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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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Why the male pill won’t replace the female pill

26 September, 2020 - 19:08
A picture of a blue packet with yellow pills arranged in an elongated oval shape, with a tri-fold insert with patient information on it.Oral contraceptive pill with insert, 1970s

Earlier today I saw a tweet by one Mohamad Safa, a diplomat at the United Nations (he does not say from which country) and CEO of “Patriotic Vision”, about birth control and whose responsibility it is:

This looks like impeccable logic, on the face of it. But if you look at it any closer, it is revealed to be rather silly. It resembles a child whinging that something is not fair when it is just a fact of life.

First, the reason the female birth control pill has been in widespread use since the mid-20th century is simply that it was easy enough to develop as it harnessed an already known biological process by developing synthetic analogues to existing female hormones (or in some cases, used animal derived hormones). That fact removed an awful lot of the research and development. This also means that many female pill preparations have been out of patent for decades and available cheaply as generics, while any new male pill, unless funded philanthropically or by the state, will be expensive as it will be under patent. This is because it is a novel chemical which induces the body to do something it would not normally do, as it has no need to do so, namely to cease sperm production. They do not only have to synthesise the chemical but to actually invent it. Scientists have also been trying to find a medication that could suppress erections, mostly so as to avoid pain after surgery on the penis, and have never been able to find one; a anti-fungal agent which showed some promise a few years ago was found to have no more than placebo effect.

You sometimes hear women complain that the male pill that was developed never made it to market because the men that the drug was tested on found the side effects intolerable; this is followed by a list of the side effects the female pill has, or the difficulties of pregnancy itself. The answer is that these effects happen to some women and not others, while the side effects of the male pill were reliably found before the drug hit the market. This may well have been a sign that if the men continued taking said pill, it could have had lasting health complications. In any case, it’s not ethical to release a medication that makes people ill while having no benefit for the person taking it. It’s true that the female contraceptive pill can have devastating complications, such as strokes, but it’s also true that many women take it for years with no such ill effects. Clearly, the benefits outweigh the risks although it is important that women who are particularly prone to such ill-effects are identified and not prescribed it. It helps that there are multiple preparations based on different types of hormones.

Another problem with any male pill is that it only protects women that man might have sex with, and only if he is diligent in taking it. If a woman changes partners, she would have to persuade each new partner to take it, and if she decided to have sex with someone other than her partner, she would not be protected unless he was taking the pill; similarly if she is raped. This means that in a country where stranger rape is a major problem (as it has been in South Africa, for example), the male pill would not be a serious option except where there is a strong counter-indication for the female pill, and even then it would be a very poor second choice. Some women also take the pill to regulate (or, increasingly, to eliminate) menstrual periods. The husband taking a pill will have no more effect on this than the next door neighbour’s tablets for whatever medical condition they may have.

There would, obviously, be benefits to a male pill. These include for couples where the wife or girlfriend cannot tolerate synthetic female hormones and for religious couples who will not countenance a contraceptive pill they regard as an abortifacient because it prevents a fertilised egg from implanting itself rather than preventing contraception in the first place (many Catholics and some Muslims fall into this category). There are other categories of men who are “sowing their wild oats” or otherwise are promiscuous, but this again requires a pill with minimal adverse effects for them to continue taking it unless forced to. It’s clearly beneficial for any couple to have a choice about who is medicated and who takes what risk.

However, there seems to be an assumption that the reason the male pill has never made it to market and “all the burden falls on women” is because science is male-dominated and “the patriarchy” does not want to reduce men’s potency. This is a ludicrous assumption; vasectomies have been available for years and the usual takers are middle-aged married men who do not intend to have more children, and pharmaceutical companies want to make money and have developed medications which have all sorts of unpleasant side effects for both men and women (cancer and mental health drugs spring to mind — in the latter case, the effects are so awful that many people will not take them unless forced). The reasons are more mundane: that the female pill was easier to develop and cheap and the attempts to develop a male equivalent have failed, and even if they succeeded, they would not perform all the functions of the female pill. Finally, the obvious reason why the female pill will never be replaced by a male equivalent is that if you want to induce or prevent a given thing to happen in a given person’s body, the first (and usually only) option is always to treat that body, not someone else’s. If a woman wishes not to become pregnant, her first choice will always be to take medication herself, not rely on another. This is why, even if the side effects are overcome, the male pill will remain a niche product and this may well be a disincentive to continue investing in it.

Image source: US Food and Drug Administration via Wikipedia.

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Don’t Tell MAMA, she’ll go crazy

20 September, 2020 - 17:04
The original logo for Tell MAMA, consisting of the words in large serif font with an old iPhone replacing an 'L' and a red hijab (around a blank face) replacing an 'A'. Underneath are the words "Measuring Anti Muslim Attacks".Tell MAMA’s original logo

Recently I’ve been hearing on Twitter about Freedom of Information Act requests in the UK being refused on very obviously spurious grounds (this being a particularly egregious example), leading to speculation that there is an official campaign to frustrate such requests and render the Act null and void. The FOI is supposed to enable information about such matters as public finance which is in the public interest and not secret for reasons of national security to be released on request, and there is supposed to be a good reason if they refuse, such as that it might put somebody in danger or that the information would inevitably lead to confidential personal information being released or deduced. Yesterday, a friend posted on Twitter that he had come across a FOI refusal from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to disclose the amount of government funding given to Tell MAMA, Faith Matters, Stop Funding Hate and two other organisations. Tell MAMA is an organisation that records anti-Muslim hate incidents but also has a history of blaming Muslims for others’ hostility and bigotry, an issue I previously wrote about here, here and here. Faith Matters is their parent organisation.

The FOI request was refused on grounds which are puzzling: that it was exempt from the legislation because “disclosing it would be likely to endanger the physical or mental health, and the safety, of an individual”, namely that of those who work for the organisations specified. (The Muslim Twitter response focussed on the mental health reference, but the wording does suggest that staff or volunteer safety is the concern.) A previous request for information about funding for Tell MAMA specifically in 2016 was granted; they had received a grant of £182,000 for 2015-16 and received three other payments in mid-late 2015 of around £45,500 each. The request this year also covered Stop Funding Hate, Social Change Through Education in the Middle East (SCE-ME) and Stop Hate UK; the second is a curious entity whose ‘team’ consists of three people identified only by first names (which may or may not be their real names) and whose ‘news’ page has not been updated since 2014 and its Twitter feed not since 2018. Its patrons include Christina Patterson; I’m not sure if her attitudes towards Muslims (or others in the Middle East) have moved on much from these screeds she wrote for the Independent in 2010. Stop Funding Hate pressures businesses not to advertise in newspapers or on websites which publish bigoted opinions; a worthy cause, but I wonder why it would be receiving public money at all. Stop Hate UK is a charity that runs hate crime hotlines and its patron is Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in a notorious racist stabbing in south-east London in 1993.

I can well understand why some details about these organisations should not be released to the public, such as the names of some of their employees or volunteers, but this is not what was being requested; the request was for how much public money they have received, and the refusal covered all of them and did not mention how exactly anyone’s safety or health would be imperilled by revealing their funding when the information was apparently safe to release about Tell MAMA four years ago. While I don’t dispute that some people are against state funding for ‘woke’ or “politically correct” causes because they are themselves bigots or racists, many Muslims believe it is in our interests to know if organisations purporting to speak in our interests but who bad-mouth us to the media at every opportunity are getting public funding (that is to say, our money) to do so. Much as a means of reporting hate crimes against Muslims is absolutely necessary, it is also important that we are able to report to an organisation that has our interests at heart; Tell MAMA is often compared to the (Jewish) Community Security Trust, but you do not hear them blaming Jews (here or anywhere else) for antisemitism. I’m sure many Muslims would feel more confident sharing such information with Doreen Lawrence’s staff or volunteers than with Fiyaz Mughal’s.

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Justice matters, and it costs

30 August, 2020 - 22:43
 Now we know the cost of injustice

Last Friday some of the tabloids led with a story whingeing about the money that was spent on the defence of the men convicted of manslaughter in the case of PC Andrew Harper, who was killed by three serial robbers in west Berkshire last year. Legal Aid is the system by which the state pays for the defence of people accused of crime, so that they can be fairly represented in court against a state that will have access to its own lawyers and the money to pay for them. The case has been the focus of a public campaign to change the law so that anyone convicted of killing a police officer or other emergency services staff gets a life sentence with a whole-life tariff, even if the offence is manslaughter rather than murder (which in the case of police officers, already results in a whole-life sentence) as the officer’s family and some prominent people are dissatisfied with the verdict (see previous entry for why this change in the law is a stupid idea). The Secret Barrister posted a thread on Twitter explaining why the story, which he called a “truly vile exploitation of a grieving widow to make dishonest and intellectually void attacks on legal aid and the rule of law”, was “nonsense” and was criticised for over-emphasising the matter of where the money went (mostly, not to the lawyers) rather than the importance of legal aid itself and the right to a fair trial, which only made an appearance eight tweets into the series.

The criticism really has a ring of “it’s the intellectual elite again, talking down to ordinary people, you’ll never win an election like that”. The Secret Barrister’s name gives away his profession; he is not, right now, a politician looking to be elected to anything. But there was nothing untrue in what he posted. Justice costs money; the law costs money, because it’s complicated from having been built up over centuries, and legal representatives have to have been through years of legal training. The barrister cannot fight the case on their own; they need assistants, researchers and so on, all of whom have to be paid. They have overheads, such as the cost of their offices. Some of the cost will have gone straight back to the treasury as VAT. The figure quoted, which was exaggerated, was gross rather than net; it was nobody’s take-home pay. The figure quoted was meant to give the impression of a “fat cat lawyer” taking a huge amount of money off the taxpayer for fighting an undeserving case, a standard trope of right-wing media and politicians in recent years (and particularly when Legal Aid is being cut).

However, this money would all be spent on any of us if we were accused of a crime; it could be to prove our innocence or to prove that our wrongdoing was not as severe as the Crown contends. We cannot assume that only wrongdoers are ever accused of crime. It means equality before the law, because as legal services are expensive, anyone without the money to pay for them is at an automatic disadvantage compared to a wealthy opponent, including the Crown. This is justice; if people cannot defend themselves, other than by saying “I didn’t do it” to a court dazzled by the Crown’s presentation, the court becomes little better than a lynch mob with wigs and posh accents. Already, because Legal Aid has been cut or almost abolished in other areas, courts are facing litigants in person in such matters as child custody where previously a parent (often a mother who had not worked as much as her ex-husband, because she was looking after their children) could have relied on a lawyer to help demonstrate her fitness to parent or the shortcomings of the other parent; the presence of the lawyer means the case can be presented calmly rather than emotionally.

The matters of the VAT and fees are facts which the tabloids chose to ignore or misrepresent in their stories. Tabloids do not care much about facts. Access to legal representation, especially when accused of crimes, is among the things which are the essence of justice. It is a fact that our legal system prefers wrongful acquittals to wrongful convictions, as the latter results in an innocent person losing years of his or her freedom to no benefit to the public or the crime’s victims; this may well lead, occasionally, to someone being found innocent when they were guilty or guilty of a lesser crime than perhaps they should have been. Yet the Tory attacks on legal aid and the tabloid press cheerleading appeals to a certain sentiment whereby fairness is a thing expected by only the weak and the wrong, or both, and is not something other people (read taxpayers) should have to pay to facilitate. It is much the same as with welfare and disability allowances; people are conditioned to regard them as merely their money being given to other people rather than something everything benefits from and which they might need themselves (note how Tories use ‘fairness’ in publicity announcing cuts in public subsidy to services for disabled people; to them the term only means those with money being allowed to keep it), but most of all as what gives this country any claim to be civilised. Justice.

There is a saying in politics that if you are explaining, you are losing. Democracy is in danger if it has to be explained to people why justice matters and that the money spent on it is worth it, and all the more so if it is a futile exercise to do so. If people have been conditioned to despise justice, democracy becomes little better than mob rule and the tyranny of the intolerant majority. We have remained a tolerant society so far because governments do not pander to popular whims as expressed in tabloids; the truth is that “the people” sometimes have to be told what’s what, especially when the issue is a criminal case which was heard in court where they were not present.

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Mandatory life sentences for manslaughter?

16 August, 2020 - 21:09
Computer-generated image of the scene of PC Harper’s death

A few days ago I got a link on my social media to a story about a campaign for the law to be changed so that there would be a mandatory life sentence for killing any member of the emergency services. This came after three young men were given prison sentences for the manslaughter of a police officer after they dragged him to his death from the back of a getaway following a robbery in which the attackers had stolen a quad bike. The jury were unconvinced that they intended to kill the officer but convicted him of manslaughter; the driver received 16 years and the two passengers 13 years each. The campaign was started by the officer’s widow but then supported by another officer who had suffered critical injuries from being run over by car thieves. It is supported by the head of the Police Federation.

I find this to be one of the most stupid campaigns I have ever heard of. There is already a mandatory life sentence for murder, and where the victim is a police officer in the line of duty, the minimum time to be served (the tariff) is higher. Murder is unlawful killing which is intentional or where the attacker intended to cause them grievous bodily harm; manslaughter is where there is some mitigation, such as that there was no intent to kill and that the course of action does not usually result in death (such as when someone dies from a single punch to the face). Other mitigations include provocation and diminished responsibility, meaning that someone’s mental health is impaired, even if only temporarily. Manslaughter can result in a life sentence, though not a whole-life tariff (i.e. where someone is told at trial that they will spend the rest of their life in prison), which is generally reserved for multiple or highly aggravated murders. An example of this was Mick Philpott, who set fire to his house (it is believed so that he could “play the hero” by rescuing his family) and the fire killed six children (five his, one his wife’s from a previous relationship). A list of people serving whole-life sentences can be found here.

It’s dangerous to demand that someone who kills unintentionally should face the same sentence as a serial murderer just because of who the victim was. The lives of police officers or even fire-fighters or paramedics are not more valuable than those of the rest of us. A myth is being promoted that police officers are in general heroes who put their lives on the line for our sake and this is not always the case. Some police officers are also corrupt, racist or abusive. If such an officer is killed by someone they had provoked or abused while on duty, or (say) during a car chase which started when a motorist sped away from the latest in a long line of stops which were clearly motivated by his skin colour, the sentence should be no more than if he had treated anyone else in the same way. Similarly, when someone causes another’s death through reckless driving, there is an appropriate sentence depending on the severity of the careless or dangerous driving as it takes only a minor distraction to lose control of a vehicle and only a low-speed collision to kill someone. It is unjust that someone could be jailed for life for causing death by mere careless driving just because the victim is someone ‘important’.

This campaign would not be running if PC Andrew Harper’s killers had been found guilty of murder and received life sentences. PC Harper’s widow tells us she hopes that “any widows of the future will not have to experience the same miscarriages of justice”; this was not a miscarriage of justice but merely an unsatisfactory outcome of a system designed to ensure justice and that punishment is proportionate to the crime. That system errs on the side of acquitting rather than convicting. I agree that people who kill officers to aid their getaway or who attack paramedics or fire-fighters for kicks or to make sure a victim dies or that their property is destroyed deserve to be punished severely (all the more so in the latter case if the fire-fighters or paramedics are killed), but we must resist emotion and make the usual distinctions so that only murderers are punished as murderers.

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London driving and the heatwave

14 August, 2020 - 19:12
A suspension bridge over a river with towers, archway and supports painted green. The sky is blue.Hammersmith Bridge, London

So, the heatwave in the UK has finally ended after six days of temperatures in the mid-30s (Celsius) every day. Yesterday or the day before, much of the south has had at least one major thunderstorm and a good dose of rain and temperatures are down to a more normal and bearable 25 degrees. Many of us were waiting expectantly for the storms as the forecasts had been predicting them to start on Sunday night, then Monday morning, and in the event we had to wait until Wednesday evening for the first storm in London and even then it was only a short one in south-west London. Although never as hot as the hottest day last year, when temperatures of 39 degrees were recorded, nor anything like as long as the dry spell of 2018, I cannot remember seeing temperatures in the mid-30s for this many days running. The drop in temperatures is very welcome as it became impossible to sleep comfortably, even with the windows open and fan on.

An irritating thing about heatwaves in this country is how they are talked about in the media. For some reason, weather forecasters (especially on local radio) are incapable of talking about it in factual terms; they always gush about how wonderful hot weather is. A hot day is never just a hot day; it’s a “lovely day”. A rainy day is always a “miserable day”. Even as the recent heatwave progressed and it looked like it was going to be broken by thunderstorms, presenters told us that there was a ‘risk’ of thunderstorms and that there might not be “decent heat”. I appreciate that sun is welcome after a wet spell, but the same is true after a long or intense dry (or humid) and hot spell, but even so, for those of us who have to work outside, an overcast, moderately warm day has more comfortable conditions to work in than a sunny day with temperates in the high 20s, let alone 30s. They are only “lovely days” if you are at leisure. And much as rain can be inconvenient (or dangerous, if too much falls at a time), the rain that falls is the water we drink and wash with. Does anyone want to live in a desert? Does anyone realise how lucky we are not to suffer severe water shortages in this country, that we are not restricted to four-minute showers because of constant drought?

If you’re in an air-conditioned office, heat does not become as irritating as it can be if you are sitting in a long traffic jam, made all the worse by idiotic decisions by town hall bureaucrats (since London doesn’t have a proper council). London’s Vauxhall Bridge has been closed for “essential works”, meaning people have to use Lambeth or Chelsea Bridges instead. Vauxhall is the lowest bridge on the Thames which has no weight or width limits and no toll; temporarily, Lambeth Bridge and its two southern approaches have been exempted from the Congestion Charge but more direct routes to Lambeth Bridge are still subject to the toll. So, on Wednesday afternoon I left a building site north of Chelsea Bridge around 3pm and hit solid traffic as Ebury Bridge Road merged with Chelsea Bridge Road and everyone from those two had to compete with traffic from both directions on the Embankment to get onto the one lane of Chelsea Bridge. We also could not turn right onto the Embankment towards Earl’s Court and the A4, despite this being the way we had been directed to come to the site, so we had to go south towards Clapham Common. I turned left, hoping to turn left up either Lupus Street (which turned out to be too narrow for the truck I was driving) or Vauxhall Bridge Road, but they had imposed a no-left-turn restriction at that junction for no obvious reason, meaning I had to go over Lambeth Bridge and back via Vauxhall.

Transport for London has a page about the closure but it does not mention the fact that access to Vauxhall Bridge Road from Grosvenor Road is closed, nor explain why; it explains that there is no congestion charge on the signed diversion route but does not give a description of it (and the signage is not all that good; one folding sign at the approach to each roundabout). It would be better if direct routes to Lambeth Bridge were also excluded so that people could make a quicker exit east or west (via Horseferry Road and/or Lambeth Road) but they are not. Both the decision making and the communication about it are appalling and I can see a lot of people stuck in those delays not wanting to vote for Sadiq Khan when his extra year in office ends (assuming there’s not another wave of Coronavirus by then and they extend it by yet another year).

And only yesterday, Hammersmith Bridge was closed to pedestrians and cyclists as well as motor vehicles after another crack was discovered following the heatwave. The river and walkways under the bridge have also been closed. The Victorian suspension bridge has had three attempts made to destroy it by the IRA or splinter groups since the 1930s and since 1998 has had a 7.5T weight limit until last year when it was closed to all motor vehicles. Until then it had been a major route, linking the A3 with the A4 and making the trip through Sheen and over Kew Bridge unnecessary. If it’s not even safe to walk or cycle over, surely now is the time to finally demolish it and replace it with something that might not be as pretty but can carry the traffic it used to carry — something that should have been done years ago, when they discovered that they clearly could not strengthen it.

Finally, earlier this week I read that cycling campaigners were up in arms that one of the roads through Richmond Park, from Kingston to Richmond gates (the Queen’s Road), was being re-opened to through traffic after having been closed during the lockdown. Other roads in the park will remain closed, as have a number of other roads through London’s Royal Parks such as Chestnut Avenue in Bushy Park, which links Hampton Court with Teddington (to show how important this road is, the A309 route stops at the northern gate and restarts at Hampton Court Bridge; Chestnut Avenue is the missing link, though it was only ever open during daylight hours and only to cars, not goods vehicles). Frankly, the cyclists can “do one”. They have cycle paths through Richmond Park already which they rarely seem to use. The Queen’s Road is an important thoroughfare linking places to the east of Kingston with Richmond, Sheen and the M4. It has always been used by through traffic. Without it, you would have to drive through Kingston town centre, along a residential road in between the town and the park, or via a circuitous route around the park via Roehampton — the route swollen with the traffic that would previously have used Hammersmith Bridge. Richmond Park is huge; the roads are round the perimeter and most of it is traffic-free and it would not cost much to install crossings so that people could safely make their way from the car parks to the interior. Cyclists already have plenty of traffic-free space in Richmond Park; they do not have a right to claim a major route that is for everyone.

Image: Edwardx, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 licence.

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Corbyn, Brexit, and Labour’s civil war

9 August, 2020 - 18:28
A 'Brexit flag' with an EU flag and Union flag being torn apart.

I still follow a number of Labour ‘left’ accounts on Twitter and among these there is a common explanation for the 2019 election result, which is that Corbyn’s decision to adopt a second referendum on Brexit as a policy was the cause of, if not the result itself, then at least the loss of a large part of the “Red wall” to the Tories. The ‘proof’ is that, while still promising to “respect the referendum” in 2017, the party secured more than 40% of the vote and came within a few thousand votes of being able to form a government, while after supporting a second referendum, they lost hand over fist in Leave-voting “Old Labour” constituencies in the North. They tout a single poll which supposedly found that Corbyn himself was a deciding factor for a tiny proportion of the voters who switched while Brexit was a factor for something like 45% or more. I find this explanation doubtful, and still less than the idea that it is the whole story of why they lost so dramatically.

Put quite simply, it’s a standard trope of Labour Left thinking: when Labour lose, it’s because it wasn’t ‘left’ enough. It was the same thinking which prompted Labour’s lurch to the left in the early 1980s which led to the major defeat of 1983. They know that Jeremy Corbyn was on the Labour Left in the 1980s and was always opposed to the EEC and EU and it’s widely perceived that his pro-Remain stance in 2016 was tepid; his change of stance in 2019 was seen as him “not being him enough” and “caving in” to opponents (read Blairites or Starmerites) in the party. They ignore the fact that many of Corbyn’s supporters in the party are young people who have little or no memory of the IRA campaign of the 1970s to the 1990s, for example, and thus are not put off as older people are by Corbyn’s association with them, and are often opposed to leaving the EU: young people often are, as it means that their prospects will be narrowed, and their travels will be made more difficult.

The Tories won 44% of the vote as a result of the Brexit Party not contesting seats where there were Tory Leaver incumbents. With the exception of the Ulster and Democratic Unionists, who do not compete with the Tories anyway, the pro-Brexit (mainstream) vote was largely united. That left three, sometimes four in the case of Wales and Scotland, parties opposing Brexit or at least supporting a further referendum standing against each other. In some of these constituencies, a single anti-Brexit candidate could have defeated a Tory insurgent: for example, in Blyth Valley, which was won by a Tory with 42.7% of the vote, the combined Labour, Lib Dem and Green vote was 49%. In Burnley, where a Tory newcomer won with 40.3%, the combined Labour and Lib Dem votes alone were 45.9%. This was not the case everywhere; in some “red wall” constituencies, the Conservative candidate secured more than 50% of the vote and in some of those, a Brexit Party candidate additionally polled more than 5%. In many safe Tory seats, the Tory candidate won well over 50% of the vote, even in constituencies which voted to remain in 2016 (e.g. Newbury, Henley, Tunbridge Wells). But the vote share of anti-Brexit parties (Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens) in England alone was 49.9%; the Tories and Brexit Party’s combined was 49.2%. In Wales, the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru combined polled over 50%. The reason the Tories won was division, and this was a product partly of their usual sectarianism but also, very largely, of distrust of Corbyn and the people around him. (There was a pro-Brexit alliance, but the Labour party refused to participate; only nine of its candidates were elected and only one who was not the incumbent, namely Sarah Olney in Richmond Park.)

Another favourite claim is that Corbyn’s vote tally was larger than some of Tony Blair’s. A good example is this tweet by “Damian from Brighton” last Sunday:

The problem with this is that it fails to reflect anything about the changing times. Blair’s second and third election victory were 19 and 15 years ago and the population will have increased since then. Blair had to contend with two significant opponents in England (three in Scotland and Wales) as the Liberal Democrats were still a significant force; in other words, his opponents were more divided. This is why Blair was able to win a majority in Parliament on the back of 36% of the national vote. A large body of the Lib Dems’ support has dissipated as a result of their participation in the 2010-15 coalition but also because of the Tories’ promise of the EU referendum in both 2010 and 2015 and their “yellow wall” in the south-west has fallen entirely; they are now only to be found in a few prosperous towns (e.g. St Albans) and London suburbs. These vote tallies also do not include the Tories’ vote tallies, which were 13,966,454 in 2019 and 13,636,684 in 2017: more than Corbyn’s on both occasions, in other words (and their vote share increased by much less than Labour’s decrease). This is not a US-style election where you can win the presidency despite losing the popular vote by more than 3 million votes.

There is much to criticise about Corbyn’s campaign, the behaviour and attitudes of his followers during his leadership and since. They blame everyone but themselves and are wedded to conspiracy theories about why Labour lost two elections, the second by a very large margin. However, the party’s Right, the remnants of Blair’s movement, share a large part of the blame for the party’s current predicament. Any leader in 2017 and 2019 would have been hindered by Blair’s legacy: his decision to allow hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in from eastern Europe, contrary to the decision of almost all the other prior EU member states and the policy at the time of the Spanish and Portuguese accession, where their workers could travel freely but not work in existing member states for a period of years until their economies had caught up. As Blair had treated the northern white working-class vote as being “in the bag” and believed they had “nowhere to go”, he left the northern “rust belt” intact and made no attempt to revive heavy industry there. Neither the Remain campaign in 2016 nor the Labour party in 2019 had anything to sell to northern working-class voters; Britain had never engaged with Europe for their benefit but for that of big business, especially the finance industry. Blair also dissipated his support among voters inclined towards social justice with a contemptuous attitude toward civil liberties and repeated outbursts of meanness from senior politicians before and after the 1997 election; he kowtowed before the Tory press on immigration and led us into a disastrous war because he was unwilling to say no to George W Bush, allowing the Lib Dem vote to be built up and later sold to Cameron. His admirers remind us again and again that he won three general election victories but his two respectable victories were 19 and 23 years ago; his third was only possible because of the strength of the Liberal Democrats and he did not cultivate credible leaders to succeed him, which is why the party lost every election after he stepped down. Apart from the equalities reforms of his first term, his legacy was so thin that it could be torn apart in one parliamentary term.

Blair’s followers are arrogant. They have contempt for dissenters, which includes most of the party membership currently (though this may have changed since Starmer became leader). They believe they own the party. They are blind to the limitations of their model: Blair’s charisma only carried him so far, and nobody who is around now has anything like it anyway. The 1997 model cannot be redeployed in the 21st century as the world has moved on. We even see them imitating Corbyn’s cult following by praising Starmer’s performance which anyone can see is weak; they call his questions ‘forensic’, for example, when they are nothing but common parliamentary point-scoring. Although, as discussed in a previous article, opinion polls now are of limited value as there is no prospect of an election any time soon, Labour’s approval ratings are vastly below the Tories’, contrary to Starmer’s supporters’ expectations. This does not mean they would be greatly higher if Corbyn were still leader; it means that the public does not trust an obviously divided party, much as it did not trust the Conservatives in 1997.

Labour will never recover the trust of the general public, let alone win an election, until its two warring factions stop blaming each other, and indeed everyone but themselves, for the state of the party. They both have to face up to the role they each played. They have less than five years to do this as Boris Johnson is not another Blair and his bumbling personality will not carry him through multiple elections.

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Why is Boris Johnson popular? Is he?

2 August, 2020 - 20:07
A still from a 1999 edition of Have I Got News For You, showing Boris Johnson sitting in front of a backdrop consisting of British newspaper cuttings from the time.Boris Johnson on the BBC quiz show Have I Got News For You in December 1999.

Last Monday, a piece called Why Boris Johnson just keeps on winning, by the pro-Brexit academic Matthew Goodwin, appeared on the Tory-dominated opinion website UnHerd, which examined why the Tories continue to be several points ahead of Labour in opinion polls a year after Boris Johnson became leader despite a pandemic and a record contraction of the economy. (The piece is now offered as “best of the week” on UnHerd’s front page.) Goodwin claims that Johnson has “consistently been underestimated” and “routinely mocked and derided by people who have simultaneously failed to make sense of his appeal”. In this, Goodwin claims, he has achieved sustained popularity which has eluded any Tory prime minister since Thatcher. He claims that the reason is that Johnson appeals to a provincial vote which prioritises nationhood and favours stability over change, and rejects what he calls ‘declinism’, an over-developed awareness of Britain’s loss of place in the world.

First, it has to be remembered that it has only been eight months since Johnson won his only election victory so far. His party has a strong majority and thus it can be assumed that there will be no new election until this parliament’s five-year term is up. There is a sense of resignation that Johnson will be prime minister for some time, the people have spoken, and there’s little point in believing someone else should be and perhaps people believe it shows a disrespect for democracy (a point hammered home in the recent Brexit debate). Second, and this should be obvious: coming top of opinion polls is not the same as winning; general (and to a lesser extent local) election results are what can be won. Johnson has won a single election. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair each won three. John Major won one. David Cameron won one outright and won the peace, so to speak, after another. True, a general election can be won on the basis of much less than 40% of the vote when there are two significant opponents rather than just one (see 2005), but three general election wins represent lasting popularity in a way that a single result against a very weak and divided opposing party and a few months’ opinion poll results do not.

Third, we are indeed in the middle of a crisis and there is a saying that “you don’t change horses in the middle of a stream”, a phrase commonly used regarding war but could be deemed to apply equally to the current crisis. Furthermore, regardless of the flattery he may receive from the Labour Right, Keir Starmer has offered only weak opposition, cautiously criticising some of the government’s policies but suggesting no major change in direction. Like many on the timid Labour right, he behaves as if ‘opposition’ is a dirty word despite that being Labour’s position right now. This is a far cry from how Tony Blair behaved during his period as Labour opposition leader. Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has been in some regards scandalous, especially in terms of how nursing homes were swamped with infected patients from hospitals who then infected other residents and staff, but in other respects I believe the public mood supported his actions; there was no appetite, for example, for a stringent lockdown along the same lines as Italy or Spain. Italy’s was justified on the grounds of the terrible death toll in some northern cities which overwhelmed the local health system; Spain’s explicitly on the grounds of protecting the elderly who had supported their families during the most recent economic crisis. In this country, there is not as much love for the elderly in general; twenty years ago, when there were World War II veterans in their seventies, a stricter lockdown for their sake might have been thought justified. Today’s seventy-somethings are those born during the war and early baby-boomers and they are not seen as being anything like as heroic. The other major group of victims are disabled people, who have been victims of a government and press campaign against “benefit scroungers” since the 2010 election. While the death toll has been huge, people unaffected do not regard the victims as being people like them. Poorer minority ethnic communities with a large proportion of manual or health workers have been disproportionately affected. Many families, on the other hand, have lost nobody.

As for Johnson’s provincial vote base, Goodwin’s explanation is his standard dichotomy of the “citizens of somewhere” versus “citizens of the world/nowhere”. He claims that Johnson is unpopular in London, while popular across the rest of the South, popular among Leavers, Tories and the “working class” and unpopular among Remainers and the “middle class”. This ignores some of the results from both the 2016 referendum and the 2019 election; many districts in the “non-London south” voted to remain, particularly west of London, but many of these areas then voted strongly Tory in 2019. Johnson’s base is precisely the affluent western home counties; his original parliamentary seat was Henley in Oxfordshire. He won two terms as mayor of London. As for 2019, the weakness of Corbyn as a candidate for prime minister may have contributed to his success among Remainers, but Tory candidates polled well over 50% in constituencies in the out-of-London Remain belt, while they won with mere pluralities in some of their much-vaunted former “Red Wall” seats (though they won some of them with outright majorities as well).

Goodwin accuses Johnson’s opponents of a “culture of repudiation” which “is reflected in repeated claims that Britain is ridden with racism, that its history was more negative than positive, that its contribution to the world has been more bad than good”. He makes this generalisation about those who respond with approval to Johnson’s popularity polls:

What unites Boris Johnson’s voters is not so much their economic experience, as their values. They prioritise the nation and the national community. They prefer stability over change. And they favour continuity over disruption and discontinuity. This is why they cherish Britain’s history, heritage and collective memory and are more sensitive to attempts to deconstruct them. And while they acknowledge that this history is complex, they believe that, on the whole, it was positive and that Britain has been a force for good in the world. In short, they believe in their country. They are proud of it. And they are proud of their fellow citizens.

This is really preposterous. How can anyone believe in ‘stability’ and ‘continuity’ yet support taking the country out of a major trading bloc when there is no viable alternative, despite warnings of job losses, food shortages, disruption at borders and so on? And of course, people who have never been stopped and searched by police while walking in the street, or who have never been pulled over by police who believed that someone of their appearance with a nice car must have stolen it, will not think Britain is “ridden with racism”. People who were not affected by the British Empire’s atrocities will think it was a force for good in the world. It’s why English is the dominant language in popular culture; it’s why Britain was able to have a cotton-based textile industry (because Indian cotton was shipped in). People who have lived all their lives here have only known modern democracy and imagine that the British Empire was a bit like it; in fact, Britain itself was not a democracy for most of the time Britain had an empire. We do not learn about the famines caused by British policy in India at school; we have started hearing about atrocities against Kenyan natives during the so-called Mau Mau uprising only recently. We barely even know how the British army and police behaved in Ireland; unless you’ve studied it for yourself, you might think the IRA started it all.

He then accuses Remainers of falling victim to what he calls ‘declinism’: “the belief that Britain’s best days are in the past”, “the assumption that, because of decisions that went against their own politics, Britain has become a diminished world power, is falling behind other states and is led by incompetent, amateurish elites who either lack the required expertise or ‘correct’ ideology to reverse this decline or, worse, are actively perpetuating it”. Britain has become a diminished world power; we were an imperial power within living memory and have been reduced to the “mother country” and a few islands dotted here and there. There is an over-developed sense of Britain’s loss of power in some sections of the British elite and political class; this can be seen in how Britain signs extradition treaties that are not fully reciprocal, sending British citizens to face trial in other countries while many other states will not extradite their own nationals for things which are not crimes at home, or will not do so at all; we also do not ensure that the overseas judicial system is fair or not subject to undue delay. But there is a difference between a kind of debilitating consciousness of our own decline, such that our state refuses to protect its citizens or otherwise stand on its own two feet, and being realistic about the economic consequences of leaving the EU without a good deal.

On the contrary, it is Brexit supporters who most hanker for a past that has never existed, one in which Britain “stood alone”, beat Germany in the War and prospered. I have even seen interviews with people in bars who claimed that we were once an empire. Yes, of course, we were; we lost it. There was once a Europe of imperial mother countries — Britain, France, Spain, Portugal — and one that tried to build its empire among them. It was perpetually at war, for centuries. Since the end of World War II, there has been no conflict between any of those countries. Many Remainers do indeed mourn a very recent past in which the EU stood for a bond of friendship and a space in which people could learn each other’s languages and share each other’s cultures, regardless of the blind spots in that vision (it principally applied to white people; many countries became intolerant of minority cultures, and European powers, including the UK, sat on their hands while a genocide took place in Bosnia) but they very much celebrate the peace that has flourished in western Europe for all these decades and spread to southern and eastern Europe from the 1980s on. This is all observable fact; the Britain that “stood alone” is a myth.

Goodwin is, despite his academic background, offering up a profoundly anti-intellectual analysis. He persistently refers to a “liberal establishment” without offering any evidence that it exists. Our commercial media has long been dominated by reactionaries as proprietors know that appealing to base instincts and prejudices sell more copies than offering nuance and telling readers what they do not want to hear (e.g. that prison, for all but the most serious offenders, does not work); on the particular issue of Europe, they have peddled lies for decades. To make Johnson look like some kind of towering statesman, he uses extraordinary euphemisms and trivialises vitally important things; he describes Johnson’s supposed conservative, provincial base as having a “politics of faith” in which “they are generally willing to give him a free pass when he fumbles the more technocratic or process-led side of politics” — in other words, when he proves himself profoundly incompetent, potentially with the result of tens of thousands of lives lost, or shows contempt for parliamentary democracy by trying to close parliament when it should be in session. He proposes a straw man in which Remainers measure the “health of the nation” through GDP alone. No, it’s not the only measure of a nation’s health, but a functioning economy is important. With Britain cut off from its major trading partners, vulnerable to demands from other major players such as the USA and China, we will have much less of one and much less bargaining power. So much for stability.

Boris Johnson does not really connect with the wider Tory-voting public, much less with the ‘converts’ in the former “Red Wall”. Any such connection is fabricated by the sycophantic media; he is firmly based in London and the wealthy Thames valley, much as David Cameron was. His success has much to do with the weak opposition, both under Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer, and the divisions in their party, a matter that Goodwin does not even examine. Johnson has a certain amount of charisma, and has endeared himself to a section of the public through years on game shows and the like; his tenure as mayor of London was not the disaster many feared when an avowed racist and serial liar was elected to such an important role. But Tony Blair was charismatic as well; he also benefited from a divided and scandal-ridden opposition. His charisma only carried him so far — he won a third election by the skin of his teeth and resigned two years later — and the Tories recovered. Much the same can be said for Margaret Thatcher. Unlike either of those two, Johnson has a very long journalistic and political career distinguished for much ill: lying, racist rabble-rousing, wasting of public money, game-show timewasting. He has been in office for a year and it is too soon to describe him as someone who “keeps winning”.

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A tax on progress

27 July, 2020 - 16:04
Statues of two iguanadons on rocks in a public park.Outdated statues of the extinct iguanadon at Crystal Palace Park, London

Today it was announced that the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, was considering introducing an online sales tax, citing such reasons as a need to “protect the high street” from fears about coronavirus at a time when a number of department stores have been closing stores or going out of business, as well as the pollution caused by delivery vans. According to Steven Swinford of the Times (on Twitter), the government is looking at two models: a 2% levy on the sale of goods online, which would raise around £2bn annually, or a charge for deliveries of goods bought online, “which would form part of campaign to cut congestion and toxic emissions”. This ignores the reasons for why people prefer to shop online, especially at a time when there is a well-founded fear of the coronavirus but even before. It is clearly discriminatory towards disabled people for a number of reasons.

First, department stores and high-street clothing retailers were having difficulties long before coronavirus hit. People preferred to shop online simply becuase it is easier to find many types of garments in a website or app than in a physical store, because stores are often arranged according to the product range or concession rather than by the category of item. So, say you want to buy a long skirt in a particular colour: on an app, you can just search for it. In the store, you have to know where the item is, as it will not be with other long skirts but with other clothing items from the same range or manufacturer which has a concession in the store (as found in John Lewis, House of Fraser and most others). The department store model relies on shopping being a leisure activity and that you might not be looking just for that item but whatever might take your fancy while browsing. If you just want the skirt, however, it’s easier to just buy it online. Menswear is often a bit more rationally arranged with T-shirts, jeans, chinos and so on grouped together.

At times like these, retail therapy is starting to seem a lot less therapeutic for many people. Especially at weekends, town centres have become crowded and there is no pretence of social distancing. Clearly there are some who are sick of lockdown and just want to get out and enjoy themselves but for others that represents an obvious health risk. Many people are still shielding or have a close relative who is fragile and has to be protected from exposure to the virus. Some people are under mandatory quarantine because of having the virus or having been exposed to it. They cannot just get out and help “save the High Street” which is dying anyway; they are still reliant on online deliveries. Many disabled people cannot easily get out to shop at the High Street, perhaps because of chronic illness, perhaps because of the inaccessiblity of the shopping area itself, lack of reliable public transport, the lack of suitable toilets (my local town centre, Kingston, does not have a Changing Place, meaning anyone who cannot transfer manually has nowhere to relieve themselves), the lack or unreliability of disabled parking; there could be any number of reasons. To people dependent on disability benefits (because their health or lack of accessible employment keeps them out of work), this new tax will mean they have less to live on when they have no alternative, short of sending a friend into town.

As for the tax being targeted at pollution, surely online ordering reduces emissions because it reduces journeys made by individuals to town centres. Many people travelling to town centres to meet up with friends or relatives and browse the shops do so by car (possibly more so at the moment, as public transport is restricted), and cause pollution while queuing for car parking or getting stuck in traffic on the way; newer retail parks are often designed to be driven to, often located off motorway junctions (e.g. Bluewater in Kent). If goods are delivered directly to consumers, this also saves on a truck journey from the distribution centre to the store. There are already taxes on vehicles which are aimed at keeping older vans and trucks which produce more emissions either off the road or out of heavily-populated areas. So, the pollution angle seems like an excuse.

This new tax seems calculated also to support incumbent large businesses such as department stores, while many smaller manufacturers depend on online distribution chains as well as Amazon. These companies offer choice to consumers that the High Street often does not; if you want an item of clothing which simply is not available in the shops because some committee somewhere has decided it’s going to be out of fashion this season, an online seller is likely to offer it. There are also specialist, niche clothing manufacturers which have never had access to high street shops, such as Lucy & Yak and Wash Clothing, which specialise in lightweight dungarees and denim clothing respectively, as well as the various modest clothing vendors here and overseas (such as Shukr and Modanisa) which a lot of Muslims rely on. Just because our clothing choices aren’t mainstream, why should we pay an extra tax to support a few large, outdated companies?

Of course, Rishi Sunak needs to raise tax revenues urgently. People are losing jobs, spending is down, many people do not want to go out for long, companies that were already struggling are facing a final straw, and he has cut VAT to 5% for hospitality services such as restaurants and take-away food, though only for the rest of this year. Much as people always said he was pursuing policies more socialist than Jeremy Corbyn could have dreamed of, we always knew he would have to pay for it somehow, and would insist on doing so sooner rather than later. This tax is a latter-day “red flag” law; it is a tax that seeks to hold back the march of progress. In the past, businesses based on outdated practices and models which were losing out to competition were called “lame ducks” and were refused public support; the same must be true of Debenhams, House of Fraser and other retail dinosaurs which cannot compete with well-designed websites and apps. This tax is regressive (in every sense of the term) and discriminatory and should not be allowed to proceed.

Image source: Jes, via Wikipedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) licence, version 2.0.

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Garmin’s four-day outage reflects incompetence

26 July, 2020 - 18:28
A screenshot of Garmin's (@GarminUK) Twitter feed, which contains information and apology about the recent outage but no explanation about its origin or how long it might take to fix.Garmin’s Twitter feed, Sunday evening (26th July)

Last Thursday when I started work, driving a truck for a flooring company, I attempted to connect my new Garmin sat-nav to get software updates. It told me it couldn’t connect to the update server. I assumed it was an issue with my mobile network and resolved to try again later. However, later that evening, the Garmin Express app on my home computer told me the same. I looked at Garmin’s Twitter feed and there was a pinned message that all of Garmin’s systems were down, including their update servers and their phone systems, which meant they could not offer telephone support either. Over the last few days, it has emerged that the outage is result of a ransomware attack, in which a malware program encrypts the victim’s files and demands money for the key to decrypt it, by a Russian-based group which has attacked a number of other large companies and demanded millions of dollars each time. While it doesn’t affect the day-to-day running of my sat-nav, it does affect other devices, including smart watches and aircraft navigation units, which rely on connectivity with Garmin, and this has resulted in planes having to be grounded. As of Sunday evening, the Garmin Twitter feed only offers the notice of the outage and an apology, with no explanation nor any indication of how long the problem will take to resolve. (However, Garmin Express, the update system for sat-navs, seems have come back online as of Sunday evening.)

The new sat-nav I tried to update last Thursday is my fifth Garmin sat-nav. I make a point of buying new devices in the £300-400 price bracket when they come out and reviewing them, sometimes sending them back if they are inadequate (which both TomTom units I bought were). I have been using Garmin devices for most of the time I have been driving trucks and they are the best on the market, which does not mean they are not sometimes frustrating to use. They have the best selection of features available; I don’t need a built-in TV (offered on some Snooper devices), though people might if they have to stay away several nights, but I do need hands-free phone use which is inadequate on TomTom, absent from Snooper and Aguri and a few years ago, Garmin’s Dezl 780 dropped the feature without explanation. Oddly, the smaller 580 retained it; I reasoned that it was the result of the 780 having a new Android back end, so as to enable it to link to new American tachograph systems, but I had to file a report with Garmin to find out that the omission was by design. As I drive different trucks week to week, I need vehicle profiles and not just the ability to set the weight, height etc for the specific journey, which is all TomTom’s devices offer. And I need it to be fast and responsive; TomTom’s truck navigators certainly aren’t.

That Garmin could fall victim to a scam like this is a very poor reflection on their competence, to say the least. Surely their data should have been backed up regularly, so that any malware attack could have been circumvented by simply restoring an update from before the malware took hold. This kind of backup system is easily obtained and built into some operating systems (Mac OS, for example). Surely also their update repositories should have been mirrored on other servers around the world, as is the case with open-source software which can be downloaded from several servers in each country. Admittedly, organisations offer mirror services to open-source projects as a service to the community, but surely commercial organisations like Garmin could pay for space as well. It will need to be investigated how this malware became active on Garmin’s systems; according to Bleeping Computer, it is distributed using fake software update notifications issued by the attackers’ own JavaScript framework. The attacks take advantage of vulnerabilities in Windows, of course. It raises the question of why anyone is still using this operating system for mission-critical back-end use when there are much more secure alternatives available.

The new sat-nav (the Dezl LGV 700, which breaks with the old naming conventions), incidentally, is a moderate improvement on the old one. The new screen is great; the mapping is a lot more detailed than on the 580 which had only a 5in screen with poor resolution (poorer than on the 780). The voice command system has been redesigned and is somewhat simpler, with the old menu system removed (perhaps because it was deemed a distraction) and seems to offer less functionality. You can still use it for hands-free calling, but you have to know who you’re calling because it doesn’t offer call lists or a scrollable phone book (you can access this with the touch screen, though). The new system seems to have eliminated the ‘history’ voice command, which when used in front of an iPhone would cause it to wake up and activate Siri as it mistook the word for “hey Siri”, so you can now turn that feature on your phone back on. It takes a bit of hunting through the settings to get filling stations, parking and other points of interest to show on the maps, which they really should as standard. It also offers only two route suggestions, like the 580; previous 7in units offered three. Traffic news now comes through its Garmin Drive smartphone app; older devices had an antenna attached to the power lead, and the new service is more reliable but invariably uses your mobile data.

There are three devices in the new series, the 700, 800 and 1000, the numbers reflecting the size in inches of the screens, and the two larger units can be deployed vertically or horizontally (portrait or landscape); however, only the 700 is compatible with old mounting devices (this is not made clear in any of their sales material) and no new ones seem to have been produced to accommodate the bigger units’ new larger ball joint. This means that you might find you have nowhere to put your navigator if you buy one of the two larger units; it offers a screw-down and large suction mount on a rather awkward and inflexible mounting arm, as well as a ‘male’ ball joint connector to attach to third-party devices (not the same as the ‘female’ ball-joint connector that is on the 700 and other smaller Garmin units). So, the 700 is the only consumer unit here; the 800 and 1000 are for installation on specific vehicles, most likely by the owner. This is a shame as I would have liked to have had the extra information on screen that a larger screen offered. All in all, it’s a good upgrade, but despite appearances, it’s not that radical a departure from the old devices. If you want a decent-sized unit with hands-free phone access, though, this one is for you.

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Potential problems with face masks

15 July, 2020 - 21:34
A woman with hair partly dyed purple wearing a pollution mask with white, green, yellow and blue stars on it. To her right are some flower pots and behind her is a light green, three-storey building with wooden cladding.A woman wearing a Vogmask. (Note: masks like these with filters are not suitable for virus containment. Their other masks may be.)

So, finally yesterday the government announced that face masks were to be made mandatory in shops in England, as they have been in Scotland for weeks, from the 24th of July (Friday week), which although it has attracted criticism for lack of urgency, gives people a chance to prepare (ie. buy enough to have one for any shopping trip they may make). This reflects growing acceptance that face coverings do inhibit the spread of the virus in confined spaces such as shops; previously reusable cloth masks were thought to be ineffective (as opposed to medical grade masks) and to make people careless about keeping their distance or, in the early days of lockdown, staying at home. Some disabled people and those with breathing difficulties are exempt although it remains to be seen how these exemptions will be enforced.

I have personally never worn a mask; I have some small surgical ones that my mother bought from a local Korean shop, but it wasn’t big enough to cover my chin; I suspect I will have to remove much of my beard to get a mask to cover me effectively. However, I try to avoid others in shops, often without much success. Shop aisles are too narrow and some of them are too popular to remain uncrowded. The worst experiences I have had are in mini-markets such as the local Tesco stores. You can’t pass people at anywhere near the safe 2m distance. In addition, supermarkets have stopped controlling entry; I have not seen a queue outside any supermarket in weeks. I don’t feel comfortable while shopping and probably won’t until the pandemic is over, mask or no mask. I don’t browse for pleasure anymore.

I don’t have any truck with the idea that masks are an intolerable impingement on freedom. The people that do are typically those who resent having to do anything differently to benefit other people besides their own family or friends, which is reflected in the political choices of many of them. While I have seen many women object on these grounds, another source for the hostility may lie with the fact that face coverings have up until now mostly been worn by Muslim women, making them both foreign and feminine (strangely, I have not seen a substantial uptake of the traditional face coverings among Muslim women recently; those I have seen with covered faces around here and even in parts of Birmingham I have passed through have mostly been wearing masks rather than veils). The only places we are being asked to wear them is in shops and on public transport, which are indoor environments where space is often restricted and it is difficult to keep apart from others. As Covid-19 is a disease which often produces long-term chronic illness even if it does not put someone on a ventilator, needing to wear a mask for a few minutes a day is much less of a restriction on your liberty or that of someone else you might meet than a damaged lung.

However, I can see some teething problems and I hope it is not enforced too aggressively in the first few days. (Shop staff have been told to inform the police if they see someone shopping without a mask; this is likely to amount to an awful lot of calls.) This is new to most people, including me. I don’t know which type of mask is most comfortable, best fitting or most effective. A lot of people are going to be buying masks over the next week and a bit to try and find out which works best for them. It is clear that supermarkets do not have enough to fulfil the demand that is likely to arise over the next week. For example, a branch of Sainsbury’s near where I was working had only a few packs of five with the same set of patterns, two of them decidedly girly (though the website has other pattern sets and says “more stock arriving soon”. I was advised to go online if I just wanted a black one. John Lewis and M&S are only selling the type of face mask that comes in a tube and that you peel off.

Some of us use phones to pay for things that rely on facial identification (newer iPhones for example). They will not identify us with masks on. Of course, it won’t hurt anyone to remove it for just a second, but that depends on shop staff and management having common sense.

So, while wearing masks is a good idea in confined spaces, if they are to be compulsory then they need to be readily available. In other countries governments have provided masks to people; in this country we are expected to just find them or make them ourselves, regardless of our financial state (including indicators of poverty the state knows about, such as receiving benefits). As with soap in the couple of weeks before lockdown, when washing our hands was being promoted as key to stopping the spread of the coronavirus, they are neither readily available nor prominently advertised. We will all need plenty of them — possibly as many as we have T-shirts — and there aren’t plenty available when a large supermarket with something like a quarter of its space given over to clothing has only two packs of five and none for men.

Image source: Liz Henry, via Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 licence.

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Use the justice that’s there

7 July, 2020 - 23:24
A white woman holding a mobile phone with a small yellowish dog standing up against her, wearing a white face mask, standing on a wood-chip clearing next to a path in a wooded area of a park.Amy Cooper

This morning it was revealed that the woman who was videoed making a malicious phonecall to New York police earlier this year after a Black bird-watcher videoed her with her dog off the leash in an area of Central Park where this was banned, had been charged with filing a false report, which is a category A misdemeanour which carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail (this would be a local jail in New York City, not a state or federal prison). The incident happened on 25th May, a few days before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis which led to the widespread Black Lives Matter protests. The news was greeted with dismay by a number of ‘abolitionists’ who are against using the ‘carceral’ justice system to achieve redress in a case involving racism. These included a Twitter thread from Josie Duffy Rice (of The Appeal and the Justice Podcast) who said, “I do not believe those consequences should be criminal charges, because I do not think this system has the legitimacy or value to address her wrongdoing”. In response to another thread from Marc Lamont Hill, I responded that the system was the only one there is. This produced a reaction from Dr Usaama al-Azami:

I don’t think using the law to punish a racist who tried to use the police to get a Black man at best roughed up and at worst killed amounts to condoning slavery or Jim Crow on the grounds that it’s the law. Making malicious reports to the police is a crime pretty much everywhere, although it’s called different names, and it should be. That it rarely results in punishment does not mean that when it is done obviously and caught on video, that it should be. Rape, in many parts of the world, is difficult to prosecute, especially where the victim knew the attacker, but when evidence is sufficient (or it’s caught on video, as in the case of Reynhard Sinaga in Manchester last year), nobody sensible would argue not prosecuting and locking up. There’s no restorative justice that can make a serial rapist safe to be on the streets. Sometimes testifying to a crime is more traumatic than it is worth, but this may not prove to be the case here as the evidence is all on video and it is the City that is bringing the charge, not the victim (Christian Cooper).

No society has ever done without a criminal justice system. No civilisation has relied purely on restorative justice for serious crimes; they used physical punishments and the death penalty. Islam’s criminal justice system makes little use of prison; the standard punishments consist of the death penalty, floggings, amputations, retaliation in the case of personal injury and financial penalties although of course the Muslim world has always had them except in the very early days. Western justice systems have prison as a standard punishment for most serious crimes as a replacement for the physical punishments it used in pre-modern times (in fact, the birch — flogging — remained part of British justice until the mid-20th century and the death penalty persists in the USA to this day) along with preventative measures such as banning someone from running a company or having custody of a child. In the US specifically, punishment is often disproportionate as a result of racism, poverty and resulting disparities in the quality of legal advice and representation and because of lobbying from the prison industry (in such guises as victims’ rights groups) and demands from the right-wing media. People are in jail for long periods, in some cases life, for sometimes very trivial offences. But that doesn’t mean imprisonment is wrong in itself.

No oppressed group should martyr itself and sacrifice its right to justice or safety on the grounds that the system itself is corrupt or the hope of a better one some day and it’s irresponsible for activists and commentators to encourage them to. The options are to use the system there is, to resort to illegal and violent means to punish people who threaten your community, or put up with the threat. Campaigning for a better system or against corruption does not mean abstaining from using the system where someone has committed what is justly a crime. And sure, jail might not make her any more racist, but it might teach her (and others like her) to think before they reach for their phone and call the police any time a Black person annoys them. Such people already know that Amy Cooper has a court case hanging over her (she is not expected to be arraigned until October) and this already may have a chilling effect on them. This may not deal with the underlying problem, but it will have some benefit at least in that immediate area.

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Hong Kong migrants: where will they live?

3 July, 2020 - 23:39
Hong Kong protests, 2019

In reaction to the new security law the Chinese government have imposed on Hong Kong, a former British territory returned in 1997 which in theory enjoys autonomy from China under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”, the government has promised to provide a path to citizenship for the British Overseas nationals living in the territory. This would consist of leave to remain for five years, at the end of which one could apply for citizenship. There are about 350,000 such nationals in Hong Kong who are entitled to enter the UK for six months without a visa but may not remain here longer; according to the BBC, about 2.6 million others are eligible for the status; this would amount to nearly half Hong Kong’s total population of 7.5 million. (Wikipedia, quoting British Foreign Office figures from 2014, estimate that 3.4 million British Overseas Nationals live in Hong Kong.)

Under the government’s plans, all British Overseas Nationals and their dependants will be given right to remain in the UK, including the right to work and study, for five years. At this point, they will be able to apply for settled status, and after a further year, seek citizenship.

Updating MPs on the details, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there would be no limit on numbers or quotas and the application process would be simple.

“This is a special, bespoke, set of arrangements developed for the unique circumstances we face and in light of our historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong,” he said.

Raab conceded, however, that there was little the British government could do to “cohesively force” the Chinese government to allow British passport holders to leave the country. Labour supported the government’s action, but insisted that there be no discrimination on grounds of income or anything else; Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, also said that the UK had a responsibility to those unable to leave or who wished to remain in Hong Kong. I find this to be a hugely irresponsible stance on both sides. Under pressure to free itself from the perception of antisemitism, Labour fears being accused of racism again here as well as having turned 180 degrees to become an anti-immigrant party. But this scheme must be resisted, not least for the sake of existing ethnic minority populations here.

First, although I suspect that the government are gambling on most eligible people in Hong Kong not taking up the offer and that many may choose to move to Australia, the US, Canada or elsewhere (which they will be able to if they are rich), let’s be clear that 2.9 million is a huge number of people who will all need to live somewhere. This is the entire population of the West Midlands metropolitan county (which includes Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Walsall and the Black Country). If only a quarter or a third of the eligible people take up the offer, we will still need a whole new large city — the size of Leeds or Sheffield, say — to accommodate them. Despite the enthusiasm of the political classes and doubtless the jingoistic right-wing media, there is no guarantee that the sudden influx of this many people will meet the acceptance of the general population; it is as if they have said “of course they will” on our behalf. The last time we had such an influx, in the 2000s, it set the ball rolling on Brexit and this was also the result of a political miscalculation: that a few thousand, maybe tens of thousands, of good white workers would not cause any social disruption or resentment.

It’s possible that the government assumes that the new arrivals will take places vacated by departing European Union nationals. This is a big assumption; many of those EU nationals have families, lives, jobs and businesses here and will not be able to just up and leave. Have the government given any thought to what skills the migrants will bring and what the people departing to the EU will take with them? Hong Kong is an almost entirely urban territory. How many people from Hong Kong go to China for labouring work on farms? Another trick up the government’s sleeve might be to do with the position of the existing ‘immigrant’, i.e. non-white, population: we have already seen people who were nationalised being stripped of their nationality and sent ‘home’, as well as dual nationals (or presumed dual nationals, as many in fact have no other citizenship) being stripped after being deemed undesirable (admittedly sometimes for proven criminal acts, but sometimes not), so a stepping up of this policy might be the government’s intention.

Finally, as the government admits that this may result in British Overseas Nationals being barred from leaving Hong Kong or at least China, the possibility arises that some of them may join overland refugee or migrant smuggling routes across Asia and Europe. This is obviously a hazardous journey and opens them up to exploitation. They may also try to reach Vietnam by boat in the hope of being able to travel to the UK from there.

I have nothing against the UK accepting people genuinely in danger from Hong Kong or anywhere else as refugees. That’s our duty. We simply cannot accommodate hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, from Hong Kong just because there is a new security law any more than we can accommodate any other whole, large population when there is a downturn in their political situation. We knew we were handing Hong Kong back to a communist-run one-party state for decades before it happened (China was not a democracy when we acquired Hong Kong, though neither was the UK then as women and the working class did not have the vote). We knew that any agreement we made to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy would be unenforceable once we left and that the danger would grow the longer we had been away. As a former imperial power that is now a mere medium-sized country, we simply cannot save the world. We have no territory or base anywhere near Hong Kong anymore.

It would, of course, be advantageous to the Tory party to have a large number of new citizens indebted to them for their citizenship who regard socialism as a dirty word given what it means in China. As Hong Kong has one of the most liberal economies (in the sense of free markets and low tax), this would strengthen the hand of those who seek to privatise or do away with public services and those whose vision of a post-Brexit Britain is that of a “rainy Dubai” though with fewer Muslims. As Hong Kong has a substantial finance industry and the second-highest number of billionaires in the world, they will no doubt be appreciated by anyone who needs to sell a house though not necessarily by those looking to buy one (though not all Hong Kongers are rich and there are significant inequalities). Given the current housing situation and recent policy, the likely result is that London and maybe other major cities become even more out of reach to ordinary people, let alone poor people.

If we were staying in the EU, of course, we could just give them British passports which would allow them to settle anywhere in Europe they liked. If we were, however, the matter of EU nationals leaving would not arise. As it is, anyone newly acquiring British nationality can only settle here. The government talks about its responsibility to overseas nationals in Hong Kong, but they have no sense of responsibility towards their own people in their own country, as quite amply demonstrated during the recent crisis. This policy is intended, I believe, not to enrich but to displace. Short of building a whole new city, displacement would be the only way to accommodate this many people.

Image source: Studio Incendo, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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How do we solve a problem like the police?

30 June, 2020 - 19:12
A police recruitment ad from the Metropolitan Police which shows two officers, one a white woman and the other Asian and probably male. The text reads "Do the job where you look out for each other. Do something real. Become a police officer."Police recruitment ad in London. According to Nazir Afzal, a former British Crown prosecutor, police officers frequently refuse to testify against other officers in the event of a civilian death, in contrast to civilian behaviour.

Since the killing by four Minneapolis police officers of George Floyd, a former work colleague of one of them, there have been worldwide street protests and a revival of the Black Lives Matter movement that grew up after the murder by a Neighbourhood Watch vigilante of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy. This has led to a revived interest in the ideas of abolishing or defunding the police, which seems to mean different things depending on who is advocating it; to some it simply means abolishing it altogether, while to others it means drastically reducing the departments’ funding and using the balance to improve funding for other public services which might help to reduce crime, especially crime that stems from poverty. Others regard the idea as dangerous naivety, much as with the idea of prison abolition (often in favour of restorative justice, even for serious crimes such as rape); a major objection is that abolishing police departments in favour of “community solutions” would result in a proliferation of vigilantes a lot like George Zimmerman.

Some white Americans seem to have reacted with fury to any suggestion that the police or policing in general are to blame for the widespread harassment and violence against minorities and African-Americans in particular. A while ago I followed a lady in South Carolina for updates on the progress of her disabled (as of 2018) daughter; in recent weeks, the feed has changed to constant cop-worship and demands that anyone who disagrees should just unfollow or unfriend her, which I did. More generally I have seen a sneering response that characterises the supporters of defunding as white college-educated extremists such as anarchists with their heads in the clouds, and ignores that much of the pressure comes from the minorities who endure the persistent harassment and who learn to fear the police from a very young age because, especially in the United States, a simple interaction can lead to summary death.

Most of the debate has been around the issue of ‘defunding’ and what it means than about abolishing it. In the UK, the police (as well as the fire service and other public services) have had substantial funding cuts over the years, especially since the Tories came back into power in 2010, and have had to sell police stations; in many places, the only physical police presence is a small office for the community policing team which cannot be used to report a crime (or seek refuge). In the USA, in many localities (since police departments are specific to the city or county) police funding has increased astronomically and in some places gets more funding than a whole host of other public services combined. Police have acquired military hardware such as armoured vehicles which really have no place in any civilian situation. They escort mental health patients to hospital and between hospitals, often handcuffing and shackling them like felons (though this has been reduced as a result of public campaigning). They go armed to wellness checks for people suffering mental health crisis, in some cases leading to the unwell person being shot dead. They are present in schools, as a result of which children have been arrested, handcuffed, and received criminal records for mere classroom disruption.

The contemptuous responses include this:

Facebook post containing an image which reads "Send in the SWAT -- social workers and therapists -- because violent criminals just need to be held close, not held accountable." There is a heart in the middle of the A in SWAT. Above the image is the caption that simply reads "Yep" and below, the page name Cop Humor which posted this.

There is another thread about the ‘defund’ slogan being misleading and alienating here. Yet I cannot think of a snappier slogan. It doesn’t mean cut their funding altogether; it means only funding them up to what is necessary rather than so as to acquire unnecessarily grandiose hardware and to stick their fingers into every pie, and reallocate funding to other services, some of which can respond to things like mental health crises appropriately and some of which may help alleviate poverty and other causes of crime. The meme on the left misses the point; it’s not violent criminals that need therapy or a hug, but people in crisis who may currently be sent a cop with a gun rather than a mental health professional who knows how to calm them down. I suspect that the quibbles about the phrase are sometimes being made in bad faith by people who know exactly what it means.

I do agree that not only defunding is required but stiff new laws to make sure that police behave professionally, are trained to de-escalate situations and not to escalate them (especially trivial ones such as routine traffic stops), do not use undue force, do not racially discriminate (and are trained not to make assumptions) and that police officers who use excessive force, who terrorise innocent members of the public let alone kill them, are dismissed rather than protected. Another important step to eliminating harassment is to abolish the laws which provide pretexts for it, such as anti-jaywalking laws (we do not have these here) and licence plate renewal (again, we do without them here; police can check from a database if a number plate does not match the vehicle it’s on and if duty has been paid to keep it on the road). Yet I am sure many people will think I am hopelessly naive for even imagining that the police will actually implement any of these things, or that legislatures will force them to in most jurisdictions.

The people laughing at the suggestion seem to be White or at least not Black. The police, while some complain that they are ineffective or aggressive, are not a serious menace to them. They are not the ones who have had to sit their sons down for a talk about what to do when confronted by police who will be armed and probably aggressive and prejudiced. They are not the ones who fear calling the emergency services in the event of a crisis in case the person having the crisis is shot dead, possibly because the officer in attendance decides he “doesn’t have time for this” (the officer responsible in this case was acquitted in a judge-only trial). They don’t put forward any ideas for how to change these situations, and police themselves have the support of the white majority, of the legal system, and of each other and their unions. They are notorious for lying in court to support each other or refusing to testify against each other, even when a civilian has been killed in their custody. They resist reform and demonstrate contempt on the occasions when elected politicians propose reform (such as in France recently, where the use of choke-holds was recently banned and then allowed again after police protests). Someone had better think up some solutions pretty soon as we cannot expect people to tolerate this situation of lawless, violent, racist police terrorising it with total impunity forever.

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