Category Archives: News

On Britain: Sleepwalking into a Nightmare – Part II

After last week’s general election the dust is settling… or is it?

Nigel Farage who resigned, is back in charge of UKIP; the Tories, unbridled by the now decimated Lib Dems, have gone immediately on the offensive. As was their modus operandus last time around, they are going to cut hard and fast at the beginning of the term, and hope the good times are sufficiently rolling in 2020 so that most of us will have all but forgotten the pain of the now. If you dare to read their first 100 days in power plan, you may agree that their ruthlessness is breathtaking.

2020. Sobering to type that date. I am old enough to almost think 2020 belongs in the domain of sci-fi. Sadly it does not – if the Conservatives have their way, it will be how long we have to wait before we are given the opportunity to shake them loose once again.

Sadly, I believe we will be saddled with them until that far-off and frabjous day and furthermore that they will ride us hard. I never, ever, thought the coalition government that formed in 2010 would hold. I was convinced that the Lib Dems would revolt, at least once, more, if I’m honest. However, for whatever reasons, they did not. The cynical amongst us may say it was so that they could hang on to some sort of power, at least. Nick Clegg would say it was so that he could be the No man to the worst aspects of David Cameron and his gang’s policy of slash and burn. Since all these Nos came behind closed doors, I am not convinced. Clegg says that the history books will judge them more kindly than the electorate did – I am not so sure.

And so to the Labour party. I am afraid I misjudged the electorate as much anybody in the Miliband inner circle. I took it as a self-evident fact that the Tories, even with the Lib Dems tugging at their trouser hems, were a destructive force across the country. I thought that even those people who were not being demonised as workshy would grasp the fact that they too would be at the mercy of the great Tory monster, were they to ever stumble and fall. I thought that the safety net of the welfare state and the NHS would be too precious a resource for the electorate to gamble with. I thought that the words of Neil Kinnock, before the general election in June 1983, would be remembered or, at least, recalled.

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday–

– I warn you not to be ordinary

– I warn you not to be young

– I warn you not to fall ill

– I warn you not to get old

But in May 2015 it seems that the electorate preferred to gamble on keeping the little money they had in their pocket now, rather than the certain but temporary inconveniences and inevitabilities of life. Somehow, over the last five years, the Tories had controlled the popular narrative. Somehow, the party called Labour, was not the party of the worker – the Tories were. Somehow Labour stood for taking money to give to the poor. Somehow the nonsense that held that Labour had caused the deficit had stuck and try as he might, Ed Miliband could not persuade the public otherwise.

I have learned this. Winning the next election starts the day after the last election. Controlling the narrative from the centre-left is hard when the majority of the print press is centre-right, if not outright right. People are influenced by what they hear and read, almost subliminally during a term of government and if the message has taken hold, you can’t turn it on a sixpence in the six weeks of an election campaign before the ballot. The message has to appeal to the majority for the majority of the time.

I know Labour is the party of working people, but that needs communicating at every opportunity from this moment forth. I know Labour isn’t out to take the money from the modestly off to give straight to the poor, but that has been people’s fear. I know that when I vote in a general election, I’m voting for my local MP and not the leader of the party, but the self-evident fact is that hardly anyone sees it that way, so a party leader has to have kerb appeal. I know I won’t look down the list of candidates at the next election and wonder what he or she can do for me, but I’ve come to realise that is how some people approach the vote.

So what I’ve realised is that I have fallen into the trap of thinking that others see what I see. I’ve realised that as much as political parties want to change the world, the effect they can have in terms of the majority and how they choose who to vote for is limited. I may belong to the Labour Party with grand aspirations of making society a better place for all, but the fact is most people don’t have the time for all that jazz. I can’t expect people to use their precious vote in an solely altruistic manner once every five years. Although I would disagree with Richard Dawkins and his belief in the selfish gene, and go to my grave insisting compassion and selflessness is the only way forward, I have to admit that for many, life ain’t like that.

We might want to change the world, but the electorate don’t want to know that. They want to know how they might be a little bit better off than they were before you were elected. They want to know that their lives will continue as usual or better. They want to know that nothing remarkable will ever happen. The facts are that the English, for whatever reason, are conservative (with the small c) in nature. Labour can aim to change the world for the better, for all, but for the next five years they are going to have to make sure they are planning to do it quietly.

Personally, I’d rather we went down the radical route of the SNP in all its social justice glory. But actually, based on the numbers, the SNP can’t afford to do it, without the English tax payer. And that’s the problem with English socialism I suppose, that people think that Labour are good at spending money, but really crap at creating the conditions in which people can start making it.

I may prefer to hug trees and hope we move to a post-capitalist society in my lifetime but the electorate don’t seem much up for it. That being so, for the next five years the Labour Party, myself included, will simply have to work with what we’ve got and make sure we make a better fist of it than last time

On Britain: Sleepwalking into a Nightmare – Part I

The general election has been a huge wake up call, both for myself and the Labour Party. Since the BBC released their exit poll at 10pm on Thursday night I’ve been through just about every emotion there is – even schadenfreude when the Wirral West recount went against the Tory Esther McVey. I’ve plenty to more to say on this but it’s currently percolating. In the meantime, amongst all the anxiety that is rightly felt about what the future holds for the majority of us who voted to not have 5 more years, I have to look on the bright side. Three positives to take forward:

  • Nicola Sturgeon is the best thorn in David Cameron’s side that I could have dreamt of
  • Boris Johnson back in Parliament offers a rival which rebel Tory MPs (and there always are a few) can rally round to rattle David Cameron
  • Ed Miliband can stop taking so much horrible personal flack, which was an absolute low in my view, despite his own previous fratricidal tendencies

We rolled the dice

Voters

A dear friend always insisted that there was no point betting on anything that the public have a say in because what you may get, is what you least expect. It will be interesting to see then, tomorrow, how things finally shake down in the voting booths as compared with the incessant polls that have the two ‘main’ parties in a photo finish.

It will be interesting also to see how many of us turn out. I am glad Russell Brand changed his tune on not voting, and I credit Ed Miliband, at least to some extent, with influencing that particular U-turn. If you do not use your voice to make a difference, then a difference will not be made. We all need to make a difference tomorrow, whatever that turns out to be.

These are two disgruntled characters, on the sofa. One can’t vote because he is an immigrant. No matter that he volunteers hours of his time keeping the street crime free. No matter that he single-pawedly keeps the marauding packs of urban foxes and delinquent nature-murdering felines in line. He is from Ireland, he has no vote. He’s been upset, lately, by the anti-immigrant rhetoric he’s heard bandied about. All he wants is a better life for himself, and his family, and he’s prepared to work for it.

His friend is a member of the so-called underclass. She didn’t register to vote because she didn’t think that she could make a difference. I think if she could vote, her vote would be one of the most important of all. We all know the choice available has turned out to be a bit of a dog’s dinner, but sometimes you just have to work with what you’ve got.

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Conservatives: appealing to the selfish miser living in our pockets

Silas Marner is a complicated tale by George Eliot.  Falsely accused of theft, the weaver Marner leaves his hometown to start again, far away.  He lives an isolated existence, weaving and hoarding gold, until like his good name, his money is stolen from him.  Broken, his redemption comes through the lost child Eppie who he finds in the snow and raises alone.

The golden-haired girl’s love for the old miser transforms Silas forever.

The Conservatives speak of money and hard work and fairness, but there is no love in them.  There is no love for the poor, the sick or the frail.  There is no love for those who stumble or fall, or for those who make one mistake, let alone more than one.  The Conservative world is one that Silas Marner the miser would have cherished.  The bribes on the table to the electorate would have gone down well before Eppie arrived.  Right to buy for social housing tenants – check.  Shares in Lloyds for sale cheap to the public – check.  No tax rises – check.

But when love arrives in your life – love for another, the wider community, the world, the planet we live on, the Conservative way ceases to make the least sense of all, except to the grasping miser in your pocket.

Do not listen.

Vote for compassion and equity, not gold and greed.

Education: The Political Football

Gove has gone. Long gone it seems like now, although whilst he was in office as Minister for Education it seemed interminable. His replacement Nicky Morgan cut little ice with me; principally because she voted against marriage for people who are non hetero, and then, to make it worse, went back on her nay vote when trying to make herself more palatable to non-religious liberal general humanist types like me. At least she’s not Esther McVey – that’s probably the best I can say for her at the moment.

Yesterday she was reported in the press with the usual blah blah blah about raising standards in schools. And today the mighty Spam himself, her boss, the PM more or less rehashed her words for, perhaps, a wider audience.

I am all for the no kid gets left behind approach, but the fact is, that some kids, some adults, take longer to reach their destination. And none of us, nary a one, are taking the choo choo train to the same destination. All of us are unique (thank goodness), and our lives unfold quite differently.

Yes, we’d all love it if the rules of grammar and the times table (up to 12) were stuffed in perpetuity into our brains in a seamless process before we hit secondary school, but life ain’t like that. And outgoing government ministers can pop up on their hind legs in the countdown to an election as much as they like, to make bold statements about all children this and all children that but this much I know: saying doesn’t make it so.

And when you say it, I know it ain’t about no kids. It’s all about hoofing the football up the field in a vain attempt to salvage a front bench career.

Fear of Flying: Statistics, Probability and a Shameless Distortion of Schrödinger’s Cat

If you have a mental image of a contorted feline, all twisted limbs, shoved in a box and mighty pissed off about its current status – stop right there. That’s not what’s this is about. I will however will be playing fast and loose with various theories (probability, quantum but probably not statistics).

I’ve struggled with a fear of flying since 2004. Shortly after Amberleigh House won the Grand National for Ginger McCain, I boarded a flight from Kingston, Jamaica back to London. It may have been Heathrow, it could have been Gatwick – I can’t remember which. It may be that you think that detail doesn’t matter, but actually it does, because did you know Gatwick ONLY HAS ONE RUNWAY? The difficulty with this arrangement at Gatwick is that if something goes wrong on the sole landing strip – those aircraft waiting to land there are fucked. And, as the World’s Busiest single runway that’s a lot of planes stacking up in the air…

Anyway, I digress. Back in Jamaica the plane took off, night fell, turbulence started. The seat belt sign was on for most of that flight, so much so that going to use the toilet felt like taking one’s life in one’s hands – which in a sense it was. Unsecured people’s heads smashing through the ceiling of the cabin didn’t happen on that flight, but it can and does happen – notably recently on a plane from Singapore to London. Sadly, turbulence does cause injuries when you aren’t strapped to the seat and god alone knows how the pilot and first officer actually fly the plane at the same time…

Anyway, flying back from the Caribbean I was a six months pregnant woman so utilising some sort of secret industrial bladder strength wasn’t an option and I had to unbelt myself to literally brave the trip to the loo. I am not sure I have ever felt so vulnerable. Irresponsible too. I was travelling with my partner and two year old daughter. As I perched on the terrible toilet seat to pee, suspended 30,000 plus feet in the air over the Atlantic I was metaphorically shitting myself.

I learned a lot about humans that night (mostly that we are dully sheeplike in extremis) and since then I’ve found out a lot more about aviation generally in a bid to overcome my fear. One rule of those doing the actual flying is:

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

This maxim explains the deafening silence from the flight deck and the interminable illumination of the seat belt sign nearly all the way from Jamaica. The Captain didn’t communicate anything to us the passengers, because he was too busy flying the damn plane through god knows what. I also now know that thunderstorms, despite the widely-touted claims about the robust nature of modern aircraft, are dangerous to planes and all who fly in them and, where possible, flight crew aim to give them a ten mile wide berth.

That night the plane plummeted up and down more than once. It was awful. And it seemed endless. I have since wondered if we were in a series of storms or if it was the plain old turbulence. What’s no comfort in these situations are statistics. Statistics allow us to rationalise the danger we feel that we might be in. One such statistic might be: of every 100 million people that fly every year, only 2 will die in an airplane accident. That statistic does nothing to reassure my overactive amygdala because it doesn’t make sense. After all, common sense not statistics dictate that if a jumbo jet goes down, more than 2 people out of around only 300 on board are going to die. I’m no math genius but numerically 300 is nowhere near 100 million. It’s simple common sense that tells us that in each individual disaster just about everyone is going to die. And over the Atlantic, in the middle of the night, you are all going to die. That’s a fact. Statistics just can’t help with any of that.

So when I board a plane then, I draw zero comfort from statistics. Instead I am focused on probability which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Statistics based on what has happened across the history of aviation tell me the plane will safely convey me from A to B and that my current chances of death on any flight are 1 in 50 million – good odds. Probability tells me that the proposition is more nuanced than that. Probability factors in all kinds of other things like: drunk, suicidal, over-tired, hungover, unhealthy or even one-armed pilots; maintenance crews missing important mechanical things that I don’t know the word for, the weather, ice, sand storms, volcanic eruptions, birdstrike, clear air turbulence that the airplane radar can’t detect, terrorists, plane flaws like those fires on the Dreamliners or metal fatigue in DC10s (I am a child of the 1960s – just) and hijackers. Probability will need to take into consideration the training the flight crew have and have not had, the amount of fuel that the plane has taken on, the nature of the route, and all the other planes that might be out there. It will also have to figure out how likely it is that a whole national Air Traffic Control system can go down, like the UK’s did towards the end of last year. I can’t do the math to say what probability theory tells me about my chances on any given flight are – the variables are difficult to quantify and, well just too variable.

Which brings me to the cat thing. As far as I am concerned, and now I have typed this up I have a horrible feeling that I have written this post before, when I board a plane it’s an either or situation. Like Schrödinger’s cat in the box, in the metal belly of the plane, I enter state of two possibilities – alive or dead – and no-one, including me, will know which possibility will have the upper hand until someone opens the box.

This post has obviously been occasioned by recent events over the Java Sea. It is also mindful that only yesterday a 7 year old girl knocked at the door of a house in Kentucky. She was bleeding and barefoot and the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed all the other four people on board, including her parents. Statistics and probability are no help to her – they only truly inform insurance companies and gamblers and aren’t so much applicable to the indivdual human condition.

Number crunching has it’s place, but we can learn a lot more from cats.

Ferguson’s Pain

The disclaimer – I write from a place of white privilege, but also as the parent of black kids whose grandparents came from the Caribbean to hard scrabble a life for themselves and their children in the face of racism and poverty.  Maybe this is a post I shouldn’t write, but the time has long since passed for holding things in.

My children are black because they can’t ever be white.  Can we ever move beyond that visible division – one I can’t truly feel in my soul – in my own family?  Probably not in my life time.  When my ancestors took it upon themselves to enslave and transport their fellow man across the ocean they caused a deep wounding to those people, the consequences of which are still festering and killing people today. I’m not in that place because I am white. I am not in Ferguson, and I don’t know Michael Brown’s family. But it’s whilst standing on the edge of that place of deep wounding, looking into the abyss of inequity and inhumanity, from which I write this post.

The fact is, white people still don’t get it. They don’t get that when Ferguson exploded yesterday it was an expression of the sheer pain of the seemingly endless injustice to a whole people – and not just straight up lawlessness. The white people who fire the plastic bullets and the tear gas and the pepper spray cannot feel the effects of four hundred years of oppression;  the anger of centuries filled with black folk dying at the hands of white people, and the white people’s system. The shameful history of black people being literally destroyed, unremarked, without monument, but all mourned.

I find myself thinking, we, America, will not forget Michael Brown. Like Rodney King in LA, Trayvon Martin in Florida, or Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, London. But these cases, like that of the schoolgirls in Birmingham Alabama – and let us name them: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all 14 years old, and 11-year-old Denise McNair; or 14 year old Emmett Till killed in Mississippi, or young Will Brown in Omaha – they will be etched on some minds forever.

But most lives that are lost to the system, both in America and here in the UK, do go unremarked, with barely a flicker in the press.  It seems to me that, particularly when young black men die in our cities and towns, their deaths are the collateral damage of a system of white privilege.  Until we properly address the latter, we can’t impact on the rage and pain of the former.  To our disgrace we make laws, but we don’t change people’s hearts and minds. Diversity has become a tick box on a form, but we don’t succeed in teaching people not to be scared of others. We fail in the main task of humanity, which is to live in harmony, even with our differences, in peace and understanding – if not agreement.

My children’s father’s friends – born and brought up in the inner city of Hackney – so many are dead.  Dead from what I heard described last week as a ‘lethal absence of hope’.  And it is the system that takes away that hope.  Most young people never even have it to lose it.  The system teaches from a young age that if a boy is born black in this country, in America, in the hood, they have no birthright to hope.  They can expect to be labelled early on, given a partial education, and plenty of white people to be frightened – sometimes out of their own blind ignorance, partly the prevailing media narrative.  Many young black men can expect to be diagnosed with mental health issues, be criminalised, fall victim to gangs and drugs and everything that goes with that territory.  Black men do this, not because they have no aspirations but because any budding aspirations will be ground out daily under the heel of the white press.  Every day a black man or boy dies and no-one cares.  In today’s equal society, some lives still seem expendable.  Those that survive, survive.  No-one’s breaking down the white-tinted glass ceiling.  Time to call it like it is.

I write all this from a place of white privilege, but I feel this partly is Ferguson’s pain.  White privilege meant as a kid I got to imagine my future.   Down the road my future partner in life got a future handed to him – one he has fought to simply survive.  Ferguson is in pain.  Michael Brown”s family are in pain.  A whole community is in pain.  I hope America, the  world will sit up and listen to what’s being said through the flames and the violence of Missouri, before it outright condemns and scapegoats.   Do this now, before the twisted racial narrative continues unapprehended down the street in the 21st century – whilst we all pretend we’ve fixed it.  We haven’t, there’s a long way to go.  Until my children’s father can walk down the street without feeling he has to jump off the pavement to pass a white person, until teachers no longer have to look for the teachable moments in the pictures from Ferguson, until we are done with ticking boxes whilst still fearing our fellow humans, we are nowhere near the equality we have apparently enshrined in law.  Until it doesn’t suit us.  Like in Michael Brown’s case.

Ferguson, August 2014

Scary Things

A week is a long time in politics. Last Friday my heart was breaking that the majority of good people in Scotland voted to maintain the status quo, proving the science on bias in decision making is nearly always right. My heart was breaking, and my mind was fuming as the Westminster elite, who had shamelessly manipulated the media discourse over the last couple of weeks of the Independence campaign, entirely for their own benefit (and not that of Scotland) immediately altered the conversation from one of further devolved Scottish powers to English votes for English MPs.

That long sentence shows that I still cannot speak of it, not really. Not without getting almost incandescent with fury and indignation about how easily the establishment continue to distract and manipulate the majority.

Anyway, now all the conversation is about air strikes in Iraq and whether they will be expanded to Syria. I have views on this, I am just not sure exactly what they are. I could not help but wonder how the wife of the captured hostage Alan Henning felt about the vote yesterday. My heart goes out to her, him, and their family and I hope his story turns out better than that of others. I just can’t understand man’s inhumanity to man. Do we learn nothing?

Coincidentally, this morning my daughter decided she wanted to draw ‘scary things’ and a quick google came up with some inspiration. She did this freehand whilst I was busy with the other child. It’s a pretty horrible image, and depicts, for me, the truly ugly side to some humans’ nature. Some people are just better at hiding it than others, I suppose.

scary things

More on Scotland’s Independence

Listening to the radio today I heard the English for, and the Scottish against.

The English sounded like a bunch of hysterics, crassly trying to appeal to the emotions with words such as divorce, and family, of being ripped and pulled apart. The Scots simply stated they were taking full opportunity to re-engage with democracy by stepping up to the plate – their plate.

I think the English have sealed their fate. Serves them right. David Cameron won’t be remembered for much, but his name in history is assured. He will be the Prime Minister that blethered us right out of the Union.

Yes: One Day

My father’s family are Scottish, but long since expatriated.  There is nothing, apart perhaps from a riffle through our surnames, that would give the game away.   Oh, and the fact that both my great-grandfathers on my paternal side were called James, as is my actual father.

I’ve not been to Scotland since a child.  We went to Fife and I can’t say I liked it too much. It was singularly dreich and cold, even in summer. The week was saved by one thing, the glorious sight of a golden eagle soaring above us, on an otherwise unremarkable and seemingly interminable tramp across moorland.   That eagle was in the wild.  It was probably the most spectacular thing I had ever seen, in the true meaning of the word, and most of all, it was free.

I can’t claim to know anything much about the Scottish Independence vote, not really.  I have no idea about the intricacies of what it would all mean, were Scotland to become independent from the United Kingdom.  What I do feel in my blood and my bones is that the vote will be Yes, and if I was a resident of the country that’s what I’d be voting for too.  Even without knowing much about it, I would be voting for social justice and an overthrow of the hegemony run by Eton posh boys.   I would be voting for national identity too, and even though it is something of a cliche thanks to Hollywood, I would be voting for freedom.

Who knows, one day I might even move across the border.