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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
Updated: 5 days 15 hours ago

Schools should provide books, not require iPads

9 August, 2016 - 22:26

A young white boy wearing a bright red school jumper with a school emblem consisting of a cross inside a diamond with the letters S, A, S and M around the cross. He is holding an iPad and a young child wearing a light grey and white baby suit is sitting looking at it.Back to school bill: pencil case, pens, rubber … and a £785 iPad (from today’s Guardian)

This is about how state schools (private schools have been doing this for a while) have started asking parents to send children into school equipped with an iPad “as a result of a lack of proper government funding for technology equipment”. The schools involved justify the policy by saying such things as “embedding technology in the classroom, alongside traditional learning, has been shown to enhance learning”, which is a dubious claim when applied to iPads, but the devices are being sold for up to £785 in installments when basic iPads are available from £219 from Apple. There are a whole host of reasons why pressuring parents to pay for this device is a bad idea.

First, they are expensive and easy to break. School textbooks may be bulky, but a torn page can just be taped back together and a book dropped in a puddle can be dried out; a broken screen has to be repaired professionally, if it even can be, and a phone or tablet immersed in water could be rendered useless. There are so many ways such devices can get broken in a school — if a child holding one trips and falls, or if someone knocks it out of someone’s hands by accident or as a prank, or if someone who is angry throws it at someone, for example — that are less of a problem in a home or office. They are easy to steal, and children walking to or from school alone would be an easy target.

Second, they are unnecessary. Generations of children learned without each having a tablet or computer to themselves; we learned from books or from the teacher, and sometimes from a presentation on an overhead projector (they got more sophisticated; more recently they are linked to computers rather then relying on slides) or from a TV programme. In fact, computers can be a distraction, even in a computer science class, as I found when I went back to college (unsuccessfully) in 2003; people could, and did, do things on them during the class that had nothing to do with the class, or any other class, like watching videos like this:

Third, as they are expensive, they produce a divide between those who can afford them (and afford high-end, expensive ones) and those who can’t. Kids will always notice who’s borrowing an iPad from the teacher or from someone else, much as they notice who is on free school meals unless the school manages to hide it (they don’t always), and in an affluent area this could lead to the child whose parents are unable to provide the devices being stigmatised or even bullied. Less well-off parents will consider this expense when choosing a secondary school (if there’s a choice), making this a means of subtly discriminating against their children. Schools often justify uniforms on the basis that they mask social divisions, so making learning dependent on expensive tablets supplied by parents rather defeats the object.

(Private schools have been doing this for some time, as noted in a BBC Four programme about a girl who won a scholarship to the local private grammar school in Leeds and found that the school required pupils to have their own tablets, which she had to borrow from another girl. Because this and other factors made her feel “like an outsider”, she left after just one year, despite the debts her mother had ran up to get her in.)

In the particular case of iPads, their educational value is compromised because they do not allow you to program them, making them only useful for receiving information and using existing services such as email and social media. A recent criticism of school IT lessons is that they teach how to use popular applications like Microsoft Word but do not touch on programming, but all programming of tablets is done through PCs (Macs, in the case of iPads). In addition, programs have to be supplied through the App Store (except on jailbroken devices) and this adds expense and difficulty for the developers (and thus the user); for Android devices, it is fairly simple to allow the installation of non-Store programs; it requires no change at all on most PCs. So these devices are either to be used for browsing electronic textbooks or for some custom educational software that delivers information that could just as easily be projected onto a single screen, except for those with visual impairments. The devices could easily be used to give demonstrations of things (particularly in science) that avoid doing them in practice, making lessons ‘safer’ and more sedentary but less hands-on and, frankly, less interesting.

However much the schools (and the schemes they participate in) sweeten the pill with instalment paying and hardship schemes, this potentially puts the onus on parents to provide the delivery method for both books and lessons. It’s a money spinner for the developers of the software, who will sell site licences to schools to allow pupils to use them on their devices. And it raises the cost of state school education for parents by hundreds of pounds per year, which of course is multiplied by the number of children they have. It assumes, of course, that parents will buy these devices anyway, but not all parents have the money to buy even one, let alone more, and let alone allow their children to take them to school. It’s unnecessary, it’s of limited educational benefit, it’s expensive, it’s discriminatory. It should be banned in all state schools.

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Yes, Black lives matter. But so do other people’s journeys

7 August, 2016 - 23:02

Image of a protest at a roundabout outside Heathrow Airport, in the background of which is a sign saying "Welcome to Heathrow". There is a banner saying "Black Lives Matter" and in the foreground is the stationary traffic held up by the protest, including cars, a tipper truck and two buses.Last week I was working at a site just north of Heathrow airport, the quickest route to which is down the Heathrow spur and off at the bottom. On Friday morning I was returning from a delivery run to Neasden and turned off the M4 at junction 4, to find a queue of stationary traffic in the spur road. After a couple of changes of the lights I was able to get back on the M4 and got to my workplace via the Colnbrook junction instead. By the time I left the site for my next run, the traffic had built up back to the Hayes exit and into secondary roads around the airport (like Sipson Road, which runs alongside the spur). It transpired that the road was closed because a group of “Black Lives Matter” protesters had blocked the bottom of the spur by lying down on the road and unfurling a banner reading “This is a crisis”. Although police opened one lane, the blockage of that road remained in place for several hours and traffic was still being diverted via Hayes in the late morning.

Although I wasn’t seriously inconvenienced, that was really a matter of luck that I didn’t arrive at junction 4 20 minutes or so earlier (and that delay was because I was late for work). The people who were stuck in that queue were there for hours and some of them, I don’t doubt, missed their flights or were late for work. I looked at my Twitter feed during a spare moment and there were a lot of BLM sympathisers claiming that they did not care about those people’s discomfort, that protest necessarily causes inconvenience, and that if black lives matter less to you than your holiday then they clearly don’t mean much to you at all, making the protest all the more justified, with a few quotes from Martin Luther King thrown in. These included people I know as well as some well-known journalists and writers such as Ava Vidal, Bridget Minamore and Samantha Asumadu of Writers of Colour.

These arguments show ignorance. They assumed that all the people they held up were middle-class white people off on business or their holidays. Some of them were on their way to work. One or two of them might have been late once too many times, perhaps because they had too many childcare issues to make it into work on time consistently. Not all of those who missed their flights could have just jumped on another flight later; that depends on the conditions attached to their tickets, but those who could were probably the wealthier travellers. Some of them who had to come back another day might have missed their last chance to see a dying relative abroad. Some of those caught up in the jams might have missed visiting hours to see a relative in a hospital away from home. Some of the travellers were probably disabled and had assistance booked which might not have been present on any later flight, and some of those probably needed to get to a toilet before the flight they expected to get on. (The same was probably true of some of the children.) A friend told me that her disabled daughter had in the past been hospitalised as a result of being caught up in protest-related delays, and was rounded on when she pointed this out in regard to last Friday’s protest. Not all the travellers were white and not all of them were British citizens.

A few years ago I remember reading a story about a Muslim couple who were on their way to Dubai via Manchester airport. They were held for several hours for a security interview, and were eventually released as there was no grounds to hold them other than their religion and, no doubt, their dress, but they missed their flight — and were not able to reschedule, meaning they missed their holiday all because of a malicious and prejudiced decision by border staff, and did not get a refund. This is what would have happened to at least some of the people held up by the protest on Friday, all because a bunch of people they did not know decided to involve them in something they had nothing to do with, without warning and without their consent.

BLM boasted that they were going to “shut down” London and other major cities on Friday. They did not “shut down” Heathrow. The M4 spur road is the main access to the tunnel leading to terminals 2 and 3 (you can also access it from the A4 or the perimeter roads); terminals 4 and 5 and the cargo terminal, as well as airport maintenance, car rentals etc., are accessed from the M25, A30 and/or the perimeter roads. They did not even block the route leading from the nearby Harmondsworth immigration removal centre to the tunnels. They just held up a bunch of innocent travellers or people who were going to drop off or pick up relatives or friends from the airport.

The BLM sympathisers on Twitter also accused their critics of using the “tone argument”, i.e. that causing inconvenience harms your cause and that you might be a bit more effective if you were a bit “nicer” and less strident — another argument that dates back to the US civil rights movement and is commonly thrown at anyone who takes exception to foul language or other unpleasant behaviour by activists online. But it’s not about the effectiveness of your movement. It’s about the fact that you took an action that could have caused huge losses to people who did not have money to throw down the drain, and who might have saved for the whole year or more, or whose children had been expecting a holiday and who now had to be entertained otherwise, or expecting to see relatives they rarely saw since their family split up, or something. You just had no right to do that. It’s not the same as being stuck in a jam caused by a well-organised protest where, for example, buses are curtailed or diverted temporarily and people are forewarned. People knew there would be a demonstration in east London; nobody knew about this until it happened. The right to protest for everyone is put at risk if people cause vastly disproportionate disruption with a frivolous protest.

And some of the responses from their supporters boiled down to “boo hoo”. Well, if I was stuck in that jam and missed my flight, I might have said the same if the police had arrived mob-handed an, bundled these idiots into vans and drove them away in under a minute, which they could easily have done. The fact that they allowed this drama to go on for hours shows that they are more disciplined and less brutal than they are often thought to be, and certainly much less so than the American police whose actions prompted the real Black Lives Matter movement — not the me-too British version.

To get around the obvious fact that the police killing situation is not quite the same here as in the USA, where the wave of police and vigilante killings of mostly innocent Black men, women, young people and children that prompted the protests that became Black Lives Matter started after the most recent contested police killing in the UK in 2011, sympathisers point to a slew of other racial issues such as the treatment of refugees and the failure of doctors to diagnose skin cancer in Black people (which Ava Vidal tweeted about). I know of many people with chronic or life-threatening conditions, some of whom were misdiagnosed with either trivial or psychological conditions and denied proper treatment or their liberty for months or years on the basis. Most weren’t Black. Most were women and girls. Medical prejudice and misdiagnosis is not principally a race issue.

I support BLM in the USA. The British version seems to be an attempt to dominate the discussion on racial justice (note that they chose Whitechapel, a Bengali area, as the focus for their London protests). They justify themselves with a mixture of historical injustices and modern issues which do not solely affect Black people, including the treatment of refugees and unjust immigration laws. These things do not justify causing serious disruption to travellers in the name of “Black lives matter”, even if you use “Black” to mean any non-white person (which I suspect the African-Americans who coined the term didn’t). In case they haven’t noticed, the British (or rather, English) public voted six weeks ago to leave the EU, jeopardising the right of hundreds of thousands of (mostly White) EU citizens, and particularly those from eastern Europe, to live in this country. Nobody is threatening the same to Black people who are British citizens.

Of all the groups of people who are getting it in the neck right now, Black people per se are quite far down on the list below Muslims, disabled people and other presumed benefit claimants, and immigrants (and anyone who looks or dresses like them), all of whom are routinely the focus of hostile press coverage. There was simply no justification for this action and the people responsible should be held fully accountable for any losses incurred as a result.

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The Investigation that revealed nothing

6 August, 2016 - 20:01

Picture of a girl, a man and a woman (all white) standing in front of a window. The girl (Sam) has curly hair and is wearing a black top with a white or light grey stripe across the upper chest and a red and white tartan knee-length skirt. The man (Russell) has a light-coloured shirt with no tie, and a beige pair of trousers. The woman (Carole) has short blonde hair and is wearing a white, red and black striped dress and a black jacket and is holding a bag in her left hand. The man's arms are round both the other two.Last Thursday night, the last in a four-part series called The Investigator showed on ITV. The series attempted, or purported, to investigate the death of Carole Packman, who disappeared in 1986 after attempting to leave an abusive marriage to the man who killed her, Russell Packman (now Causley), who had moved his girlfriend Patricia Causley (whose surname he took) in with her and their daughter Samantha. Russell was jailed for his murder on circumstantial evidence despite no body ever having been found; he has always proclaimed his innocence, until briefly during the making of this programme. As a result of Causley’s attempts to gain parole, Samantha and her son Neil had asked that he reveal where the body is buried and Mark Williams-Thomas, who boasts that he broke the scandal over Jimmy Savile, offered to help. The result was a series that revealed almost nothing, treating things that were already known as revelations, and appeared to be manipulated by Russell Causley, reading out letters ostensibly from him first confessing to the murder and detailing how he had done it, then changing that story, before finally retracting his confession.

In part 1, Williams-Thomas interviewed Carole’s daughter, Samantha, who told of her stylish and vivacious mother, describing her father as very strict and arrogant but she adored him anyway. Russell was described as a controlling husband who did not allow his wife to have many friends outside the family; neighbours, on the other hand, claimed that she could in fact have disappeared without trace. As Russell brought Patricia into their lives, having sold her flat and given the Packmans the proceeds, her parents made inappropriate demands on Sam, with Russell requiring her to act as look-out while he and Patricia had sex while Carole was in the house. On one incident, Russell dragged Sam out of bed and beat her severely; the next morning, she ran away and spent several weeks in care, but retracted her statement after her father pleaded with her over the phone. Carole attempted to leave the relationship, leaving her wedding ring and a note on a table; she was never seen again. People claiming to be Carole were seen in Germany and in Canada, as well as someone who walked into a police station in the UK with Russell claiming the same. The first two are known to have been Patricia, who used Carole’s passport and Canadian work permit. She denies that the third incident involved her.

Williams-Thomas devotes the second episode to Russell’s attempt to fake his own death, in which Patricia, a solicitor and another friend were to sail his boat from Guernsey to France and then report him missing, when in fact he had travelled back to England and never taken the boat. Williams-Thomas grilled the solicitor about lies he had told about the incident, when in fact he had already been convicted and served time for his role in the fraud. This was the incident that first put Russell in prison, and it was during his time in prison (where he dropped hints about the murder to other prisoners) that police began to suspect that Carole’s disappearance was in fact murder; he was arrested for that on release from his sentence for the fraud.

The last two episodes focus on Russell Causley’s ‘confessions’. He had not communicated with his daughter since being imprisoned for the murder and she did not know where her mother is buried; he started writing letters during the making of this programme, apparently piqued by Patricia’s decision to break off their relationship. He ‘revealed’ in one letter that he had indeed killed Carole, by hitting her over the head and then strangling her, and that he had burned in her body in his back garden on a bed of logs and fuelled also by petrol, that it had taken three days for the body to be reduced to ashes which were then distributed around various sites including a golf course. The police had dismissed the burning story as impossible; Williams-Thomas knew some experts who claimed that it was possible to dispose entirely of a body on a fire in this fashion. They ‘demonstrated’ it by burning a pig’s carcass on an expertly arranged bed of identical pieces of wood (not a heap of logs) in what looked like a warehouse (not a back garden), and it was indeed reduced to ashes and a few bone fragments in a few hours.

This, of course, does not prove that Causley’s explanation was true, as it was in laboratory conditions and conducted by experts; it is nowhere suggested that Russell Causley had ever disposed of any other body, and surely neighbours would not only have noticed a fire burning for three days but also noticed the unusual smell of meat burning. The site was then dug up by another group of experts who used a device that could supposedly identify where a fire had been, and who then analysed what they found in the soil. They did find bone, but it was animal bone.

In the final programme, Russell Causley wrote another letter, changing his story, claiming he buried the body in a ‘beautiful’ location he would not identify, so as not to disturb her peace. He claimed he had done this purely out of love for Patricia, a highly implausible story given that Carole had allowed him to move Patricia into their home. Then, towards the end (after Patricia’s solicitor had told them to expect another ‘significant’ letter from Russell), Russell retracted his confession entirely, claiming that he had no role in Carole’s death and that his only crime was to fall in love, as many men before him have done. Williams-Thomas also claimed to have demonstrated that Patricia was liable to be charged with a number of offences including perverting the course of justice, which he told us more than once had a maximum of life imprisonment; however, although an imprisonable offence, people have received only months for that offence, as it covers such acts as accepting a speeding ticket when someone else was behind the wheel. Dorset Police had said it would make a statement after the programme finished; the statement, in the event, merely said that they had investigated the case many times over the past 30 years, said thanks to ITV and that they could not comment while they considered their new information. Patricia Causley was interviewed under caution, at her own request, and has not been arrested.

And a detail that nobody watching could have failed to notice, but which went entirely unremarked, was that all of Russell Causley’s supposed letters from prison were printed from a computer, not hand-written. The idea that they were indeed from him was never brought into question, and it was never asked why he did not hand-write them, despite the fact that his access to computers would have been limited if he was allowed it at all (pen and paper are allowed in prison cells; computers were not, last I heard). Williams-Thomas mentioned when first revealing the content of Causley’s letters that he had received them through an intermediary whom he could not identify. I hope that when Dorset Police examines the scant evidence that Williams-Thomas’s investigation came up with, they investigate the provenance of those letters as there are people who have a motive for fabricating them. Lying to the police is a criminal offence as is lying in court; lying to a TV crew is not.

All in all, this was a disappointing investigation that revealed nothing of importance. Williams-Thomas allowed himself to be manipulated by Russell Causley more than once, perhaps out of desperation to make a sensational and revelatory programme. I found Williams-Thomas’s manner insensitive, on one occasion while interviewing Sam Gillingham about her father’s behaviour, suddenly breaking off and asking her “do you hate him?”, which clearly took Sam by surprise and which she found it difficult to answer. I don’t believe this is an appropriate way of interviewing an abuse survivor about her experiences; it’s the tactic of someone who wants to make entertainment at their expense. Much as he boasts of his history of exposing celebrity child abusers, he is clearly more interested in sensation than in sensitivity, and in this has allowed himself to be taken for a ride by either Russell Causley or someone else, producing an overlong series that promised much and delivered almost nothing. I know ITV stopped producing documentaries of the calibre of World In Action many years ago but this series should be embarrassing even to them.

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The loser of Sagamihara

31 July, 2016 - 15:26

An aerial shot of a group of buildings, including two large Z-shaped and one smaller L-shaped building, plus a small outdoor swimming pool, some gardens and a car park and surrounding roads.Last Monday a former employee of Tsukui Yamayuri-en, a care centre in Sagamihara, Japan broke into the centre during the night and murdered 19 disabled residents. We do not know the names of the victims and no photographs have yet been published, but they were aged between 19 and 70 and included ten women and nine men; 26 more were injured, 13 of them severely. The murderer had previously sent a letter to the Speaker of the lower house of the Japanese Parliament, claiming that he “may be able to revitalize the world economy and I thought it may be possible to prevent World War III” by euthanasing people with multiple disabilities because they “can only create misery”. He mentioned how he might carry out the killings and then demanded a sentence of no more than two years, a new identity on release, plastic surgery and financial aid of 500M yen ($5M). He was committed to a mental health facility when the letter came to the attention of the police, but was only held for two weeks, until early March.

The incident was the main story on the news here in the UK on Tuesday evening. By the same time the next day, it had dropped off most of the news outlets (such as the BBC News app) and the murder of a priest in Rouen, France, by two self-proclaimed “Islamic State” operatives, had taken its place and the investigation into that is still making headlines while the massacre in Sagamihara has dropped right out of the news; only a few stories have been published anywhere since Tuesday although there is a letter in the Japan Times castigating the “Keystone Koban Kops” for not taking the killer’s threats seriously. There may be more reporting on it in the Japanese-language media; it’s not, unlike English, a language widely spoken outside its home territory. The fact that the murder of a single priest in France can push the murder of 19 disabled people entirely out of the news within 24 hours strikes many people as obvious disablism but also as obvious racism; this was in our back yard, the victim a respected, elderly white man killed in a church; they were foreign, disabled and their names, if published, would not mean anything to people here.

Many disability bloggers were quick to connect this incident to wider disablist attitudes, to films like Me Before You and media stories that romanticise the deaths of disabled people, and to other killings of disabled people where the killer got a lenient sentence. I believe this case should be classed along with other spree killings that targeted particular groups, where the motive is personal to the killer even if they latched onto a wider prejudice or grievance. This is nowhere clearer than in the Orlando shooting, which was initially presumed to be an ISIS terrorist act or at least motivated by homophobia stemming from his Muslim background, but the killer’s personal grudges against other gay men and, it seems, gay Latin men in particular became clear as more details emerged. That process has not happened with this killing; we have not heard a great deal about his online activities, or his record while working at the home (only that he was disciplined once for poor attitude) — in particular, if there was ever inappropriate behaviour. The perpetrator of the Dunblane school massacre in 1996 had run youth clubs where complaints had been made about his behaviour, in particular, taking semi-naked pictures of boys and expecting boys to sleep with him in his van while a Scout leader; he complained in the years before the massacre that such “rumours” had led to the failure of his business. The perpetrator of the Montreal Polytechnic Massacre in 1989, in which fourteen women (one staff member, the rest students) were shot dead, came from an abusive family background, had failed to join the Army or to complete two college courses, and blamed feminists for ruining his life.

This time, the murderer has not shot himself dead afterwards but turned himself in to the police, so he is awaiting trial and perhaps details have been withheld to avoid prejudicing his trial. If we take his letter to the Speaker of Parliament at face value, we may suspect he is mentally ill, given that he believed he could prevent World War III and seriously expected the government to look after him after a very short term in prison. It is reported that he had marijuana in his system when hospitalised in February and the staff treating him believed he had cannabis-related psychosis. But he clearly still held these views up until last week, so perhaps that was a ruse to avoid going to prison (which in Japan are very harsh places) or getting the death penalty. It’s also possible that he wanted to provoke outrage, to make himself infamous because it was easier than making himself famous. In this he succeeded, albeit only for a day before ISIS pushed his act off the front pages (at least outside Japan).

A few months ago I saw a video by one Max Stossel called Stop Making Murderers Famous (it’s designed to be watched on a phone) which called for such killers not to be named and their life stories not to be broadcast in the media in the wake of a spree killing. He suggested simply referring to them as “the dumbass”, so as not to glorify them or give credence to their grievances and thereby encourage anyone else who may have similar ideas. I agree. These men’s ideas are not that important; if they had any coherence, they could have found more productive ways to express them than in a note to be found after a mass shooting and subsequent suicide. They are losers and inadequates; we never hear of people with successful lives, relationships and careers shooting a large number of strangers for no reason. And if the status of disabled people were so much better, if a lot of people didn’t think they would be better off dead, if there weren’t resentment at disability benefits and stories attacking ‘scroungers’ in the popular media, the mass killing genie would still be out of the bottle and there might still be some loser who had a grudge and wanted to “make his mark” because he couldn’t do so by positive means, and chose them as a target.

But he will probably focus on another group of people instead, and the risk to disabled people’s safety would continue to come from the same sources it has always come from — abusive carers and school and neighbourhood bullies, as well as callous officialdom — so the cries of “why wasn’t there tighter security?”, which can be perfectly well answered with “because it wasn’t a prison”, can only lead to institutions throwing up fences and making life more restrictive for their disabled residents, empowering the real abusers while keeping out only the imaginary ones. A lot of people may have shared his prejudices, but the loser of Sagamihara will hang, or at least spend decades in prison; meanwhile, disabled people still suffer harassment and abuse every day and sentences are usually not harsh, and that’s when they are convicted. Whether this is more or less true in Japan than here I do not know, and there has been little in-depth coverage of that situation this week, perhaps because of the drop-off in coverage of the massacre since the Rouen murder. There is a danger of indulging in “stable-door logic”, taking extraordinary measures to prevent a repeat of this atrocity at the expense of people’s quality of life, when it was an isolated event and when disabled people are in danger, it is usually from those they know and who have power over their lives.

There is to be a memorial for the victims of the Sagamihara massacre outside the Japanese embassy in London on Thursday (4th August), from 4pm. The embassy is 101-4 Piccadilly, London W1J 7JT. Nearest Tube station is Green Park, which has lifts to platforms. Organised by Eleanor Lisney and Dennis Queen; see their Facebook page.

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Apricot kernels

23 July, 2016 - 18:54

Image of white apricot flowersEarlier today I was browsing the mentions of Kate Granger, the doctor best known for setting up the “Hello, my name is…” campaign aimed at encouraging doctors, nurses and other health professionals to introduce themselves to patients when they meet them, and who is in a hospice with terminal cancer at the time of this writing, and I came across a series of tweets from someone trying to sell her apricot kernels (organic Himalayan ones, no less) which she claimed had cured an old friend who had stomach and lung cancer that had spread despite surgery (a bit of “spiritual healing” helped also). I didn’t see any responses from Kate (who is clearly too ill to tweet much) or her husband (who is too busy caring and making the most ot his last few days with her), but I do believe this nonsense deserves a response because Dr Granger is obviously not the only person with this disease and there will be other targets for these cranks.

I had a look on Wikipedia for basic facts on apricot kernels. It seems there are two types, bitter and sweet, and the sweet type (grown in Europe and central Asia) are used in cooking oil and as a substitute for almond flavour, while the bitter type is the one thought to be a cure for cancer. The bitter type has a high concentration of amygdalin, a chemical which when ingested causes cyanide poisoning (the sweet type has a much smaller concentration); a pack of the bitter kernels, at one point marketed in health-food shops as a snack, contained at least double the adult lethal dose. As for curing cancer, in 2011 the Cochrane Collaboration (which specialises in meta-analyses, or analyses of groups of clinical trials) concluded that the claims for amygdalin or a synthetic derivative, laetrile “are not currently supported by sound clinical data” and that in light of the risk of cyanide poisoning from oral ingestion, “the risk–benefit balance of laetrile or amygdalin as a treatment for cancer is … unambiguously negative”. They recommended that no further research be conducted into the substances on ethical grounds.

The response from the amygdalin advocates was, predictably, to indulge in conspiracy theories and I’m sure some people will dismiss me as a “sheeple” (not sure what the singular of that is) for accepting “establishment” or “big pharma” science as fact. Readers might consider, however, that if this substance really was a cure for cancer, “big pharma” could have capitalised on it because even if they couldn’t patent it, they could have found more efficient ways to extract it from apricot kernels than small-scale activist producers could — and they could have developed and patented some derivative. They could have found ways to grow it here rather than import it from India or Nepal. They already derive medicines from plants, everything from aspirin from willow bark to the chemo drug vincristine derived from the Madagascar periwinkle, so why anyone thinks they would miss a chance to exploit a chemical found in a common fruit (and in other members of the same family) is beyond me. In countries like the UK where there is a public health system and chemotherapy drugs are funded by the state, it stands to reason that they would not pay for them if fruit seeds did the job better.

It’s obviously why people promote this junk. They don’t like big drug companies, they know that people don’t like taking drugs that make them sick and would use an alternative if one were available, and that people especially do not like allowing their children to be made dreadfully sick, and they prey on this desperation. They often present their ‘cures’ as gentler than the drugs ‘peddled’ by the big companies and the NHS, but in truth they are often poisonous, as with these seeds, or otherwise harmful, as (for example) with the bleach or anti-hormone agents marketed as cures for autism. If you’ve got a friend with a serious or chronic illness and you’ve heard of something that sounds like a miracle cure, think twice before recommending it to them. They’ve probably heard it all before (many, many times, and if the condition is a very visible one, likely from strangers on trains and the like) and if it were as simple as eating a few seeds, they’d have found this out from other people with their condition (yes, they have forums for these things). I know you don’t want your friend to suffer, but if they cease treatment because someone convinced them to try an alternative remedy instead, they could die. It’s happened many times.

It was Kate’s wish to raise £250,000 for her local cancer centre in Leeds before she died. That goal has been exceeded, but the JustGiving page is still open. She has also asked for donations to be made to St Gemma’s Hospice, also in Leeds, where she is being cared for currently. You may also like to donate to a hospice in your area, such as Royal Trinity Hospice in south London.

Image source: Wikimedia, sourced from Marco Almbauer; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

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So, where’s your inspiring leader?

2 July, 2016 - 16:16

A white woman with wavy hair wearing a green jumper with a pink scarf round her neck, holding a home-made banner saying "No goodbyes based on lies", with a hand-drawn EU flag.This week, as the Tory leadership election gets underway and a bunch of five ghastly right-wing, anti-immigrant, mostly Islamophobic extremists compete to be the next prime minister, people who are in or more inclined towards the Labour party (even if voting for it isn’t an option, given the lack of effort they make to try and win our constituencies) have been on the edge of our seats waiting for someone to make a move against Jeremy Corbyn, who has the support of the party membership but is regarded with open disdain by most of the Parliamentary party, including a large proportion of his shadow cabinet who resigned last week, mostly citing a lacklustre performance in campaigning to keep Britain in the EU before last week, when his anti-EU sympathies have in fact never been a secret, as well as fears that he is unelectable and accusations that he tolerates or even encourages anti-Semitism. However, the party Right, described as “all plot and no plan”, have not put forward a leader that will be any more effective than Corbyn. (More: Paul Bernal.)

Let’s remember why Corbyn won: there were three other candidates, all of whom he beat comfortably, winning a majority in the first round. They included people who had held ministerial office under Blair or Brown, while Corbyn had never held even a shadow ministerial post and briefly defected to the Liberal Democrats during the Iraq war. The simple reason was that the other three (Burnham and Kendall in particular) were competing for a right-wing vote which had long since deserted the Labour party, talking of opposition as if it were a dirty word and parroting Tory rhetoric about the “work-shy”, “wealth creators” and the “politics of envy”. At the time I called Andy Burnham a “shop-minder”, referring to the Blairite tendency to mind the shop for the Tories while in office. Their mentality has not changed a great deal since Corbyn was elected, something which shows in some of the anti-Corbyn commentary, such as this in today’s Telegraph by former Labour MP, now lobbyist, Tom Harris:

Choosing Ed over his big brother was the first indication we had that Labour members – and, of course, trade unionists – were growing tired of grown up politics, of the inevitable compromises that accompany being in government. We were out of government now – Great God almighty, free at last! – and it was time to let our hair down, to talk about what we wanted to talk abut, campaign on what we wanted to campaign on, and not be subject any more to the selfish whims of the electorate.

So far Angela Eagle, a minister under Blair who voted for the Iraq war and abstained on the Welfare Reform Bill, and deputy leader Tom Watson have been suggested as challengers but have ruled themselves out, at least to initiate the challenge. The rules state that unless Corbyn resigns, he will be on the ballot in any forthcoming leadership contest, so a shop-minder will not win over the Labour membership. There seems to be no evidence that the mostly pro-Remain Labour Right have faced up to the reason why they lost the referendum: because their own voters, often in their safe seats, were given an opportunity to speak and did, and rejected their old politics which relied on attracting middle-class votes in the suburbs and ignoring their base, assuming their support to be in the bag already. To have a chance of winning over the Labour membership and winning an election, they have to put forward radical policies that both address the concerns of working-class Leave voters (meaning: rebuilding industry so as to end under-employment in the North) and middle-class Remain voters. Middle-class Little Englanders are a minority, and will shrink further as the costs of leaving the EU become more and more obvious.

The folly of holding the referendum is becoming more and more apparent, despite the rise in popularity of UKIP at the last general election, even in parts of the country that had long voted for the pro-EU Lib Dems. Some people are saying there should be no more referendums, ever. I disagree. They are useful for deciding constitutional questions such as whether the monarchy should be abolished or whether a part of the UK should have its own parliament, or independence. I am against using them to decide matters of policy, because the Swiss experience is that they are often an outlet for bigotry; the EU is not a constitutional question but a complex policy matter. The complexity of it is only now making itself known to many people; that leaving would have had negative economic consequences was never in doubt, but merely the prospect of our leaving has caused chaos. When the full implications of our leaving become known, there must be a second referendum as I believe most people’s votes would be different if they knew them, and if a viable alternative was on the table. It is up to Labour to provide that alternative as the Tories are saying “we’re all Brexiteers now”. Will they come up with one, or are they too busy sniping at each other?

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Brexit: A misguided vote

26 June, 2016 - 18:12

A map showing results of the referendum by local authority areaSo, on Friday morning we woke up to the news that Britain had voted narrowly (51.9%) in favour of leaving the European Union, with Scotland overwhelmingly against and Northern Ireland also mostly against, but with both England and Wales voting Out (53.4% and 52.5% respectively). The result was an immediate fall in the value of Sterling (which stands at 1.37 to the dollar right now), rumours that various banks were beginning the process of moving jobs out of London to elsewhere in Europe) and various reports of people claiming they had been lied to by the Leave campaign and regretted their vote. What is of more concern is an upsurge of racist incidents since Friday, with people of foreign appearance told it was time to go home now or physically attacked or threatened, and some demonstrations by far right fringe groups (so far small, and dwarfed by anti-fascist demonstrations). The Prime Minister has already announced his resignation in October and has delayed invoking Article 50, which is the procedure for a state’s withdrawal from the EU, until a new leader is in place; meanwhile, the Labour shadow cabinet is in meltdown, with widespread criticism of Corbyn’s leadership and open talk of a challenge to it; seven members of the Shadow Cabinet have resigned or been sacked already.

It’s worth noting where the votes to Leave came from and where they didn’t. The full results are on the BBC website (among other places) and the votes do not correlate with usual party preferences. In London, all but five local authority areas (Hillingdon, Sutton, Barking & Dagenham, Havering and Bexley) voted In; these included both wealthy Tory boroughs and places of both diversity and deprivation. Outside, however, there are a number of Tory districts in the south that voted In, including a belt that stretches from Stroud in Gloucestershire through to Windsor in Berkshire, down to inland areas of Hampshire and the Sussex coast; there are also many provincial urban areas where the majority voted out, including all of Birmingham, Coventry, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Swindon, Reading and Slough. While the major urban hubs of the North voted in, their outlying areas voted Out. These are all places with a substantial working-class and ethnic minority vote, and while the white working-class Leave vote is well-known, it also leads to the obvious conclusion that minority-ethnic voters voted Leave as well.

Why is this? I have long held the belief that Britain’s way of engaging with Europe has been to take what is good for business rather than what benefits ordinary people. Britain stayed out of the Schengen accord, for example, which would have spared British tourists in Europe the expense of applying for a passport (the cost of which rose sharply during Labour’s time in office as a result of biometric passports), which people on the mainland do not have to tolerate just to pass over land borders. More recently, Labour, miscalculating that a few thousand white Christian workers coming in would not cause any problems, allowed hundreds of thousands of eastern European migrant workers to enter the country without any restriction from 2004 onwards, which most other European countries declined to do (and which we did not do, for example, when Spain, Portugal and Greece joined). It may be irritating for people in secure public-sector jobs to hear, but in an unregulated labour market with weak unions, a large influx of workers from poorer countries than ours means fewer jobs and lower wages. And while this country employs hundreds of thousands of their economic migrants, some of these countries refuse to accept a single Syrian refugee!

Going back further, joining the EEC, as was, was a policy of the Tories, Liberals and the ‘moderate’ wing of the Labour party. It was Edward Heath that took us in and during the Thatcher era, the Labour party of the Foot and early Kinnock eras was staunchly anti-EEC. To northern working-class people, our time in the EEC and the EU has been connected with the destruction of British industry, mass unemployment and casualisation. Joining the EEC was not the cause, but neither was it a coincidence: the same people who favour open borders for money have contempt for ordinary people and their jobs and see no way of resolving industrial strife other than destroying the industries they work in. They also regard protectionism as a dirty word, regardless of the fact that improving workplace standards (safety etc) is no use if we allow imports from countries which have none of these standards, where pay is low and conditions punitive (such as they were in Britain during the Industrial Revolution), and where there are no free trade unions.

Accepting the EU was one of the Thatcherite policies Labour had to accept in order to appeal beyond their core vote in the 1990s, and now that the EU has failed to deliver, at least in ways people in former mining, steelworking and manufacturing industries and the surrounding communities can put their fingers on, this policy has come back to bite the Labour party. Yes, people point to the EU financing this road or that arts centre, but if these regions had prosperous industries that provided decent jobs with prospects then such amenities would pay for themselves through local taxation. People don’t want handouts, and they don’t want their towns to be dependent on them either; they want to be able to pay their own way. The fact is that we have a wealthy class in this country which has no real loyalty to this country; they are not willing to invest in or take a chance on British workers, for the most part. They’d rather buy things in from abroad.

It is not Europe that betrayed the working classes; it was British politicians of both parties. All these problems could be solved without withdrawing from the EU and without, for example, forcing existing eastern European workers out, but it will require a fundamental change in attitudes among the richer members of our society and an acceptance in political circles that supporting British industry means more than simply subsidising underperforming companies. It remains to be seen whether leaving the EU will deliver that or whether the panic caused by the prospect of leaving will deliver it; these things are not being discussed in the public domain right now, so I very much doubt either — but it’s what needs to happen if Britain’s membership of the EU is to be saved. David Lammy has suggested that “all the government needs to do is nothing” as the referendum result is not legally binding, but simply doing nothing will mean the issue will still be live at the next election, resulting in a bigger share of the vote and, potentially, seats in Parliament for UKIP.

As for ethnic minority voters, and I’m particularly talking about Muslim voters here, they may have voted to leave in large numbers because they, like other working-class people, resented the competition of eastern European workers, or the effect of the pro-EU ruling classes’ policies on the industries they had worked in, or perhaps because they saw Europe as a place that was hostile and getting worse. The media asked white voters why they had voted Out, but failed to ask (as far as I’m aware) any Black or Asian voters outside London. For them I think this was a misguided vote, as it has emboldened racists up and down the country, resulting in dozens of racist incidents against apparent ‘foreigners’ of all kinds, some of them violent. As we still have a Tory majority in Parliament, the Eurosceptic, Islamophobic Right will gain the ascendancy in that party, even if neither Boris Johnson nor Michael Gove becomes leader; we could also become the scapegoats for or distractions from any hardship caused by leaving the EU. Given the divisions in the Labour party and the collapse of the Lib Dems, a general election this year or next will not produce a more favourable outcome for us.

Britain leaving the EU is not inevitable. Not only is the result not legally binding, but it is now clear that key planks of the Leave campaign have fallen away (the spending of EU contributions on the NHS, the reduction in immigrant numbers) and it is clear that they had no real plan of action and are in no hurry to set the ball rolling on activating the legal mechanisms for leaving. The present situation could have been avoided if a 60% or 2/3 threshold had been set as the minimum, which is not without precedent (e.g. the Scottish devolution referendum in the 1970s, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (which requires a 2/3 majority to trigger a general election after less than five years), the requirement of numerous organisations and many other countries for a 2/3 majority to change the constitution or remove elected officials. A major constitutional change should require more than a narrow majority. But we cannot simply do nothing. As has been observed on Twitter, the result can be overridden but what it has revealed about this country cannot be un-revealed. Leaving the EU would be an immense folly and cause economic collapse and isolation, as even the threat of our leaving has already started to do, or at best a settlement which costs as much but gives us no say in drafting the EU’s laws and regulations. The way we engage with Europe has been wrong from the beginning, and has benefited the rich and the middle class at the expense of everyone else. We must change the way we do Europe, not leave Europe.

Image source: Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 (Attribution ShareAlike) Licence.

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What happened to the child’s best interests?

25 June, 2016 - 15:15

Picture of Ellie Butler, a young white girl with brown hair and a suntan, wearing a pink T-shirt showing unidentifiable cartoon characters.Last Wednesday, Ben Butler, a convicted armed robber and serially violent offender from Sutton in south London, was convicted of murdering his six-year-old daughter Ellie in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum of 23 years. The murder took place less than a year after a Family Court judge sent her to live with Butler and his girlfriend, Jennie Gray, who was convicted of perverting the course of justice and received a 42 month sentence; she had been living with Gray’s parents after her father was convicted of causing her serious injuries, some of them consistent with shaken baby syndrome, of which he was later cleared on appeal. Butler and Gray launched a publicity campaign, hiring the publicist (now, of course, convicted of abusing children) Max Clifford and appearing in various tabloids and ITV’s This Morning programme. The judge, Mary Hogg, called it a rare “happy end” and said it was “a joy … to oversee the return of a child to her parents”, ignoring a welter of evidence of Butler’s violent character.

At the risk of stating the obvious, several big mistakes were made in that judgement. One is that a child was removed from a happy home and placed with parents she barely knew. It is not unknown for children not to be returned to their parents after a period of separation because they have grown attached to their new families, even when the parents are of good character and are manifestly innocent. A good example is that of Louise Mason, whose three children were removed in 2002 because of doctors’ suspicions that the illness one of her children suffered from was caused by her. In fact, as later demonstrated, it was a form of cancer that can (and in this case did) go away on its own. But in 2009 when Mason was last in the news, although two of the children taken into care were returned, that child was not, because she had grown too attached to her foster carers, calling the female foster carer “Mummy” and her own mother “Mummy Louise”. The fact that Ellie was doing well with her grandparents should have counted against the parents’ case, particularly as Ellie had said she did not want to live with them as she barely knew them and was scared of her father, for reasons we will come on to shortly.

A second serious mistake was to overlook Butler’s violent history. Neighbours knew him as a “coke head” and a “nutter” with a volatile temper who had been banned from all the pubs on Sutton High Street because of his violence. He had received a three-year jail sentence for robbery and had been convicted of intimidating witnesses and of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and two strangers; he was also convicted of carrying an offensive weapon in 2011. The judge dismissed this on the grounds that his assaults were against adults. Quite apart from the fact that one of the adults was his girlfriend, and that a man who assaults his girlfriend is liable to expose any child he cares for to similar violence, we should not assume that a man who is habitually violent ‘only’ to other men is not a danger to children; a man who hits anyone whose tone of voice he doesn’t like or who won’t do as he tells him will do the same to a woman or child eventually, especially when the child grows into a teenager and more closely resembles an adult. (I should stress that I am talking about histories of violence here, not isolated incidents.)

Then the judge pronounced him ‘exonerated’, despite the fact that his conviction was quashed because the evidence was unsound — that’s all they have to prove; there were other possible explanations for the injuries Ellie had suffered, not that those other explanations were in fact the correct ones — and people have not won their children back on more than one occasion in the past despite being acquitted of injuring them or another child, or causing the death of another child, in the criminal courts. The standard of evidence is different, and family courts sometimes decide that, on the balance of probabilities, the parent probably did cause the injuries. She had this ‘exoneration’ attached to all the documents about the Butler-Gray family, and suspended the local social services from dealing with the family, appointing a private consultancy, Services for Children (!), which employed two social workers, to oversee her ‘transition’ to living with her parents, with the result that her school could not raise issues about her poor attendance or injuries. Thus a last chance was lost to save her from her father’s explosive temper.

One of the cornerstones of British family court policy is supposed to be that the child’s interest is paramount, and that justice for parents or carers is of secondary importance. Adults are supposed to be adults and put the child’s needs before their own desires or feelings. The adults in this case had had an intermittent relationship (unlike Ellie’s grandparents) and had missed multiple contact visits, on one occasion to see the FA Cup Final and on another because of “stress” linked to a criminal case; on another occasion, Ellie had refused to get out of the car to see her father. After the judge ordered her return, appointing a tin-pot social work consultancy because Butler did not “trust” Sutton social services, her family complained that she wet the bed and insisted on climbing into bed with her grandparents and aunt, when she stayed at the house, because she was terrified of returning, the consultancy decided to expedite her return: “Effectively she does not have a choice in this, as we would expect her to say she does not want to go. The decision taken to move her sooner is due to a belief that she is unlikely to choose this”.

Ellie’s views did not count (the judge refused to hear them), and her welfare was not considered beyond the dogma that living with a child’s biological parents is always best. Nobody who put Ellie’s best interests first could have even considered moving her from a happy home with her grandparents to a ‘family’ so markedly inferior, whatever the truth of her original injuries (and in the light of his other violent behaviour, his involvement should have been considered as a possibility); an uncommitted couple dominated by a man with a marked tendency to violence, who had in the past said he hoped opportunities for violence would present themselves, who would at best have exposed his daughter to his behaviour, including to domestic violence, even if he did not harm her directly, and might well have been absent from her life on account of being in prison for other crimes. It’s not a question of being “wise after the event”; nobody with a brain who cared about a child’s interests would hand them over to such a man when plainly better, willing and able carers existed.

I’d also like to make an aside about the feminist I saw on Twitter who said that Jennie Gray’s behaviour regarding Ben Butler and her daughter was the product of Butler’s violence and “coercive control” and that we shouldn’t blame her as much as him. On the latter part I agree, as she did not kill Ellie but played along with her partner for years, including during times when he was in prison for violent offences and could have separated herself from him, and including times when social workers told her that she could keep Ellie and her other child if she separated from him. The sad fact is that some women are attracted to thugs and some don’t mind a bit of “male violence” as long as it’s directed at someone they don’t like. I know this because I had a female teacher like this at school, who knew about her husband’s (also a teacher) violence towards small boys and did not bat an eyelid when he threatened violence in front of her, in the event of boys being disrespectful to her. Whether he was violent to her as well I don’t know. The killing of Kevin Tripp in 2009 is another case in point. Women are adults, and they have to take their share of the responsibility when they support a violent man when he kills or injures someone.

We will never know what was going through the judge’s mind when she passed her ruling in 2012; whether she was really taken in by Butler’s charm, whether she was fearful of yet more bad publicity, or whether the rules really did not allow her to entertain the possibilities that a man persistently violent to adults was a threat to a young child, that a child living in a happy home should be left there, and that an acquittal based on the possibility of an innocent explanation to a child’s injuries dictates that these innocent explanations be taken as fact — especially all these considerations combined. If they don’t, they should be rewritten such that a man of such plainly ill character never be entrusted with the care of a child again.

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Appeal to Muslims on Brexit

20 June, 2016 - 20:26

Boris Johnson, a white man with wild blond hair and mouth agape, wearing a black suit jacket with a blue rosette with his name on it, with a white shirt and pale blue tie underneath.Recently I’ve seen a couple of articles online appealing to Muslims to vote for Britain to leave the EU in this Thursday’s referendum. The claims are that the EU is anti-Muslim, that it could ban halal slaughter (as a couple of countries in the EU have already done), and that leaving will enable Britain to renew its links with the Commonwealth countries where most British Muslim families originate. I’ve had a few comments suggesting that I should put a “Muslim view” on this subject and that my writing on this issue could have come from any white Englishman. I believe that this referendum is about more than whether we stay in or leave the EU now; it is about who governs this country, as the defections of former Tory Leave campaigners Sarah Wollaston and now Baroness Warsi demonstrate.

Most of my reasons, as I’ve said before, are purely pragmatic and economic. Britain is right next to continental Europe; we are 21 miles from the nearest Continental country and some 3,000 miles from the nearest Commonwealth country (Canada) and that has a population roughly half ours despite its huge size. Distance clearly outweighs the cultural similarities. Canada is part of NAFTA; Australia has forged new links with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. We cannot expect that these countries would just return to principally trading with us and each other. The EU is a major world trading bloc and being a member means we get a say in making the rules. If we leave, we will most likely be subject to the rules without getting a direct hand in making them, as in the case of Norway (we could lobby, of course, but this would not always have the same effect). There is a likelihood of foreign owners of British industry moving to the Continent if we do not swiftly join the European Economic Area, which they can easily do because Britain does not protect jobs, unlike some Continental countries, and the people pushing for Brexit (all hardline Thatcherites) will not change that. These issues are not specific to Muslims; they would affect everyone.

It has become fashionable to blame the EU for policies which are in fact imposed by the British government. The EU did not force us to accept large numbers of migrants from Eastern Europe from 2004 onwards; that was the Blair government’s decision. The EU did not force us to impose restrictions on skilled workers from outside the EU, or on people settling here to marry British citizens. This, again, was a British government decision, motivated in part by agitation about Muslims marrying spouses from “back home” and thereby endangering “social cohesion”, “importing ignorance” and raising another generation of Muslims whose first language is other than English, all of which are blamed for extremism and ultimately terrorism. This goes back at least to the Oldham riots of 2001, but certainly to the early 2000s. Other EU countries, such as Denmark, imposed minimum ages for foreign spouses; Migration Watch pressured the government to do the same, as it did (this was later ruled contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, and repealed).

So anyone who is saying that leaving the EU, and blocking mass immigration from countries like Poland, will enable Muslim immigration from Commonwealth countries, is simply wrong. The people who will gain power if Britain votes to leave the EU include those who have been agitating against Muslim immigration long before anyone was aggrieved by the Poles. The Commonwealth countries to which they are attached are the ‘old’ White Commonwealth countries: Canada, Australia, New Zealand and (maybe) South Africa. You can see this whenever the right-wing tabloids complain that a family with a spouse from one of these countries has been refused permission to settle in the UK: the families are always White. They would not lift a pen to support a family with a spouse facing deportation to Pakistan or Bangladesh. If any South Asians enjoy more favourable treatment after Brexit, it will be Indian Hindus and Sikhs, not Muslims and certainly not Pakistanis.

There have been two high-profile defections of Tories from the Leave to the Remain side in the past few weeks, namely Sarah Wollaston, a GP who is MP for Totnes in Devon, and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. In giving their reasons, neither said they had been convinced of the virtue of the EU or the wisdom of staying in for its own sake; rather, they said that they disliked the tactics used by the Leave side; the claim about money that could be used on the NHS in the case of Wollaston, and the “nudge nudge, wink wink” campaign of xenophobia and racism in the case of Lady Warsi. This shows that they preferred to stay in the EU than countenance the change to politics in this country that a vote to leave would bring: putting in power dishonest opportunists like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and Muslims should consider that both of them have a long history of hostility to Islam and Muslims both in and out of Parliament: inflammatory front pages in the Spectator in Johnson’s case, war-hawkery and pro-Israel propagandising in the Times in Gove’s, not to mention the witch hunt against majority-Muslim schools in Birmingham in which normal Muslim practices such as separating boys and girls were linked to extremism.

As for the claim that the European Parliament could ban halal slaughter, this is simply scaremongering. The European Parliament cannot initiate legislation; it can only discuss bills put to it by the Commission, and most of these proposals have been on economic matters and regulations justifiable on the basis of a threat to the environment or human health. It has never interfered in such matters; they are for national parliaments. It is not a body that just passes laws on every trendy issue. In fact what is banned is non-stun slaughter, not halal slaughter per se (there is a difference of opinion as to whether stunning nullifies halal slaughter), and it is banned in only a few countries, such as Denmark, Poland and Switzerland — the latter as a result of an anti-Semitic referendum campaign in the 1890s. France and Germany, the biggest players in the EU, allow it, while some countries (like Lithuania) have a lucrative halal and kosher meat export trade to the Middle East, which means it is highly unlikely that a proposal to ban halal slaughter will even get before the European Parliament, let alone get passed.

There is no benefit to us in leaving the EU. We should particularly beware of the so-called “left-wing case” for leaving, as left-wingers will not be in power after next Thursday; rather, the right wing of the Tory party will be. Many of the objections are to things that are the result of British policy, or could be remedied by a change in their policy; all the faults of the EU — its democratic deficit, its bureaucracy, its neoliberalism — are present in the British political system as well, in some cases more so. Some Muslims may not care that the UK itself may break up, with renewed demands for Scottish independence and the impact on the status of Northern Ireland, but they should care that voting for Brexit would empower the most hostile and extreme elements of the Tory party and discredit the (relatively) moderate ones. We can always leave the EU later if need be; it will be a lot easier than rejoining after we leave and find that we are isolated and that our economy has taken a nosedive (and politicians will distract from this with attacks on poor people, disabled people, and minorities including Muslims).

Much as with the London mayoral campaign, but on a bigger scale and with far more dire consequences, the referendum is about racism and xenophobia and about which Tories govern Britain afterwards as much as it is about the EU. Much as we may dislike the policies of other European countries, much as we may feel we have no connection to any of them, Brexit will mean a Gove or Johnson premiership and will leave us far worse off than remaining in the EU. It is not just a case of giving hate a kick in the teeth; we must prevent the haters ruling us, by voting down their proposal to leave the EU.

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Brexiters are lying

31 May, 2016 - 09:24

A graphic from Vote Leave, showing an open British passport with footprints leading to it, with the slogan "Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU. Vote leave, take back control".

Coming home the other day over a flyover on the A3, I saw a poster from Vote Leave, the official campaign for Britain to leave the EU, which proclaimed “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU”. Below that was a picture of a British passport with a blank red page, with footprints leading to it. I found this poster appalling, not only because it appeals to fear of foreigners who are assumed all to intend to come here, but also because it simply is not true. It’s astonishing that a Tory MP has complained to the 1922 Committee accusing Cameron of “lying profoundly” by saying that Turkey is not joining, when it is they who are lying by claiming that it is happening, when there is no imminent prospect of it happening.

The two premises of this poster are both false. It is inconceivable that Turkey will be invited to join the EU when it shares borders with two countries where there is a civil war and which produce the world’s current biggest outflow of refugees, much of it into Turkey. If it does, it will not be on the basis of joining any free travel area while the situation in Syria and Iraq remains as it is. Turkey currently does not even have visa-free travel to the UK or the rest of the EU (British tourists need visas to visit Turkey), which cannot happen unless 72 benchmarks are met; it has to enforce EU rules on all of 35 policy areas and Turkey currently only enforces one (on science and research). There is massive opposition in the rest of Europe to Turkey joining, and any single member can veto it, including Britain. Finally, support for joining the EU has fallen in Turkey in recent years anyway, and having to remain a functioning democracy to maintain EU membership would be rather inconvenient for a lot of its politicians.

There is also no guarantee that most Turkish emigrants to the EU would come to the UK, as the poster suggests. Although there is a large Turkish community here (about 500,000), the majority of it (around 300,000) originates from Cyprus, a former British colony, not the mainland; there are 1.55 million Turkish citizens in Germany and 2.71 million with at least one parent born in Turkey, so there are no prizes for guessing which EU country mainland Turkish migrants are more likely to go to; migrants tend to go where they already have family connections and an established community rather than take a chance on a completely strange country. And it’s even possible that there might not be an outflow of workers because there are jobs in Turkey for them to do. So, this bit of racist scaremongering is also an exaggeration if not an outright lie.

If the Brexiters had robust reasons for wanting to pull out of the EU, rather than Little Englander gripes about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘benefit tourism’, they would be putting them rather than telling obvious lies. We hear all the time that Britain does not “control its own laws”, when if this were the case, we would not be able to hold this referendum, or that we do not “control our own borders” when Britain and Ireland are in fact the only EU countries that still have border controls. It’s ironic that Priti Patel accuses pro-EU Tories (or others, I’m not entirely sure what she means) of being too rich to feel the burden of EU membership on public services. The fact is that if we left the EU, we would still be subject to EU laws in order to be able to trade freely with Europe, as is the case with Norway; any other arrangement would mean we were isolated, subjected to tariffs and restricted in where we could work or travel. That wouldn’t bother the very wealthy; it would be ordinary people trapped in an impoverished offshore island that suffered.

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Who flies an English flag?

24 May, 2016 - 11:02

An image of a small yellow-brick house with three St George's Cross flags hanging from the roof, one obscuring an upstairs window, with a red brick driveway and no front garden, with a white Ford Transit van parked outside it.There’ll always be an England … and Labour must learn to love it by Tristram Hunt (from the Guardian)

Tristram Hunt, in this article which appeared on the Guardian website Sunday before last, argues that Labour is out of step with the “ordinary” working-class English in places like Harlow, and beyond “liberal enclaves” such as Cambridge, Norwich and Exeter, and “Latin quarter” constituencies in places like London and Bristol (no idea what makes them ‘Latin’), “traditional Labour voters think the party is out of step with their values”, partly because of “a wilful refusal to embrace a positive English identity”. He also cites a comparison between Labour’s losses in traditional working-class areas and the Democrats’ losses in the American South, and the St George’s cross to the Confederate flag, on the basis that both parties lost because they failed “to connect ‘culturally’ with a socially conservative working-class electorate, increasingly willing to vote against their own material interests”. Hunt is the editor of a book published yesterday titled Labour’s Identity Crisis; similar conclusions are reached by a report published this week by Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, which claims that Labour is becoming “irrelevant to the majority of working people” and “is now as toxic in the south of England as the Tories are in the north”.

There are a few serious problems with Hunt’s analysis. To begin with, the Democrats’ losses in the South were down to race, not social conservatism, beginning when president Kennedy, a liberal northern Democrat (and his liberal southern successor), passed anti-segregation laws that ended the Jim Crow era. Right-wing leaders such as Reagan were able to exploit the resentment of Southern whites by using coded language, particularly about crime and welfare, but the only thing the South resented the North for was imposing de-segregation (while leaving the same elites in power, including the corrupt, racist and class-ridden judiciaries. That said, the South continued to elect Democratic senators and governors right into the 1990s, such as Jimmy Carter, George Wallace and Bill Clinton, while Barack Obama has won two terms without taking any ‘inner’ Southern states other than North Carolina. There really is no comparison with working-class English who were not defeated (in a wholly just cause) but simply feel sidelined by the rise of Welsh and Scottish nationalism.

Second, the demand for an “English identity” and the visibility of the English flag is a very recent development. I never heard of it growing up in south London and I never heard of it when at a boarding school where there were a lot of boys from working-class backgrounds who lived in places like Essex and Hertfordshire. It was only seen at football matches and some other ceremonies; most people regarded themselves as British, and the word ‘Englishman’ cropped up only in nursery rhymes (“fee fi fo fum” etc) and in quaint stereotypes. Very little came of the effort to develop “progressive patriotism” that was seen in the 2000s. I do not believe the flag has much resonance for most people regardless of their political stance, and that flag-waving will not win Labour any votes in the absence of policies designed to deliver good jobs, education and healthcare. The Tories (at least, the Tory press) already have the edge on this sort of politics and there is no need for Labour to imitate it, nor anything to be gained in doing so.

Third, the Right of the party really needs to understand that a major reason why they did not do very well in the recent local elections is because they were seen as divided, primarily because of open talk about revolts and another leadership election which was reported in the media. Jeremy Corbyn won fair and square with a massive mandate from party members (not just the £3 supporters, as is commonly supposed), very largely because the Blair/Brown old guard did not put up any candidates who offered a radical alternative. Much as Tony Blair was referred to as Tory Blair (or Tory Bliar) throughout his time as both leader and PM and did not contest the Tories’ central economic orthodoxies, they won because they were seen as radical, competent, open-minded and not mean, not hypocritical and and not bitterly divided. Some of these problems in fact were the reason why Labour’s popularity declined from 2005: in particular, Gordon Brown’s obvious sense of entitlement, and Blair’s combination of arrogance and cowardice in leading Britain into the Iraq war. The Right clearly have a sense of entitlement of their own, proclaiming that as they won the party three elections, they should be allowed to lead because this will mean they win more, when as previously discussed, their formula has no guarantee of winning an election in 2020 when young voters will be too young to remember Blair’s first or second election victories.

Fourth, the picture of Labour activists unable to connect with voters in Harlow and the attitudes of Harlow voters are not the whole picture. A third of Harlow’s district council seats were contested this month and the council remains under Labour control; 19 of Harlow’s 33 councillors are Labour, giving them overall control, while three of the four seats representing Harlow on Essex County Council are held by Labour (who gained one from the Tories in 2013). Harlow constituency contains rural areas as well as Harlow town, and rural Essex is overwhelmingly Conservative. Frank Jackson of the Harlow Labour Party, in a letter to yesterday’s Observer, puts Labour’s failure to win Harlow in 2015 mainly to the fact that “it had still not adequately refuted the lie that the 2008 global financial crash was caused by Gordon Brown’s profligacy, while its “austerity light” programme did not inspire voters that the party had a viable alternative”, but it’s possible that bussing in Labour activists from London who were like fish out of water did them no favours either, especially when there are clearly plenty of activists to go round in Harlow.

Fifth, what do they mean by “socially conservative”? Not that long ago the term commonly meant opposition to sexual permissivism and particularly homosexuality. This also features in the comparison with the American South, where ‘conservative’ has been used as a euphemism for racist, but is also heavily associated with fundamentalist Christianity and causes such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage. None of these are particular issues among white working-class voters here, whether in old industrial or mining towns in the north or in places like Thurrock. The authors of the Cruddas report define it as valuing “family, work, fairness and their country” rather than the liberal Labour values of “equality, sustainability, and social justice”. Besides the fact that the Tories commonly use “fairness” to disguise cuts to services or increased charges, the truth is that most people value things from both of these lists and they do not identify the difference between fairness and social justice.

Sixth, Tristram Hunt in his article does not examine where the attitudes of the working-class people Labour has “lost touch with” come from. He quotes a Harlow voter as saying he’s “a white working-class Englishman who isn’t on benefits”, and the perception that Labour is only interested in people on benefits is a myth peddled by the press (and Labour was right to oppose most of the cuts to ‘benefits’, such as Legal Aid and Disability Living Allowance, that took place under the previous government; those who at the time had no need of these things could be persuaded that they affected only “fat cat lawyers” and “fake disabled scroungers”). He offers a further observation on reactions to concerns in Harlow:

And when, in 2015, English voters raised cultural concerns about changes in language, dress and social norms, we answered with crass, material responses. “Many middle-class Labourites scoffed at such views,” according to Suzy Stride in Harlow. “Where would the NHS be without immigrants?” was a common response from canvassers, she said.

Which language and dress are they talking about? Every so often we hear concerns about schoolgirls wearing skirts that show too much leg (and more, if they are sitting), but I suspect that Muslim dress, and specifically women’s dress, is the primary concern here, as well as the continual press complaints about schools were English is only anyone’s second language. These things wouldn’t trouble people in Harlow much as the population, according to the 2011 census, is 85% White (combined White British and White Irish; “White other”, including eastern Europeans, are at 4.2%) and the South Asian population (including Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) is only 2.6% while the Black African population is 2.8%. I’ve driven through Harlow a few times and I don’t see that many women in long black clothes with faces covered. No, they’re hearing about this in the press, and not seeing many Muslims in real life to counteract the scare stories. The report also argues that the party is perceived as supporting an “open-door” policy on immigration, something that was not true at all when it was in power. It tried to restrict immigration from outside the EU, not because EU immigration was causing particular pressure but because Muslim immigration (in particular, the sourcing of spouses from villages back home in Pakistan) was blamed for the breakdown of “social cohesion” and, ultimately, the 2001 Oldham riots and terrorism. Perhaps they thought allowing Eastern Europeans in would be OK because they’re white; perhaps they even thought a bit of white immigration would be a good thing.

The irony of the claim that Labour is losing touch with its working-class roots because of its attachment to the liberal metropolitan middle class is that they don’t make any effort in real middle-class metropolitan liberal constituencies — areas like mine in south-west London, or in Hampshire or elsewhere in the South where the Liberal Democrats became the main ‘opposition’ to the Tories from the 1990s onwards until they threw in their lot with them in 2010. They had no chance of winning some of the seats the Lib Dems lost in the south-west in 2015, in many of which UKIP as well as the Tories increased their share of the vote, but they might have won more of the London seats the Lib Dems lost if they had targeted these constituencies and directed some of the activists whose efforts were wasted in Harlow to constituencies where they might have been able to build a rapport with local people (and put up a candidate anyone had heard of).

As Dawn Foster has noted, Tristram Hunt has been talking out of both sides of his mouth; he has also told the student Labour club at Cambridge University, “you are the top 1%. The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward”. He really has no vision for leadership other than by the public school and Oxbridge élite as represented by Blair (and indeed Cameron); ordinary people are regarded as credulous tabloid-reading bigots who have to be catered to with displays of patriotism and anti-immigration sentiment from people who no more believe it than do the state school and redbrick-educated “metropolitan liberals” who are so reviled? This is a recipe for the George W Bush type of politics, in which privately educated wealthy men feign a common touch and peddle the bigotries of the mass media while stripping away healthcare and employment protection from those who vote for them.

England, even south Essex, is not the American South. There is no history of defeat or enmity with other parts of the country, no history of large-scale slavery or explicit structural racism, and no religious right to speak of. People will not (right now at least) vote for a party with policies hugely against their material interests because the candidate is anti-abortion or pro-death penalty, or makes thinly-veiled appeals to racism or suspicion of an ‘other’. Labour should not feel the need to pander to a minority of loud-mouthed Sun-reading bigots and pretend that they are representative of the general population (much as is commonly seen with cab drivers), rather than an embarrassment to them. Labour should not shed its commitment to social justice (including opposing and reversing unjust Tory cuts to legal aid and disability support), but the forefront of its campaign must be about jobs, healthcare, education, the economy and, for the time being, keeping the UK together. Flag-waving and immigrant-blaming won’t win Labour any votes on its own; others are already better at that game.

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Undercover: Some impressions

19 May, 2016 - 21:40

A still of a Black man wearing dark-coloured jogging clothes with a flourescent yellow strip along the zipI couldn’t write a full review of Undercover, the six-part TV series about a police spy (Nick, played by Adrian Lester, right) who fell in love with and married the woman he was meant to be spying on (Maya, played by Sophie Okonedo, below left), as I tend to forget large chunks of the plot over the six weeks (or seven, as the final episode was delayed by a week), although others who watched the series and commented on it on Twitter couldn’t see the point of certain characters, for example, either. I watched it intently as a relative of mine had a minor role in it (as one of the cops in episodes 2 and 3) and believe that despite the strong acting, it had a weak plotline which fell to pieces in the final episode. It’s also problematic in how it handles issues of race.

The plot is based on the recent stories of undercover cops who formed relationships with activist women, who in at least one case bore the spy’s child. One of them turned out to be Bob Lambert, who later resurfaced as an academic and bridge-builder with the Muslim community until his past was exposed. Nick (a pseudonym borrowed from the identity of a dead child, something that has happened in real life) is sent undercover to infiltrate a Black civil rights protest group shortly after a man called Michael Antwi is beaten to death in a police cell. It appears that the police put him in a cell with a known racist who then killed him; however, it later transpires that in fact the police pulled him off and then killed him themselves. Nick encounters Maya, a young lawyer who is helping Antwi’s family, and forms a relationship with her. However, he falls in love with her and marries her, leaves the police behind and appears to start a new life as a writer (although strangely there is no evidence of him doing any writing, let alone publishing any). Years later, Maya is made Director of Public Prosecutions while also representing a man who is on Death Row for murdering the mayor of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he suffers a botched execution. However, Nick’s police colleagues reappear and ultimately he can no longer hide his past from his wife. It ultimately turns out that Michael Antwi was a drug ‘mule’ and in fact murdered the politician whom Maya’s client was convicted of killing.

So, here are my impressions:

(1) The murder of Michael Antwi reminded me of a number of other murders with obvious racial angles, in particular Zahid Mubarak, who was murdered in Feltham young offenders’ institution by a violent racist the prison staff had knowingly placed in his cell. Tnat part of the story also had parallels with the murder of Blair Peach at an anti-racism demo in Southall, west London. Zahid Mubarak had been locked up for committing a crime but was close to being released, and obviously had a right to be protected from violence that was entirely predictable and there have been suggestions that they were put in a cell together so that staff could watch the confrontation. However, in this drama it turns out that Antwi was a criminal and supposedly “deserved” to be murdered, and even Maya is supposed to just accept this (just after discovering that her husband was a police spy, no less). Frankly, to make a story out of two well-known stories of lethal racial injustice and turn it against the victim is at best cheap, and at worst racist. And I checked: the author (whose father was a cop who served in Northern Ireland) is white.

Picture of Maya Coppina (Sophie Okonedo), a light-skinned Black woman wearing a dark-coloured suit jacket with her hair tied behind her head in a bob, standing with her back to a front door on a London suburban street.(2) Like most people commenting on social media, the last episode was by far the weakest and included some downright ridiculous scenes. I was particularly unimpressed by Maya’s arguments at the Supreme Court, which consisted of very basic arguments against the death penalty (and lethal injection in particular) that you could get from any anti-death-penalty pamphlet. The American South is notorious for assigning inexperienced or downright incompetent lawyers to poor (and particularly Black) defendants in capital cases, and she struck me as precisely that type. We don’t see what arguments actually got Rudy off, except for the bit where he refused to name the real killer (a real court would have rejected his appeal in these circumstances). The assistance of Clive Stafford Smith, a real lawyer (also British) who has defended capital cases in the South is credited; where was he when these scenes were written? And it was curious, to say the least, that Maya was still able to travel to the USA to work on a capital case while she was DPP (or that she got that job despite having always been a defence barrister, or the fact that the authorities would have known about her past).

(3) A lot was left unexplained in that weak last episode. We see Dan, Nick and Maya’s learning disabled son, kindle a relationship with a white girl named Lola, whom he meets twice in a park and then invites back to his room for a “wrestle”. Nick tells Maya, in his farewell letter, that Lola is “not all she seems”, but we never learn what he means. We learn that Antwi in fact killed the mayor of Baton Rouge, but we do not learn why, or why Rudy had not named him sooner (given that he was dead) rather than spend 20 years on death row, or why the British police would have Antwi murdered in a police station rather than co-operate with the American authorities and have him extradited.

It rather looked like they were trying to leave a lot of ends loose for there to be a second series. Frankly, I think they shouldn’t always reprise drama serials for second or third series; much like film sequels, they don’t really live up to the original (Broadchurch was the worst recent example, but Happy Valley’s second series was not a patch on the first either). If a series is conceived as a self-contained story, why does it even need a second series? It is not like a sit-com where each episode is a story and you can always write more stories. This last episode seemed to use coincidences to quickly tie up the threads towards the end, and the connection is just not plausible. How likely is it that a lawyer had two cases that she dedicated much of her life to, and it turns out that one of her clients actually committed the murder the other was convicted of?

But my biggest complaint is that this drama isn’t true to life, and it’s untrue to life in a mean and reactionary way. Others have already noted that in real life, the police spies who formed relationships with women they were spying on disappeared and moved on to other police work, but it also takes real stories of racial injustice, uses them as a plot device and distorts them so that the victim in fact deserves his fate. Despite the fact that the drama contained multiple rounded Black characters (pretty rare in British TV drama), this story does not do justice to the issue of intimate police spying or of racial injustice and violence by the police. I don’t think it merits a second series on those grounds alone.

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Make corruption history?

15 May, 2016 - 14:27

A stage in Hyde Park, London, with audience in the foreground. The stage features two live 8 logos of guitars with bodies shaped like Africa with the slogan "One voice to make poverty history" across the top of the stage.Who remembers the slogan “Make Poverty History”? It used to be found on banners on streets, on pamphlets and on the top corners of websites. I remember Bob Geldof trying to get a crowd of people at Hyde Park to chant it at the “Live 8” concert in July 2005, which he envisaged as part of some big protest against the G8 summit that was going on in Scotland, but which the concertgoers saw as just a rock gig. But despite the march of climate change and its consequences, despite the deterioration of human rights and the spread of state-enforced poverty in parts of the world, nobody seems to be talking about how to make poverty history anymore. Instead, we hear a lot of talk about corruption, and a lot of criticism of the cultures of the peoples affected. The latest example is the anti-corruption summit hosted by David Cameron this past week.

Cameron made some noises this past week about a new register of properties owned by foreign companies in the UK (it doesn’t mention individuals, although such people often use front companies based in Crown Dependency tax havens to own properties here) and there has been an agreement by some of Britain’s crown dependencies (though not the British Virgin Islands) to share property registers. It all depends, of course, on legislative approval, where it could easily be watered down, or it could be delayed indefinitely. It’s not only foreigners who use ruses such as offshore companies to hide their assets; British citizens are known to do this as well, likely including some of Cameron’s friends and major Tory donors, and deterring wealthy foreigners from buying property in the UK, however corrupt they are, could result in house prices falling (or at least not rising as quickly as had been expected). You would not get wealthy Tory MPs to vote against their personal interest, as has been seen with bills to raise the standards of rented accommodation.

His own party is also under investigation for overspending on election expenses in numerous constituencies, many of them the marginal seats that made the difference in the 2015 election. Even one of the newly-elected Tory Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), who have to have a clean record even as a juvenile to stand for the position, is under investigation for this offence. The investigations may lead to criminal charges (though not necessarily against the MPs) and it’s been suggested that they could trigger by-elections, possibly endangering Cameron’s majority. It’s not the first time it’s been suggested that a Tory government with a narrow majority may have secured crucial votes through corrupt means: in the 1990s it was revealed that Tory party activists had engaged in “granny farming”, meaning purporting to secure postal votes for old people in retirement and nursing homes, then switching them to proxy votes which they then cast in the Tories’ favour.

Picture of Muhammadu Buhari, a clean-shaven Black African man wearing thick-rimmed black specacles, standing next to a Nigerian flag hanging from a pole.The British establishment (its politicians and media) likes to think it can lecture other nations on corruption despite having benefited from corruption in other countries in the past. Britain’s everyday life isn’t affected by corruption; we do not have to bribe policemen or officials just to get basic business done for example. But there used to be a joke that the reason you didn’t get military coups in the USA was because there was no US embassy there; corrupt rulers in other countries who steal from national banks stash their ill-gotten gains in banks in Europe and the USA. That was tolerated for as long as these régimes suited US and European interests, and when they were overthrown, they were often rescued by their patrons and allowed to take their loot with them, as in the case of the Marcos family when they were outsted from power in the Phillipines in 1986; the Phillipine government has recovered only a fraction of the Marcoses’ loot. Even at last week’s summit, the present Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, demanded that Britain return the money stolen by previous presidents such as Sani Abacha, which presumably is still sitting in London banks. There is a sense that when corruption happens here, it’s little bits here and there and the law will sort it out, even though it often does not, while corruption abroad is blatant, large-scale and vulgar. But we don’t mind the money when it’s spent on luxuries in Knightsbridge. Corruption, like rape, is only ‘real’ when it’s stereotypical and blatant.

As I said at the beginning, we are more interested nowadays in criticising other cultures and less interested in hunger, poverty or political repression. In the last couple of years the Tories, particularly William Hague (who retired as an MP last year), have addressed summits such as the 2014 London “Girl Summit” on such issues as FGM and child marriage and another that year on ending sexual violence in conflict, leading a radical feminist on Twitter to gush that Hague almost sounded like one of them. I have a suspicion that their newfound enthusiasm for women’s rights in other countries in fact has more to do with distracting popular attention from the deteriorating human rights situation, from such things as governments selling huge tracts of land to foreign corporations so as to grow food for export, resulting in the people who live there being forced out, often into barren ‘villages’ set up by the government. It’s that much easier to ignore such things if you think that these are already people who don’t even respect their wives’ and daughters’ human rights.

Significantly, in Hague’s speech on sexual violence, he did not mention the arms trade once; Kaye Stearman of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) observed in 2013 that the last (coalition) government was “much more blatant — quite shameless” about promoting arms exports, while previous governments had done so with some degree of embarrassment; it is known that British equipment exported to Saudi Arabia has been used in their bombing campaign against Yemen over the past year. The Ethiopian government’s ‘development’ schemes that are leading to large-scale displacement of indigenous people are being funded by international institutions such as the World Bank and the UK’s Department for International Development. Yet human rights only matter nowadays if the people infringing them are ordinary people, not the state, and certainly not when backed by western governments and major banks.

Of course, most people would say that poverty as such will never be history. But we can fight the impoverishment of people by political repression and violence. This is not what the recent Tory interest in corruption and women’s rights is all about; it is about posturing while upholding the unjust economic world order, the wealth and power of the global super-rich, behind the scenes, and there are a lot of vested interests in nothing much being done, and the flow of money northwards and westwards continuing.

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No, Labour can’t “just win”

11 May, 2016 - 22:25

Picture of Rhea Wolfson, a young white woman with below shoulder length brown hair, wearing red glasses and a bright red jacket, holding a sign saying "Vote Labour". Two South Asian men are walking behind her.One of the candidates standing for the Labour party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), having replaced Ken Livingstone on the centre-left slate, is a lady called Rhea Wolfson, who came to my attention today when someone retweeted a tweet she had posted about having received anti-Semitic abuse (I had a look and it was serious stuff; Nazi references about vermin and taunts about gas chambers, for example, not angry remarks about Israel). I discovered that she was on Corbyn’s side of the party and there was a post by “Guido Fawkes” drawing attention to an article she had written for London Young Labour (now deleted) which suggested that winning the 2020 election should not be Labour’s main priority. Fawkes summarised her remarks by saying “the Corbynista candidate for the NEC says there is no point in winning elections if it means compromising your purist values”. I don’t see it that way at all.

The deleted article is cached here and there is an article in a similar vein, still up, at Left Futures. Fawkes quoted a couple of passages from the LYL article:

Is winning in 2020 the priority and if so, what are we willing to sacrifice to achieve it? My belief is that winning 2020 should not be the priority of the Labour Party. This belief comes from a further belief that the Labour party is a movement above and beyond anything…

I’ve read quite a lot recently statements in the realm of You change opinions from inside government- why don’t the left understand that? and whilst there is some truth there, my fear is what happens in reality (as I think is exemplified by Liz Kendall’s campaign) is that you have members who continue to say that as we sit in government. Those policies got us elected becomes these policies will keep us elected and we end up with the reality that is a Labour government, unrecognisable from its values (and its members) and a reality where the only opinions that get changed are our own.

I’m not in the Labour party and don’t intend to join any time soon (my views on Israel would get me thrown out pretty quickly in the current climate, for starters), but like most people in England I recognise that the only alternative to a Tory government as of 2020 (assuming some crisis doesn’t ensue to bring about a general election sooner) is a Labour one. However, I do agree with the sentiment that we cannot just elect right-wingers “because they’re electable” because we need to know what we want to get elected to do. Just replacing the Tories is not enough if you promise not to reverse any of their major policies of the past six years. They also have to face up to their mistakes and understand how to avoid repeating them.

I read the Guardian’s Long Read earlier today. It was about illegal gangmasters in north Cambridgeshire who exploit migrant farm labourers from eastern Europe. We all know that the debate over Europe and immigration centres on the mere fact that Labour allowed eastern Europeans to freely live and work in the UK, and not on why they did this and the effect that it’s had on the parts of the country involved. However, they also allowed casual gang labour to flourish, with hours and pay that were only acceptable to the desperate:

One of them [a group of locals] had been a land worker in the past, when there was still an Agricultural Wages Board to make sure people received a living wage and decent breaks. “I preferred being outside, so I didn’t mind it. It was head down, arses up, half-seven till half-three, and an hour break for lunch because that’s what a man could manage. Saturdays and Sundays were off.” But he reckoned it was inhuman work now.

“It’s the big farm businesses that have ruined this town, with their cheap labour,” said the older of the two men. “British workers would do those jobs, but it’s the way they pay them, the way they want them, that’s the problem.”

The woman in the group had worked in another food factory, where she had been team leader. Working patterns had switched from five days a week with overtime at weekends to rolling 12-hour shifts, four days on, four days off. “The work got harder and harder, and more and more agency people came in – foreigners. Don’t get me wrong, some of them were good hard workers, but I went home off one shift and when I came back on the next, they were still there. How can that be legal?”

If you look at a map of the 1997 general election results, you’ll see that East Anglia is still mostly blue but Labour did win a couple of rural east Anglian seats, including the Norfolk/Lincolnshire borderlands around King’s Lynn, just north of Wisbech where the events detailed in that article happened. Labour hasn’t been wiped out in the big towns (e.g. Norwich and Cambridge, though they’ve lost Ipswich and Peterborough) but the major challenge to the Tories in places like Wisbech now comes from UKIP, not Labour (UKIP came second in that seat in 2015 as well as in several neighbouring constituencies). This country is now on the precipice of leaving the EU, with disastrous consequences, in large part because Labour forgot about the workers while in government.

How? Because they decided that the needs of business for cheap labour and supermarkets and their urban consumers for instant produce outweighed the needs of ordinary people to decent jobs in their own communities, jobs they would have done (regardless of all the talk about “British are too lazy to do farm work”) if the conditions were decent. They also presumably calculated that the parts of the country affected by these matters wouldn’t vote Labour in 2005 or 2010 even if they had in 1997, and that restricting immigration would lose them left-wing votes in places like London to the Liberal Democrats or Greens. It was an example of how New Labour abandoned working people (of course, their dereliction of their northern ex-industrial base is a better-known example) in search of business approval and the middle-class suburban vote, and we are now all paying the price, and threatened with still bigger losses.

This is why Labour cannot just stick Blairites back into the leadership and expect them to win again. It is not 1997 and none of them have the charisma Blair did then, and the Tories are still not quite as discredited or divided as they were in 1997. Today’s Blairites are not fresh-faced young reformers but tired old hacks touting a strategy that worked once. I don’t agree with purity politics, but it’s no use saying “we can’t transform society unless we’re in power” without knowing what kind of transformation you want to make. I fear that they just want to join the race to the bottom, and appeal to the worst in people, and the transformation can wait.

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‘Sexism’ no reason to remove a petition

10 May, 2016 - 19:34

Picture of Laura Kuenssberg, a white woman in her 30s with shortish blonde hair, wearing a blue top with a black suit jacket over it, with a backdrop composed of the logo of Policy ExchangeLaura Kuenssberg petition taken down over sexist abuse, from the Guardian

I don’t watch the TV news much nowadays, even Newsnight, so I can’t comment personally on whether the coverage of politics by Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC, where she is political editor, is biased or not. People I trust on Twitter, however, say that her coverage is persistently biased in favour of the Tory party and against Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, in particular. (She has chaired seminars and written for the website of Policy Exchange, a Tory-affiliated think tank; Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home wrote this glowing blog entry about her in 2009.) I’ve seen a Twitter account titled @ToryKuenssberg, which offers a rather amusing parody of her coverage, such as the following from last night:

Some people have launched a 38 Degrees petition to get her removed from her position. Some time today it was taken down, as the above news report states, because it was ‘hijacked’ by people from Twitter and Facebook who had left abusive comments of a sexist nature and posted similar writing on social media. Some of the defences of Kuenssberg boil down to “she’s just doing her job”, a common response when a woman in a public role is criticised for doing a bad job. I think it’s wrong for such petitions to have to be taken down (the owners have published a statement). (More: Stavvers.)

I’ve never run a petition, but I’ve signed a few and I’ve got more than a few criticisms of all the three main petition hosts (38 Degrees, Avaaz and They don’t offer any means of registering dissent from the cause, and they will spam you with demands to sign other petitions until you expressly opt out. This is why, for example, I hesitated to sign the recent Predatory Peacekeepers petition because it’s on Avaaz, a site I hadn’t hitherto signed up to and therefore which I wasn’t already receiving several emails a day from. But what has happened here is that 38D has suspended a petition because of a flaw in their own system: the lack of any ability to moderate comments left at the bottom. Petition owners can’t control who signs, and who leaves what comment, and the sites allow you to broadcast your comment straight to Facebook or Twitter, and it’s easy for anyone trying to discredit a petition to leave an abusive comment against the target or subject of the petition.

I’ve not seen any abusive or sexist remarks in my Twitter feeds where there has been a lot of criticism of Kuenssberg for bias. It’s all been about her reporting. Perhaps the people leaving sexist remarks are people without any sense of what is appropriate, or actual misogynists, or morons looking to disrupt any cause for the “lulz”, or maybe it’s from supporters of Kuenssberg seeking to discredit the petition. Was any attempt made to investigate where the abusive remarks were coming from? I very much doubt it is what the people who put the petition up intended. Yet I’ve seen people assume it’s “typical leftist misogyny” rather than a few extremists or people trying to deflect criticism from Kuenssberg’s reporting.

In addition, I reject the “just doing her job” argument used by her supporters. If you want to present news in a way that’s sympathetic to a Tory government, there’s always the Times or Telegraph; the BBC is paid for by everyone. There is an attitude that a woman in a position of prominence or public authority is such a novelty that they should always be treated with kid gloves as their removal would probably put a man in the job, constituting a reversal for women. I hear this regularly in interviews on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, where Jenni Murray interviews women in powerful positions, such as Alison Saunders, the current Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), in a sycophantic manner reminiscent of a schoolgirl excited to be given the privilege of interviewing an important person for the school newspaper, and not questioning them about serious failings, some of which have led to lives being lost. (Her interview with Madeleine Albright was another example.) We even sometimes hear this about women whose jobs involve victimising people, such as was said when a certain feminist activist known for harassing transgender people was exposed as working as a lawyer for the pay-day loan industry.

Women who do bad jobs, or who do vital jobs badly, should be open to criticism, whether it’s Kuenssberg or Alison Saunders or, say, Katrina Percy of Southern Health. I’ve been involved in a campaign (led mostly by women) to get rid of her and a number of other men and women in senior positions at that trust, and while I’m sure some people would like it if a woman took over from her, a man will do as long as it results in better care and no more drownings in baths. We’ve yet to see any misogyny or any attempt to discredit us with it, but I really hope the public will see through it if this happens (so far, the only abuse that could be described as such has been directed at Sara Ryan, the mother of the young man who drowned, not at Percy or anyone else at the trust). If Kuenssberg goes, it would be great if they found another woman, but not at the expense of persistent bias in favour of the government and, where the Labour party is concerned, the embittered right. It would, however, be a disaster for free speech if it were possible to destroy perfectly legitimate campaigns by making them look racist, sexist or otherwise malicious and getting petitions cancelled and other means of protest blocked. It’s up to the petition site owners to give campaigners the ability to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Image source: Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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Who really “made Islam a hot topic”?

10 May, 2016 - 13:27

A Mail on Sunday headline reading "On Thursday, are we really going to hand the world's greatest city to a Labour party that thinks terrorists are its friends?". There is a picture of a bombed-out London bus from the 2005 bombings.There has been an article published on the Daily Beast, the American news website that owns Newsweek, by Maajid Nawaz, explaining to their American audience the “real reason” why Islam was made an issue of during the recent mayoral campaign. It’s not just that the Tories used a consultant that is notorious for running racist campaigns that appeal to the worst in middle-class white provincials and suburbanites; no, it’s all down to “Islamists” and their friends on the “Regressive Left” in the Labour party and the liberal British media, who hold Muslims to “lower expectations” than others, and the “Populist Right” such as Donald Trump’s Republicans. He brings up things that were never mentioned in the recent campaign, such as the fact that he once shared platforms with people linked to extremists or who expressed unpopular opinions and that third parties told Muslim voters in Tooting not to vote for an “Ahmadi” Lib Dem candidate.

As someone who has been a Muslim since 1998, and used to make regular visits to mosques in Tooting and elsewhere in south London (I lived in Croydon until 2001), I can say that it’s difficult for Muslims not to come into contact with the people that Nawaz labels as “extremists”, and this was more true before 2001 than it is now because things were much more open, people were much less fearful and some groups held different positions to those they hold today. Many people would disagree with, for example, al-Muhajiroun’s policies on Muslims voting, but they did not intimidate anyone into not voting and the functions they put on (one of which I attended in 2000 or so) were social events where Muslims networked, and were not fraught or intimidating. Al-Muhajiroun changed their position in 2004 to an explicitly Salafi-Jihadi one and their tactics of holding disruptive demonstrations (including at other Muslim groups’ demos, such as those by CagePrisoners) started in earnest then. Some of the press reporting about the 2005 election campaign in Tooting (which Khan won) suggests that they were involved in some of the disruption.

Nawaz claims that there is a “left-wing bigotry of low expectations that holds Muslims to lesser, illiberal standards”. In another Daily Beast article linked off that one, he names the Guardian as a host for such attitudes. I’ve read the Guardian for years and most of their coverage of Islam is through a white liberal lens and there is a shortage of identifably Muslim contributors. When, for example, Nawaaz’s friend Usama Hasan was made unwelcome in the mosque he believed he would inherit the imamate of by dynastic succession for expressing a belief in human Darwinian evolution, the Guardian treated him as a wronged, brave dissenter. But the truth is that it is not a question of holding Muslims to lesser standards but of accepting that others’ standards are different, and don’t regard our standards as necessarily higher than theirs.

Picture of a high wall, on the left side of which children appear to be playing in a school playground in its shadow. On the right is a factory, houses and some sports fields.In places Nawaz appears to be relying on the ignorance of his foreign readership. I do not recognise his description of London as a “torn city”. This is not Belfast, or even Glasgow. It’s a place where, with the exception of some of the outer suburbs, people of different races and creeds live, work, study and travel together. People by and large keep themselves to themselves and do not strike up random conversations on the street or train — it’s not one big village or happy family — but they do know each other enough not to be afraid. The exceptions, and the places where Goldsmith did best, were in the white-dominated outer suburbs where people don’t see people of other cultures on a daily basis — they don’t, for example, have numerous perfectly civil encounters with Muslim women in hijab at college or on the train — and might perhaps be more susceptible to fear-based propaganda. This is how it is with racism in general; the more people actually meet those of other cultures or ethnicities, the less prejudiced they tend to be towards them. The outer suburbs tend to be the areas that vote Tory anyway, but the fear campaign did not make any inroads and, as London had elected a Tory mayor twice, actually lost them votes.

But in any case, the reason the Tories thought a fear-based campaign focussing on Khan’s background would work has nothing to do with the “regressive Left” and very much to do with the media, particularly (but not only) the right-wing press, which has drip-fed the public a series of stories about Muslims as terrorists, Muslims demanding one type of “special treatment” or other, Muslims trying to censor others’ free speech, Muslims simply doing things differently from others (e.g. having separate seating for men and women at events) with this being presented as a threat or as a scandal that it’s even allowed, and so on. Outrage is regularly manufactured about such matters that in fact threaten the life or liberty of nobody, and which are replicated in some other religious and even secular spaces (e.g. schools of other faiths and none, feminist conferences), with MPs joining in the frenzy.

 Give Us Full Sharia Law".The idea that every Londoner (let alone anyone else) is continually confronted by any kind of Muslim threat, or irritated by Muslim behaviour or obstructed by praying Muslims as they go about their business is laughable. People think Muslims are trouble because the papers tell them, and the ones who meet us every day won’t fall for fearmongering (and lies — we shouldn’t forget that the British mass-market tabloid press has a record of publishing malicious and fabricated stories) whereas those who only read about us in the papers probably will.

Bigotry is only to be blamed on the bigot, and the stirring of it only on the stirrer. We cannot blame Muslims, Islamists, the anti-racist left who do not demand humiliating renunciations of whole tracts of their religion, or anyone else for the Tory campaign against Sadiq Khan except the Tory party itself. It miscalculated, as it had a candidate who was fairly well-liked, who had been trying to build bridges with the Muslim community and has Muslim family connections, and faced a Labour candidate who was distrusted by his own community because he had taken a pro-Israel and anti-BDS stance, had attacked Muslim rights groups and made scaremongering remarks about Muslims and extremism to the press. He is considered almost as much an Uncle Tom as Maajid Nawaz is. The Tories had an open goal, and failed to take advantage of it because they thought that after decades of abuse from them and their propaganda press towards all their favourite targets, such as Muslims, a few smears targeting his religion and his human rights work before he became an MP would do the trick. What there is to celebrate is not that we have our “first Muslim mayor”; it’s that a racist negative campaign backfired spectacularly.

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Did Sadiq Khan win, or Zac Goldsmith lose?

6 May, 2016 - 22:27

Picture of Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, presumably in a tall building, with a view of central London behind themAs I write this, the first preference votes for the London mayoral election are counted and Sadiq Khan has won 44.2% of them (on a turnout of only 45.3%); second preferences are being counted, but it seems to be accepted that Khan has won. The campaign has been fought, as far as I am aware, without any reference to either his policies or those of his Tory opponent, Zac Goldsmith (son of James, former editor of the Ecologist and MP for Richmond Park, which includes the northern part of Kingston); it has been fought almost entirely on the basis of smears against Khan for having connections to extremists, including former clients from when he was a Human Rights lawyer and someone who used to be (but isn’t now) married to his sister. Goldsmith’s campaign was ‘masterminded’ by Lynton Crosby, who has a history of winning election campaigns in both the UK and Australia using divisive, often anti-immigrant (or, as in this case, just anti-minority) stances, earning himself a knighthood for “services to politics”, but this campaign showed his limits: it was a disaster, as Goldsmith found himself denying that he had links to conservative Muslim leaders in south London such as Suliman Gani, only for the links to be proven.

Goldsmith could have won this election. He could have fought the campaign on issues that matter to everyone; most of his role, after all, pertains to transport, although he has a bit of a public relations role as well, serving as a figurehead for London. Boris Johnson, the outgoing Tory mayor, is still quite popular (although his opponent on both occasions was Ken Livingstone, who had lost a lot of popularity because of his arrogance, best exemplified in the western extention to the Congestion Charge into residential areas of west London, which he pressed ahead with despite its massive unpopularity); although he has largely built on the achievements of others, including Ken Livingstone, his two terms in office haven’t been the disaster some people feared. Unlike Johnson, Goldsmith does not have a prior record (as far as I know) of promoting bigotry; Johnson edited the Spectator when it printed several viciously Islamophobic front pages following bombings and riots here and in France. While of course the Muslim vote on its own will not win anyone an election in London, Goldsmith could have secured it given his connections to the community in south London and Sadiq Khan’s questionable loyalty (for example, making scaremongering claims such as that a certain large percentage of British Muslims had met an extremist).

A lot of people, including his sister Jemima Goldsmith (once known as Jemima Khan, former wife of Pakistani cricketer and politician Imran Khan), had remarked that the campaign did not reflect the Zac Goldsmith they knew, who was according to his sister “an eco friendly, independent-minded politician with integrity”. Tell MAMA claimed that he “is a man who cares about issues affecting communities and is someone with a genuine desire to make a positive change for communities”. Yet for whatever reason he allowed Lynton Crosby to run a highly negative campaign on his behalf, which some commentators called a “doughnut strategy”, appealing to the white middle classes in the suburbs while demonising the inner city and minorities, or at least some of them. He also made an appeal to Hindus and Sikhs by claiming that Khan supported a “tax on family jewellery”, boasted that he had “welcomed Prime Minister Modi to London last year alongside Prime Minister David Cameron” while Khan had not, and had supported a ban on the visit, and talked of his “strong record of engagement with the Indian community, celebrating Diwali, Navratri and Janmashtami”, without mentioning any Muslim festivals.

I heard Andrew Boff, a Tory London assembly member, criticise the Goldsmith campaign for “blowing up bridges” that the Conservatives had built with the Muslim community in Newham (his example), accusing him of “effectively saying that people of conservative religious views are not to be trusted and you shouldn’t share a platform with them”. However, on Vanessa Feltz’s show where he was interviewed, he said that Goldsmith’s policies were excellent and that he still hoped he won. But sadly, however fine his policies, we cannot reward a politician who runs a racist campaign by voting for him. It would allow any future politician seeking election in a mixed city to think he can use smears and fears to win and the next time, it could be accompanied with violence, as has been the case with Donald Trump’s campaign to get the Republican presidential nomination in the US. Opposing racism and bigotry must trump almost anything else.

I don’t believe any of the romantic notions that London is above bigotry, that it would never elect a politician who traded on race-based fear. But it is a city where people live together, not a city of affluent suburbs and ghettoes. There is almost no part of London where you could live for years and have no contact with ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslims. It is also easy to overestimate the reach of papers like the Evening Standard, which is mostly sold to and read by rail commuters. The result, if it is as predicted, is a bloody nose to the Tory leadership and to its attack dog Crosby, who threw away an easy victory in order to follow a tired negative campaign script. It’s hugely to the credit of Sadiq Khan’s campaign that, despite the ongoing controversy over “anti-Semitism” and the history of “anti-Zionist” campaigns in certain areas with a heavy Muslim population, this campaign did not even hint at Zac Goldsmith’s ancestry. They played it clean and it appears to have paid off.

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Jews, Muslims, the left and “anti-Semitism”

2 May, 2016 - 16:06

Picture of Malia Bouattia, a young woman of North African appearance with long hair, a necklace with three leaf-like charms visible, and a black T-shirtSince I wrote my last piece on the left and claims of “anti-Semitism” against Labour students and the Left more generally, a spate of claims of anti-Semitism against various Labour politicians, two of them Muslims, have been made, resulting in the suspension from the Labour party of Ken Livingstone and the MP for Bradford West, Naseem “Naz” Shah. Also, following the election of Malia Bouattia as NUS President, a number of local student unions threatened to disaffiliate, claiming she was an anti-Semite and had refused to support a motion condemning ISIS and complaining that her election was undemocratic because it was carried out by conference delegates, not through a ballot of all students. While I agree that the remarks that got Ken Livingstone suspended were crass and historically inaccurate, I suspect they would not have resulted in suspension if said about any other minority or for that matter any other genocide. The row about Naz Shah’s remarks from 2014 fail to take into account the fact that most Muslims feel the same way, and that their stance is not a matter of racism but of being on the opposite side of a conflict.

Malia Bouattia

To take Malia Bouattia first, the complainers are simply bad losers. The election of an NUS President has always been at conference, by delegates (who have to vote as instructed by their unions, which are accountable to the students — at least, those who take an interest in the union) and we did not hear them complaining when right-wing Labour careerists such as Jim Murphy were elected as President for year after year in the 1990s. When I attended as a delegate from Aberystwyth in 1996, Labour students even had people sitting with visitors in the balcony telling delegates how to vote. If they want a directly-elected President, they need to make the case for that at conference rather than disaffiliating. The Union of Jewish Students was prominent then as now, and organised a main-hall speech by a Searchlight activist who insisted that anti-Semitism was the “one abiding hatred” among neo-Nazis and that all their other hatreds were as nothing compared to the “paranoid hatred” they had for “the Jew”. He specifically named anti-Zionism as a cover for “naked anti-Semitism”, comparing it to someone saying “I’ve nothing against the Irish or the Belgians, but I don’t think they deserve a state”, ignoring the fact that Ireland and Belgium are not settler states and that they do not displace and oppress a native population.

I read the motion that Malia Bouattia refused to support, and while the motion itself does not appear Islamophobic, it also did not condemn Islamophobia or the politics of suspicion against British Muslim students; it did not even mention Islam or Muslims other than in connection with the so-called Islamic State. So, Ms Bouattia resisted a demand to condemn on cue and was smeared as a result. In addition, what does it matter if the NUS does or doesn’t condemn ISIS? It will have no difference in the field. The NUS passes an awful lot of resolutions on things that have nothing to do with students in the UK and on which they have no power, perhaps rejoicing in the glory days when union buildings were named after Nelson Mandela and students were part of the (vast) international movement that brought down Apartheid.

In the controversy over her election, the president of Birmingham University’s Jewish society, Daniel Clemens, was quoted as saying:

I think that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are two and the same thing. Zionism is the belief that Jewish people should have a homeland to live in without threat of annihilation or war. This stems from a Jewish belief. So when someone attacks Zionism they’re indirectly attacking Judaism as a religion, because the two go hand in hand.

The problem is that the “Jewish belief” is in conflict with the right of the Arabs who are the native people of Palestine to live in their country without the same threats. There is simply no defence of this position or of the status quo that does not lend itself to racism or to blaming the victims of Israeli oppression, something that in a student union context would not be tolerated of any other kind of oppression or violence. Furthermore, Muslims have been convicted of inciting racial hatred in this country for quoting hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallm) which foretold a war with Jews, and the judge dismissed his defence by saying, “words created 1,400 years ago are equally capable of containing race hate as words created today”. So, if Islam is no defence, Judaism is no defence either.

Naz Shah

 Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0Moving on to Naz Shah, her remarks were made in 2014 and were made in the context of the Israeli bombings in Gaza, which as reported at the time, caused widespread civilian death and the destruction of homes, schools, hospitals etc. We don’t regard this as self-defence, regardless of its disproportionality compared to Hamas rocket attacks. It is murder and destruction in defence of injustice, namely the state of Israel, which as amply documented elsewhere, already oppresses the population of the West Bank through settlements, checkpoints, the wall, theft of water, arbitrary imprisonment of civilians for acts of resistance, and so on, while keeping the population of Gaza under seige (in collaboration with the dictatorship in Egypt). The fact that all this is deemed necessary to “maintain Israel’s security” (although the water theft is really to enable them to maintain a western lifestyle) is enough to demonstrate that the state of Israel is morally untenable.

Naz Shah shouldn’t have apologised. Most Muslims felt the same way she did. She should have stuck by her words rather than grovel to the Israel lobby’s smear and fake-outrage tactics. If the political classes can tolerate the Jewish community’s loyalty to a racist foreign state, it should be able to tolerate Muslims’ opposition to it and the odd intemperate remark, particularly when it is clearly aimed at the foreign power itself and not at everyone who shares their race and religion.

Ken Livingstone

As for Ken Livingstone, his foray into being an amateur historian made him look pretty stupid. It’s a fact that early Zionists (such as Vladimir AKA Ze’ev Jabotinski) collaborated with anti-Semites who, for example, would prefer to relocate Jews to Palestine rather than tolerate them at home, or accept a wave of Jewish immigration from eastern Europe. Hitler did indeed tolerate Zionism, and did make an agreement with the German Zionist Federation, but this doesn’t prove that Hitler and his associates did not have murder in mind when they took power; the Zionists misjudged his intentions, as their leader later acknowledged (note: that link does work), much as those who stayed in Germany (or returned in the early days of his regime, attracted by the restoration of order) did, believing the surge in anti-Semitism would “all blow over”. To suggest that he only massacred the Jews because he was thwarted in his intention to deport Jews to Palestine or Madagascar rather suggests that his hand was forced, when it was a deliberate decision. The Jews of Europe did not have to be expelled or killed.

However, people calling him to be suspended or expelled from the Labour party overestimate the effect this would have on him. He probably does not care; he is 70 years old and has no intention of becoming an MP or running for mayor of London again, and it should be remembered that he has in the past beaten a Labour candidate as an independent.

What is anti-Semitism, and who gets to define it?

There have been a few stupid articles about this in the media. There are plenty of “sky is falling” articles by authors of Jewish origin: this one by Nick Cohen (complete with a shockingly ignorant remark about false rape accusations — in fact, attempts to talk about rape often are diverted onto talk of false accusations) and this one by Stephen Pollard, for example. But there are two others that make claims that I want to examine in more detail. One is by Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian last Friday, and the other is by Jonathan Freedland in last Saturday’s Guardian. They deserve closer examination because they compare the situation of Israel and related anti-Semitism or claims thereof to other tyrannies, and other minorities.

Hinsliff concludes:

Here’s a clue, for those confused about how to champion Palestinian rights or condemn an oppressive regime without overstepping the line: just treat Israel as you would any other country guilty of human rights abuses.

There’s nothing inherently antisemitic about seeking economic sanctions against Israel, supporting an oppressed minority’s right to self determination, condemning a government, or anything else you’d do if this was Burma.

But calling for its people to be swept into the sea, or forcibly transplanted somewhere else, or in any other way denying Israel’s right to exist, is crossing a line because that simply doesn’t happen to other countries no matter how oppressive their regime. No other nation state on the planet is constantly asked to prove itself morally worthy merely of being allowed to exist.

The thing is that this isn’t Burma. Burma was until recently, and to some minds still is, a country which is ruled by an oppressive military élite which controlled the economy and ruined the country’s education system, among other things. It also persecutes some minorities, particularly the Muslim Rohingya whom no other government in the region wants to admit. It is, therefore, a straightforward tyranny in which the population as a whole are oppressed by a powerful class. We do not always support sanctions against tyrannical régimes; many people did in the case of Burma, because tourism would have benefited only the military élite which exploited the general population, not the people. Israel’s tyranny presents itself as democracy, and it is commonly justified as the “only democracy in the region”, and the army which perpetrates the abuses is drawn from the dominant population — the Jews, the vast majority of whose ancestors did not live in the country until at least the late 19th century and most of them much more recently — and there is every sign that this dominant population supports the status quo, given that it elects hardline parties and the likes of the war criminal Ariel Sharon to govern them. So, the problem with Israel is not an elite, but the population.

The comments about how it’s OK to support “an oppressed minority’s right to self-determination” reflect the usual naivety of the white liberal about this situation. Israel is not willing to tolerate self-determination because it wants to provide scope for settlement expansion, to hold onto religiously significant sites and to provide a western lifestyle for Israelis and especially those relocated from the developed world. It cannot do this by allowing the native people equal access to resources and to control over their homeland. The reason we usually do not say of a tyranny that the state and its people should be driven into the sea is because the population is the victim (sometimes of land-grabs by members of the elite, as has become common in East Africa in recent years) rather than the perpetrator. The situation is more like that of Apartheid or of American segregation, where the state was of one section of the population and the enemy of another. (Nick Cohen talks of a ‘darkness’ where the police guard synagogues and Jewish schools here while ‘fascistic reactionaries’ attack them in France; real persecution is where the police and the fascistic reactionaries are one and the same, or at least, the police look the other way, as in the case of Kristallnacht or when Muslims were attacked in Gujarat in 2002. Of course, the governor whose police looked the other way now shares a platform with the Prime Minister and is feted by MPs of both main parties.)

In her penultimate paragraph, she alleges:

We don’t argue that the civilian population of Syria, or 1930s Germany for that matter, should have been forcibly removed from their homes and their nation states obliterated because of abuses committed by governments and condoned by some if not all of their citizens.

In fact, in the 1940s, millions of Germans were deported from the former eastern territories of Germany so that Russia could keep the parts of Poland it had occupied in 1939 and compensate Poland while resettling Poles from the east to the territories vacated by the Germans. In the same decade, millions of Hindus and Muslims in northern India had to leave their homes as a result of Partition. These were not recent settlers, unlike the Jews of Israel.

Freedland compares the left’s attitude to Israel to committed anti-racists hating a hypothetical country that is the only Black-ruled state in the world. In fact, one African country has a history much like that of Israel, namely Liberia, a country ‘founded’ by resettled freed slaves from the USA, who for a century dominated the country’s politics despite making up only 2.5% of the population. According to Wikipedia (which cites the US State Department for this):

The Americo-Liberian settlers did not identify with the indigenous peoples they encountered, especially those in communities of the more isolated “bush.” They knew nothing of their cultures, languages or animist religion. Encounters with tribal Africans in the bush often developed as violent confrontations. The colonial settlements were raided by the Kru and Grebo people from their inland chiefdoms. Because of feeling set apart and superior by their culture and education to the indigenous peoples, the Americo-Liberians developed as a small elite that held on to political power. It excluded the indigenous tribesmen from birthright citizenship in their own lands until 1904, in a repetition of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans. Because of the cultural gap between the groups and assumption of superiority of western culture, the Americo-Liberians envisioned creating a western-style state to which the tribesmen should assimilate. They encouraged religious organizations to set up missions and schools to educate the indigenous peoples … Their passage of the 1865 Ports of Entry Act prohibited foreign commerce with the inland tribes, ostensibly to “encourage the growth of civilized values” before such trade was allowed.

I should add that, although many Black-ruled countries nowadays exist, there is no state for Black British or African-Americans specifically, despite the many decades of racism and discrimination they have suffered. There are many minorities, with or without an acknowledged land of their own, who do not have a state. Nobody is suggesting they get one at another people’s expense. Nor is anyone suggesting, even those who would open the doors to all the refugees from Syria, that there should be a bit of England that is forever Syria.

He concludes by demanding that Jews be allowed to define what constitutes anti-Semitism, much as other minorites are ‘usually’ allowed to, without being told “they’re wrong, that they are exaggerating or lying or using it as a decoy tactic [and then treated] to a long lecture on what anti-Jewish racism really is”. But racism against every other minority is normally directed at them, not at a group of people of the same religion who are the dominant class in another country. And most minorities are not White, powerful and prosperous, and cannot kick up a storm in the media (or rely on others to do so) any time a politician makes a disparaging remark about them, or their friends abroad. It’s dangerous to allow such a minority a free rein to allege racism for things that bear no relation to the racism or discrimination other minorities suffer, and be indulged; they will use it to silence or smear critics, as they are already doing. Additionally, spurious accusations of ‘mansplaining’ to mean a man telling a woman something she doesn’t want to hear are pretty common in my observation, and even some feminists warn that it can be used as a simple ad hominem attack.


Picture of Sadiq Khan, a clean-shaven South Asian man with short, grey hair, wearing a pink shirt and red tie with a dark grey jacket.I do believe that this scandal has been orchestrated so as to damage the Labour party’s prospects in the coming local elections, perhaps because the Tories feared that the now-forgotten smears against Sadiq Khan had failed to do so. There is a group of embittered Blairites who really would rather the Tories won than even a moderate mayoral candidate, so as to give them a pretext to remove Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership. That doesn’t excuse Livingstone’s crass remarks about Hitler, but the truth is that this “anti-Semitism” controversy started with a witch hunt against prominent Muslims, starting with Malia Bouattia, moving on to Sadiq Khan and finally Naz Shah, and that over something she posted before she became an MP. In the Guardian last week Iman Amrani noted that Muslims come under special scrutiny when running for public office; they are judged not only everything they have ever said but also everyone they have ever come into contact with, as we have seen also with Sadiq Khan.

It will be galling to many Muslims that their support for Palestinians’ rights to their own land, control of their lives and freedom from harassment and oppression is branded anti-Semitic by a privileged minority and their media friends here at the same time as an openly Islamophobic campaign is being run in support of a Tory mayoral candidate named Goldsmith. Muslims will know that however integrated they are, and whatever compromises they make to appear integrated, they will still be held under suspicion because of whom they know or (as in Sadiq Khan’s case) simply for doing their job. We also know that the reason “the Left” is considered tainted with anti-Semitism is not because of Ken Livingstone but because of us. Whether they like it or not, the Labour Party depends in large parts of London not on Jewish votes but on non-white ethnic votes, including Muslims’, and demonising Muslims over spurious claims of anti-Semitism will lose them votes — whole seats in places like east London and Bradford. Labour has to accommodate both, and should not let itself be dictated to by a group that can make a lot of noise but is much smaller in number, heavily concentrated in a few areas, for socio-economic reasons less likely to vote Labour anyway and does not even represent much of the ethnic group it claims to speak for.

Image sources: Media Diversified, via Wikipedia, National Archives via Wikipedia.

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BADD 2016: Break the silence

1 May, 2016 - 19:19

An image featuring the words "Blogging Against Disablism", with a variety of stick figures of different colours on different coloured backgrounds, one holding a stick, and a wheelchair in one of the spaces.This post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016.

Last month we saw the Seven Days of Action campaign, to highlight the cases of people with learning disabilities, mostly autism, who are being held for prolonged periods in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) when they could or should be at home, or in a care home environment near their family. For last year’s BADD I also blogged on this issue; some of the people I mentioned are still trapped; Josh Wills has been happily resettled (after many bureaucratic hurdles) in his own home in Cornwall, Claire Dyer is still free, while Thomas Rawnsley’s inquest has yet to begin (a pre-inquest hearing was adjourned last week at the request of the “other parties”). I decided to link this year’s BADD post to Seven Days of Action so as to attract the wider disability activist community’s attention.

Here’s a run-down of the cases featured during the Seven Days. One story had to be changed, as although the young man had recently been discharged from an ATU into a local placement similar to Josh Wills’s, the placement had “hit some snags” and the local authority were talking of putting him back in the ATU.

Kara from Who By Fire wrote an excellent post in conclusion, summarising the issues which had been raised by the seven stories. Mark Neary is expected to post an entry tomorrow about some developments which have followed from this event: one young lad (Robert) was approved for funding for a placement in a local care home, but others have faced retaliation, including parents threatened with a gagging order, extended detention and even one assault.

There are a number of petitions addressed to various local authorities, demanding that they secure placements for the young people (mostly boys and men) who are trapped in these units. In one case (Robert’s), the ATU staff even signed the petitions themselves. However, some of them have had to be closed down when staff warned the parents that they were monitoring their online activities and that they could affect their loved ones’ treatment or keep them detained for longer. This is obviously a dreadful abuse of power, and it’s a power they would not have if psychiatrists were not able to detain people under the Mental Health Act when they are not mentally ill but rather are displaying distress behaviour which is normal for their learning disability when they are simply anxious, or struggling to deal with a sudden change in their life, or with uncertainty (as has been observed elsewhere, such crises often happen at age 17 or 18 when school ends and a well-established routine suddenly ends). However, some of the same behaviour is provoked by the treatment they receive once in, as such units often make no attempt to fit the needs of the individual patients and the staff may have no clue how to address them. (There are reports of such behaviour being provoked deliberately, as well.)

Psychiatrists have too much power. They are not fully accountable. They can make decisions that affect the quality of people’s lives, everything from suspending someone’s driving licence without notice to sectioning someone and then transferring them to another unit, perhaps hundreds of miles away, without their or their family’s consent and without any serious opportunity to challenge. Add the ability to threaten or intimidate families into silence and you have the potential for an awful lot of abuse.

Silence is often justified in terms of protecting vulnerable people; this is particularly so when children in care are concerned; parents are prohibited from disclosing what went on in a family court session, for example. In some cases, not naming a child involved in care proceedings or who has been a victim of a sexual assault is entirely appropriate for their protection (and I have defended it on one previous occasion, where Panorama were forbidden from naming a boy who had been taken into care after, among other things, setting fire to his room, after a legal challenge from the local authority). However, it can also undermine a parent’s position and their child’s trust in them — I read an article recently by a mother who had had to lie to her daughter so as to conceal the fact that her parents were in the family courts, which ordered that she not disclose the fact to her daughter. But worst of all, it can stop a parent or relative seeking advice in a semi-public forum such as Facebook or MumsNet about dangers their relative is facing, let alone taking it to the media. This is likely to be the case if someone is in a care home under the orders of the Court of Protection, for example (as Thomas Rawnsley was at the end of his life).

However, injustice, abuse and cruelty thrive when people cannot talk about it. So many victims of sexual abuse reported that their abusers told them not to tell as it would break up their family, break their mother’s hearts, or they wouldn’t be believed (and they were often right on the last of these things). We talk about justice being done and seen to be done; we have the Freedom of Information Act so that government departments cannot conceal waste or corruption. Publicity is vital for ensuring that people who have power over others’ lives cannot abuse it with impunity. I believe that the fact that Claire Dyer’s case was known locally in South Wales and was being widely discussed in the disability blogging community, including on this site, and that the commercially-run unit which took her despite not being equipped to do so knew this, was a major factor in ensuring that she was released early. The family of Robert Stillman, whose placement was approved days after his story was highlighted on Seven Days of Action, are convinced that this is what made the difference.

We cannot discuss the reasons why ATUs and the Mental Health Act they rely on to detain people are inadequate, sometimes lethally so, if the lives of the people affected are shrouded in secrecy. We must campaign to end the secrecy of the Court of Protection where it is not necessary (the judiciary is already moving in this direction). Trusts and corporations must know that their names will become public knowledge if a disabled person dies or is seriously injured in their care. Secrecy benefits nobody except the abusers, the foot-draggers and the companies that profit from disabled people’s misery and their families’ grief. It must be fought at every turn.

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