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In defence of the friends of Nabra Hassanen

22 June, 2017 - 14:43

Picture of Nabra Hassanen, a young woman with light brown skin, wearing thick, dark-rimmed glasses, a beige headscarf, a long, loose white over shirt with sleeves rolled up, and blue jeans with a tear at the right knee.Early last Sunday morning in a northern Virginia town, a young lady was kidnapped off the street during or after the taraweeh prayer (the night-time prayers held during Ramadan) having gone to get food to eat before beginning her daily fast. Nabra Hassanen, aged 17, was later found dead and police are awaiting results of tests as to whether she was raped before being murdered. The killer, an illegal Salvadorean immigrant named Darwin Martinez Torres, who had been involved in a confrontation with the group of friends Nabra was walking with, one of whom had allegedly thrown a drink at his car. The youths, ten boys and five girls, ran from their attacker; Nabra tripped over her abaya, was struck by Martinez with a baseball bat and taken off in his car. In the days since, some accusations have appeared on social media that the boys in the group displayed cowardice by running away and failing to protect Nabra. They are misplaced.

One of the posts reads:

If you claim to be a man (or even a boy, for that matter) and you see a sister being attacked, and you run, you are not a man. You’re not even a vertebrate.

Brothers, hear me well: You must DIE before you allow harm to come to a sister. You must GIVE YOUR LIFE to save her. If you flee so that you can live, you don’t deserve to breathe another breath.

I don’t want to hear anyone ever say anything about Hijab or Mahram or men being protectors of women or ANY of that until every so-called Muslim man understands that giving one’s life to save a sister is the only option. Fleeing to save one’s own life is never an option for a Muslim! A nation that does not honor, respect and protect its women can never be a nation. They will only seek to be one but will never achieve it. That is where we are at.

I’m not sure where he got the evidence for his comment in the Qur’an or Sunnah from. We know it is a major sin to flee from battle; laying down one’s life for another individual as an obligation when the odds are very much against you is another matter. We do not know the ages of the boys involved in this incident; they could have been as young as 13, when most boys, even if they have physically reached puberty, are no match for most grown men. One can also assume that the boys in the group were unarmed; the attacker had a baseball bat (and a car, which as we very well know can also be used as a weapon) and they did not know if he had any other weapons or not. Although American law allows adults to carry weapons, if they have a licence, minors (which it appears these boys were) are not permitted to in Virginia; open-carry is permitted to those over 18 with a licence, while concealed-carry licences are issued only to those aged 21 or over. There is no comparison between this and anything that happened in the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) because in that time, most men carried swords and were trained to use them from a young age, and no attacker would have been carrying anything more powerful than a sword. In our time, most people have never seen a sword.

I made these points on Facebook and somebody calling himself “Ideal Muslim Man” reminded me that teenagers are men in Islam, not boys. True. But western society expects those under 18 to accept the status of a child, and punishes them for behaving above that station. In many schools, pupils stand to be punished for using violence even in retaliation for bullying or to defend someone else. They are expected to get adult help. Middle-class people of colour, and increasingly Muslims, are taught not to display aggression; this can get you killed, as authority regards them as threats by default. The young lads who ran away were doing exactly what would have been expected of them, and we are assuming they even knew that Nabra had been taken — if they did not hear any sound, they might well have assumed that she was running, like them, and realised otherwise only when they arrived back at the mosque. There is a well-known hadeeth about making “seventy excuses for your brother”, yet here we see men condemning boys without even knowing the full facts of the situation.

Another Muslim brother who had worked with troubled adolescents and saw some of this chatter commented:

I worked in a behavioral facility for the total of about 6 or 7 years. We routinely had to deal with acts of aggression committed by teenagers who took out their violence on the staff (sometimes justifiably). When you take a group of kids who are not used to fighting and pair them with a couple of grown men, from my personal experience and witnessing, the kids lose EVERY TIME. Fifteen “street hardened” teenage boys (16-19) from the rough parts of Washington, D.C. could not handle 3 or 4 grown men who were restrained by company policy and the threat of legal ramification. Those were young men. With girls, I personally watched one man half my size get jumped by a group of 6 girls who were routinely aggressive handle every last one of them with relative ease. Had you given him a baseball bat, the few scratches that he did walk away with would not have been there.

Nabra Hassanen and her father, a middle-aged man of Arab appearance, and a young girl in front of him in an airport departure lounge. Nabra is holding a sign which says 'Is someone you know being detained? Free legal help'He believed when he wrote that that all of the group were female. But the fact remains: very young men and boys are generally not a match, even in a group, for men in their prime, and no adult has a right to condemn a group of young Muslims who have suffered a traumatic loss for doing what society has taught them to do and possibly the only thing they could have done in the situation, without knowing the full facts. It’s undeniable that Muslim women are being expected to put themselves in danger to a greater extent than most Muslim men at the moment by wearing hijab in an increasingly hostile western environment, to bear the brunt of other’s hate stemming from things Muslim men do, while their menfolk dress in western clothes and grow a short beard and usually look indistinguishable from anything else. We cannot, however, blame teenagers for the inadequacies of their elders.

The official reaction to this crime has caused a lot of anger in the Muslim community, with local police at one point stating that they were treating the incident as one of ‘road rage’ rather than a hate crime in which the young lady was attacked for her religion. Especially as they were investigating the possibility of rape, something which does not normally happen in road rage incidents (as opposed to assault and, sometimes, murder or manslaughter), this suggestion seems crass and calculated to blame the survivors, who gave no provocation that could possibly justify attacking and killing a defenceless young woman. It will come as no great comfort to anyone that the murder of Nabra Hassanan was part of a much longer history of violent hate than modern Islamophobia — namely, misogyny.

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Jail for poor taste, and May and ‘autism’

18 June, 2017 - 21:37

The lobby of a building with a tiled floor with puddles of water on it, with a tiled wall at the back with a cream, light orange and light blue pattern. A stairway with a red guard rail rises on the right.Somebody has already been imprisoned for offences relating to the Grenfell Tower fire in west London, and it’s not someone who signed off on the dodgy cladding; no, it’s a local who had been helping fire-fighters and who then saw a dead body on the ground, likely someone who had jumped out of the burning building, and posted pictures of it on Facebook, asking if anyone knew who the body was which had been lying outside his flat for two hours. He was jailed for three months on Friday for two offences under the Communications Act, “sending by a public communications network an offending, indecent or obscene matter”. The prosecutor said the offences were of ‘high culpability’ because the family of the deceased had yet to be told of their relative’s death:

“What you have done by uploading those photos shows absolutely no respect to this poor victim. To show his face as he lies there is beyond words. That view is shared in the horror and disgust that is shown by those people that have uploaded messages on your profile. It is an aggravating feature that when people said to you ‘This is really sick, just call the police’ and ‘call the cops rather than post photos’, you didn’t. You didn’t remove the photos. These offences are so serious that a community order or financial penalty would not mark the seriousness of the offence.”

This case strikes me as typical of cases where somebody has been imprisoned for posting material on Facebook that offended other people, and its ‘illegality’ is determined by people’s reactions on Twitter or Facebook rather than any principle of law that might have existed beforehand. On one occasion, a man was imprisoned for taunting Manchester United supporters about the 1958 Munich plane crash, an event which would have taken place before some of today’s grandparents were born; on another, a woman was jailed for a tweet celebrating a British soldier’s death, and the ‘outrage’ it generated was used as evidence against her despite it being seen by only a few hundred people. It’s a principle of the law that ignorance of the law is no defence, but nobody can be expected to know a law that can be made up after the fact on a subjective basis. It’s also unjust that editors are not held to account for material published on paper in poor taste or which stirs up hatred, but a single tweet which just annoys people can land someone in jail.

Of course, there are laws prohibiting things like concealing a body and preventing them being buried. If there are other laws against interfering with a dead body, those laws should have been invoked here; perhaps they should be introduced if they do not already exist. However, to show someone’s face is not generally thought indecent — consider that the face of Che Guevara was shown to the world after he was killed. The bodies of the leaders of the Tamil Tigers, killed after capture by Sri Lankan government forces, were also broadcast on TV (as I recall, images were broadcast on British TV as well, so as to make a case against the Sri Lankan government). Either showing a dead body on a mass communication medium should be illegal, or not; it should not be legal for a broadcaster but illegal for anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account who might post on the spur of the moment and does not have a lawyer in house to consult.

Also in the last couple of days, people have been suggesting that Theresa May’s refusal to face the community in North Kensington reflects a lack of empathy typical of people with autistic spectrum disorders; Julian Assange and the Times columnist India Knight have been among those suggesting this. I have a simpler explanation: she’s just not someone who shows emotion readily (nobody would think that unusual of a man), and perhaps she knows very well that this area is politically hostile to her and that many locals would not be afraid to show it. Fingers were being pointed at the cladding, and the fact that it was applied for aesthetic reasons related to it being visible from two conservation areas (nowadays inhabited mostly by the wealthy) very quickly after the fire, as was the fact of Kensington and Chelsea borough council being permanently Tory, and this is a Labour-voting ward with a substantial minority-ethnic and Muslim population who saw her as the enemy; her staff would have seen this as a risk to her safety.

It’s not true, in any case, that lack of empathy, in the sense of not caring, is a symptom of autism. People empathise most readily with those they identify with; a grammar-school Tory from a provincial town would not really see the inner-city poor as “their people”. Certain pop psychologists like to talk of “faulty empathy circuits” in autistic people (and criminals), but people’s empathy circuits often function perfectly well when dealing with ‘their’ people and fail when confronted with those they deem threatening or inferior, hence the white southern Americans for whom lynching of their Black neighbours was entertainment. Empathy may be instinctive to some degree, but usually it is not a hard-wired neurological fact of life; it is something that one can choose to develop, or not.

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Tory press is Tory, and on packing bags

17 June, 2017 - 21:04

A front page of the Daily Mail with the headline "Three lethal questions", namely, "Were green targets to blame for fire tragedy? Why were the families told to stay in their flats? How many more tinder-box towers are there?".So, after the intial flurry of sympathy and devastation for the people affected by the Grenfell Tower fire last Wednesday, by Friday evening the Tory press had started to show their true colours: as early as Thursday morning the Daily Mail had printed a front page, “Three Lethal Questions”, the first being whether environmental regulations were to blame for the flammable cladding being applied to the tower; last night and this morning the Mail and Telegraph were branding the protesters at Kensington Town Hall as thugs, anarchists, a ‘mob’ and the like — true, there were some SWP there and a few men with faces covered, but the majority were friends and relatives of those trapped in the tower or people made homeless who were angry at the total lack of any official response and lack of information as to where their injured relatives and friends were. The Telegraph saw fit to reveal that Mustafa al-Mansur, who helped to organise yesterday’s town hall protest, was “a Jeremy Corbyn-supporting political activist who was once arrested on suspicion of terrorism offences” although he was released without charge, that he used to be a spokesman for Finsbury Park mosque, and that he lived in Haringey borough, not the estate affected (though his friend Rania Ibrahim and her children died in the blaze).

The Mail also printed a story claiming that the man in whose flat the fire started had stopped to gather a few things together before alerting his neighbours and fleeing the building. I saw this posted on a friend’s Facebook and an early version of the story claimed he was white and British, yet they went to the trouble of amending it when they discovered he was in fact from east Africa, and printed pictures of him drinking beer while on holiday (as if that was relevant, or as if he had been lazing round drinking beer since the fire; a lot of people drink beer in their spare time and on holiday). The reason is obvious: it makes him look selfish and unconcerned with others, as if he could have anticipated that the fire would engulf most of the building, or as if those few seconds really could have cost the lives of so many (unlikely), or as if the flammable cladding on the outside and lack of other safety equipment were not the real reasons the fire took hold. Anyone who has been through a fire safety drill will have heard the instruction to evacuate without delay, and not to stop to gather possessions. Yet, many of the newspapers, including Tory ones that have been busy demonising the protesters, also feature the story of a young girl who fled the tower with her GCSE chemistry revision notes and sat a GCSE exam later that day.

I was discussing this on Twitter with the friend who told me about the second story, and she said that most people would gather some essentials and some treasured possessions such as photos of loved ones in the event of a disaster. Most of the people who fled did not have the time to take anything, so right now they no longer have identification, passports, bank cards, documents and so on that they will need to rebuild their lives; even if they have money in the bank, it will be difficult for them to access it. I was reminded of people of some religions who anticipated the Second Coming or who had a memory of persecution, where a peaceful time could end suddenly, and who kept a bag packed just in case they would have to leave home suddenly. Perhaps everyone should start doing this — keep an ‘emergency bag’ packed either by one’s bedroom door or front door, containing a change of clothes, your ID and bank cards and a few other essential items and things you wouldn’t want to leave home without (such as books and notes in the case of students), so that if you do have to rush out in the case of a fire or other emergency, you would not have to gather anything together but simply grab the bag and go.

Again, I don’t want to focus on the man who supposedly packed a bag before he left his flat. Maybe the story was made up (it was the Daily Mail, after all). The block should have contained the fire; that is why residents are told to stay in their flats when there is a fire elsewhere in the block, and should certainly not have been covered in flammable cladding. But as it would be most people’s instincts to gather their things before they flee, and it would not always be obvious that it is essential to leave without delay, perhaps we should make sure we’re ready if the worst happens.

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Labour, Tories and fire regulations

15 June, 2017 - 12:57

A picture of Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey block of flats, after the fire; half of one visible side and most of the other is charred and windows are missing. Grenfell Tower: Tory minister declined to include sprinklers in fire safety rules as it could discourage house building | The Independent

This pretty much sums up why I’ll be supporting Labour in any repeat general election, whatever my reservations about Jeremy Corbyn.

The Tories are a coalition of privileged interests; their power and money base consists of big landowners and big business. The logic of the market was more important to them than the safety of residents of large buildings, as seen in the response to the former Tory housing minister Brandon Lewis, recently promoted to immigration minister, when the issue of making sprinklers mandatory was raised in Parliament:

A sprinkler system would have “undoubtedly” saved lives at the Grenfell Tower blaze, the managing director of the Fire Protection Association told The Independent.

“Whether they’d have stopped that fire spreading at the speed it did up the outside of that building is another matter,” Jon O’Neill said.

“But to have had sprinklers in that building would have created an environment where it would have been easier to rescue people and increase survivability.”

[Brandon] Lewis declined to bring in regulation forcing developers to fit sprinklers because he said it was not the Government’s responsibility.

He told MPs: “We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”

Because the Tories were too concerned with satisfying the desire of big business to make as much money as they can and not to have pesky regulations get in the way, a vital safety feature was omitted from numerous buildings which could have saved lives — if not the building itself — in yesterday’s conflagration. Sprinklers are standard in American tower blocks (which are much higher than any of ours), so actually, the marketing must have already been done and they are no barrier to building there. They just care more about business than people.

Labour are not paralysed by such vested interests. This is not to say their record on fire safety in council blocks is impeccable (again, Lakanal was in Labour Southwark), but they are in a better position to make sure that commercial builders do their job than the Tories are. When Tories talk of bonfires of quangos or regulations, we know they find “red tape” and impediments to profit more aggravating than people getting burned.

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Grenfell Tower fire: not terrorism

14 June, 2017 - 14:01

A picture of Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey housing block, on fire. The outside is charred and there are flames behind many windows. Water is being sprayed at the tower from multiple directions from below.This shouldn’t need to be said, but …

In the wake of the fire in the Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey public housing block in west London, in which at least six people have died (the number is expected to rise as those trapped in the tower are unaccounted for), some people have been posting on social media with the assumption that the blaze must have been started by terrorists. For example, I saw someone claim that local Muslims were trying to “lure victims into mosques” as well as this tweet by someone in Canada whose Twitter bio reads “Grassroots must unite to save #Canada #TrudeauMustGo No #M103 #MCGA #ProLife #Patriot #ISupportIsrael #JesusIsLord Professional” which asked:

R the owners Muslims? Had the fire been planned since this time? London is @ war! Everyone, everywhere is a target 4 these hateful killers

The simple answer is no. The block was part of a public housing complex managed by a private company on behalf of the local authority, Kensington and Chelsea borough council, which owns it. The area is home to thousands of Muslims and is a centre of the Moroccan community in London, but there are people of other origins around there as well. There were Muslims living in the block and although it was Ramadan and this meant they were awake for their pre-dawn meal and prayer at the time, and some of these also helped get others out (yes, that includes non-Muslim neighbours), inevitably some were elderly and/or disabled and would have been unable to make it out as the lift would have been too dangerous to use. Some would have taken the official advice which was posted around the building, which was to stay in their flats until the fire brigade came.

A floor plan of a single storey in the Grenfell Tower which burned down. Of significance is the single stairwell in the centre of the plan.There had been concerns raised about the safety of the block going back at least to 2012, and in particular about the cladding which was applied in a renovation which was completed last year (here is an archived copy of the renovators’ website; they deleted the original), which appears to have helped spread the fire as it was attached to the building with wood; residents raised other concerns such as the locations of boilers and raised petitions, but were ignored. A local campaigning group described the management organisation as an “evil, unprincipled mini-mafia” which ignored residents’ concerns and even threatened them with legal action for defamation. There was a single central stairway for the whole building, which would have provided an easy route for the fire and a crowded and slow one for escapees. Residents reported that they were not awoken by the smoke alarms but by the noise of people and helicopters. This was an accident, albeit probably worsened by human error or negligence. Questions are going to be asked about official attitudes to social and rented housing, not only because of the attitude of the local council and their contractors, but also because the Tories blocked a bill which would improve minimum standards for rented housing last year (though whether it would have prevented this disaster is unclear) and had not acted on a coroner’s report that warned that such blocks were vulnerable to fire, after a fatal fire at a south London tower block, Lakanal Tower, in 2009. (To be fair, both Tory and Labour councils and governments share part of the blame; Lakanal was in Southwark, a traditionally Labour borough.)

Some might say this was the wrong time to make this point, but this is not the first time there has been a fire or explosion that was an accident which outsiders tried to blame on Muslims (the Buncefield oil fire in 2005 was another example). It has been said that ISIS would claim responsibility for anything, even “a turd floating down the Thames”, but they would have had a difficult job finding anyone willing to destroy this building with everyone inside. Terrorists do not usually target housing, in any case.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering what a block like that is doing in a ‘wealthy’ part of London like Kensington and Chelsea: that part is not posh and never has been, and the area to the west of Paddington (Bayswater and Notting Hill) was in the post-war years an impoverished area notorious for slum landlords such as Peter Rachman. That was the era in which the Notting Hill Carnival originated. Today, private housing in that area costs in the upper six figures and into seven, but that was not always the case.

For anyone in my area wishing to donate food, clothing, toiletries and other essential items, the Fulham training ground in Motspur Park has been opened to receive donations.

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Election 2017: Hope, but not victory

11 June, 2017 - 13:21

A blue van showing a Tory slogan overturned on a motorway. A truck has stopped to its left and there are police cars with lights flashing.So, the election results are in ([1], [2]), with only one seat remaining at the time of writing. The Tories have lost their majority, coming 8 seats short of the 326 needed to form a majority government. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has performed spectacularly well, taking a number of large-town and small-city seats which had been Tory since 2010 (places like Ipswich and Peterborough), lost fewer seats in the North than had been predicted and won some places which have been Conservative for decades (e.g. Canterbury in Kent). The turnout was higher than usual because of a higher participation among the youth, and there was a well-directed student vote which may well explain why they polled well in small university cities like Norwich and Cambridge. Labour secured 40% of the vote compared to the Tories’ 42.4%, which is remarkable considering that earlier on in Corbyn’s leadership, figures on the Right of the party had been suggesting that Corbynites would be content to retreat to a rump of 30 seats. At the time of writing only Kensington in London remains still to declare, with the result on a knife edge after a fourth recount was demanded.

Sadly, what this means is that despite Labour’s good showing, the likely outcome is a coalition of the Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party, a reactionary, sectarian, pro-Brexit party which operates only in Northern Ireland and represents the Protestant community and whose MPs are on record as saying climate change is a big con and that homosexuality is not merely a sin but worse than child sexual abuse. Were it not for the instability of such a coalition (it was Tories who legislated for gay marriage and many are also mindful of the importance of neutrality in Northern Ireland), this outcome would be worse than a Tory majority as the DUP would demand a hardline stance on Northern Ireland’s position within the UK and outside the EU, risking the collapse of the peace process which was always predicated on both the UK and the Irish republic being members of the European Union. (Northern Ireland as a whole voted against Brexit, but the majority of the Protestant community voted for it and the DUP were always opposed to the EU and the EEC before it.) It would still be a majority of just one or two (as Stavvers put it on Twitter, “if someone has the shits one day, no majority”), but it gives them the levers of power on a day-to-day basis all the same. Another option would be a Tory-Labour coalition, which makes some sense as both parties are in principle committed to Brexit and aren’t overtly sectarian on the Northern Ireland question (Corbyn’s past dalliances with the IRA notwithstanding), but (unlike in Germany where “grand coalitions” of the Social and Christian Democrats have been common) this would be unthinkable to many on both sides and has not happened since the end of the Second World War.

Some conclusions to be drawn from this result:

1. Clearly in this election, the electorate were not put off Corbyn by the propaganda directed at him by the tabloids — a very welcome break with ‘tradition’ in which Murdoch was seen as the man who “backed winners”. Much of the ‘dirt’ thrown at him was about things that happened in the 1980s, well before today’s young voters were even born and even those in lower middle age do not remember them that well. The tabloids thought they could scare voters with memories of the Cold War when the Cold War is a distant memory for many people and not a memory at all for young people, and the realities of 1983 are not the realities of 2017. Even if Corbyn was a Marxist, as the Sun alleges, a Marxist PM in a government of democratic socialists (let alone in a coalition with the Tories) is not in a position to take the country very far down the “road to Socialism”. Similarly, the fact that he sympathised with the IRA (as, in fact, did a lot of people, particularly before the mainland bombing campaign began) does not put as many people off as thought; the Good Friday Agreement, one of the crowning glories of the Blair governments, put Sinn Fein (and the equally extreme, hardly less violent and even more socially reactionary DUP) in power in Northern Ireland. As with the Cold War, today’s young adults do not remember the Troubles or the IRA bombs. Many of us who do remember it also remember the violence of the Loyalist terrorist gangs, which did not stop after the GFA.

2. The result is plainly a rebuttal to the figures on the Labour Right who insisted that Corbyn could not possibly win an election and might in fact lose huge numbers of seats in socially-conservative working-class constituencies, particularly in the North. They have, in fact, sustained very few losses in these areas, although perhaps one is too many given the Tories’ revived vote in eastern Scotland. I can somewhat understand the concern that Corbyn was notorious for voting against the party line throughout the Blair period (at one point briefly defecting to the Liberal Democrats during the Iraq war), but many Labour voters had to put up with Blair’s, Campbell’s and their acolytes’ anti-democratic behaviour in the party (and in organisations such as student unions) when they were in office and just before; indeed, it was this which led to the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland in 2015, something Corbyn has been unable to reverse despite improving its vote share in England and Wales. The Labour Right will have to understand now (as it clearly didn’t after the Brexit referendum) that its policy of taking its core vote for granted is no longer viable.

3. The Lib Dems did not capitalise on the pro-Remain vote as I had been expecting them to do, particularly in southern England. I live in an area Labour could not win and never has done; I voted Lib Dem and happily the Lib Dem (Ed Davey), who had been the local MP from 1997 to 2015, won. Vince Cable, the former business secretary who represented Twickenham until 2015, also won his seat back but the Lib Dems’ new MP in Richmond Park, Sarah Olney, lost hers (by a tiny number of votes) to Zac Goldsmith, who stood again as a Tory. They made a net gain of three, but it was a game of musical chairs for them: they lost five of their eight former seats and gained others from the Tories and SNP (though not Labour), overturning a few quite large majorities (e.g. Oxford West & Abingdon) in the process, although they did not gain back any of their former south-western heartland and the Tories increased their majorities in east Wales. Their former leader, Nick Clegg, also lost his seat (to Labour) and they also lost their one remaining Welsh seat, Ceredigion (to Plaid Cymru; more on that in a minute). This is a hugely disappointing result for them, and probably says a lot about the credibility of its leader, whose liberal credentials were brought into question the moment the election was called, as well as the viability of opposition to Brexit as an electoral policy. Most of their old heartlands voted for Brexit.

4. Much is being said of Corbyn’s very positive campaign as what inspired the Labour surge, but the sloppiness of the Tory campaign probably had as much to do with it: they alienated a chunk of their own voter base with their “dementia tax” proposal, Theresa May refused to engage in public debates and refused most interviews, sometimes sending other cabinet members including on one occasion Amber Rudd whose father had just died. This gave the impression of either being supremely confident that she could wing it without having to share space with Corbyn, or that she had something to hide, and I suspect many voters took the latter view. That said, Corbyn’s promises of free university tuition and an end to austerity, as well as the message of hope and change (as with Barack Obama in 2008) definitely helped get the youth vote out, something Ed Miliband hardly even attempted to do in 2015.

5. The Tories in Scotland won a lot of seats very convincingly, with shares in the upper 40s; other wins were marginal and one has to question the legitimacy of an MP who wins on a first-past-the-post basis with just 29.2% of the vote, as did Ben Lake for Plaid Cymru in Ceredigion, west Wales. If this is not an advert for electoral reform, I do not know what is. The same is true of a system whereby a tiny, extremist party such as the DUP can have the balance of power, such that they “wag the dog” in a coalition. There need to be rules about coalitions; the most important one is that the large second party is sought before a small third, and that there is a cordon sanitaire around both racist and sectarian parties and those with close links to terrorism. This should include the DUP as much as the British National Party, regardless of its popularity among the Protestant settler population of Northern Ireland. I would like to see the Single Transferable Vote introduced in this country, which would allow people to vote for their chosen party without fear of splitting the vote, and would allow people access to a like-minded MP in their region even if they were the minority, but this would lead to coalitions almost inevitably, so rules and agreements would have to be in place to prevent coalitions of convenience involving extremists. (A written constitution with a formal bill of rights would prevent them actually putting their policies into practice.)

A poster showing a young woman (a stock photo of a model) with the slogan 'I want an MP who answers to us, not to the Tories. I'm voting DUP".Finally, Labour activists have to realise that the party lost. They gained a much bigger share of the vote than expected (and a bigger share than Blair did in 2005) and gained some long-term Tory seats, possibly as a result of targeted student votes (e.g, Warwick & Leamington, Canterbury), but they gained fewer votes than the Tories and did not gain a majority, nor a big enough minority to even form a coalition with the SNP and the Lib Dems. It is possible that a further general election might follow this autumn or potentially even later in the summer, and the spectacle of the Tories forming a coalition with the DUP might result in another swing towards Labour, but although the techniques can be repeated, it is not certain that the turnout will be repeated. While it’s true that the Tories will probably fall apart over the next few weeks and months as the toxicity of the DUP takes its toll, there is no such thing in politics as “parking the bus” as there is in football, especially for a Labour party with such open divisions as this one has. The result has shown that the tabloids do not hold all the cards and that a new politics is possible; it’s a hopeful result, but it is not a victory, and Labour still has to fight for that.

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Protect your rights — vote the Tories out

7 June, 2017 - 20:35

Thomas Rawnsley, a young white man with Down's syndrome, sitting on a red sofa with his mother facing him from his left, and holding a baby girl in his right arm, supported by his mother.This will be the last blog post I make before the election starts tomorrow (Thursday) morning. The front pages of the two biggest-selling newspapers are full of propaganda against the Labour leadership, branding them friends of ‘jihadis’ and enemies of the state. It would also have been the 23rd birthday of Thomas Rawnsley, a young man from Bradford who died a miserable death in February 2015. He had been forced to live in a care home against his and his family’s wishes and had unexplained carpet burns on his body and died of heart failure. His inquest is yet to be held.

As a result of last weekend’s terrorist attack in London, in which three men used things available to all of us because they had no proper weaponry to kill and maim ordinary people, Theresa May has once again talked of changing human rights legislation to make it possible to lock up terrorist ‘suspects’ without trial. In the immediate future this is likely to mean ‘derogation’, or exemptions, from specific articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the long-term plan is for the UK to withdraw from the Convention altogether and scrap the Human Rights Act which enshrines it in UK law. They believe they can do this with public support because the ‘average’ Briton — “mainstream Britain”, or to put it another way “normal people” — does not need to use the convention or the HRA on anything like a regular basis, if at all. Britain has not known dictatorship or occupation in living memory; this can be said of few other places in Europe.

The HRA and ECHR do not principally protect the rights of terrorists, or even suspected ones. The government succeeded in deporting a number of foreign terrorists and suspects under both Labour and the Coalition and has not been significantly impeded in pursuing changes to the welfare or immigration system. The Convention does protect the rights of disabled people, by giving them a right to life, to liberty and to family life. This has, on at least some occasions, prevented individual health professionals from keeping someone locked up indefinitely for no good reason. It forced a change in the law so that people with learning disabilities cannot be deprived of their liberty with no legal sanction. The rest of us have had this right since Magna Carta; it took until this century for the rights of the learning disabled to catch up.

As we have seen, Theresa May’s and David Cameron’s governments have been rather weak on security themselves, having cut front-line policing such that officers are having to work 16-hour shifts and that outlying areas are being left with reduced cover to protect central London. They are scrabbling around for mud to throw at Jeremy Corbyn; they say he is “buddies” with terrorists, yet they called Nelson Mandela a terrorist and called for his hanging in the 1980s. They have nothing to offer on security other than panic measures and tough talk; the security of disabled people, meanwhile, is being sacrificed — their lives, liberty and standard of living is anything but secure. Neither are the health services and education the rest of us need.

I will not be voting Labour tomorrow; the only meaningful opposition to the Tories here are the Lib Dems, and I will be voting for Ed Davey tomorrow. I urge readers to vote Labour if they can, or if they cannot, vote for whomever is not a racist and stands the best chance of unseating any Tory incumbent, or to support anyone who will defend Britain’s links with the European Union and everyone’s human rights and public services. We will only get one chance to do this; a Tory victory tomorrow will mean no election until 2022, when the country will be unrecognisable.

Some links:

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What’s wrong with telling people you’re safe?

6 June, 2017 - 13:15

A front page from the Sunday Telegraph with the headline "Carnage across Londn as 'terrorists strike again'". There is a large picture of a policeman walking across London Bridge at night, with stationary vehicles in the background.Last Saturday night there was a terrorist attack in London, and as often happens in these situations, Facebook activated its “safety check” or “I’m safe” feature, by which people identified as living in London or who have recently checked in at locations in London are invited to mark themselves as safe so their friends know. I and several of my friends and relatives did so, even though some of us were nowhere near London Bridge or Borough Market at the time. I saw some people criticising the feature and the trend for people to do this, such as this article at the Independent, on the grounds that it “makes us feel like danger is our default setting when something like last night’s terror attack occurs nearby”:

From what I understood about last night’s event, my assumption was that my friends were probably OK. I hope that they would also assume that I was safe unless they heard otherwise. For events on the scale of last night, the Facebook Safety Check reverses this assumption. It creates an implicit supposition that we are not safe until we let people know that we are. It creates a culture of hyper-vigilance that undermines our capacity to feel relatively secure about our environment.

I did mark myself as safe. The reason is that I have friends in other countries who do not know the geography of London, who may have been concerned for my well-being and who don’t know that in fact the attack took place more than ten miles from where I was sitting. Some newspapers were exaggerating the scale of the attack, including the Sunday Telegraph whose headline was of “carnage across London”, when in fact the attack was limited to the area around one railway station (perhaps this headline was in reference to another incident in Vauxhall, a stabbing which was initially thought connected to the London Bridge attacks but turned out not to be). It only takes a second to click the “I’m safe” button.

Whenever something serious has happened in London, I get emails asking if I’m safe. I got them after the 2005 London bombings and when the tornado hit in December 2006, a friend in Canada emailed me to say that she’d heard on the news that a “severe tornado” had hit London. In fact, it was not severe; it was very localised and caused damage to some buildings in an area called Kensal Green and injured 12 people. I was in the general area and saw the dramatic skies that morning, but didn’t see the tornado. I wrote the lady back and said it wasn’t severe and that I hadn’t been affected. London does not get severe tornados like those seen in the American West; Britain as a whole gets a lot of very minor ones. Simiarly, when the 9/11 attacks happened, one of my first thoughts was for a relative who lived in Washington and had worked at the Pentagon (she was not there at the time). Facebook and Twitter at that time did not exist; blogs were in their infancy (they became popular in the wake of 9/11) and social media was limited to email lists and web forums and generally you didn’t use those to talk to family. You used the phone to check on relatives’ safety, and all the lines were busy that day. That was very common in 2001.

There is another button next to “I’m safe” marked “Doesn’t apply to me”. I didn’t click that as I wasn’t sure what, if anything, it would do. Perhaps the safety check feature should have another button marked “Not in area”; that way friends would know that not only am I safe, but that I was never in any danger from it. It relieves others’ concerns and saves me writing emails to needlessly concerned people abroad

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Nefarious Tories?

5 June, 2017 - 14:43

A front page from the New Statesman, showing a fireball hurtling from space towards three men

One of the enduring weaknesses of the liberal left is a sense of moral piety: we assume that our values are superior, that we care about the weak and the vulnerable more than the other side does. Indeed, many people on the left believe that the Conservatives are nefarious, which, in effect, condemns the millions who vote for them.

The above appeared in New Statesman’s long pre-election leader column in the current issue which does not endorse any party (tells Labour voters to remember that they are voting for an MP, not a party, and leaves it at that) and repeats a lot of Blairite criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The quote sums up my frustrations with the “Labour right” in the period since Labour’s fall from power in 2010: their lack of any sense of mission, of moral clarity, of any goal other than getting back to power.

My main focus as an activist since 2010 has been on their impact on disabled people. I’ve been in contact with a number of disabled people since then and took part in the Spartacus Report campaign. Until 2010 we had a welfare system that recognised that some people could not work because they were ill, and that some could not work reliably, and needed support from the state to maintain a dignified standard of living and independence. This was a legacy of de-institutionalisation, the closure of long-stay institutions which were the lot of many people with learning disabilities and chronic mental health problems until the 70s and 80s; they cost money to run and often delivered a very undignified and restricted life for those forced to live in them. The system recognised that disability costs money to live with, and that there was a difference between enabling someone to live independently and do work they were capable of and supporting them when they were too ill or too impaired to work. It also recognised that mental health problems also interfered with work even when someone was not so ill as to require hospitalisation, and that the pressures of work could tip someone into a crisis. There were two different benefits (Disability Living Allowance and Incapacity Benefit); some received one or the other, some both.

I don’t recall there being any great dissatisfaction with this; maybe the odd grumble here and there about people swinging the lead, though this had largely been settled with the replacement of the former Unemployment Benefit with Jobseeker’s Allowance under John Major, which Tony Blair’s government did not reverse. The tabloids had not been complaining about it. I didn’t read the 2010 Conservative manifesto so there may have been some mention of reforming the disability benefit system to make it more efficient or cut down on “fraud and error”, despite the well-documented and widely-agreed facts that disability benefits were under-claimed, not over-claimed, and that fraud was minuscule.

The problems with the 2011 disability benefit criteria were widely and well-explained at the time, but broadly, they did not take into account fluctuating impairments or those that were less obvious and stereotypical than, say, a complete spinal cord injury that renders someone wholly unable to walk. To take one well-publicised example, if you could walk 20 metres, you could walk, they said (as opposed to the previous 50) and were thus ineligible; very many people with debilitating chronic conditions can walk about this far — to the bathroom, the kitchen, to their wheelchair. It’s possible to be able to walk, but that walking would cause great pain, or that it would cause or exacerbate broken bones or other damage. Being able to walk a bit does not mean you aren’t disabled, yet this is not taken into account; the system was to be about supporting ‘real’ disabled people, not the ‘scroungers’. The government simply ignored representations from disabled people’s organisations that warned that the new reforms would leave many disabled people unsupported, result in them being unable to work, in them being institutionalised (sometimes repeatedly), in them having to live with abusive relatives or on friends’ sofas or the street, in their being unable to leave their homes. “We can’t afford it, the cupboard is bare”, they proclaimed. “There’s no magical money tree.” And when it was demonstrated that some of the new reforms would not in fact save money because the money saved was balanced out by administration costs, they proclaimed, “I believe it is right”.

If we want to pretend that the Tories are not nefarious, we have to ask “why would anyone want to do any of this?”. Why would anyone want to destroy a disability support system that works? Why would anyone want to cause a mentally-ill person unnecessary stress over a period of years? Why would anyone want to split up a family, or stop someone working or going out, or force someone out of their home? There is no reason other than hidebound commitment to ideology, the desire to make political capital from other people’s resentment, or downright malice. Those of us who opposed these reforms at the time opposed them because they caused unnecessary suffering and hardship. Is this a moral issue? Of course it is, although safeguarding public healthcare and education are not just moral issues; they are about investing in our future and maintaining our civilisation. Do I think this is a superior moral value to saving a bit of money or getting rid of a few genuine false claimants? Yes. It’s patronising to call disabled people weak and vulnerable, but it’s reasonable to presume that those who kick away their supports for political ends do not care about them much.

As for our attitudes towards people who vote for them, it is not true that condemning people who do all this also condemns their voters, as the voters have a variety of motives including tribalism, familiarity with an existing candidate (and the inexperience of an opposing one, especially in a safe seat where they will put up a candidate to get a bit of practice with no expectation of winning), concern with national identity issues that may appear (or sometimes actually be) more important than welfare, refusal to admit that their intentions are as extreme as they really are, lack of personal need for the services being cut (such people often reconsider when they do need them, of course), as well as occasions where Labour have in fact proved inept (the late 70s being arguably a good example). The Goldfish published an article on reasons why decent people might mistakenly vote Tory (though I’m not sure it’s always a mistake). In some situations, a more pressing concern such as religious freedom or anti-fascism may outweigh concerns about health and welfare (such as in Turkey before Ergogan really took a turn for the tyrannical in the last couple of years); I do not believe this to be the case here. And of course, we cannot explain why decent people might vote for candidates with policies we find offensive without considering media bias, which normalises policies which benefit the rich (as it is the rich who own newspapers and, for the most part, edit them) and brands opposition to them as dangerous or foolish (consider the language of ‘maturity’ used to anathematise Lib Dem dissenters under the last government).

But we know we can’t go round condemning voters; even with the likes of the BNP, we rely on exposing the untruth of their claims and their incompetency and inactivity while in office (such as when they gained council seats in east London and Stoke on Trent, for example) rather than insulting their voters (there is a hard core of racist voters who are beyond persuading, it’s true, much as there is a hard core who really do believe disabled people should be left to die or that poor people must be stupid or feckless, and so on, but they are not the majority). Even condemning a candidate’s supporters is often mistaken for condemning their voters, as in the case of Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables” remark about Trump’s supporters. But that doesn’t change the fact that we do regard impoverishment and abandonment of people who need support in our society (whether openly or by trickery) as immoral, and we make no apology for that; it is why some of us (not all) are in parties like the Labour party. We have indeed moved on from the 1970s and most of us do not support re-nationalising huge swathes of British industry, or what is left of it. To restore what was present in the Blair era would be nice — will the Labour right who sneer about out-of-touch idealists at least support that? If they had been prepared to robustly defend their own record in government, Corbyn may never have been needed.

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No, the mosques don’t know

4 June, 2017 - 15:03

A man and woman running from the scene of one of the attacks in the London Bridge area on the night of 3rd June 2017. The young white man is wearing a red T-shirt and blue jeans and holding a half-full pint glass of beer in his hand. The woman is wearing a black T-shirt and trousers and is also holding a drink.Following the van/knife attacks on and near London Bridge last night in which seven people were killed (plus the three attackers who were shot dead by the police) which have been declared a terrorist attack by the police although the origin and motives of the attackers have yet to be revealed, I’ve seen tweets proclaiming that someone at the mosque must have known the terrorists’ intentions and are hiding something. I also saw tweets calling for an end to “no go areas” which have been a favourite right-wing media trope for several years. The first of these is a misconception, perhaps appealing because of frustration but no less wrong for that, and the second is an outright lie.

The second is the easiest to knock down: no-go areas are a lie peddled by bigots and simply have no basis in reality. Perhaps they make sense in an America where different races live in different parts of town and rarely mix, or to someone familiar with Israel or the old South Africa. In the UK, although there are places where there are more Muslims, or more members of this minority or that, anyone can walk into any area they like. There are places (certain council estates, or housing projects to Americans) it’s probably best to stay away from at certain times of day or night, but that has more to do with poverty and nothing to do with religion. A street is a street; nobody has any right to keep anyone else out of a public street (there are also private streets, but these are mainly inhabited by rich people and mostly whites at that). The area immediately to the east of central London has a high Muslim population and a large density of mosques, halal food outlets, Islamic shops and the like, and there are two major commuter routes running straight through it and non-Muslims pass right through on the bus every day on the way to work (or whatever else), and they wear whatever they like.

As for “what the mosques knew”, the fact is that mosques do not keep record of everyone who comes in to worship and there are no passes, turnstiles, metal detectors or anything else controlling who comes in. There is no ‘membership’ as such; they issue certificates to converts and to people who ask them to witness that they are Muslims (for obtaining hajj visas, for example), but anyone can just walk in and sit down and read or pray, and others will sit and talk in the mosque between prayers but that does not mean the management knows everything that is said. Many people will just come in for a scheduled prayer (particularly the Friday prayer) and they might meet friends and talk afterwards, but they then have to go back to work. Rarely will Muslims stick to one mosque or even just one ‘family’ of mosques; they will pray in whichever mosque is convenient for their home or workplace, or wherever they are at the time. Mosques also have an interest in remaining independent and free of government control or surveillance, so any intending terrorist will not let their plans be known to the mosque committee or talk about it openly; they will keep it to their immediate circle.

Finsbury Park mosque, a red-brick mosque with a grey concrete minaret. Some bags of aggregate are sitting outside and the next door house has a hoarding outside it.There was a time, until about 2003, where there were a number of extremist preachers holding Friday prayers in community halls and one or two mosques were dominated by extremists (notably Finsbury Park, which was actually built by and for the community with a contribution from Saudi Arabia until it was hijacked by Abu Hamza’s gang, which incidentally regarded the Saudi royal family as infidels). The people involved are all either no longer at liberty or no longer in the country, or both (Abu Hamza is in prison in the USA, Abdullah Faisal of “Devil’s Deception” fame was expelled to Jamaica after serving a prison sentence and Abu Qatada lives in Jordan). Most of the Muslims I know were glad to be rid of these people as they were unpleasant and soured the atmosphere at a number of London mosques, including Regent’s Park. As far back as the Madrid attacks in 2004, there has been a history of terrorists being men who didn’t frequent mosques and in fact were drinkers and womanisers, whether they had adopted this lifestyle as a disguise or were simply not religious, but were Muslim by heritage.

Muslims do not have the power to police their own community; Muslims are individual citizens like everyone else and we don’t have authorities that know what we’re doing or where we’re going (I’m guessing some of these people’s families didn’t know what they were up to). Terrorists, like all criminals, keep their plots a secret, or try to (the less smart ones download bomb-making manuals from sites on the Internet that the authorities already know about). Just because a terrorist attack seems to come out of a community which appears to stick together and where you don’t have any friends, it doesn’t mean the community was harbouring the terrorist and sitting on their secrets. The only people to blame for this are the people who did it.

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Corbyn’s dreadful interview

30 May, 2017 - 19:24

Jeremy CorbynI didn’t see Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May last night which social media was agog over, but I did hear his interview with Emma Barnett on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this morning. As one might expect, the programme focuses on issues of particular concern to women, and making child-care available so that women can work, particularly when they live in areas where the cost of living easily outstrips a single wage, is one of them. Barnett asked him how much his policy of non-means-tested childcare for all 2 and 4-year-olds (not 3-year-olds?) would cost, given his and his party’s repeated insistence that their manifesto is fully costed, and he didn’t know. He claimed that it would be funded mostly out of corporation taxes, but after much umming and ahh-ing, Barnett had to furnish him with the figure herself, sourced from his own shadow education secretary. When Barnett reminded him that this sort of thing reinforced the perception that “we can’t trust [Labour] with our money”, which she said went back to the time of Gordon Brown, he did not defend this point either.

I don’t disagree with the argument that a party leader should know, especially in advance of a radio interview, how much a major party policy would cost if implemented; if he cannot personally keep track of it all, the party should be organised enough that he goes into the interview briefed about these things. The argument that Theresa May made similar underestimates of the cost of her free breakfast idea, put by Barry Gardiner MP on the same station’s World at One programme a couple of hours later, doesn’t really wash; if Labour know that the media is biased in favour of the Tories and against Corbyn especially, they should be ready with the facts, as Blair’s team made a point of being in the run-up to the 1997 election, not bumbling about when asked a question in a live interview

Worse, much like Ed Miliband (who I believe largely lost because of his indecisiveness, particularly on the issue of a potential coalition with the SNP, more than because of fears about his handling of the economy), he did not defend Labour’s record on the economy when they were in power. This idea that “Labour cannot be trusted on the economy” is an invention of the Tories during the Coalition period; they were always known for being strong on the economy and for resisting calls from the Left of the party for massive tax-based spending increases. This was the orthodoxy of the time and they implemented it fairly competently; their reputation for borrowing comes from the last three years when Gordon Brown was trying to protect people’s savings when banks went under. All this is common knowledge, yet when Emma Barnett throws a classic right-wing talking point in his face, he does not defend his own party’s record, nor did he object that offering free childcare is not most people’s definition of a waste of taxpayers’ money; it would be a valued service to many people. Perhaps not to everyone, but then, many people do not value the NHS until they need it.

I’m getting sick to death of the flattery of Jeremy Corbyn. The scene reminds me of when I was studying Hamlet at sixth form; the teacher told us that men in Hamlet’s position (kings and princes, and other important noblemen) were expected to live up to a certain ideal of manliness dubbed the “Renaissance man” — he was meant to be cultured, educated, gracious, dashing and brave — and if he didn’t, there would be a lot of flattery but a lot of discontent behind the scenes. That seems to be what’s going on now. Not only was he ill-informed in today’s interview; he didn’t even sound interested. He had a bit of a cold, true, but his voice was flat, monotonous. I’m sure some people would warm to a politician who didn’t play interviewers’ games and remained calm when provoked, but he just goes to the other extreme. Theresa May paints a picture of him “alone and naked” while negotiating our exit from the EU, but I wonder how he’d perform in any international negotiations (I don’t care about Brexit; I hope it does fail, though with the result that we stay in the EU rather than end up isolated). He just sounds out of his depth.

Of course, none of this could persuade me to vote Tory. To me, they’re the injustice party, and a bad Labour government is better than any Tory government as others will make up for Corbyn’s failings (though in my constituency, Labour do not have a hope). But others will disagree, and I fear he lost the election with that one interview, with the section of him not knowing how to answer a simple question being repeated on news bulletin after news bulletin. I know some people will be telling me I should be giving Corbyn all the support I can, rather than “talking him down”, but he is doing that for himself more than I ever could.

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Manchester: an attack on women and girls?

28 May, 2017 - 20:52

A 4x4 graphic with pictures of 16 of the 17 women and girls murdered in the terrorist attack in Manchester last Monday. They are white women and girls from age 8 to 51.In the aftermath of last Monday’s terrorist attack on the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the British feminist writer Karen Ingala-Smith wrote a blog entry claiming that it is “essential that we view the attack as an attack on women”, not only in the light of the fact that 17 of the 22 victims were female, but also because:

Daesh [ISIS / so-called Islamic State] have claimed responsibility and so the attack is rightly framed in the context of religious extremism. The patriarchal oppression of women by men is at the heart of this ideology, and in that respect Daesh is not alone. Inequality between women and men and men’s violence against women go hand-in-hand the world over. It is estimated that across the globe 66,000 women and girls are killed violently every year. Generally those countries with the highest homicide rates are those with the highest rates of fatal violence against women and girls; but other factors are at play too, countries with higher levels of sex inequality also have high rates of men’s violence against women and girls. The UK is no exception, this year, even before the attack in Manchester, at least 37 UK women had been killed by men. Links between men who perpetrate violence against women and terrorism are now being identified; and mass killers, including school shooters, are almost always male.

I’m not sure I agree with her analysis. My theory about post-Gulf War terrorism (the al-Qa’ida and now ISIS variety) is that the intention is to provoke a conflict between Muslims and the West in which Muslims will have to choose sides; the provocation of either a wave of repression against ordinary Muslims or a military strike against Muslims somewhere in the world is the point. They could not, after all, deal a significant blow to western civilisation by hitting a pop gig, especially not one device at just one show, and their effect on westerners’ behaviour will consist of a few cancelled gigs and heightened security measures for a few months, as was the case after the 2005 London bombings. So, one suspects that this show was targeted, rather than one which would have had a more adult audience (like the KISS show which was to take place the next day, or the forthcoming Kings of Leon or Ritchie Blackmore gigs), because a terrorist attack on a show attracting a lot of young girls would provoke greater outrage because young people, and girls especially, are in general regarded as precious — hence the “Pure/Evil” juxtaposition on the Sun’s front page on Wednesday morning. That said, ISIS-associated terrorists have attacked entertainment events with more of an adult male audience in the recent past, such as the Eagles of Death Metal show in Paris.

Then again, we are assuming a lot in the absence of any word from the attacker, the cell involved or, really, anything authentic from ISIS; the statement claiming responsibility overestimated the number of devices (implying there were more than one) and the dead and injured (claiming 30 were killed and 70 wounded, when both figures were in fact fewer than those) and suggested that the devices were “placed” at the scene rather than simply delivered and detonated. There are also screenshots of the attack being celebrated online by pro-ISIS elements. But ISIS have claimed responsibility for acts which they could not possibly have had anything to do with and which would be an embarrassment if they did (e.g. the Westminster car/knife attack). This attack may well have been the work of sympathisers of “Islamic State” rather than the thing itself, perhaps remnants of al-Qa’ida that are now aligned with ISIS, perhaps a group based in Libya where the bomber himself came from. Until trials are held, if they ever are, we are unlikely to get to the bottom of why they targeted this particular event and not another.

A black marble plaque showing the names of the 14 victims of the 1989 Montreal massacre. There is a circle around them with 14 white metallic circles, with a logo of an insect at the top, the words "In memoriam" and the date (6 Dec 1989) at the bottom. For the names, click the image.By naming all the victims, Ingala-Smith places the Manchester attack in the same category of mass murders as Montreal, in which a man who blamed women and feminists in particular for “ruining his life” murdered 14 women at a college in 1989. I suspect that if he had wanted to kill women or girls specifically, he could have found venues where there would have been fewer adults or fewer men or boys present. At least half of the victims were not concert-goers but people coming to pick up relatives from the concert; I think it inappropriate to list the male victims in the “and also” section as if they were less important or not the intended victims, when they died with their female partners or daughters. It’s been suggested that it was an attack on youth rather than on women, but I believe it was an attack on the general public, intended to cause outrage and provoke confrontation. None of the victims is any less important than any of the others.

Image source: Karen Ingala-Smith, Wikimedia.

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Good story 1, Facts 0

27 May, 2017 - 14:52

 ex-IRA killer's Corbyn verdict". There is also an offer of free tickets to Legoland and stories headlined "Wine ups cancer 9%" and "Pirates Kaya is the new Keira".The other day I came across a story which a lot of people were sharing on my social media feeds since the appalling terrorist attack in Manchester on Monday night. The story, published on the pro-Corbyn ‘news’/’analysis’ site The Canary, claimed that Manchester was “set to become the second city to ban the Sun” after Liverpool, where a number of newsagents refuse to sell the paper after they published falsehoods about survivors of the Hillsborough stadium disaster. I don’t normally read links to the Canary because it’s a site notorious for not letting the facts get in the way of a good rant, and suspected when I read the headline that was was really happening was that a campaign had been launched to that end, and I was right. The story has since been withdrawn after the Sun told the Canary that the original front page had gone to press before the bombings (Google cached version here) and replaced with another, focussed on a different Sun front page, perhaps as it became obvious that the city wasn’t in fact “set to ban it” but rather, that a few people had just called for a boycott. The story that prompted this was a Sun front page which alleged that Corbyn had “blood on his hands” because of his past IRA sympathies on the basis of the word of a former IRA terrorist; the pretext now is that the paper gave the Manchester terrorist front-page news coverage by putting his picture alongside that of 8-year-old Saffie Roussos, the youngest victim of the bombing, with the headline “Pure Evil” (the words appearing under Saffie’s and the bomber’s faces, respectively).

A few facts have to be clarified. First, the Sun is not banned in Liverpool; rather, a large number of newsagents refuse to stock it and many people wouldn’t buy it. That’s voluntary; a ban means either their supplier won’t supply it or there is a legal order which is legally enforceable, prohibiting its sale. So, if Manchester really did ban it, it would be the first to do so, not the second. Second, it is doubtful whether a city can really ban the sale of a newspaper, other than on council-owned public property. What local councils in the UK can do in bylaws is quite restricted, unlike in the USA, and bylaws need approval from central government, which would likely be refused in this case. Third, although 80,000 people signed the first petition, it has since been removed from Change.org (you can verify this by following the links on the Canary’s story); a second petition was then posted, addressed to Andy Burnham (who is mayor of Greater Manchester, which is separate from Manchester City Council), and also removed (a Google cached version can be found here). I’m not sure why, and Change.org does not say whether they or the originator removed them. As is usual with Change.org petitions, the signatories do not have to be from Manchester, or even the UK.

 Some fans picked pockets of victims; some fans urinated on the brave cops; some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life". These stories are now known to have been untrue.I also find it offensive that the Canary implies a moral equivalence between the Sun’s traducing the victims of Hillsborough — ordinary people who had lost friends and family and been in mortal danger themselves — with their infamous “The Truth” front page (left), and their criticism of a politician. Whatever you think of Corbyn or his dealings with the IRA or his policies on security now, the fact is that the Sun did not make any accusations against the concert-goers in Manchester nor the other victims who had mostly come to pick up their friends or children. The Sun’s recent coverage is fairly routine Sun coverage of a terrorist attack, particularly in light of the forthcoming election in which they support the Tories; it’s ugly, but it’s not the same as smearing victims of a disaster. It would not provoke a boycott of the Sun in Manchester, where the Sun has its fair share of readers and Corbyn has his share of both supporters and opponents, both in the Labour party and outside it. It is ludicrous to suggest that this would happen.

When I tweeted the original post out with the comment “dishonest headline”, someone responded “It’s the Canary, what did you expect?”. I rarely read their output, because I don’t like to read something that would be fantastic if it were true, only to be disappointed when a cursory examination of the facts reveals that it is not. Still, a lot of people were sharing this story and most were the usual long-standing left-wing anti-cuts activists, some of them disabled, who regard Jeremy Corbyn as a great hope and the Sun as an egregious Tory rag. They’re not mostly the sort of fanatics who would brick someone’s window (assuming that really had anything to do with Corbyn’s supporters) but just people fed up with seeing the supports that allow people to make something of their lives, and take the fear out of illness and disability, stripped away for political advantage and financial benefit. Still, untruth is untruth, even if it comes from someone whose politics you agree with. This story, besides being untrue, was just as offensive as the Sun content it was in reaction to.

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Lousy parenting advice

24 May, 2017 - 16:03

Last Sunday Mariella Frostrup answered a letter from a father whose son wanted to drop out of school and become a rock star. He complained:

Our son has given up on study. He has never really enjoyed school. He complains that teachers don’t know how to control classes, feels he learns very little in a day and questions the ritual humiliation he experiences through PE.

The son is described as “intelligent, but also sensitive with a passion for music”. He claims that various rock stars never needed “exam success”, notably Liam Gallagher who only gained 4 GCSEs. His dad complains that he “is rejecting everything about us”, but mostly his dad: “I am academically successful and value education”. Frostrup’s answer is padded out with an awful lot of empathy but the meat of it is that the dad should assert his authority:

Yet I can’t help feeling that asserting a degree of authority is half the battle, even if it’s uncomfortable and, worse, unfashionable. As we’ve edged ever closer to our children in lifestyle, it’s become increasingly difficult to take the authoritarian path, but sometimes “because I say so” really is the answer.

Teenagers who want to be pop stars are truly 10 a penny. I had a friend who was about to fund a rehearsal space for their scholastically errant but musically obsessed child. Despite their daughter’s assertions that she didn’t “have to listen to them” she was entirely reliant on them for a roof over her head and the occasional foray to Brandy Melville – which to my mind simplified the situation.

On one level, I agree that a parent shouldn’t let their child give up study at age 14 or 15 (the age of the child isn’t stated), especially in favour of a career in pop music when there is no suggestion of a recording contract any time soon, just a band with perhaps promising but undeveloped talent on display. The music industry does not offer steady work to artists; only moderate, short-term fame and a bit of money to the majority. Yet it is noticeable that there is no empathy for the boy here, only the dad. All his complaints — that teachers cannot control a class, that he’s not learning anything, that PE is a “ritual humiliation” — are entirely believable and are things I witnessed or experienced many a time when I was at school (particularly, but not just, boarding school).

Frostrup only tells the dad to put his foot down and assert his authority as the parent. She does not tell him to stick up for his son. He claims he is “academically successful and values education” but sent his son to a school which is chaotic, undisciplined and not a learning environment. Why? I’m not saying there is no reason other than that the dad doesn’t really care or takes a “I put up with school for eleven years, so can you” attitude to his son’s difficulties — maybe he is a carer to his sick or disabled wife or another child, maybe his business went bankrupt, maybe he and his wife are in a relatively low-paying profession — but she doesn’t ask and he doesn’t tell. We don’t know the facts and she doesn’t appear to ask. She just takes the dad’s side and assumes that his is the only one there is.

She really should be encouraging the dad to try and address why his son has given up on learning — it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to, just that he finds it difficult in the environment he has been placed in. It’s unusual, as far as I know, for a sensitive person to be uninterested in learning; young people develop that characteristic when they are put off learning, such as by being told they are a failure, or by being discouraged to display it (e.g., by bullies who attack them for being “too smart”). There is no reason why PE should be a “ritual humiliation”; it’s a sign that the teacher is not doing his job properly. The father should be taking these things up with the school, and should not be turning away from his son’s concerns, and a columnist in a decent newspaper should not encourage him to.

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Facebook, “fake news” and junk news

21 May, 2017 - 21:57

Since the 2016 election in particular, there has been a lot of discussion about how social media helps to disseminate “fake news”, often without really enumerating what that term means. Last week Facebook asked me to fill in a survey (and gave an audible signal to do so every time I opened the app) about what I knew about the news, featuring a series of multiple-choice questions about political events and celebrity gossip. I gave up about halfway, as I was late for work and I wasn’t sure what to do if I didn’t know — there was no “don’t know” option, so do I leave it blank or just take a wild guess? But it didn’t ask me what I thought of the stories Facebook continually allows to be spewed onto my news feed.

 Picture of a light-skinned mixed-race woman wearing a blue and purple patterned blouse, holding an official document in both hands, outside a court building, with two men standing behind herI call these stories “junk news”. A lot of the time, they are not, in any sense, news at all; they are human interest stories or photo series which have been broken up into about 20 or more pages, so you keep having to reload so they can serve up more adverts. And sometimes the lead-ins are dishonest; one of them purports to “finally solve the mystery” of the Australian “dingo baby” story (in which a mother was jailed for murder after claiming a dingo mauled her baby to death), which was in fact solved many years ago: the mother (right) was telling the truth and the dingo did indeed maul the baby. I’ve made a sort of hobby of Googling the name in the story and finding an actual news story about them, then posting the link in the comments so that interested readers don’t have to leaf through the multiple pages and load all the adverts that come with it. My comments get a few likes, but I’m sure they disappear in the comments or maybe get deleted. I’ve not noticed that I’ve been blocked by any of the spammers; they do after all want me to read at least part of their stories, I suppose.

Another part of the problem is the way Facebook “curates” our news feeds. Although you can set your desktop news feed to show the most recent stories, the default is the “top stories” and on the app, getting the “most recent” involves scrolling halfway down the miscellany tab on the right. And often the “top stories” are nothing of the kind; they are frequently several days old and it’s often difficult to tell why they have reappeared. Many of us use Facebook to keep in touch with our friends as much as to keep up to date with politics and campaigns or read other news stories; I don’t want to miss someone’s photos of their recent wedding because of an old, regurgitated non-news story, but that’s what FB’s “curation” does.

Facebook has been lecturing the public about how to recognise fake news and avoid recirculating it, but it has no problem taking money from junk content compilers and putting their plagiarised news stories on our feeds. They also allow people to post stories from sites which, although they don’t employ the infuriating 25-part ad-laden story method, also plagiarise content and repackage it as their own (often the sites are topic-based; one page I sometimes read keeps posting stories from sites with names like “cerebral palsy news”, all of whose content is second-hand). Of course, it is not all Facebook’s fault; mainstream media outlets are often unscrupulous about checking their facts and some willingly act as purveyors of propaganda, often presenting it as news as we have seen with the British tabloids for decades. But it is foolish to expect Facebook to go out of their way to curb fake news when it is one of the ways it makes money.

(And while I was in the middle of writing this, Facebook’s internal rulebook on violence was revealed online; it says a lot about their priorities that “someone shoot Trump” is banned because he is a head of state, but detailed instructions on how to kill a woman are accepted.)

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On Ian Brady and the death penalty

20 May, 2017 - 19:23

The front page of the Daily Mirror the day after Brady and Hindley were jailed; its headline reads "Brady and Hindley go to jail for life" and includes mug-shots of both. A smaller story has the headline "Watery beer upsets an MP".Last week Ian Brady, a serial murderer of children from the 1960s, died in a “special hospital” (a high-security hospital which takes criminals who are mentally ill) aged 79. He had been convicted of three murders of children in 1966; he admitted to two more in 1985. His victims were of both sexes and between 10 and 17. He had been transferred from prison to the hospital in the 1980s after having been diagnosed as a psychopath; his accomplice, Myra Hindley, who helped lure and torture their victims although Brady did the actual killings, served out her time (she died in 2003) in prisons. According to Mark Easton on the BBC website, “Brady’s mug shot has become visual shorthand for psychopathic evil”; Martin Kettle in the Guardian the next day noted his and Hindley’s importance in the debate about abolishing the death penalty, which was abolished between the crimes and their being charged; Brady and Hindley “became the totemic faces of a Britain that they believed had ‘gone soft’ on crime”; he suggests that now that Brady is dead, “Britain can perhaps finally lay to rest the long and lingering possibility from the 1960s that hanging will ever return”. I’m not so sure.

The Moors murders took place in the early 1960s; nobody under 60 remembers them. Growing up in the 1980s, I remember Myra Hindley never being out of the news for long. Her notoriety by then was much greater than Brady’s; Brady made a nuisance of himself for the mental health staff looking after him and pursued various lawsuits but had never asked to be released. Hindley had always had admirers and sympathisers who presented her as a reformed citizen and a Christian, and harped on the Christian imperative to forgive those who wrong us; these notably included the Labour politician and penal reformer Lord Longford. The debate caused fury and this was reflected even in local newspapers far from Manchester; I recall letters in the Croydon Advertiser in the 1990s condemning the “sanctimonious claptrap” coming from Longford and in one case suggesting that the exhortation to forgive was not in reference to “torturers and killers of children or indeed any murderers”. A national tabloid stated in an editorial that Hindley should kill herself and that this is the one decent thing she could do (encouraging suicide is in fact a crime); I can recall an old lady calling into a night-time phone-in on LBC and state that she would kill Hindley if she were ever released; this sentiment was cited as a reason for denying her release on licence. I do not recall there being the same level of hatred towards Brady as towards Hindley during that time; his name was mentioned as an afterthought if at all.

Duncan Campbell, writing for the Guardian’s features section the same day, describes him as “the most hated man in Britain” and asks who “now fills the gulf of revulsion left by Brady”, coming up with suggestions such as Rosemary West, Peter Sutcliffe and Levi Bellfield. I don’t actually believe he was — he was in Hindley’s shadow — and none of the three he mentions, while the heinousness of their crimes approaches that of Brady and Hindley’s, attracts the degree of tabloid interest that Brady, let alone Hindley, did; joint public enemy number one for tabloid readers are the two men that killed the Liverpool toddler James Bulger as disturbed 10-year-old boys, whose every move has been scrutinised by the gutter press (which eagerly asks Bulgar’s mother her opinion every time) and who are regularly the focus of attempts to reveal their location on social media. While the death penalty was never an option (and would not have been even before 1964; the youth of cop killer Christopher Craig was the reason his learning impaired accomplice Derek Bentley was hanged in 1953), calls to execute them were also heard on talk radio during that time (one woman even suggested they be held until age 18 and then executed). Brady and Hindley were adults; the hounding of these two for something they did at age 10 demonstrates how unscrupulous the British tabloids are in pursuit of a profitable story.

Has the death penalty issue died with Brady? Sadly, I suspect it hasn’t. Support for its reintroduction has declined over the years, but dipped below 50% in the British Social Attitudes Survey only in 2015 (it had been 75% in 1983 when the survey began); the fact that politicians refused to reintroduce it despite much evidence of public support has been a continual gripe of right-wing anti-human rights agitators and politicians and if Brexit is followed by the abolition of the Human Rights Act, reintroduction of the death penalty is likely to be back on the agenda as a result. Personally, I would have no difficulty with Brady and Hindley or others like them being executed; the problem is that innocent people would be as well, as has been demonstrated amply in the USA since the moratorium on it was lifted in 1976. To take one British case, the judge in the original trial of the Guildford Four (who were jailed for an IRA pub bombing to which some actual members of the IRA later confessed) told one of them that he should have been charged with treason, which still carried the death penalty which the judge would have had no difficulty in passing. In an earlier British case, a serial murderer called John Christie framed a neighbour, Timothy Evans, for the murder of his wife and daughter, which had in fact been Christie’s doing. Evans was hanged; Christie went on killing and was eventually executed in 1953 for murdering his wife.

The police have a vested interest in being seen to get results, which at times outweighs the need to find the actual perpetrator; juries are swayed by prejudice, dominant jurors and fatigue towards wrongful verdicts. On other occasions people have been convicted on the basis of ‘science’ which was later proven to be false (as in another IRA case and more recently the many people convicted on the basis of a hair analysis technique that has since been debunked). I’m not swayed by the argument that the death penalty makes murderers of us all and would not stand between a man I believed to be guilty and his executioner, but the danger of executing an innocent person is too great, and the danger increases in the cases of the most heinous murders (serial killings, those of a sexual nature and/or where the victims are children, major terrorist atrocities) where many people would argue it is more justified. For this reason, I believe the death penalty should not be reintroduced in this country. Our legal and political system just cannot be trusted with it.

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On Corbyn, trains and renationalisation

17 May, 2017 - 22:12

The front of a Networker train in red, white and blue Network SouthEast livery from the early 1990s, at a station.Earlier today I heard Owen Jones, the Labour-supporting Guardian columnist and author of Chavs and The Establishment, on Radio 4’s Today programme defending Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to “re-nationalise” the railways if he became prime minister. He explained that the action would not be costly as it would simply consist of waiting until each franchise came to its end and then not renew it; he also explained that the East Coast railway service had good levels of customer satisfaction when it was in public ownership.

This policy smacks of the timidity which has characterised Labour policy since the 90s. It also really sounds like an easy way of selling a policy without acknowledging that it will cost money to rebuild British Rail and its various business divisions (InterCity, Network SouthEast, the various Regional Railways divisions, ScotRail and so on) or new equivalents. This, however, has to happen if re-nationalisation is to ‘take’; if the franchise apparatus is still in place by the time of the general election following this one, a Tory government only has to reopen tendering for the re-nationalised regions. If the railways are fully re-nationalised, re-privatising them will be a headache for the next government; if they are not, it will be easy.

I support re-nationalising the railways. It needs to be done properly. Corbyn’s current plan won’t deliver that.

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Adult education versus university tuition fees

14 May, 2017 - 17:01

A Victorian stone building with two storeys, with a small round and larger octagonal tower in the foreground. Both towers have pointed spires and the larger tower have paintings of people set into them.Earlier this week Jeremy Corbyn announced that if Labour wins the election next month, they will abolish university tuition fees, which were brought in under Labour in 1998 and were increased dramatically by the Coalition. This is expected to shore up their vote among students who face massive debts; £76bn is owed in student loans in England, with some fees exceeding £10K per year from next year and interest also rising to 6.1%. The policy is estimated to cost between £7.5bn and £11bn, and the question is bound to be asked where that money is going to come from. When I heard it I said I agreed with reducing or even abolishing tuition fees in principle, but I believed investing in adult education was more important, and someone asked me why. So, here’s why.

18+ university education is, by definition, “first-chance” education for people who had a relatively undisrupted school career and left at 18 with the right A-level results. There are a lot of people who were for one reason or another unable to get these results. If you’ve been following the debate over grammar schools, or read the obituary columns in the broadsheets over the years, you’ll know that there are another group of people who studied as mature students because either their life circumstances or the quality of the schools they had access to did not allow them to get a clutch of A-levels at age 18. These circumstances include:

  • They came from a family which did not believe in university education, or education in general.
  • They came from a family which did not believe in educating girls.
  • They had a home life which was disrupted, or moved schools many times.
  • They were young carers.
  • They were in care, and moved schools many times, or did not have access to good schools
  • They were disabled, and spent their childhood in institutions, or special schools, which did not prepare them for higher education, or even permit them to study for A-levels.
  • Their school life was disrupted by illness, or by ceaseless hospital appointments or physiotherapy (a common problem for disabled children and young people)
  • They spent an extended period in hospital because of mental illness
  • Their school was run by people with a low expectation of them or had a high turnover of staff
  • Their school had an anti-learning culture among the pupils which they were unable to rise above while a teenager in that environment
  • Their school life was disrupted by bullying (by other pupils or staff) and they got out at the earliest possible opportunity.

It’s fairly well-known that people’s brains are not fully developed in the early teenage years, which, in the UK and many other countries, is when they are expected to take the first set of exams that their future academic career depends on. A seemingly less obvious problem is that they are forced to mix mostly with others whose brains are also not fully-developed (I say ‘seemingly’ because it is obvious, but people who seek to either deny young people agency or discredit their opinions often emphasise the first factor to the total exclusion of the second). They are capable of rational decisions, but won’t make them if surrounded by people who steer them towards short-termist, irrational ones and instant gratification; they are capable of studying, but they need the right environment and support, and not all get it. Adults tend to assume (and lecture young people) that that age is the best time of their life to get an education, before they have jobs and parental responsibilities and before they are used to having a disposable income, but that’s not how it is for many young people.

It is not only 18+ university tuition fees that have gone up under the Coalition and Tory governments; subsidies for access courses and A-levels were also abolished in 2012, with students being required to pay the full cost of their tuition rather than half as before, with loans made available; the government have also abolished bursaries which facilitated the training (a three-year degree course) of nurses. Yet I did not hear of any talk of reintroducing the 50% subsidy on adult education tuition, perhaps because this lacks the support of a strong “student vote”, but we deprive ourselves of many great minds and talents if we make it hard for adults to go back to education once they have a clearer mind and no longer face the bullying, social pressure, family problems or young-carerdom that they faced at age 14. We talk of a right to an education, and this is the first real opportunity some people have to get one.

Image source: Wikimedia, sourced from Geograph and taken by John Lucas. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License v2.0 Generic.

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On hijab, ‘neutrality’ and threat

10 May, 2017 - 22:23

Last week I heard a conversation between Shelina Janmohammed, the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M and a columnist for The National, a Dubai-based newspaper, and the LBC presenter Sheila Fogerty, about hijab and others’ attitudes to it. This had been prompted by a call from a woman to the station the night before who claimed that the country was becoming ‘overwhelmed’ by Muslims. Some of the responses sent to the two women on Twitter claimed that Muslim women’s dress, the face-covering in particular, was considered ‘threatening’, a long-standing claim of people seeking to ban it. Fogerty suggested that the caller the previous night might be “just racist”, and although I didn’t hear the call (I very rarely listen to LBC), this is a reasonable assumption when someone calls a radio station and spouts bigotry about a minority.

Fascists contacting the media and pretending to be ordinary Joes and Janes while spouting racist views is a long-standing tactic of theirs. The BNP in particular knew that the majority of people would not vote BNP, but if enough people with aggressive voices and working-class accents were heard spouting racist views on radio phone-ins and below the line on newspaper websites, mainstream parties would get the impression that this is what the real “man in the street” thinks, rather than those in the “elite” or “Westminster village”. Sometimes mainstream media writers were fooled: in 2008, Brendan O’Neill, then writing for the New Statesman, met one Charlotte Lewis whom he described as an “unemployed woman from Croydon … wearing a loud gold lamé jacket and black jeans” with “a south London twang”. His impression of her was of a “ditzy woman with a chip on her shoulder” but in fact she stood as a BNP candidate in the St Helier ward of the borough of Sutton despite being ineligible as she lived in Croydon. She complained of sometimes being the “only white person” on the bus which was “a bit distressing”; even though (and I’ve lived in Croydon) this is actually a rare occurrence in most of the borough, I never found it distressing to share a bus with people who weren’t white. Why would anyone — other than a racist?

The idea that women wearing niqaab pose any kind of threat needs to be challenged. As I said when the leader of UKIP tried to make an election issue of it, if it were a threat to public security, the security forces would have said so years ago, most likely not long after 9/11 and certainly not long after the 2005 bombings. They haven’t. It’s left to extremist politicians and to anonymous callers to phone-ins. These people must be challenged to explain why they regard a group of women who harm nobody as being threatening — as in, exactly what any one of them has ever done that constitutes a threat. Not rumours (like that story of the Somali terrorist who fled the country in 2005 wearing his sister’s veil) and not accusations that are unproven (like the women arrested in the anti-terrorist raid in London last week), but facts, and moreover what the niqaab has to do with those facts. I have never heard a radio presenter pin down a caller who claims the niqaab is threatening on exactly why.

A common excuse for banning hijab is that it allows for a religiously ‘neutral’ space; this was the rationale offered when the European Court of Justice ruled that it was legal for companies to ban hijab if there was a company policy requiring ‘neutral’ dress (rather than because a customer just refused to be served by a woman wearing it). This concession reflects the common fallacy that hijab is a ‘symbol’ of Islam when in fact Islam does not really do symbolism. Islam is represented by the word, not the image; The flag of Islam used the Shahada or profession of faith (the battle flag, currently used by Saudi Arabia, has a drawing of a sword on it in addition). Many flags of Muslim countries use the crescent and star to represent Islam, but this is actually an architectural feature found on mosques in Levantine countries that were previously Christian churches; the symbols were also used by Crusaders, hence their appearance on the insignia of the City of Portsmouth and its football club. It’s useful as it can be displayed on things that might be treated in a way Muslims would want anything with the shahada on it treated (e.g. on a football which will be kicked around), but it is actually an innovation to associate it with Islam. There is no tradition of wearing crescent and/or star pendants equivalent to the crucifixes or crosses and chains worn by Christians. The stated purpose of hijab in Islam is that women will be seen as respectable and treated accordingly; it has come to be seen as a ‘symbol’ of Islam only because, in most societies (not all), head-coverings of that type are only worn by Muslim women.

So, a woman wearing a headscarf to work is not displaying a huge identity badge; it’s not a defining garment of a Muslim. To wear hijab is not to preach; it is to live according to one’s religion. There is no set way of “wearing hijab”; it is simply a matter of wearing clothes loose enough to conceal the figure and cover one’s hair. You can get purpose-made headscarves for hijab (the “al-Amira” brand is very popular) but you can wear any cloth you like as long as it’s not sheer (and it’s clean, of course). Banning the normal dress of a locally well-represented religious group does not usually make for a “religiously neutral” atmosphere. To achieve that, one meeds only to have a rule saying that nobody is allowed to, say, preach or criticise anyone else for how they behave on the basis of religion.

What it makes for is an exclusive one: there is no reason why people should not be expected to tolerate one of them at work, or seeing one of them as a representative of a company they do business with, if they are part of the local community. If one sees Muslim women everywhere in town but are never served by them, the space is not neutral, but rather those women are conspicuous by their absence. Much as it’s often observed that “gender neutral” clothing and so on often looks a lot like masculinity, so “religious neutrality” just means everyone follows White, Christian norms. For all but the minority who wear it only because of parental insistence, leaving off hijab is not neutral to a woman who wears it; it represents a break with their religion, much as being made to eat pork just because “everyone else does it”.

A major obstacle to the wider acceptance of hijab is the lack of high-profile Muslim women wearing it, meaning politicians those with regular access to the media. Recently Nesrine Malik wrote an article in which she complained that Islam was being “splained” (as in mansplained, etc) to the public by non-Muslims and by a select few Muslims who are “ventriloquizing on behalf of non-Muslims”. She complains that “hijabi women … get most of the high profile exposure even though they are a minority within a minority” and that “there are more Muslim women in hijab fronting social activism campaigns than there are that do not wear the headscarf”, yet typically the women who get the most mainstream media exposure, including bylines in major newspapers both in Europe and North America, are those such as Nesrine Malik who do not wear hijab. While I do not blame ordinary Muslim women who do not wear the hijab, especially if it is out of fear of violence, Muslim female public figures who trade on their Muslimness or speak about Islam or on behalf of Muslims are betraying other Muslim women, at a time when violence against Muslim women is an ever greater threat, if they do so without hijab (even if they do not wear it normally, they should wear it for such occasions). It often seems to be a signal, a way of saying “I’m not like those others, I’m a modern Muslim, I’m more like you”. One should not complain about other people ‘splaining’ your religion to the public while contributing to the problem, even if unconsciously.

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Before you trust the Tories on mental health …

7 May, 2017 - 15:32

 West End, 2062-2068 Hessle Road". A red brick building with a bright blue door stands in the background, while right behind the sign stands a tree whose leaves droop down to partly obscure the building.So, today it was announced that Theresa May has promised new legislation on mental health if her party wins next month’s election, which will “rip up” the 1983 Mental Health Act under which people can currently been detained (the term ‘sectioning’ refers mostly to sections 2 and 3 of that Act) on the basis that “it has allowed the unnecessary detention of thousands of people and failed to deal with discrimination against ethnic minority patients”. According to the Observer’s advance copy of her announcement:

“On my first day in Downing Street last July, I described shortfalls in mental health services as one of the burning injustices in our country,” May will say. “It is abundantly clear to me that the discriminatory use of a law passed more than three decades ago is a key part of the reason for this.

“So today I am pledging to rip up the 1983 act and introduce in its place a new law which finally confronts the discrimination and unnecessary detention that takes place too often. We are going to roll out mental health support to every school in the country, ensure that mental health is taken far more seriously in the workplace, and raise standards of care.”

The Observer correctly states that campaigners consider lack of funding to be as big a problem as badly-drafted laws; opposition politicians, including former Coalition care minister Norman Lamb, have dismissed her proposals as being based on “thin air”. From my contacts with current and past mental-health service users, I’m aware that one of the worst problems is lack of locally-available mental-health inpatient care, which has regularly resulted in people having to travel out of their home area, sometimes hundreds of miles, to access a bed as a result of a mental health crisis. This has been the case in far-flung rural areas like Cornwall, which is only now getting an adolescent inpatient unit as a result of years of local campaigning, in small cities like Hull where the well-regarded West End adolescent unit was closed in 2013 as NHS England was no longer willing to support five-day inpatient facilities and would not fund a week-long unit in Hull (a replacement unit is going to be built new, to large cities including London. I have regularly seen messages on social media that there is only one bed, or no beds at all, for an entire large population group (e.g., women, adolescents) in the country.

It is not only with minority-ethnic patients that legal reform is needed to curb abuses. The use of the MHA to enforce decisions about the care or housing of people with learning disabilities, particularly autism, needs urgent attention also. A major part of the problem is that clinicians who are trained in mental health apply their training to behavioural issues stemming from autism; thus someone is sectioned as a result of an incident, usually in an institutional setting, leading to the person remaining sectioned for an extended period because their likely behaviour when living in the community is judged by their behaviour in a closed, unfamiliar, unfriendly institutional setting. In some cases, it has been apparent that someone has been sectioned on a pretext so as to facilitate their transfer, as clinicians and managers can have a patient transferred out of area, such as to a secure unit, without there being means for the affected person or their family to challenge the move. Any new law must also address the abuse of the secure unit system and its use to treat people who need long-term care but not secure conditions, as well as making sure they cannot take patients who are outside their remit.

It is not only the lack of funding itself that is the cause of the mental healthcare crisis; it is the funding culture, the attitude that we cannot have too many beds, such that if a unit is deemed to be ‘surplus’ to requirements, it is closed. In November 2014, it was reported that 468 beds had been closed over the previous year and that occupancy rates had hit 120% in some mental health trusts during some months; the recommended level was 85%. Over-supply must not be a dirty word; there must be empty beds, so that if someone needs a bed, there is one available. (Of course, a service persistently unused over a long period cannot be continued, but if this happens, a similar use could probably be found rather than simply closing the ward.) It is not only poor funding for mental health care that results in unnecessarily long detentions; getting the staff to care for people with learning disabilities at home also costs money, and it is difficult to recruit or retain staff, or train home-care staff adequately, when wages are poor and better-paid work is available in other sectors, or abroad. It is well-konwn that local authorities have had their funding cut drastically since the Coalition came to power and have cut services accordingly.

Finally, for many people with mental health issues or autism, a major source of anxiety is money, and if you are reliant on benefits because you cannot work reliably or at all, financial instability or the threat of benefit withdrawal can have a serious impact. Someone I used to know once told me that most of her mental health problems cleared up when her housing and finances were secure and this security was based on benefits that were axed in the Coalition’s “welfare reform”. Many of the disabled people I know dread the arrival of the “brown envelope” informing them that their Disability Living Allowance is to be re-assessed for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP), often because it is based on criteria that exclude their impairment and disregards its complexity or impact on their life. Physical impairment is often associated, either as a result or a cause, with severe illness, violence and trauma and all of this has mental health ramifications. The Tories, since they came to power in 2010, have subjected disabled people to continual harassment by interfering in the benefits system which gave them some degree of security and peace of mind.

The Tories are trying to win parts of the country which have traditionally voted Labour, at least partly on the strength of Brexit and Labour’s ambivalent stance on it, and some of these places are those badly hit by health and social care funding cuts and bed shortages. No doubt their publicity will include a few heartstring-tugging stories about teenagers sent far from home and promises to end this kind of thing. However, talk to those affected, other than those who are very wealthy, and they will tell you it has got worse since 2010 and they know who to blame. Legal reforms are certainly necessary but unless Theresa May is willing to disavow the past decade of Tory policy, including the “flagship” welfare reforms policies, and face up to the dire need for new money, we should all know that her rhetoric is empty and will deliver only limited results.

Some of the stories I’ve featured on this blog since 2010:

  • Joshua Offer-Simon, a teenager with autism from London who spent more than two years in mental health units in Manchester and Birmingham (also here)
  • Maisie Shaw from Hull, sent to numerous units out of area on multiple occasions because of the West End unit’s closure. This also featured in the documentary Kids in Crisis which also featured two young people from Cornwall, reviewed by me here.
  • Thomas Rawnsley, who died of unexplained injuries (inquest pending) in a care home in 2015; his family wanted him home but were denied this by courts
  • Claire Dyer, who was sectioned and later sent more than 200 miles from her home. Currently awaiting a bespoke housing/care placement; one has fallen through because of local authority incompetence.
  • Connor Sparrowhawk who died of neglect in a mental health unit in Oxfordshire in 2013. Inquest found neglect contributed to his death.

Some of these people could have been helped by reforms to the mental health laws, but a recurring theme is lack of local inpatient treatment and of places to live outside hospital after discharge, if a hospital admission was ever necessary. As far as I know, the issue of how the Mental Health Act applies to people with autism as opposed to mental illness has not been addressed.

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