Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The greatest battle

I understand that we all have our own battles, our own focus and our own drive. What makes us feel this most is generally our own experience or what we see other people experiencing. There are some news stories that just ring a bell and we are out of our seat and swinging. I am telling you this so that you understand why I am publishing a badly written and anger-filled blog instead of trying (as I normally do, really) to build an argument based on logic, evidence and conclusion. Really, you can blame the next ten minutes of reading on my upbringing.

                I am talking about a news story last week that has been picked up by the BBC in relation to failing children on social mobility and also picked up by the Guardian. Obviously, the Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail and Sun are saving themselves to splash on to the front page the fact that David Cameron was talking out of his arse when he pretended to give a damn about this during the last couple of elections. Clearly, a shrewd move setting up a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and putting Alan Milburn in charge of it – after all, this counts as action doesn’t it?
Clearly, it doesn’t. The Commission’s first report is out since the General Election– you remember that don’t you – an Etonian Prime Minister, supported by his Etonian friends standing in front of 10 Downing Street saying he wanted to make Britain “a place where a good life is in reach for everyone who is willing to work and do the right thing”. How they must have laughed into their piles of family money and unattainable privilege about that one afterwards. The report from the commission ( ) doesn’t make easy reading if you feel passionately that this is an intrinsically unfair country OR if you fell for the crap that he was selling.
                To set the scene of where this current government is taking us, the Commission itself said this
 “In our report last year we warned that without a dramatic change in approach to how governments, employers and educators tackled child poverty and social mobility, Britain would become a permanently divided nation. Nothing we have seen in the last 12 months has made us change our view.”

Nothing has changed. Nothing has improved. What is probably more disturbing is that the actions of the last two governments would appear to be directly opposed to the objective it pretends it has set itself. It is still a sad fact that in our country if you are born rich and stupid you are far more likely to end up with a high-earning job than if you are poor and gifted (and for a worked example of this see Boris Johnson). How can this be right? Even the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child makes it clear what we need to do: “2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child's parents, legal guardians, or family members.” (Part 1, Article 2, para 2).
I do not think at the moment we are even close to achieving that. There are 1 million children living in persistent poverty. 1 million children living in persistent poverty. Yet, we are told that unemployment is the lowest it has ever been, that wages have started to rise. You would be forgiven for expecting a “you’ve never had it so good” speech at any moment. There are a lot of factors to this. The most obvious ones appear to be the collision of zero hours contracts and the attack on in-work benefits. Whilst we may have increased employment, how much of this is valuable employment? When there are 700,000 people on zero hours contracts ( and this government are trying to push through ever tighter rules on financial aid it makes you wonder how keen they really are. When families are faced by the bedroom tax making decisions onwhether they eat or whether they stay warm? How are you meant to grow, develop and achieve in circumstances where all you can think about is the hunger in your belly and the misery in your families faces? 
Then we get this government promising us jam tomorrow – by way of a “living wage” – which even when it is FULLY implemented will not achieve the living wage called for by the Living Wage Commission. We only have to wait 4 years for it. That’s OK – you stay hungry for 4 years kids – it’ll all be alright. Meanwhile the prosperous families at the top of society will send their children to private schools, and on to Eton and Cambridge – so they can retain their god-given position at the top of society. Just ask Tristram Hunt MP.
What can we do about it? Well, there seem to be some clear actions that we should take as a country. Some of these were mentioned in the Commission report.
      1.      Reduce the use of zero hours contracts (as proposed in the Labour party manifesto for the 2015 election)
2.      Replace ideology-driven austerity (which has no basis in economic theory) with funding to improve the lives of children by reversing the ridiculous benefit cuts 
3.       Targeted funding to tackle problems faced by parents of young children – such as SureStart centres (which all the research shows have a phenomenal impact on outcomes)
4.       Improved educational resources – better teaching through proper investment in training and allowing teachers to teach
5.       Improved social care – better funding and more staff – and this should include CAMHS
Unfortunately, we are not going to get any of this under the current government. This is why I joined Momentum. I also think this is the sort of area that Momentum should support the Labour party in getting the message out. Whilst I agree the question of spending money on Trident is vitally important, do you really believe that is the best way to connect with the Labour voters who didn’t turn out at the last election? When you are crying yourself to sleep because you can’t provide Christmas dinner for your kids do you think you really spend much of your time worrying about global nuclear disarmament? Maybe you are. I would wager for most people on the breadline it is an ephemeral conceptual debate. I’ve got to be honest – if you have time and energy to worry about Internationalism vs globalism then I would wager your life is already comfortable.
This may be where Momentum ends up in the same place as Progress – a talking shop for people who have aligned themselves to positions rather than people. Where the loudest voices get heard – instead of the most desperate. Only time will tell of course. But whilst we are working out what we want to be and why we want to be – children are starving and freezing, and another generation is being left behind compared to the privileged few. Merry Christmas. 

Monday, 14 December 2015

Gender role inequality - still easy to spot, no easier to solve

             I am sexist. No two ways about it. But then, whether we realise it or not most people are. Let me give you a recent example. I am a massive rugby fan – and I am desperately trying to get my 4 year old boy to watch the game and hopefully start playing. At the start of the recent world cup I rushed out to buy him an England rugby top (I know, I should have bought him a disposable one). I was so excited because I had a photograph with him from 4 years earlier wearing an England rugby baby-grow. Of course it never occurred to me at the time to buy a baby-grow for my 4 month old daughter. So yes, I can be sexist.
               Now the challenges in terms of tackling sexism in our culture and structures are immense – and certainly too deep for me to consider all of them in a blog. We should never lose sight of the fact that when looked at from pretty much any perspective you care to imagine those who have lost the most from this are women and girls. Both historically and presently the greatest challenge is to the rights of women. We can look at this is in terms of access to senior positions and positions of authority, in terms of equal pay or in terms of job opportunities as the liberal feminist tradition would have us do. We can look in terms of domestic violence, domestic servitude, caring and family role expectations as being a more important indicator if we choose – and there is certainly still a great deal of work to be done here.
               I make no apologies for focussing almost exclusively on western ideas here by the way. I simply do not have enough information or understanding to apply this more widely. Whilst I admit that like most people I was delighted that Saudi Arabia has now allowed women to not only vote but stand as candidates in elections, I am too far removed to really be able to understand and involve myself, other than to be amazed that we still don’t have universal suffrage in every country. Having said that Saudi Arabia is a country so intrinsically corrupt and evil that it will work with the likes of David Cameron, so you can’t really be surprised by anything rotten there.
               The reason for telling you this was that I noticed a couple of really interesting episodes over the last week or so. The first one was rather innocuous in seeming, however I think perhaps underlines some of the challenges that we face (and partly gives me an excuse when I sometimes behave in a sexist way – ie without realising it until later). I attended my son’s nativity play and in order to ensure everyone could take part the stable was a little bit crowded. I am not sure the original writers had time to put 60 different roles in there. What really stood out for me (as well as enjoying the antics of 4 year olds on stage) was the role assignment. There were 8 angels and 8 shepherds – split perfectly down gender lines (yes, I know, only on a purely “cis-“ basis). Now, from a historical accuracy point of view it may well have been that only men were allowed to be shepherds 2000 years ago in Judea. I don’t know, I am not a history buff but I would imagine there could be some truth to that. But certainly angels, if they had gender at all, would be both male and female.
               What is worrying about this is, whilst we are a fairly affluent and liberal part of Liverpool I believe that these roles were assigned by the school. Is it sexism? Was it even considered? The school has an almost entirely female teaching staff. Surely one of them has hard of gender equality. Maybe I have completely misunderstood – maybe this is liberal feminism in action “Right, the angels are the most powerful creatures in the story – therefore we will keep all of those roles for women. After all if we can set aside roles solely for women that’ll upset hegemony”. However, I very much doubt that.
               In a very dissimilar setting but very much aligned topic I attended the local meeting of Momentum for Merseyside. Now, as a socialist who has not been inculcated I am still getting to grips with everybody calling each other “comrade”. Whilst I can understand the importance of this in 18th Century Paris I am less certain it is required in 21st Century Liverpool. It must be remembered that Momentum is a proto-organisation at the moment, and that is because of the way it developed – almost organically. Nobody expected that they would have to find something to do with so many activists when Jeremy Corbyn started his leadership campaign. I actually wear it as a badge of honour that Tom Watson called us a “bit of a rabble”. We are, and we need to organise. The proposal for Momentum Merseyside was that as well as committee positions (which there was a general view on splitting 50:50 between female only and open to all positions or co-holding in a similar fashion) there would be 2 delegates from each CLP / Borough in the area – matching the Labour party set up in that area. The proposal was (similar I guess to the angels above) that for every delegation there should be one female only position and one open to all position.
               Whilst this was originally slated to be mandated a motion was put forward that this should be a recommendation only following by a member of one of the constituency parties who wanted the right to choose as their delegates, if they so wished, men to either role. For me, this was a fantastic moment for the little corner of the organisation in the North West. After some fairly impassioned speeches on the matter, the motion was passed – and this gave 2 things really. Firstly, it allowed each CLP to make their own decision – removing a top-down paternalistic drive to be shaped a certain way. Secondly it showed that the new organisation was going to be democratic and open in the way it decided things. Once the motion was carried there was clear acceptance of it in the room. I hope that this is a clear indication that Momentum is going to be a truly democratic organisation – perhaps we are already showing a level of maturity that other organisations don’t.
               What brought the nativity play role selection and the Momentum meeting together was the idea that we still have a long way to go to achieve gender/role equality, but perhaps the real focus of our efforts should be on the structures that entrench traditional gender roles and values rather than the focus on positions and hierarchical authority. After all, what did Margaret Thatcher ever do for women? Whether this is through looking at advertising on TV where for every woman in a bikini being seen as simply an object for sexual gratification to every father shown up as a useless man-sized child reliant on his wife, or nativity roles for 4 year olds, we simply need to do better. It is a really worrying state of affairs when Saudi Arabia are moving faster in terms of gender roles and equal rights than we are.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The real civil war that the media should focus on

It seems a real shame to me that looking at the newspaper headlines this morning, there was so much focus on the “civil war” in the Labour party. There is no civil war, not yet. There is a media narrative that was constructed in the hours after Jeremy Corbyn won that this civil war would happen. What amazes me is the complicity of some Labour MPs for grabbing this narrative and feeding it. John Spellar MP and Simon Danczuk MP certainly spring to mind – but that is only because they are dim enough to be used by other members of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
               Our media, and our political parties really should be focussed instead on the civil wars taking place in Syria and Iraq. After all, they are about to debate and vote on sending British aircraft armed with British missiles to attack Daesh (I use Daesh in place of IS, ISIS or ISIL throughout) targets in Syria. This is an extension of the bombing runs that we are already taking part in in Iraq – at the request of their government who, for better or for worse, we are allied to.
               This is an unenviable task. The potential risks from either taking part or not taking part are huge. One of the true measures of leadership (whether in politics, business or life) is being able to take a decision based on imperfect information. I certainly don’t know what the answer is. It is almost impossible, in my opinion, to come up with a definite answer – i.e. one that you can promise is definitely the right thing to do. Of course, you wouldn’t think that looking at social media. I think it is probably worth trying to frame the questions that we think our politicians should ask themselves when coming to a decision. By the way, these are not questions that should be limited to Labour politicians – every MP of every hue should be challenging themselves in this. If they get it wrong history will not judge them kindly.
               So how do you decide on which course of action to take? My very humble opinion is that you need to ask yourself these two questions:
1.      Do I believe that extending  bombing against Daesh will degrade their ability to cause harm and suffering BEYOND the level of harm and suffering our bombing will cause AND beyond the level of risk (known and unknown) to our interests that this cause of action will create?
2.      Do I believe that bombing Daesh is the best course of action to achieve this when compared against the other possible courses of action that we can take to reduce their effectiveness?
Now, I am sure that other people would come up with different questions – and I absolutely accept that my questions are coloured by my own background and political persuasion. I am more than happy to have that debate, although our MPs are being forced into having this conversation in an unseemly rush so we may never have time.
               So asking the questions is really only the start of the process. Answering them is a much more difficult one. I do not believe that we have concrete answers to many of the parts of that question, and we can only base our decisions on what we know – whilst taking into account the possible risks of those bits of information we don’t know.
Will bombing Daesh degrade their ability to cause harm and suffering?
This is really a military answer. However, what harm and suffering do we hope to reduce? Is it the harm they are causing to the people of Syria? If that was our aim surely we would be bombing the forces of President Assad – after all he has caused much more harm and suffering to his own people. Is it that it will reduce their ability to cause harm and suffering to the UK and our interests? I think unfortunately we haven’t yet seen the evidence of this. How will dropping bombs on Raqqa reduce the risk of harm to the UK? We have been targeted numerous times we are told, and our security services have managed to stop seven attempts this year. But there has been no offer of evidence that these attacks were planned by IS in Syria. Clearly, we can not be privy to all available information in this area. But when even the Conservative Chair of the Defence Select Committee is not convinced, I see no reason for the rest of us to be convinced.
Will it be beyond the level of harm and suffering caused by our bombing?
               Apparently, we have the smartest munitions in the world. Our Brimstone missiles are so amazing they can fly into a HQ building, put bomb-proof blankets on any civilians there and THEN detonate killing only people marked as DAESH members based on DNA profiling performed by the missile. True story.          
There will be civilians deaths from our bombs. Of that there is no doubt. Anybody who does not believe this is ignoring all technical and historical evidence. Just a few short weeks ago the US military blew up a clinic being run by Medicins Sans Frontieres on Afghanistan. We can not rule out civilians being murdered by our bombs. It is that simple. So, given we can’t say that this will reduce the chance of British casualties, this “sum” is very much imbalanced in the other direction. Every man, woman and child murdered by our bombs will be a black mark against our country. Oddly though there COULD be an argument that using British pilots and British munitions would mean France, Germany, US and other partners fly fewer sorties and drop fewer bombs. Perversely from this argument, our involvement could lead to fewer civilian deaths overall – it will simply be that some of them will come from British bombs instead of other countries.
What level of risk will our bombing create / mitigate?
               This is really the hardest thing to grasp for many people. We are much more prepared to deal in certainties. However, the key risks that are being mentioned are: That by bombing we will increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack and radicalisation; secondly that if we fail to bomb we will lose our place in terms of world standing.
               Firstly, I do not see any evidence that individual actions will increase the likelihood of an attack on the UK. Young people who are radicalised become that way because of a complex mix of factors – social, educational, family, quasi-religious etc. Individual actions that we take will not change that. The issues come from not challenging the underlying core of what allows a bredding ground for radicalisation. We must remember that the biggest terrorist attack in the UK in the name of Islam came from people born and raised in the UK. Similarly with the Paris attacks. There particularly ideology might have been shaped by others, but the process of making them susceptible to radicalisation started way before that. I am therefore not convinced by this being an actual risk.
               For the second risk, I find this a truly amazing argument. Whether it comes from the fact there is a UN mandate, or the fact that France has requested our support under a little known clause of the EU contribution, or our membership of NATO. There are a myriad of counter-examples. It is an incredibly spurious invented risk. China are a member of the security council, and have suffered their citizens being kidnapped and murdered by Daesh too. They are taking no part. When we attacked Iraq during the second gulf war, France played no part. It is a tired, and quite frankly irrational train of logic.
               So I think on the basis of those points taken in total, then there is no real case for bombing Syria. I think even those of us who have wavered and thought long and hard about this, when you consider the evidence that has been made available to us, AND then compare it to the evidence put before the Defence Select Committee, if even their chair is going to defy the Conservative whip and vote against this, we must reach the conclusion that bombing Syria is the wrong action to take. On that basis, we need to answer the second question – what action should we be taking?
               Well, there are a variety of areas that need to be really looked into. First of all, we need to degrade the capabilities of Daesh – this would require removing their funding (from interests in Turkey and Saudi Arabia), removing their access to arms, limiting their infrastructure, limiting their ability to carry out attacks in the UK. Whilst bombing may degrade their infrastructure, it does not impact the other 3. Quite simply, we need much stronger international controls on money flow and on arms exports. We also need a political settlement involving everyone including, as a novelty, Syria. In terms of removing the radicalisation of people in the UK, this requires funding for social housing and a range of other problems – many of which are being cut by the Conservative government. One of the key things that also reduce their ability to perform terrorist acts in this country and the police and security services. Thankfully the Tories have been forced into a U-turn on police cuts and have announced greater resources for security services.  We would be much better using the £200k cost of each Brimstone missile being poured into those efforts.