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
1983-2011

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...