duke of Gloucester (latterly King of England) is a joy to watch from start to finish. Clothier carries the play with skill and brilliance, delivering each line with a perfect mix of bitterness, greed and pure evil. The King's crookedness, both in body and deed, is played to great effect.

Director, Edward Hall's take on the play is particularly excellent; he and the company having chosen to focus on the black humour of Richard III. The numerous murders of the play are gruesome and extremely bloody, but also very comical. And each character is played to such melodramatic heights that even as Lady Anne weeps over the dead body of her murdered husband, the audience are in roars of laughter (mainly at Richard's wicked attempts to "woo" her). That is not to say, however, that the play has lost its poignancy. Clothier's deliverance of that famous line, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!", is incredibly powerful, and the audience pity the trounced King, pathetic in his final defeat. 

Other delights of this production include Tony Bell's embittered Queen Margaret as she curses the nobles by splashing them with blood, after they refuse to head her warning. The stage is also constantly populated by a ghostly, masked chorus whose chants and songs are poignantly juxtaposed against the death and gore on stage. 

Richard III is Shakespeare's second longest play (after Hamlet) and this abridged version comes in at two hours, forty five minutes. But time flies as you are swept along in this royal rampage of killing and manipulation. Propeller's conceptualisation of the play, in terms of acting, costume and set design, is superb and the end result is a memorable, enjoyable and entertaining night at the theatre. 

Star rating out of five for Richard III:

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day, and across the world people are celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women in the present day and throughout history. Be it the suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th century who fought for women's votes, the feminist movement of the 60s and beyond which demanded gender equality or inspirational female figures - all are being championed. And it's not just these landmark campaigns and people, but the everyday women of the modern world.

Today is also a day to reflect on a plain, undeniable fact: women and men are still not equals. Despite centuries of toil, there is still economic and social disparity, and still a culture of misogyny and sexism.

Women are, on average, paid less than men, often for doing the same job. They face a much greater challenge than men if they wish to have a successful working and family life. Women the world over are the victims of domestic and sexual abuse and harassment, from men they know and men they do not. They are told by a corporate media that the key to happiness is fitting into a size zero dress and having a handsome, preferably wealthy husband. They are judged and deemed immoral by many for embracing their sexuality, and are called murderers if they try to take control of their own bodies. Things are stacked against them when it comes to breaking into the male dominated worlds of work, such as business and politics, to name but two. To some, women are not people. They are objects.

Why is it, after everything women have done and are still doing, after all the progress throughout the years, after they have proved categorically that sexist stereotypes are just that, why are women still not regarded and treated as equals in this world?

There is no single, simple answer to that question, but I believe it has a lot to do with the people's mindset. We may now pride ourselves on being progressive, as being as a society where women are not just expected to stay at home, cooking, cleaning and looking after husband and children. But make no mistake, those sentiments are persistent. Just consider the casual misogyny of pluralist, modern Britain. It is an outrage, and one that shocks me on a daily basis, that sexism is not considered to be as serious and repugnant a form of discrimination as racism.

Indeed, sexist gags are the all the rage up and down the land, and the chauvinistic slurs of media personalities when they think their microphones have been turned off, are simply indications of a much wider epidemic. Ah, but it's 'banter', I am told. It's 'just a joke'. Just a joke? Is it just a joke when women are afraid to walk the streets alone at night? Is it just a joke when women are killed and raped by men everyday? Is it just a joke when a woman is physically attacked by her partner? Hilarious stuff, eh?

It is an unspeakably infuriating truth that we live in a world void of gender equality. Great progress has been made and so much achieved by so many, but we haven't won yet. Feminism's work is not done. One day, maybe, we will be able to say that women - economically, politically socially - are equals to men. But until that day, until sexism becomes an embarrasing relic of a bygone age, until women the world over are free from oppression, until we can write the words 'Here lies patriarchy' on a headstone and be done with it, until then, we must strive on. So whatever you do today, take a moment to remember the immense achievements of women, and the immense challenges they face. And don't despair, there is hope yet for a better world.

An Extract from "A Doll's House", a play by the 19th Century playwright, Henrik Ibsen: 

Nora: What do you consider my most sacred duties? 

Torvald: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to me your husband and your children?

Nora: I believe I have other duties. 

Torvald: That you have not. What duties could those be? 

Nora: Duties to myself. 

Torvald: Before all else you are a wife and mother. 

Nora: I don't believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a human being. 

Friday, 11 February 2011

Mubarak's resignation signals the birth of a new Egypt

After 18 days of relentless, passionate and gruelling protests on the streets, the people of Egypt have finally managed to force Hosni Mubarak to resign as President. The army have taken control of the nation, whilst the incredible citizens of that Middle Eastern nation, that cradle of civilisation and history, celebrate their successes.

It has been an amazing two weeks and the Egyptian people have shown themselves to be brave and defiant, in the end more defiant than their corrupt former leader. It started with an act of self-immolation in Tunisia, and has lead to to the toppling of the government of what was once considered the most stable nation in the Middle East. The events of these past weeks have taught us many things and changed the face of global politics. Firstly, the people of Tunisia and Egypt have proved that the patronising Western view that Arabs "cannot handle" democracy is unfounded and wrong. Secondly, we have seen a quite astonishing shift in the foreign policies of Western powers. The United States' position changed frequently; their line varying in degrees of tone. They began, like Britain, by saying that it was not the place of the West to meddle in the affairs of Egypt. Then, as the situation got hotter, their public statements inched further and further to an almost anti-Mubarak stance. Ultimately, America was forced to place democracy before stability; and the pressure they put on Mubarak behind the scenes has, perhaps, played a large part in his standing-down. These developments are shocking. For years, the West has been a firm ally of Mubarak - a man who was considered a beacon of stability in the volatile Middle East - whilst conveniently choosing to ignore his terrible human rights record and the subjugation of his people; the price paid, apparently, for political constancy. Other Middle Eastern countries with similar set-ups as Egypt, such as Jordan and Yemen, now look on nervously - perhaps the support they receive from America is also conditional.

The protests in both Tunisia and Egypt have also shown that people can never be permanently oppressed. Sooner or later, corrupt, police states will get their comeuppance - the people of those nations will not eternally accept the way they are forced to live, for the embers of liberty and freedom are ones that glow softly inside every human heart, and it takes the smallest of sparks to ignite them. The domino effect is a very real thing - Tunisia lead to Egypt; and the events in Egypt, the most populous of the Middle Eastern countries and largely considered to be the cultural and economic capital, may just lead to further revolutions across the region. And we must hope for that, because democracy and the freedom of people the world over are ideals we should all advocate. We cannot and should not force it on anyone; but we can hope for and lend our unequivocal support to democratic change.

However, we mustn't now think it good to rest on our laurels, safe in the knowledge that Egypt is fine and dandy. No, that would be a mistake. Democracy has not yet been established in Egypt. Parliament has been dissolved, the President has left and now the army has taken control of the nation. No one knows what will now happen, although a promising, but far from definite, statement from the Egyptian army was issued earlier. Hopefully, the constitution will be re-written, allowing free and fair elections to take place. Hopefully, the Egyptian people will elect their government and have a say in how their country is run. But none of this is certain. I suppose we will just have to wait and see; indeed, that's all we can do. It would be wrong on many levels for the West to interfere.

But pessimism would be futile and unhelpful. The Egyptian people gathered together, in cities across the country, in protest at their Draconian politicians and one-party-state. They have not once given up; not once lost hope and tenacity and vision. They are, quite frankly, amazing. Their sheer strength of spirit is universally admirable; their unremitting fight for freedom is something that has left me and many others in awe. I have every hope imaginable in these people, and indeed in all the peoples of the Middle East. The Egyptians will not allow a return to the status-quo; they are now on the path to democracy. These protests and the resignation of Hosni Mubarak have sparked something momentous - the birth of a new Egypt.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Ed Balls as chancellor is the way forward for Labour

In a major shadow cabinet reshuffling, the Leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, has appointed Ed Balls as the new shadow chancellor of the exchequer, after the resignation of the original chancellor, Alan Johnson. What is more, Yvette Cooper has taken over as shadow home secretary and Danny Alexander as shadow foreign secretary. 

This, I believe, is a defining moment in Labour politics and, moreover, a wonderful turn of events for the party. 

Alan Johnson, though an articulate and likeable character, was never the right man for the job. He joked back when he was first given the position of chancellor that he would have to read an economics primer in order to familiarise himself with the subject. Well, I use the word "joked" loosely; I have a sneaking suspicion that Economics for Dummies may have been Johnson's bedtime reading for quite some time. The fact is that Johnson was not a strong enough voice; he simply wasn't fit for the role he was given, regardless of Ed Miliband's assertions otherwise. 

I was very disheartened when Alan Johnson was first appointed as I, and many others, saw it as shallow pandering on Miliband's behalf to the right-wing media and to the Blairites in the Labour Party. Johnson did not oppose the Coalition's cuts powerfully enough, in fact, he seemed to agree with them and felt that it was the right course of action, but that the ConDems were going "too far, too fast". This softly, softly approach pleased the likes of the Daily Fail and the Torygraph and also the right-wing of the party. It did not please those on the left. 

However, with Johnson's resignation over "family issues", comes Ed Balls appointment. 

Ed Balls was, all along, the person who should have been made shadow chancellor. He is an eloquent, approachable figure, a politician with conviction and presence. What is more, he is an economic expert and there will be no place for a beginner's primer on his bedside table. Balls is, undoubtedly, on the left of the Labour party and has forcefully opposed the Tories' economic plan - stating that he also disagreed with Alistair Darling's course of action to try and  halve the deficit over four years. Ed Balls believes that deficit reduction must be a much, much slower process, and that the real emphasis should be on growth, job creation, and the expansion and development of the public sector. He's a radical figure, there's no denying it. That is probably why Miliband did not originally appoint him. After all, the right-wing media complained that his becoming Leader was thanks only to the unions and, just minutes after the announcement, the term "Red Ed" had already entered the political vernacular. 

But the past is the past, and we now must look to the future. Soon, the full effects of the Coalition's Comprehensive Spending Review will be felt across the country. The Conservatives are using the current economic climate to establish these cuts and reforms as the government of 1914 used World War I to pass the Defence of the Realm Act. They are dismantling our state, damaging our public services, privatising our NHS and attacking the most vulnerable in society. And they must be stopped. Labour, with the departure of Johnson, now has someone in place not to afraid to speak their mind, someone who will demolish George Osborne and his political agenda and someone who can offer a genuine, intelligent and better econmic alternative. This is a fantastic opportunity to mobilise and establish a credible left-wing opposition, at last. Now, with Ed Balls as shadow chancellor, Labour can re-establish itself as an electable party - something it must do in the coming months, for the sake of the country.